Love Grows When We Act to Stop Evil

A sermon based on John 12:20-33
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on March 18, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Our lesson this morning is a tough one. There are a number of troubling issues. It’s a story laden with a sense of foreboding regarding the cross and Jesus’ dark and scary death. Jesus’ soul is troubled by it. And he even tells a troubling proverb about seeds needing to fall to earth and die before they can bear fruit.

We know what Jesus is about to face, and even knowing that Easter is on the other-side of his looming crucifixion this lesson jars us. Jesus was fully human and so experienced that frightening situation as we might imagine a human would. Jesus’ proverb is counter-intuitive since we are all hardwired to love life and as a part of that hard-wire we pretty much reject the notion that death and darkness can lead to anything good, let alone fertilize much fruit. While it is one thing to claim that “when life gives you lemons make lemonade,” it is all together different to claim a dark thing like a wrongful execution can fertilize and help sprout any good. This is especially so when we take into account Jesus and his followers knew he was talking about the terrifying reality of a crucifixion.

To imagine that something good could ever come from it causes our souls to be troubled. To the core of our being it is upsetting. How can evil fertilize and help sprout good? But the reality IS through Jesus’ loving way and teachings and life THE evil of his crucifixion somehow fertilized and sprouted the good of his continuing influence and experiential reality. Easter came out of death; not because God wanted Jesus’ death, but because the evil of it brought into focus the very love it sought to snuff out. And so the love was fertilized and sprouted and has continued to grow and bear much fruit.

Christianity has long related all this the ancient story of the fabled phoenix, a bird that arises out of ashes. I often refer to the phoenix in our Ash Wednesday service. A more modern, but, similar image is diamonds being made out of lumps of coal. But Jesus’ proverb in our lesson catches it even better. Had he not been killed by Rome for preaching love and then have his love experienced after his death it is not likely the multitude of good that has sprouted from it would not have occurred. In retrospect we can claim, as Jesus does, that because he lived his life as a seed of love, when he died that seed sprouted, and continues to sprout much fruit!

At one level these images of transformation, and even today’s lesson, are attempts to help us make the best out of bad situations. And much of the Bible has that wisdom in it. The Book of Job is perhaps the best example, where Job, a good and righteous man, has numerous awful things happen to him. So we know lack of goodness did not cause the bad things to happen.

There’s something else to take away, while Job was clearly written to reject the theology that bad things only happen to bad people, the author of Job still had to provide an answer to resolve what to do about the bad happenings. Everyone faces them in life . . . a lot of them. The Book of Job’s resolution is essentially that we need to make the best out of what happens to us. In short, we are called to make phoenixes out of ashes and diamonds out of coal, and fruit out of dying seeds.

Our lesson today echoes this ubiquitous Bible lesson of a Divine call for us to move toward our best in our given situations, even . . . maybe especially . . . the hardest and most dire situations. This will sound heretical to some Christians but I believe this can be heard as similar to the Darwinian idea that creatures survive by best adapting to meet challenges in creation. While Darwin was referring to genetic evolution over generations, science evidences we are hardwired to do our best to survive instinctively in each moment of life . . . not just genetically through the ages.

Job’s lesson and the lesson implicit in the phoenix and diamond and dead seed metaphor is that we are called to better-ness out of every hardship. Hardship can fertilize and sprout the fruit of better ways, better us-es, better communities– a better world. This does not mean God wants or causes bad things to happen. God is not tossing lightening bolts of badness to make us hop to betterment. What it means is that the laws of nature – of creation – are such that challenges small and great are a part of living. Natural and human made calamities happen. Earthquakes, tsunamis, disease, gravity, age, accidents, human failings (by us and others) all add of to a landscape of life that is fraught with peril and calamity. Survival depends on best responses.

Life, of course, is more than peril and bad things happening. Natural and human beauty and goodness also abundantly occur. And actually out of peril and bad things, goodness can be fertilized and sprout– that is one layer of what Jesus’ “fruit from a dying seed” proverb is about.

And really if we think about it much of the Bible is about that. The Bible is mostly about our trying to be in relationship with God and creation and each other in ways that literally make the best out of everything that comes our way, be it good or bad. To say the obvious, we like the good in life. We get how it helps us in relationships. It is the difficult things that we not only dislike but have a hard time seeing how to sprout good fruit out of.

To my way of thinking religion is a Darwinian-like survival tool, one means through which humans have evolved and continue to evolve to fruitfully survive peril and difficult happenings to make good out of them alone and together.

Our story today from The Book of John was penned well before the Age of Reason and Darwin, nonetheless the story has this very type wisdom in it– as does the Book of Job and much of the Bible. Indeed we can find this wisdom in Jesus’ teachings in general and in the Gospel accounts of his followers amazing ability to experience Jesus and Jesus’ Way being resurrected from Rome’s brutal efforts to crush them up on the cross. Out of negative things, as bad as brutality and destruction and death, we can fashion good. God does not desire bad happenings, but when they happen God desires we make the best of them, and best always aims toward good.

