This past Friday was the first day of Spring. In honor of the occasion I decided to try to grow some wildflowers from seeds. The instructions on the seed packets were very specific. One packet of seed was insistent that the wildflower seeds be planted no deeper than 1/8″. The other packet strongly urged that the seeds be pressed into the soil to a depth of 1/4″.
I couldn’t help thinking about the term used to refer to the seeds: “wildflower” – the aspect of “wild” stood out. Granted, these seeds were cultivated for commercial sale, but they were cultivated from plants that grow and propagate in the wild. The planting instructions about soil depth, moisture levels and sunlight exposure seemed a little obsessive-compulsive given the “wild” nature of the plants. After all, in their natural habitat seeds simply fall out of a spent flower, and germinate without the need for human intervention.
After reading those rather ironical planting instructions I thought of this Sunday’s Gospel. Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24) This saying was based on the very primitive understanding that Jesus’ culture had of the natural world. They observed that maturing seeds turned brown and, eventually, fell off the parent plant. Having turned brown in maturity (having died, according to their observation), the seeds fell to the earth. Again, based on their unscientific observations, they surmised that it was the earth that gave life to the “dead” seeds, causing new plants to spring up.
The understanding that the earth gave life to seeds that had matured and died was incorrect, but it provided an excellent metaphor for Baptism and Resurrection. Jesus was buried after his death, and he rose from the grave (out of the earth). In baptism, we are buried with Christ, and raised up to new life from the tomb of the Baptismal waters (represented metaphorically by the earth in the saying about seeds).
If we can set aside the scientific errors, the metaphor is quaint and homey. It portrays the life of faith as being as simple and straightforward as the sprouting of seeds in the Spring: if we allow ourselves to be caught up in the dynamic of death and resurrection, we find new life in Christ.
Living the new life of Baptism is deceptively simple. Among those who practice organized religion there is much debate and reflection and even fretting over the process of finding and accomplishing God’s will. Thousands of books, and countless hours of conversation and thought, are dedicated to the project of determining God’s will for human life. To some, God’s will appears to be shrouded in mystery.
While there is a degree of uncertainty that will always be present when discerning God’s will, the discernment process is as simple and straightforward as seeds germinating in the wild. God’s will takes on specificity based on the events of our day and our life, but in general, God’s will is for us to live our faith, and give witness to our faith, in the environment in which we find ourselves. The general outline of God’s will for each person’s life is no more complicated than this: live the Faith in your present circumstances.
Long journeys, deep thoughts and profound soul-searching are rarely required. God’s will is directly in front of you: live faithfully the life you were given at birth, and give witness to the Gospel in the daily circumstances of your life. During the years that I was a college campus minister I spoke regularly with students who were searching diligently for God’s will. I gave each of them the same advice: live your faith on campus. I’ve found that retirees are similar to college students in this regard. Retirees also have a great deal of unstructured time in which to ponder life’s mysteries. God’s will for the elder generation is the same as it is for their grandchildren: be a convincing Christian witness. That advice holds true also for those in the middle years of their lives; it is God’s will for you to be holy in your immediate environment.
There will always be struggle and sacrifice involved in the life of faith, but there is rarely a large measure of uncertainty. Each of us falls to earth in a spot particular to our lives; it is in that particular spot that we are to die to sin, and be raised up in new life.
The saying about the seeds was occasioned by a request from two gentiles. They said to the disciple Philip, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” (John 12:21) The Gospel doesn’t tell us anything about their encounter with Jesus because Jesus responded to the request with the teaching that included the saying about death and new life. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus is clearly visible, and immediately accessible, to those who die and rise. The new life of Baptism is not easy to accomplish, but it is simple to discern. We are, by nature, disposed to encounter Jesus and be holy; we have only to allow ourselves to be swept up by God’s Grace.