5th Sunday in Lent
Jer. 31:31-34; Heb. 5:7-9; Gospel John 12:20-30
Do we need to 'Suffer' to gain Eternal Life?

Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - Singapore, on 18 March 2018

In today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed, Jesus used the imagery of the wheat grain to explain the deep mystery of God’s Salvation of all mankind.  In the context of an agricultural culture, Jesus explained that “unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”  And, in connecting this imagery to the concrete living reality, Jesus added, “Anyone who loves his life loses it; and anyone who hates his life in the world will keep it for the eternal life.My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us note that Jesus is not saying that to gain eternal life, we are all called to despise and hate everything in this world.  On the contrary, Jesus wants every person to live a meaningful, fulfilling and happy life, not only in this world, but indeed to gain happiness for all eternity.  As such, when Jesus said,“anyone who loves his life will lose it” He is referring to our over attachments of our wealth and possessions of this world.  Jesus is also cautioning us not to be too preoccupied with the material and secular concerns of our lives, and more so, if they are at the expense of the quality of our relationships with God and with our family and one another. 

Have we not come across people who are so materialistic, money and career centred that they have little or no time for God and the care and love of their family?  I know of Jim (not his real name) who is so caught up with his financial deals, and is so busy on his business travels, making so much money that he is hardly home, until he and his wife and family have become strangers.  Eventually, one day, when he returned home unexpectedly, he found his wife sleeping with another man.  The question is, “Who is to be blamed for such crises in the family?”  Is it the busy husband who had no time for his wife and family, or is it the lonely wife who felt abandoned and unloved?
  My sisters and brothers in Christ, “How much sacrifice are we willing to make, how willing are we to “die like the grain of wheat” for the sake and love of God, our family and the people that God has placed in our lives?” 

Life is complex, and our human relationships are very delicate and needs to be developed with firm commitment to God of the vows of our marriage or of the priesthood and religious vocation.  If our family and vocation are not built on our love for God and our personal relationship with Him then, the temptations and attractions of the gain, the glitter and the glory of the secular world will sooner or later, undermine and eventually even destroy our family and vocation.  If we have superficial and disinterested attention and interests in our faith, let us remember that our relationship with God will have a direct effect on the intensity and commitment we have for our vocation and the quality of our lives. 

All of us know that I am not exaggerating if I say that no amount of material wealth, financial securities, or power and positions in the secular can buy the wholesome, fulfilling and forgiving love we each long to have, in our hearts and homes.  Only God can give us such deep and fulfilling happiness and love.  And so, effectively Jesus is saying to you and to me, that if anyone “loves his secular life” at the expense of loving God in his life, then he will eventually lose his family, his vocation and the true meaning, fulfilment and happiness in life. 

My sisters and brothers, in Christ, “to die like the grain of wheat in order to yield a rich harvest in our lives, can in many situations of our lives, also be very challenging, especially when we are facing much pains and trials, that do not seem to pass and threaten to overwhelm us.  In such situations of our lives, what does “dying like a grain of wheat mean?”  “What does “loving” and “hating” our lives for the sake of God mean? 

Cindi McMenamin, had a close friend, Erin who confided in her that she felt like her life was falling apart.  Erin shared about the pain in her childhood, the string of broken relationships over the past several years, her kidney disease, the repeated sicknesses, the hospitalization from pneumonia, the decline of her business, the eviction from her home, her broken marriage engagement, and now her diagnosis of breast cancer.  Cindi was very surprised at what she heard as Erin, as over the years of knowing her, she had appeared to have everything - a successful career, she goes to Church, has a lot of friends who hold her in high self-esteem.  And as such she had always shown herself to be self-reliant, strong-willed, determined, and so very confident.

Erin added, "Each time I get slammed against the wall, I struggle very hard to pick myself up; then I dust myself off, and move on.  I pray about it constantly and ask God to show me the lessons He wants me to learn.  But, still the pains and trials of my life continue.”  And with tears in her eyes she added, “and the pain seems even to get worse, the more I pray to God.  I then began to doubt and asked myself, “What's wrong with me?  Why is there so much pain in my life?  Am I doing something wrong?". "When is enough, enough?"

I looked at Erin with a heavy heart and was totally lost for words.  The words of wisdom I had hoped for wouldn't come. The Scripture verses I had memorized for situations like this seemed rote and cliché at the moment.  Erin was broken...and there was nothing I could do to fix her. 