But Jesus’ proverb – and his crucifixion as understood by the early Jesus Followers – actually take the “make good out of bad” call a quantum leap further. Jesus claims in the proverb that the death of the seed must happen for some types of fruit to be borne. The Book of John can be heard in our lesson to be pointing out the lasting and continuing goodness of Jesus’ life in the Christian story would not have borne fruit for the ages without his dying.

In the big picture this can be heard to retrospectively mean that Jesus had to die in order for the fruit of his resurrection to occur. There is obvious truth to that, not because God willed it, but because without Jesus’ death his followers did not know they could continue to experience him, and pass him, and his Way on. And that both would continue to shine right for eons This has though led to some very questionable theology. Like the idea that Jesus was sent by God to be intentionally sacrificed to appease God as a part of a cosmic plan for Jesus’ life to bear fruit. Or like the idea that humans in turn must believe that and then wait to die before they are able to get the fruit of their belief in heaven. But those theologies develop long after Jesus died and John was written. The theology of the cross in the gospels need not be understood that way.

Jesus’ proverb recorded in our lesson reflects the truth that the negative of Jesus’ death bore the potential to fertilize and sprout positive fruit after his life. And we know that fruit has indeed been fertilized in part by his death and has grown and multiplied for 2,000 years! But that does not mean God desired or demanded or wanted the negatives. It means on one hand, that like Job’s lesson, out of the negatives we are called to our best.

But is also means on the other hand – as Jesus suggests– that negatives bear fruit that cannot be borne without the negative. Here’ one very simple example. Crucifying was a common means of execution in Western Europe. It was such a terrible thing that early Christians DID NOT use the cross as a symbol of the faith because it only had negative connotations. But that awfulness brought to light in Jesus’ death fertilized the fruit of humane-ness that resulted in the demise of government use of the cross. It is no longer a legal means of execution and terror. While that is a matter of history, we can argue theologically, as The Feasting on the Word commentary (Year B, p. 228-233) generally seems to, that Jesus’ death on the cross exposed the systemic evil of crucifying people and served to exorcize that dark “spirit” from creation.

God in humanity judged the cross too cruel to inflict on others. By “God” I mean love. And by love I mean God incarnate in humans. The primary characteristic of God is love. Love is the desire for others well being, which is another way to say a desire for what is best for us and others and creation. We can see this in even bigger system wide issues like poverty, slavery, child labor, racism, misogyny and heterosexism. Through love those evil things have fertilized and sprouted the good fruit of concerted loving efforts to end them.

I have mentioned Darwin a few times already hoping that we are hearing the desire for well being AS another way to say adapting to best survive. Adaption for well being, that is, love, can bear God’s fruit without evil, but in a Darwinian-like sense evil threats to the well being of humanity can cause the fertilizing and sprouting of good fruit. That’s Jesus’ metaphor!

To switch metaphors it’s as if every time the evil spirits of human action threatened well being the desire for well being –love– agitates that evil like dirt in laundry making it show itself so that love can wash it out and rinse it down a cosmic drain.
Using spiritual language, devil spirits are exorcized by love because love always aims for well being and the devil’s never, ever, about well being. Once exposed love can flush evil out and away. And that is true whether we think the devil or Satan as a real being or a metaphor for dark forces that can drive human action to create unwell being others and creation. The devil is the force that desires unwell being for others. God is the force that desires well being for all.

This sounds complicated, which is a part of why the cross and Jesus’ death is so packed with complex and contradictory theologies. But what we can hear Jesus’ proverb and its application to his death boil down to is that humankind instinctively desires to better itself in relation to creation–and the force that created it, our Creator. That instinct can be fertile ground for fruitful change. The force that created us, the One we call God– unceasingly beckons us to betterment.

When we learn of evil – what we can think of as desires for non-well being of others– we are wired to want to stop it– because love is at the core of our soul. Our soul is troubled by non-well being. We want well being for us, others and creation.

But want is not action. Nor does want by one coordinate action by others. Jesus’ Way is a vehicle for prompting and coordinating love in action by individuals and groups. While he was alive Jesus taught his followers alone and together to want love and be love in action together and alone. He showed them and us a loving Way to stop and make the best of whatever hurts us and others and creation.

Jesus’ teachings got him killed on the cross by evil forces, those that desire non-well being of others. And any way we look at it, something remarkable occurred after Jesus’ death. Jesus followers at first thought Jesus and his Way were stopped dead, the miracle is they realized Jesus and his Way of love sprouted the fruit of their own continuing existence. Eventually they realized it was ironically and miraculously fertilized by Rome bringing it to light in the darkness of its efforts to snuff it out.

See, evil can fertilize the growth of love. And evil does not and cannot stop the fruit of love . . . Ever! Here is the Good News of our lesson, in one sentence: Love grows when we act to stop evil. Love grows when we act to stop evil.