John 12:20-33 (NRSVCE)
“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.” This is an interesting thing to think about. When a grain of wheat sprouts, it doesn’t “die” in the sense of no longer having life. Rather it sprouts into new life, a fruitful life. So what does Jesus mean when he says that the grain “dies?”
One way to look at it would be that the grain of wheat is, as a grain, self-contained. It is closed in on itself, and does not interact with things around it. In order to sprout and bear fruit, it must in essence die to itself. It must intermingle with the soil and nutrients around it so that it can begin its fruitful life. This “dying to self” is what I think Jesus is talking about here, at least in one sense. Someone who lives only for themselves will not produce any fruits for the Kingdom. He must instead follow the greatest commandment—he must love God and love his neighbor. He must die to his selfishness, so that in accepting the graces of God he can sprout into one who produces fruits for the Kingdom. He must live selflessly, and in so doing is no longer just a single man, but member of the Christ’s Church.
This is why Jesus says “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Those who live for themselves will die—that is, they will end up in the eternal death that is Hell. Their selfishness causes them to close themselves off from the grace of God, and from the saving power of Christ. But if we “hate our life,” meaning if we live not for ourselves but for God and for our neighbors, we will open ourselves to those graces, accepting the offer of salvation from Christ, and we will have eternal life. More than that, we will produce fruit! We will join with the Church in the act of building the Kingdom of God, most importantly through preaching the Gospel! But this will only happen if we forsake our selfishness, if we die to ourselves so that we can live for God.
The past few days have seen us bombarded by verses about the dangers of pride. Now Jesus tells us concretely what it means if we forsake our pride and selfishness. If we open ourselves up to Christ, as the grain of wheat opens itself up to the nutrients of the soil, we will be given new life, a fruitful life. We will be transformed by the grace of God, and that transformation entails eternal life.