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Today’s Gospel was from John chapter 12. One verse caught my attention.

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

 

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In the homily we were reminded of the process whereby a seed grows. It has to be in the right temperature and level of moisture. Then its protective shell has to soften and crack open. Only then can the seed send out a root and a shoot and make food and grow. The hard shell has to be broken.

Two things came to mind as I listened. The first is the obvious prophecy of Jesus’ death and the beginning of the church. Without Jesus’ death would his words have taken root? Without his death would others have been willing to die for their faith? Secondly, I reflected on what happened to bring about his death? He became vulnerable, he let down his defenses, he opened up and spoke the truth that was within his heart.

I recently re-watched a TED talk by Sociologist Brene Brown. She spoke about her discovery that vulnerability is the basis for living a whole life, for being what she calls a whole-hearted person.

“And I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”

According to Brown in order to be whole-hearted people we have to live with authenticity, “we have to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee, to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love this much? Can I believe in this this passionately?”

Let us hope that as we learn to become more vulnerable, more open, more whole-hearted, we will not be asked to die for the truth the way that Jesus of Nazareth, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero and so many other martyrs did. But in this season of Lent let us at least stretch enough, and soften our shells enough, to allow growth to happen.

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God had nothing to gain by the death of Jesus. Jesus was willing to suffer death but for what? There is no Gospel tradition that suggests he believed he was going to be better off, or that his death wasn’t a real death just a temporary state. There is no mention of a quid pro quo deal with God. Jesus chose to die, but really what choice did he have if he wanted to show his followers what integrity, truth, courage and faith looked like, to show them that his preaching, his ministry, and his leadership were not meaningless, and that the truth was worth dying for. To have fought back would have made a lie out of everything he had said and done.

Did he think he was “opening the gates of heaven,” that he would be the “first born into the kingdom” I don’t think so. This was theological interpretation after the event. What I do think is that he truly suffered. I don’t doubt his anxiety, his panic, his dejection, and how better to express it than by quoting the scriptures he knew and loved: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” Psalm 22. Jesus wasn’t in this for a reward or a “return.” This was the gift freely given, the grace freely offered. God freely gave us his son. Jesus freely gave us his life.

What do we know about what pleases God? We might as well be sacrificing the first born child or burning the first sheaves of wheat, reading the signs of rising smoke or success in battle. But more important than what pleases God is: Why do we feel the need to please god? Is it because we are hoping for reciprocity? In human terms how often is gratification of someone else pure gift? The norm is surely tit for tat, quid pro quo, back-scratching. Certainly in business and politics. So here lies the problem: our view of God assumes that God is as self-serving as we are. If we look at the bible there seems to be ample support for this view all the way back to the Patriarchs. Serve me, worship me, obey me, follow me and then and only then will I …

And that is where contemporary Christian faith has it all absolutely wrong. Just as the Christmas Story has lost sight of the Christian Story, the Easter Story has lost sight of The Cross.

From the point of view of God, the life of Jesus was Absolute gift. We can do nothing to deserve it; we can do nothing to equal it. We can simply accept it as Absolute Grace, Absolute Love. As Jesus was always trying to teach, the best metaphor for God was not king or judge but parent, and parents don’t love on a quid pro quo basis. Wise ones anyway.

The life of Jesus was Gift but what about his death? Did the Cross please God? Did God need a death – another sacrifice? Is the Christian God to be measured by the standards of the pagan priesthood with their high altars and animal bloodletting? Or was Jesus the Ultimate Jewish Paschal Lamb? To me, any attempt at an interpretation of the Cross after the fact that makes it God’s intention, paints God with a pagan brush. And that is just bad theology.

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We simply don’t know what pleases God. But as a mother who lost a son, I can say unequivocally that the death of an innocent child is not pleasing to a parent, and that is the metaphor Jesus pressed us to use – parent – again and again.

So stop trying to please God with prayers and petitions and fasting and novenas. We don’t have a clue what pleases God. But we do have a clue what pleased Jesus. Let’s stick with what we know.

More about that in another Easter reflection. But if you want a hint, Matthew 25:40 seems a good place to start.

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