As I watched the tears stream down Erin’s cheeks, and how broken and down she is, I felt very sad for her.  It seems to me that Erin is at the deepest level of her depression in her life.  And at this point, short of taking her own life, it is in such darkest moment, that God can somehow become her Light of hope to save her; as no one else can.  So, I reached out to Erin and squeezed her hand and said, “Erin, my friend, be strong, the Glory of God will shine through your darkness . . . be sure that this will happen soon; do not give up on God.”

As I drove home in silence, and tried to imagine the Presence of God in such extreme suffering of Erin, it dawned on me that the sufferings of Erin is like the underside of a tapestry, where we find all the knots and imperfections, but on the top side of the tapestry, we see the perfect and intricately beautiful design.  Perhaps, God has a way of allowing us to go through the sufferings of our lives because He has a way of weaving lessons and revelations of His Love and Compassion through the pains and sufferings that bombard us in life.  And when we are determined and believe firmly that God’s Glory is still present and will soon prevail through all our trials and tribulations, then our pain will be transformed into meaningful challenges, of experiencing God’s Compassion.  And then, with God’s graces, we will be able to embrace the pain and trials, instead of allowing them to crush and destroy us.  With these hopeful thoughts, I continued to keep Erin in my prayers.

Several weeks later, Erin telephoned me and asked that we meet up.  She then shared with me, "I think I know why all this is happening to me," she said. "I don't really know God.  All this time I've been praying to Him and serving Him, but I didn't really know Him personally at all.  Now through the chemotherapy, through the crying out to Him every day, through the way I've been searching His Word for answers, I am finally getting to know Him more personally.  And, I think for the first time in my life, I'm really experiencing Him."  

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Erin’s experiences of the crises and traumas of her life and not giving up on God, but still holding on the hope that the Light of Christ will pierce through the darkness of her pain and helplessness, is clearly her way of “being the grain of wheat that is willing to die to herself, by embracing her pain, and then allowing God’s Compassionate Love and Time to transform the “dead grain of wheat in her heart” into the “harvest” of hope, love and peace of coming to know Jesus more personally through the mystery of her sufferings. 

My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us remember that the in the image of the wheat grain that needs to die before it can reap a rich harvest, Jesus is proclaiming to us, the Paschal Mystery of His Life and the paradox of true happiness where if we want to gain eternal happiness, then we also need to embrace the self-sacrificing love and the trials and crosses in our lives, as He did, and shown us.  Are we not willing to challenge our self-centred and self-serving life that we may be living, and change for the better?  This poem, of Joe Saramane, captures the spirit of the resistance that we so often find in our lives today.

You asked for my hands
that You might use them for Your purpose;
I gave them for a moment, then withdrew them
for the work was hard.

Your asked for my mouth to speak against injustice;
I gave You a whisper
that I might not be accused.

You asked for my eyes to see the pain of poverty;
I closed them for I did not want to see.

You asked for my life
that You might work hard through me;
I gave You a small part
that I might not get ‘too involved.’

Lord, forgive me for the calculated efforts to serve You
only when it is convenient for me to do so;
only in those places where it is safe to do so;
and only with those who make it easy to do so.

Father forgive me, renew me, send me out,
as a visible instrument,
that I may take seriously
the meaning of Your Cross.

And so, as I sum up and conclude, the question we finally ask ourselves is, “Are we willing to die to ourselves, out of our love for God, and the good of others, instead of living an unfulfilled life, like Jim in our story, of over focusing on the material gains, glory and glamour that do not fulfil the deep longings of our hearts, and on the contrary threaten to rob us of the true peace, meaning and happiness of life, that Jesus promises to give us in this world and for all eternity?

The choice of the quality of our lives depends on what decision we are willing to make, in response to Jesus’ invitation in today’s Gospel which says, “Anyone who loves his life loses it; and anyone who hates his life in the world will keep it for the eternal life.”

(Ref. Adapted from: Story by Cindi McMenamin, “When Life Feels Painful: Finding Your Glory Story”; crosswalk.com)
(Ref: Poem, “Happiness Manufacturers, Hedwig Lewis,SJ; pub.: GujaratSahitya Prakash; 2001; pg 136.)

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.

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