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The Mystery of Death and Life

Sermon | Comments Off on The Mystery of Death and Life

March 18, 2018

Pastor Bea Chun

           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

Among those who came up to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks…. And they said: “Please, we would like to see Jesus.” Who were those Greek people and what did they want? They had come to worship at the Passover festival, so they were observant Jews, and they spoke Greek, so they were pilgrims from a region or a country where the language and culture was Greek. Like me, a German who lives in America, and as soon as I open my mouth, people can tell that I have a German accent.

So, these Greek-speaking pilgrims want to see Jesus. Why? Just to see what he looked like? Perhaps they had heard of him, and now they wanted an autograph? Or did they want an audience, a spiritual consultation? Perhaps there was a conflict in their hometown, and they had promised the elders: “We will consult a rabbi when we get to Jerusalem”. And in response Jesus gives a somewhat convoluted sermon about grains that die in the ground and the hour of glory.

Here we have to remember that we are reading a passage from the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of John was not written as a historical account, it was not written as a biography of Jesus. This gospel was written decades after Jesus had died, perhaps as many as 70 years later, and by that time the basics of the life of Jesus were more or less known. It was known that

·       He was a preacher from Galilee,

·       he was a great healer,

·       a famous miracle worker,

·       he agreed with the ancient prophets,

·       he took the side of the poor and oppressed

·       he disagreed with the temple authorities,

·       he was crucified by the Romans,

·       he was buried in a tomb,

·      after his death he appeared again to his followers … or so they said,

·       then he was taken up to heaven.

These are the things that were said about Jesus. But still, people had a lot of questions:

·       Why did Jesus teach a new way about God?

·       How was his teaching different from that of the rabbis?

·       Did he say all of this on his own, or was he sent by God?

·       If he was sent by God, then why did God not protect him from his crucifixion?

·       Did he know he was going to die?

·       Was he afraid of dying?

·       Why did he not run away?

·       Why did he not hide?

·       Was he suicidal?

·       Did he know that he would be raised again?

·       Did he really die, or did he only pretend to die?

·       And what difference does it make to follow his teachings rather then the old teachings?

·       What would be the consequences of following the new teachings?

·       What difference would it make in a person’s life?

These were some of the questions which the writer of the Gospel of John addressed with his gospel.  To these questions he gave the following answers:

Yes, Jesus was sent by God, in fact, he was always with God, from the very beginning he was with God, and in fact, he was God. And he came into the world, so that we may have life and have it abundantly. This concept of life is very very important in the Gospel of John, Jesus speaks about it constantly. Sometimes he speaks of abundant life, and sometimes he speaks of eternal life. In my mind they are the same. But tradition often portrays eternal life as something that begins only after death, a life that simply goes on and on and on, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, millennium after millennium,…on and on it goes. Which I really don’t think quite captures the way Jesus spoke of life.

When Jesus spoke of life, he spoke of a life fully lived, a life lived with courage and truth and meaning, a life lived with passion and compassion and joy, a life marked by love of God, and lived in a loving community. In the gospel of John, the second most important word besides life is the word love. Love one another as I have gloved you… By this they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. The third most important word is truth. So, Jesus came to offer a compelling vision of what life could be, an abundant life. He spoke to people who are poor, and he said,  you do not need to be rich in order to live abundantly. Abundant life is not about having a lot of money. He spoke to people who were sick, and he said,  you don’t need to be strong in order to live abundantly. Abundant life is not about having a lot of strength.  He spoke to people who were powerless, and he said, you don’t need to have a lot of power in order to live abundantly. Abundant life is not about being in control. He spoke to people who were caught up in the demands of religious requirements, and he said, you don’t need to be a slave to religious laws in order to live abundantly. So then, what is required to live abundantly?

