Unless a Grain of Wheat…

I tell you the truth, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. John 12:24

Our text for today (John 12:20-33) follows directly after two other important accounts: Jesus’ raising of Lazarus… and his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. People from all over had gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The Pharisees say with frustration in verse 19 – “the whole world has gone after him…”  referring to the unwelcome – from their point of view – buzz around Jesus as he enters the city.

Then today’s text opens with some people from that “whole world” – Greeks – who express a desire to “see Jesus”. What follows may be Jesus’ last public teachings. He describes his death, that the time is NOW, that he will die by being “lifted up” and that many will be drawn to him. We’re never really told whether Jesus “met with” these Greeks or even who they were. But Jesus words – particularly in verse 24, quoted above, is where we want to focus this morning.

On this 5th Sunday of Lent – what are we to learn?

Verse 24

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. まことに、まことに、あなたがたに告げます。一粒の麦がもし地に落ちて死ななければ、それは一つのままです。しかし、もし死ねば、豊かな実を結びます。

Perhaps you’ve heard this well known statement of Jesus before – this image of a single seed dying in order to produce a bountiful harvest. A single seed can remain a seed for a long time. There have been reports of seeds found in the ancient palace ruins of King Herod the Great from the 1st century BCE. 20th Century scientists and archeologists wondered what would happen if the seeds were planted? They were first soaked in water and then given some hormonal nutrients to encourage germination. Amazingly, 7 date palm trees were able to be grown from those ancient seeds. The “power of life” was evidently still within these 2,000-year-old seeds! Extremely dry conditions in the Judean desert were credited with the fact that the seeds germinated, once planted.

Seeds, as long as they are left by themselves as single seeds, remain single seeds. Even after 2,000 years!

But when a seed is buried in the ground, something happens. If conditions are right, the seed and husk actually dissolve away as moisture and warmth allow for germination to take place, giving birth to a new plant  – resurrected from the seed that had appeared to be dead.

This is true with all of our grain. We can choose to eat it now – which we DO with the bulk of our seed and grain that is harvested. Or we can choose to plant the seed – bury it in the ground – in the hope and belief that it will produce a much larger and bountiful crop.

Jesus used this image to describe his own impending death. While he would be killed on a cross (lifted up), his subsequent resurrection would be the stimulus to draw many to himself, bringing a large harvest of Jesus-followers to fruition.

And of course, this is what happened… following Pentecost we witness in the New Testament the great growth of the early church. After 2 millenia, we are also a part of that harvest, started by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Verse 25

But in the next verse Jesus goes on to make a parallel statement about us, and about the need we have to “not cling to our own lives”, to not “attempt to keep our single seed only for ourselves.” That, Jesus said, would mean death. However, if we would “hate our lives in this world”, sacrifice our lives, bury our single seed, we would not only see an abundant harvest but guarantee that we would see our life lasting into eternity.

The person who loves their own life will lose it, while the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 自分のいのちを愛する者はそれを失い、この世でそのいのちを憎む者はそれを保って永遠のいのちに至るのです。

How can we apply this in our own lives?

Many of you will remember the book we read together here at JCC called “Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church”. The author is Anna B. Olson, pastor of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in LA. That church shares our own history, being started in 1907 by Japanese immigrants to the west coast.

Toward the beginning of the book she shared an account of how the folks at St. Mary’s decided to clean out closets, cupboards, and storage rooms – in order to prepare for new ministry. Space had to be made in order that new things could happen. In one sense, old memories and traditions needed to be left behind in order that space could be made for new ministry – for new life.

While cleaning out the kitchen they came upon a cupboard FULL of small soy sauce bottles – you all know the exact type I’m talking about – small glass bottles with the red plastic top that allowed you to pour soy sauce out of either side and to keep refilling the bottles. That sudden find created quite a scene as the members all began to think and share about how often those bottles had been used over the decades – how many sushi parties and other Japanese meals had been eaten at St. Mary’s around those tables and using those soy sauce bottles. In the end, it was too difficult for them to simply throw out those bottles that day – even if they knew in their hearts that they would NEVER need that many soy sauce bottles again. Those bottles were directly connected to so many important memories. However, in the end, weeks and months later, after giving proper thanks to God for those memories and giving thanks to God for all the wonderful history that they represented – the members were able to get rid of them, to move on, and in the process, to open up new space in the kitchen for new things to happen.

In thinking about Jesus’ example of the single seed being planted and “dying” in order to produce new life… the following questions come to mind.


  • What areas of my life need to be given up or given back to the Lord?
  • Are there areas that I am clinging to?
  • What part of my life and habits need to “die” in order that the abundant life that Jesus offers could be mine today?

And then, as a church:

  • Are there parts of our history and identity that need to be relinquished?
  • How do we both honor our Japanese past and roots, while making space for others that don’t share that heritage?
  • What needs to die, in order for germination and new life to take place?
  • For the plant to be healthy, what kind of pruning might be necessary?

As we enter the fifth week of Lent and continue our journey with Jesus toward Holy Week and the cross – may we sense that dying will actually be the secret to new life!

(the above is a summary of the message shared during our zoom worship session on March 21st.)