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The Secret of Life: An Easter Sermon

April 22, 2019
Wheat field and blue sky with white clouds

Wheat field and blue sky with clouds

THE SECRET OF LIFE is a sermon about the mystery of life and death preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019. It was inspired by a provocative piece of writing by Asian eco-feminist Jea Sophia Oh, “Seeds, Cross and a Paradox of Life from Death: A Postcolonial Eco-Theology.” Oh utilizes the two Korean terms to distinguish the enlivening principle of life in all living things (which includes death as a part of life) and the principle of violence and social pathology that is fundamentally anti-life. In our scripture for the day, Jesus speaks of his violent death and glorious resurrection as a form of natural bio-power that enlivens the children of God. This becomes an invitation to “come ands see” life as lived by God’s people in the church.


Isaiah 65:17-25         John 12:20-24

“In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree…
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

Hymn of Promise, sung just before the sermon

American composer, Natalie Sleeth, wrote this hymn back in 1986. She says about that time that she was “pondering the ideas of life, death, spring and winter, Good Friday and Easter, and the whole reawakening of the world that happens every spring.” She was inspired by a line from T.S. Eliot, “in my end is my beginning,” which she adapted and used to start the third stanza. The hymn grew from there. Shortly after completing the hymn, Natalie’s husband was diagnosed with what turned out to be a terminal malignancy. He died shortly thereafter. The original anthem version of this hymn was sung at his funeral. Natalie herself died of cancer just six years later. Her music has inspired a generation to understand that the meaning of life and death are deeply intertwined, not as opposites, but parts of a greater mystery.[i]

In our gospel reading today, Jesus draws upon the same kind of imagery to speak of his own dying and rising to new life, a mystery that we are called to participate in. You see, we, we, are the good fruit and abundant harvest that comes from Jesus’ death. His life now lives in us, enabling us to lead lives of love, joy, peace and purpose with courage and without fear. That is what it means to live resurrection.

Hear our reading from the Gospel According to John

Now among those who went up to worship at the [annual Passover] festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Human One to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

The Word of God, for the People of God. Thanks be to God.[ii]

I find it startling if not downright disconcerting to hear Jesus so casually compare his violent death on a cross at the hands of Roman authority to a seed that falls to the ground and dies. But this verse contains what Asian eco-feminist theologian Jea Sophia Oh calls ‘the secret of life,’ which is beyond the conventional meaning of death as the opposite of life.

Death is not the opposite of life; it is a part of life and always already exists as a necessary aspect of the circle of life. Life reflects the full cycle of birth, growth, death and transformation into different forms… The opposite of life, killing (jugim, a Korean term meaning killing, a whole package of social pathology), is not [the same as] death… Killing refers not only to the destruction of living organism but also to all attitudes that are contrary to the natural process of becoming. Nevertheless, the cross symbolizes salim (another Korean term that means “making things alive, enlivening) in the midst of jugim (violence).

In seeds, death and life, disintegration and proliferation, are intertwined. A seed has the potential to bear fruit because there is life in it. All living organisms have this potential. But, if it remains only a single seed, it eventually loses this life.[iii]

You see, the significance for understanding Jesus’ death lies and the contrast between remaining solitary – “just a single grain” – and many, bearing “very much fruit”. In John’s Gospel, fruit is Jesus’ metaphor for the life of the whole risen community of faith. Jesus uses the seed parable to show that the saving power of his life and death resides in the community that is gathered around him and empowered by him. The saving power of Jesus’ life and death IS the community gathered and enlivened because of him. And that’s us. Jesus’ life, now lives in us. We are invited to live resurrection.[iv]

What does this new life look like?

I believe one of the greatest gifts of Christian community is that we gather regularly, not just to be inspired, comforted, and challenged, but to share with one another life’s most difficult moments, painful experiences, and broken places. Death and life, together. Because as Easter people, as resurrection people, we know we have nothing to fear: there is nothing can stop God’s love.

I want to say a word of special greeting to those of you who are visiting with us today.  Some of you are here visiting family in White Plains, others of you live here but are visiting this congregation for the first time. If you are visiting from another congregation, we hope you will bring our warmest greetings back home to your congregation. But If you happen to be looking for a church home, we hope you will visit us again and learn more about this particular community of God’s people.

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like, what this life demands of us as we follow Jesus, what this life makes possible for us and for the world as we give ourselves in service, come back on any regular Sunday and see for yourself. I don’t know what all you brought with you this morning, but …

  • This is a community that knows how to hold someone who is grieving, to honor the pain and bewilderment that is the loss of a loved one and to offer the support of a community of memory;
  • We know how to sit in the discomfort of dissolving or destructive relationships, alienation within families, estrangement between spouses; We both provide opportunities to continue doing good even as life seems to be falling apart, as well as provide good counsel to make healthy and healing choices for renewed life;
  • We know – here, in this community – how to lift up caregivers struggling to make compassionate and truly caring choices for a parent, a friend, a neighbor, when every choice looks like failure and guilt overwhelms us;
  • We are not a community of perfection, but of grace, mercy, assistance, accompaniment, and care. “Everybody cares” – because everybody needs care and everybody can care – that’s the motto of the ministry led by Deirdre L. and Ruth D.;
  • We support one another as parents, helping our children navigate the life choices, conflicting voices and competing values of post-modern adulthood;
  • We know how to hold each other in prayer;

