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Institutions and Loss

Very truly, I tell you, 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.

John 12:24

We live in an age of great change, and great change usually means great losses. All of us face losses on a personal level as we lose jobs or people in our lives, or as we lose even our physical abilities to do things we once took for granted. However, the losses I want to highlight for our reflection are corporate losses, the underlying losses of the foundational structures of our society. Together, we are facing the losses of basic institutions that we once took for granted.

Since retiring, I have been looking back at my work career and the places where I have served in ministry. I realize how many programs, churches, and organizations were closed, either as I left or in the following years. The list of closings includes three of the four churches where I served as pastor. It includes an entire disabilities program and organization which, at one point, I thought would be my work for the rest of my career. It includes programs I was truly excited about.

Institutional loss is a part of our everyday lives. Big stores that we once shopped at, like Sears and JC Penney and K-Mart are now gone. The neighborhood drug store is fading fast; surviving pharmacies are now in grocery stores or online. Church congregations that once were thriving are more often fading fast. The pandemic is accelerating the process. The more-than-a-century-old congregation in which my wife grew up and her father pastored, and some of her relatives still attend, will likely close by the end of the year.

On the political scene, Americans are holding their collective breath with anxiety over what the next three months will bring. This is the climax of a number of years in which we are experiencing the loss of the country that we Baby Boomers grew up in and learned about in public school social studies class. The myth of the great American democracy is crumbling before our eyes. U.S. government corruption in 2020 seems to be as prevalent as any Central American dictatorship that I read about in the 70s and 80s. Today’s political commentators say I must now choose between fascism and socialism. I recently re-read “The Unraveling of America” in which a Canadian anthropologist claims the COVID-19 signals the “end of the American era.” Institutional loss extends even to our nation.

Jesus entered the world in a time which also featured a declining empire and great religious upheaval. His religious community thought for awhile that he would be the political and religious savior, called the “Messiah.” This Messiah was envisioned in the mold of the warrior King David. He would end the Roman Empire’s rule and bring in the Kingdom of God with its political center in Jerusalem, and its religious center in the Temple. But Jesus’ victory march into Jerusalem with palms and hosannas was very quirky to say the least, and it left people wondering. Yet, for Jesus himself, in that final week, the road was becoming clearer. It was also becoming more grim and more glorious at the same time.

Into this situation, in the last week of Jesus’ life, John 12 reports that some “Greeks” wanted to meet with Jesus. “Greek” in this context meant that they were Gentiles or non-Jews. Perhaps, they were worshipers of God. Perhaps, they had even converted to Judaism. But they were not cultural Jews. While they were present at festival time in Jerusalem, they were distinctly outsiders. They had no inside track to a notable person like Jesus. So they approached a disciple who had a Greek name, Philip, to try to get access to Jesus. We don’t even really know what became of their request.

Instead, Jesus sees their request as a sign. It was a sign that confirmed what Jesus had already been prophetically hinting. The Kingdom of God was coming and it was not to re-build and glorify a renewed Jewish culture or political entity. The Kingdom of God was not just for the sake of the Jews. Instead, Jesus’ ministry was a light to the “nations,” in other words, to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, to all people everywhere. In John 10:16, Jesus says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Now, here are some Greeks, these “sheep from another fold,” who are already coming to Jesus. It is a sign that his death, the laying down of his life, is near. And if his death is near, so is the glory of God that will shine forth to all nations. Thus, in John 12:23, Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

It turns out that death and glory are related. That is why Jesus seems to ignore the Greeks and continues, Very truly, I tell you, 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. Jesus spends considerable time trying to communicate to his followers the grim and glorious news. The very institutions that they think the Messiah will prop up and restore will instead be utterly destroyed. Instead of a Jewish king in a Jerusalem palace, they will need to flee the city for their lives. Instead of a glorious temple in the heart of the city, this monumental structure will be dismantled completely to the extent that no stone will be left on another.

An entire political and religious system, and even the dream about that system, has to die in order for God’s new life to emerge. Jesus compares that death to a seed. The calling of Israel as a people of God is like a seed that needs to “die” in some sense. All of the earthly trappings of such a system need to disappear into the ground. What is left is like the life of that tiny seed. The life that is to come from that seed is unknown at the present time, but what is truly from the God of life will indeed emerge. That life is the resurrection life, the true life of God.

Since Jesus’ time, seeds continue to fall on the ground. Institutions have continued to emerge with that hope of new life and then die as it becomes obvious that they have been corrupted. The pattern is the same whether we are talking about empires, countries, “benevolent” institutions, or even churches and ministries. And surely, the United States of America is not exempt.

This is extremely hard for the generation that faces the full weight of judgment after years of sin and corruption and injustice by previous generations. After Jesus was physically gone, the Jews suffered terribly. The accounts of the last days of Jerusalem some 40-70 years later are horrible and unimaginably gruesome. None of us want to face or see our children face that level of horror and destruction. We can pray that it will not happen.

Yet, the death of human institutions of all sizes and shapes will come. As Christians we will need to die to ourselves on the one hand. On the other hand, we are called to minister the new resurrection life we have been promised to a desperately hurting and dying world. This ministry task calls for us to become the seed, to be the ones who die totally in our allegiances to country and party and economic system. It calls for us to seek first the Kingdom of God (i.e. God’s empire) and pledge our allegiance to Jesus as Lord, as the Way, the Truth, and the Life that is true life for all of humanity.

Very truly, I tell you, 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.

John 12:24

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