The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. John 12:23-26This is part of the gospel for this week. It is the story thing John records before moving into the crucifixion account in John 13. The homily we heard on it was about doing better morally and trying to make some incremental improvement in your life. It struck me how that is not at all what Jesus says here. Jesus call for a dying and rising. That is a radical change. It does not describe making a effort at an attainable improvement.
One big difference between the two is that one requires faith and the other does not. Trying to become a better person is something an atheist can do. I would suggest they don't have a coherent answer to what it means to be a better person but that is another story. They do feel the impulse to improve themselves and many of them do. It is all based on human motivation and human effort that does not need to be connected with God at all.
Dying and rising, on the other hand, does not make any sense if God is not real. Dying means you are completely helpless and you need God to raise you up. If God is not there then you will die and that will just be the end of it. This is why this story is told in the context of Jesus' death and resurrection. We can die to sin and be sure of our resurrection precisely because Jesus rose from the dead.
The objection to this is if you set your sights too high you will fail. Make the goal attainable and you are going to succeed. Is not some small victory better than one big defeat? First of all, you are not guaranteed a small victory. We can set our sights quite low and still fail to achieve the target. Secondly, and more importantly, failure does not have to leave us in a bad place. We tried to be a saint and we failed. That leaves us knowing we are sinners and still having a long way to go. So we need to do this conversion thing again and again. Our failure will remind us of our sinfulness again and again. This is good.
The line that was repeated so often is that in order to be a disciple we need progress but not perfection. I am not sure this is true. We don't need perfection for sure but I am thinking we don't even need to make progress. Long term you would wonder about a person who never makes any progress. Still in the short term you might not achieve even a little bit. Someone who tries to quit drinking might not be very successful at all. Do you have to show progress to call yourself a disciple? I would say just the fact that you want to follow God in this is enough. The fact that you did not even make progress today is not important. Tomorrow is important. Do you try again or do you give up?
It comes down to the difference between grace and works. Is God acting with our cooperation or are we acting and maybe getting some help from God? Christianity is very firmly in the former. We need God even for small progress. What follows is that difficulties are kind of irrelevant. Nothing is too difficult for God. What matters is whether we trust God.