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Unless a Grain of Wheat Falls: Sermon

A sermon preached by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., on the occasion of his installation as President and Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary, September 27, 2002.
The service is printed in Reformed Worship 66 (March, 2003).

Text: John 12:24
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Brothers and sisters: As you can imagine this is a day I’ll remember. I’ll keep in mind the beauty that has been brought to it by so many of you, and the beauty that has been brought to this hall tonight–wonderful things that have grown from the earth or have sprung from human imagination and art.

I’ll remember fine music, joyously played and sung, and dear friends, including my students and teachers and mentors, who have gathered here with such good will. I’ll remember faithful donors, trustees, and alums; staff and volunteers, and all the members and heads of all the boards of the Christian Reformed Church. It’s a church festival today and the Holy Spirit has been blowing through it!

From tonight, I’ll recall that my good colleagues in the faculty faithfully donned cap and gown to march into yet another of the novelties that seem to spring up around them these days. In years to come I’ll remember that President Byker prayed for me even though he had wanted me to stay at his side in Calvin College, and that Sue Anne Rozeboom, who was my associate in the office of the Dean of the Chapel here at the College--Sue Anne agreed to research and edit a sermon one last time.

I’ll remember how much thought was given to the Inauguration by a committee of sharp people who want Calvin Seminary to thrive. I’ll remember Mary Brasser, and Duane Kelderman and Henry DeMoor who work so wonderfully with me every day, and my friends John Witvliet and Cindy Holtrop who poured out their faith and intelligence to plan for this occasion.

I say to you what Churchill said, "Seldom has so much been owed by so many to so few."

I’ll remember that the woman who taught me in the third grade at Baxter Christian School was nonetheless willing to come here and bless me. You know, I was called Junior Plantinga back in those days, but she didn’t seem to mind, particularly, although she did remark a couple of months ago that it was probably a good thing that I eventually dropped "Junior" as a first name, what with my new job and all. Donors, for example, might find it a little distracting to be approached by a president . . . .

Well, never mind. I recall that to my eight-year-old eyes Mrs. Vander Heide looked very beautiful and, because her fingernails gleamed with polish, she seemed so perfectly worldly.

And, of course my own family has gathered today, the people I love most of all, and with whom, in his mercy, God has allowed me to live in joy. I’m sorry to say that because of her weakness, my ninety-four-year-old mother could not be here, but she will listen to the tape! She’s an endlessly resourceful woman who taught her four sons that we would flourish only by causing others to flourish. And, of course I’ll remember especially the presence tonight of my wife, Kathleen, who is full of strength and beauty. She worked extremely hard on this event, only after extracting from me the promise that I would NEVER let this kind of thing happen again!

I’ll remember these things and persons, and all of you who offered a Friday night in September to show how much you care about the ministry of Calvin Theological Seminary. Above all, I will remember the solemn promises I have made this night to our God and Savior. I quake to think of them, but I will remember them.

In the middle of these festivities how unfitting it may seem to turn our minds to a chapter of the Bible that is so full of death. Religious authorities are plotting against Lazarus in this chapter, and Judas is plotting against Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus’ friend Mary has anointed him with expensive ointment that perfumes the whole house, and Jesus tells us ominously that the point is to keep his death from smelling like death. Jesus’ death is in the air, and the evangelist uses one of his hallmark techniques to let us know. All through this gospel, like the beating of a drum, we hear that Jesus’ hour had not yet come. His hour had not come. My hour has not come.

But now in vs. 23 the clock strikes 12. We hear it on Jesus’ own lips: "The hour has come for the Son of Man," he says.

Remarkably, the way he puts it is this: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."

And immediately we want to know how this can be. We aren’t accustomed to finding glory in the death of our champions. My former pastor, John Timmer, once remarked on this. Only an evil heart gloried in the death of President Kennedy. Only racist hearts gloried in the death of Martin Luther King. The men and women who loved Jesus would see him die on a torture instrument that the Romans had invented to terrorize their enemies. They would see the Romans take his life, and before that they would see the Romans take his dignity in a public spectacle that was meant to intimidate anybody with an eye to see or an ear to hear or a heart to tremble at state-sponsored terrorism and the awful suffering it brings. The Romans jammed their crosses into the earth like scarecrows, and every one of them proclaimed to the world, "Caesar is Lord and don’t you ever forget it."

