United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

☘️  “A Grain of Wheat” 🍀

March 17th, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore


In this part of the world, we don’t always have creation in mind.  Sure we stop to look at the flowers.  We might get a little too close to creation if we come upon deer at night while driving.  But few of us have our lives intertwined with the natural world, the way those who lived in Jesus’ time did.  Many of them spent their lives toiling in the fields, dependent on the whim of weather for food, for a living.  And if you weren’t on the farm, you were in the water, trying to glean where the fish were that day, keeping an ever-vigilant eye for storm clouds gathering.

        We watch the weather forecast or check an app on our phone.  We pop into the grocery store to pick up something to eat: fish or grain, or dessert.  Today we are dealing with a lesson from Jesus that insists that we think in agricultural terms—something we might not often do.

        It all starts out with a throw back to the very beginning of John’s gospel.  Even at this late hour (and the story is coming quickly to the final days of Jesus’ life), there are still people who want to “see” Jesus.  Do you remember how Jesus responded to Andrew and another of John’s disciples when they followed Jesus?  He asked “What are you looking for?” and they responded, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”  And Jesus said, “Come and See.”

        Now in chapter 12 we have some Greeks coming up to Philip asking “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I find it interesting that in these introductions to Jesus it is other people who spark interest.  Back at the beginning of the gospel, it was John the Baptist’s words “Here is the Lamb of God” that inspire Andrew and someone else to seek out Jesus.  And notice that these Greeks, probably in town for Passover—as even non-Jews couldn’t pass up the spectacle—come to Philip to try to get to Jesus.  And they even use those same words, “We wish to SEE Jesus.”

        Now, I’m sure that Jesus wasn’t hard to see.  He was on public display (this comes on the heels of John’s account of what we call Palm Sunday).  They might have heard the stories of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  The religious leaders say to themselves, “You see, we can’t do anything.  Look, the world has gone after him!”  And viola, there appear Greeks looking to “see” Jesus.

        What does it mean to see, to truly see Jesus?  It isn’t his physical appearance. That is something everyone could have done. It must be something deeper.  Is it seeing with the eyes of the soul?  Is it seeing the core of someone?  Is it understanding their mission?  It might mean getting close to Jesus, not just to rub elbows, but to make a connection, to get to declare allegiance, to “see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day” (words made beloved to some of us in the musical Godspell, but written by Richard of Chichester in the 13th century).

        What is also interesting is that the gospel of John takes a different path to afford us, the readers, the hearers, the opportunity to “see” Jesus.  We “see” him when he performs signs (John’s version of miracles).  We “see” him interacting with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well, and the blind man and his parents, and Mary and Martha.  But we don’t have the visuals (and audio for that matter) that we get in the other gospels. 

We don’t get to see Jesus’ baptism.  There are no words from God to Jesus or anyone else.  It is John the Baptist who testifies that he saw the Spirit descending—and so he knew Jesus was the Son of God.  There is also no transfiguration story, no going up to the mountaintop, no Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus, no proclamation from God about God’s beloved and the message that we listen to him.  It is only here in this passage, after Jesus’ teaching and his proclamation, “Father, glorify your name,” that a voice comes from heaven, some hear it, some say it is thunder.  And the voice says, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

        So, what are we supposed to “see”?  I think one answer is “a grain of wheat.”  A common object for those of this ancient world.  A grain that was ground up to make the daily bread.  A grain that could be sewn in the ground to make more wheat.  A grain that would have been seen as sustenance, as life-giving, as necessary as the air we breathe and the water we drink.  Jesus lifts up a single grain.  Huh, we think.  Like a mustard seed, a single grain can’t do much.  But it can do what it can do.  It can go into the soil, it can germinate, die if you want to call it that, change into a sprout that then can bear more than one grain of wheat, a whole stock.

        It reminds me of the parable told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke about the Sower sowing seed.  And if the seed, the single grains of whatever the seed is, falls on good soil, there can be a yield of thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.  When Jesus “explains” this parable, he says it is about the seed (the word of God) and different soils (those of us who hear the word).  We are not to be the path where birds gobble up the seed, nor rocky ground where there is no depth of root, nor thorny soil that chokes the word.  We are to be good soil, that accepts the seed, and brings forth grain, many many fold.

        So in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, at least in the explanation they have recorded, we are the soil.  But I think today’s passage asks us to imagine if Jesus [and then us after Jesus] were the seed. I do want to remind you that the gospel of John was written in a sort of code—so people could hide behind the secret meaning of the words.  The grain of wheat, just like the reference to the temple being torn down in three days, is talking about what Jesus is trying to get through to his disciples.  That they are marching toward his own suffering, death, and final resurrection.

        The grain of wheat dies but in doing so sparks new life.  The temple is torn down, but in three days it will be rebuilt.  He says it more forthrightly, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

        Some of us have been journeying through Lent with the painter Vincent Van Gogh.  This week, we were encouraged to view one of Van Gogh’s paintings of a Sower painted in November of 1888.  Van Gogh painted this theme more than 30 different times.  As I was writing this sermon that image was right in front of me.  Here is a Sower, no detail of his face is apparent.  What is most visible is his hand, throwing seed into the soil.  I was also struck by the visible new growth on the tree to his right, as if the tree were reminding us of what would happen to those seeds, if all went well.  There is a huge sun, the literal light of the world, behind the Sower, looking down on this activity.

        Van Gogh saw himself as following in Jesus’ footsteps, though not in a traditional sense.  He wrote in a letter to fellow-painter Emile Benard, that Jesus “lived serenely, as a greater artist than all other artists, despising marble and clay as well as color, working in living flesh.”  Jesus unified image and word in his art of the parable: Jesus’ “words…are one of the highest summits—the very highest summit—reached by art, which becomes a creative force there, a pure creative power. (Letter to Emile Benard, #8)

        Are we are supposed to “see” Jesus as a grain of wheat?  Are we to infer that we too are meant to take that image for our own?  The wheat gives up its form to become something else.  Just as Jesus says to his followers that “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life [who are willing to be like a grain of wheat] will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”

        Those words are a foretaste of the ones he will speak at the Passover table, words we have heard again and again.  From John 14: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place fore you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”


     Following Jesus means being with him, changing our lives to try to be like him.  For where he is, there we are.  And wherever two or three are gathered, there he is in the midst of them.

        So as we come to the Lord’s Table, as we remember that last meal he had with his disciples, as we commune with one another, and the whole world, let us remember.  Jesus takes bread, made from grains of wheat, made to nourish our bodies, our daily bread, given from God—and blesses it and says “this is my body”—for I am a grain of wheat.

        And then he takes the cup on the table, the fruit of the vine, the grapes planted and grown and tended and finally harvested and pressed, made to provide daily drink, given from God—and blesses it and says “this is my blood”—for I am the vine.

        We eat this grain, we drink this grape, and we remember that we are called to live like a grain of wheat.  We remember that we are called to be the branches on the vine.  We remember that we are to follow in the way, not seeking suffering, but stepping into the world to be God’s hands and feet and heart.  And the promise is, if we do, whether it be faithfully or falteringly or anything in between, Jesus will be there, right by our side.  Jesus has already given us a sign, an example, an image to hold onto: “a grain of wheat.”  May we hold it close and follow.w

        May it be so.  Amen and Amen.