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like, come join us for Bible study on Monday evening – we are a fabulous, funny and focused gathering (just ask Jackie C. all about it – BTW, today is Jackie’s birthday) – or join us on Sunday mornings for bible and prayer, or Monday afternoons at Kingsley House. Come join us in our work to build sustainability in this age of irreversible climate change, or join our conversations on undoing structural racism and combatting systemic poverty. Pick up an extra bag of groceries the next time you’re out and bring it here to the church. We’ll deliver it to our local food pantry for our neighbors.

If you want to know what resurrection life looks like …

  • Get to know our council clerk Valerie D. and her passion for human rights, and in particular, for prison reform and housing reform;
  • Meet Kathy D. and learn about her passion for solar energy and zero waste.
  • Talk with Olga or Carmen or Sharon from the prayer ministry about how holding others in prayer feeds their own spiritual growth and capacity to love;
  • Find Patty N., who is an advisor to our youth group and a mentor to many musicians; listen to her carefully and you will see what faithfulness looks like;
  • Sit and talk with Cora F. and let her tell you about how God speaks to her in her daily bible reading, and about how transforming that has been over her 90 years.

This is how the dying and rising Christ bears fruit. In us. This is how resurrection life changes the world. If you are looking for a community of God’s people living resurrection, you have found it here.

* * *

Six and a half weeks ago, we as a congregation planted some broccoli seeds as a symbol of this mystery of life and death, of dying and rising, of tender nurture and slow, hidden growth that is part of the spiritual journeys of Lent and of our lives. The seeds we planted are now small green plants, growing food, a tray of life, getting ready to bear fruit. All the way back on Ash Wednesday …

  • We mixed our ashes with good soil – they have long since become one;
  • Four days later, our church school children planted seeds, and watered them with water from the font – those seeds are all gone, having given themselves to the growth;
  • One week we had sprouts, and in a matter of a few weeks more they had become a field of green, so abundant we had to thin the trays – only one plant per square survived the thinning, but each plant is getting ready to bear fruit;
  • These plants will be placed in our garden next week by children in our nursery school during their annual ‘bloom and grow’ earth day celebration;
  • Once ripe, each plant will be able to be harvested two to three times over a three-month period. If we are successful, these plants will produce twenty-four to thirty-six pounds of broccoli.

We could have had no idea back then when we planted the seeds that our congregation would experience the death of four of our members during this short season. So much grief. But also so much life. We have, also, I must say, marked the birth of a new baby, we expect news of another birth in the next few days, and look forward to two more births this summer. With baptisms to follow. A young couple has gotten engaged, eight youth are preparing to be confirmed in the Christian Faith, members have demonstrated care for one another, and, after worship today, many of you will share Easter joy by delivering all these beautiful lilies to homebound or hospitalized friends.

Jesus’ life lives in us, enabling us to lead lives of love, joy, peace and purpose with courage and without fear. We are the fruit of his life and death. As we will sing in a moment,

“Because you live O Christ,
the garden of the world has come to flower.”[v]


[i] My go to for hymn stories right now is Carl P Daw, Glory to God: A Companion. (WJK, 2016). For more on Natalie Sleeth, see the UMC History of Hymns web page.

[ii] My exegetical process involved several pages of writing on Philip, the “come and see” disciple who brings people to Jesus. Philip and Andrew are the only two “of the twelve” with clearly Greek names. It seems that when “outsides” or “newcomers” look to connect with Jesus (or a congregation) they often look for someone who looks like or sounds like them. That this is at least part of what is happening in this story, it ultimately determined my approach to this sermon – a mediated invitation to “come and see.”

Another reflection that guided my thinking was the early church’s conviction (via Tertullian) that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As Ignatius put it, shortly before his own death:

Just pray that I will have the strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, that I might not merely be called a Christian, but actually prove to be one. . . . Let me be food for wild beasts, through whom I can reach God. I am God’s wheat, and I am being ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I might prove to be pure bread.

Wes Howard-Brook notes that sowing bread wheat was, in the ancient world, women’s work. Thus Jesus’ metaphor for understanding the meaning of his life and death is a feminine one. See WHB, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis, 1994).

[iii] Jea Sophia Oh, “Seeds, Cross and a Paradox of Life from Death: A Postcolonial Eco-Theology” in Planetary Solidarity: Global Women’s Voices on Christian Doctrine and Climate Justice edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Hilda P. Koster. (Fortress Press, 2017). Oh explores the implications of genetic engineering that has written the life out of many seeds. See also this helpful abstract of her essay in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.

[iv] “In order to live, one must die. This is the paradox of life from death, which is the principle of life.” Jea Sohi Oh.

[v] “Because You Live, O Christ,” Shirley Erena Murray, 1987.

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