"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified," says Jesus. And we imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of Philip and Andrew and those innocent Greeks who had come to see Jesus do a miracle, and instead find a man who talks in riddles about farming. Nobody knows what he means, and maybe we don’t know either.

And so, like a third-grade teacher, Jesus stops to explain how there might be glory where we can find only grief. He uses a simple figure: "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies," says Jesus, "it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

A grain of wheat has to die; then it has to be buried in God’s good earth. Else you don’t get a harvest. You don’t get amber waves of grain without a certain amount of death and burial.

I’m ashamed to say that before working on this text I had no clue how wheat grows, so this week I found out. Here’s how it works: a farmer harrows the soil to break it up and smooth it out. He then digs shallow trenches to create a bed for the seeds. Finally, he drops the wheat seeds into the trench, covers them with the loosened soil, prays for rain, and waits for the Lord of the harvest to go to work.

In Jesus’ day, farmers would drop one grain of wheat at a time. Remarkably, they still do it that way today. Out in the great breadbasket of America–out in Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota–wheat farmers go out to their field and pull a "grain drill" through it. This machine houses a notched wheel that revolves in such a way as to drop seed through a tube and into the trench exactly one grain at a time. The single grain lies there in the bosom of the earth gathering moisture and nutrients to itself, and one day it sends tiny root hairs down into the soil, and then it shoots a stem upward toward the surface.

The result is remarkable not only because a dead seed generates life, but especially because it generates so much life. A week ago, I spoke with a farmer in South Dakota about this. I wanted to know his yield. "What do you put in the ground?" I asked. "Two bushel of seed an acre," he said. "And what do you get back?" "Forty to fifty bushel" he said. Two bushels of seed. Forty to fifty bushels of yield. Think about it. One acre is roughly the size of a football field, and two bushels of kernels sown into it a grain at a time yields enough wheat for about 2,500 loaves of bread.

This annual miracle saves whole nations from famine. I was reminded this week that the recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize was a relatively obscure agronomist by the name of Norman E. Borlaug. During the 60s Dr. Borlaug had developed high-yield, disease-resistant strains of wheat that he brought to the farms of India and Pakistan. The result was a green revolution. Both countries sextupled their grain production by the end of the decade, saving millions of lives in the process. Today at age 88 Dr. Borlaug is still in the life-saving business. He’s joined with President Jimmy Carter to bring his seeds to nine or ten hungry countries on the continent of Africa.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

In John 12 death is in the air. The Son of Man will die and fall into the earth in an event so devastating that it will seem to turn creation back into chaos, but Jesus says that this is the hour in which the Son of Man will be glorified. And we grope for his meaning. Getting glorified on a cross? Like being enthroned in an electric chair? Like being celebrated by a firing squad?

Glory in the cross of Jesus Christ sounds almost grotesque. After all, as Jǖrgen Moltmann once wrote, Jesus will be crucified "not between two candles on an altar, but between two thieves in a place named for a skull." Jesus, the friend of sinners, will be crucified between his kind of people in a Godforsaken place where all the lights go out from noon to three.

And yet the gospel wants us to find glory in this disaster because in God’s mighty agriculture the death of Jesus will feed whole nations with the bread of life. Jesus’ body sown like a single grain into the earth will send its roots down and its stalk up until it bursts from the ground with power to feed the hungry souls of the world. Isn’t this what the gospel says? Isn’t this what the gospel cries out across the centuries? "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."

How strange this is, that there should be death benefits in a crucifixion! But that’s the glory, and so many of us have seen some of it. In the cross of Jesus Christ we have seen the lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. We have seen the Son of Man bowed over his work, sweating and straining to overcome evil by suffering the worst of it. We have seen the Son of God absorbing terrible evil without passing it on, and so cutting the line of vengeance that loops down the ages. Somehow this howling wilderness event becomes a magnet for people who see God at work in it, God paying any price, absorbing any evil, suffering any humiliation if only these things will save the world God loves.

