BREAK US OPEN, O GOD
By the Rev. Audra Abt
<em>Now among those who went up to worship at the 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 Son of Man 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.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
– John 12:20-33</em>
As we move toward Holy Week, we also remember Archbishop Oscar Romero and the martyrs of El Salvador who were assassinated in the 1980s in their struggle for peace alongside the poor of their country and against the violent powers of this world.
Archbishop Romero was not always on the side of the poor and suffering. He was first made archbishop because he was willing to preserve the status quo of the elite parties of the church and his country’s military regime.
Then Romero’s friend, a priest living among the poor farmworkers, was assassinated. Archbishop Romero took stock and realized he had kept himself at a safe distance from his country’s poor workers and suffering families. He saw the effects of his insulated life, not only when he lost his friend, but when he saw the agonized faces of the farmworkers and their priests who would become his new brothers and sisters. He began to feel their desperation for peace and life as his own.
He spoke of this as the moment of his true Christian conversion.
In this conversion Archbishop Romero knew he had to change, to become a voice of peaceful protest against a violent military regime. He would have to risk his security and standing among the elite. In the end it cost him his life, on March 24, 1980.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit.”
This Gospel is one that Monsignor Romero turned to again and again to encourage himself and to strengthen those who were suffering and dying for the cause of peace in his land.
There are two ways this grain of wheat can die. One death is productive, fruitful; the other is sterile and fruitless.
When a grain of wheat falls into the soil, and the spring rains come, the grain takes up that water. The water activates the internal food and enzymes, pressure builds up inside the grain, and the outer shell, the coat, bursts open. The root and shoot come forth, and the plant grows and produces leaves and fruits and more grains. That’s a fruitful death, Jesus might say, because the seed is no longer a self-contained thing unto itself.
There’s another way a seed can die. It can get all the water it needs, and inside the enzymes and growth mechanisms are all activated, but, for whatever reason, the hard outer coat never bursts open. The seed rots on the inside and does not produce anything. It dies a sterile, fruitless death.
Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit.
What Archbishop Romero realized from the grain of wheat is we can try to insulate ourselves, shore up our own safety, and distance ourselves from violence and from those who commit violent acts. But this is sterile—it cannot lead to life if others continue dying.
Jesus calls us to consider the grain of wheat that dies, and, in the process, becomes new life that expands and flourishes beyond itself.
We can either seek our own protection and avoid unpredictable or risky circumstances, or we can seek the Kingdom of God and what it means to live as disciples of Jesus. We can stay where we are or go to the places where he is.
Where I am, there my servant will be also.
I heard of a congregation spending a whole year with this single Gospel passage, allowing Christ to reshape their entire life of worship and formation and ministries. “This will be the death of us,” the pastor told her congregation as the year began.
And she was right. In order to die to themselves, they had to hate their current congregational life. They had to hate their programs enough to stop doing them, because none of them resulted in relationships or communion with their neighbors, who by and large were unchurched and uninspired by white Christianity. Jesus was already with their neighbors, in ways they didn’t fully understand, so they had to want to go where Jesus was, and learn.
Where I am, there my servants will be also.
Going where Jesus goes WILL be the death of us, at least the part of us we’ve held back from God and others.
It makes me want to explore where we (me and my community, you and yours) could follow Jesus out in the place(s) where we live and work and even have ignored, to be broken open, to die and be changed and bear fruit, like the grain of wheat. If like Archbishop Romero we trust in the power of God’s Word to break us open, then we can follow Jesus into whatever hurting and lonely and aching parts of this world he leads us, and there practice peace and communion and justice as beloveds of God broken open for love, come what may.
The Rev. Audra Abt is the vicar of the Church of the Holy Spirit, Greensboro, and the mission developer for Abundant Life Ministries, Greensboro.