And here comes the shocking answer: What is required is that we die. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain. But if it dies, it yields a rich (= abundant) harvest, so we read in today’s lesson. (John 12:24)

But how can we become truly alive by the act of dying? After all, when we die, we are dead! But what the gospel talks about is not a physical death, not the kind of dying where the heart stops beating, where the lung stops breathing, where the body stops functioning. It is the other way around. In fact, there are plenty of people who have a beating heart,  breathing lungs, a functioning body, but they are not alive. They live without joy, without love, without truth, without passion. They breathe and move, but have no being. And yet, they hang on to this superficial life at all cost, never willing to risk it in order to discover something deeper and truer.

Here I want to share an observation of a great pastor and deep thinker, Andrew Prior, a Uniting Church Minister in Australia. He writes about a summer when he went with his daughters to a summer camp at the beach. 

At the school camp are a little girl and a boy, who’ve never been near the water much. They’d dearly love to have a go on the sail boards, but they are afraid. When I offer to help them, the boy says, “Nah, not interested. It’s boring.” He saves his life, and his embarrassment, and avoids his fear, and keeps safe. And he loses his life. I can tell you this, because it’s what I did with one sport in Primary School, and I still regret it fifty years later!

But the girl goes through the agony, and the little death of admitting that she is very afraid of the water, and the agony and embarrassment of letting people laugh at her. She lets me help her out with lots of little jokes, and helping her balance on the board, and helping her up when she falls in and sputters. And slowly, over a couple of days, she is able to stand up and raise the sail…. the smallest sail they have… and even move across the water in a small breeze. And I see her at the moment she realizes she has moved out over the deep, deep water where there is no bottom! There is a moment of terror on her face, which fades as she realizes she is alright, she is safe. What joy! And as we go back to Whyalla to school, she has surely been given a new life.  And the boy up the back, tough, dismissive of her, who cares…  he’s lost his life, even though he saved it. From:

This is a story about children at summer camp. And again and again throughout life we come to these moments where we have to step out in faith, and we are scared, and we want to run and save our lives.

Jesus invites us to face these fears and to ask ourselves what is the worst that can happen? Perhaps we will lose a lot of money? So what? What does it profit a human being to gain all the wealth in the world, but lose their soul? Perhaps we will feel alone and abandoned? Do not worry, I will catch you, Jesus says, I will draw you to myself, you will be in me, and I will be in you.

Perhaps we are afraid that we will not survive the experience? Yes, sometimes it can get as serious as that. Dr. Martin Luther King has been there. When he moved forward with he civil rights movement, he received more and more death threats. There was a time when he must have realized that his life was truly in danger. There must have been a time when he decided that he could still turn back and play it safe, stop his work, stop the marches and speeches and writings and campaigns,retire to a remote farm, and be safe.

But then what? What would he do at the remote farm, far away from the movement that was so important to him? Far away from everything that give him life and energy and meaning? In what way might hiding at a farm still be called living a life?

I think that very few of us will ever be called into the kind of extreme danger that Martin Luther King had to face, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But if that moment should ever come for us, I believe with all my heart, we will be given the strength, the spiritual tools and whatever we might need to deal with it. But again, I think, very few of us will be called into such heroic stances. For most of us, the question of choosing life is more pedestrian, perhaps the way it is described in this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver called Journey:

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice —

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voice behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do —

determined to save

the only life that you could save.

Mary Oliver,  The Journey     

With this we have come to the end of Lent. Today is the last Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, which is really an invitation to explore the deep mystery that the Gospel of John urges us to explore: this business of dying and living, of saving one’s life by losing it, which in the end is never fully grasped with words. Stories and poems can give us a hint. But in the end, just as swimming is only learned in the swimming pool, and dancing is only learned on the dance floor, and cooking is only learned in a kitchen, so, the mystery of dying and living are best grasped by entering into them.

Which is what Lent and Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter are all about: an invitation to explore a mystery beyond words, to discover the truth of what it means to live, and what it means to die, what it means to have life and have it abundantly. Amen.