How wonderful to revel tonight in such grace of God–grace upon grace that pours from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, grace that flows over us in our baptism, grace that flows into us whenever we take the body and blood of Jesus down into that part of our being that is hungering and thirsting for God.

Christ has done it all, and in a few minutes we will sing Alleluia! to say so.

How wonderful all this is, and also how very, very disturbing, because the same Lord who speaks of his death goes on to speak of ours, and his very pointed observation is that he will not be dying alone. Yes, he’ll be the first-fruits of this cycle of life out of death, but God isn’t going to reap the whole harvest without dropping a lot of other grains into the earth too. How pointedly Jesus remarks that "whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also."

It seems that Jesus wants to share the glory of the cross, and we think this might be a kind of glory on which we’d like to take a pass. Maybe let Jesus take care of the dying part, and we’ll just show up for the resurrection. Maybe get some of the new life while still hanging on to our old one. Get humility, and feel pretty proud of it. Get gratitude for God’s bounty and also restrict the distribution of it. Maybe we can wage our little worship wars here in Western Michigan, criticize each other’s ministries, and not even care about the miracle of gospel growth in the great fields of Asia, and Africa, and Latin America, and suburban Seattle.

Jesus wants us to go down into a death that will cause new life to spring up twenty-fold, but we keep clinging to our old life. We’re like a grain of wheat. Jesus says we’re like a grain of wheat. You know, wheat is a cultivated grass, and for thousands of years people have cultivated those strains in which the kernels cling to the head. And we understand. If the kernels are loose on the head, the wind just blows them off. So for millennia farmers have sown the kind of wheat in which the kernels stick.

That’s the kind of wheat Jesus is talking about, and he says we’re like a kernel that clings to the spike of its old life. The trouble is there isn’t any future there. No glory there. No miracle of multiplication. To get food from wheat, you have to thresh the grain off the head. The grain of wheat "dies" not by falling into the ground. It dies by being stripped from the head. It’s viable off the head, but it will generate life only if it is pulled away from its old source of life and buried in the ground where moisture and nutrients will bring forth its life.

To get bread, you have to thresh some kernels. To get wine, you have to crush some grapes. To get a new life in union with Jesus Christ, the old life has to be threshed and buried. We don’t get life and we don’t give life without some dying. The gospel says that not even Jesus got a resurrection without a death.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear any fruit."

So it goes even for Christian institutions, and so it goes for Calvin Theological Seminary. A seminary is a seedbed, a place to grow young ministries, and so for 126 years we’ve been doing a lot of dying and rising. I pledge to you tonight that we will keep on. Healthy Christian persons and healthy Christian institutions are always dying and rising with Jesus. Arrogance dies and humility rises. Complacency dies, and joy in the gospel rises. A critical spirit dies and a more celebrative spirit rises.

I hope we will always do classical theological education, but I know that to do it well, and to do it for contemporary ministry in a global context, we’ll have to keep on dying and rising. That’s seminary agriculture, and when it works in the right way there’s no telling how many farmers will walk from their fields, shouting with joy, and shouldering their sheaves of wheat. No telling how much healthy fruit will start to grow.

But here’s some of it. Here’s some of the fruit. We will listen before we speak. Professors will learn from students as well as students from professors. We will grieve for sheep without a shepherd, and we will celebrate the courageous men and women who go to them with love in their hearts and the gospel on their lips. We will learn Bible, and theology, and history, and ministry not just because these are good subjects to know, but because knowledge and skills equip us as agents of shalom in a world where so many hearts are troubled.

When we offend someone we will confess it, and when we’ve been offended at some point we will forgive it, because we know that at the intersection where confession and forgiveness meet there is resurrection. There is the power and the glory. There’s some of the fruit of the harvest.

I say we’ll keep on dying and rising with Jesus over at the Seminary, following the normal rhythm of a Christian life, and I’m so glad to say that every day now the Lord of the harvest is bringing forth wonderful fruit. By God’s grace, wonderful new life is springing up at 3233 Burton SE as students, staff, faculty, donors, and trustees gather in joy to see what God might do in a community of learning that is growing like a healthy field of grain.

I’ll put it like this: when a South Dakota farmer walks through our halls, we want him to see forty to fifty bushel an acre, and rising.

Truly, truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit, now and forever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.