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Death: Friend or Foe?

Sermon 343

St. Martin’s 99


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

John 12

Do you get the sense in this reading that the Greeks are just left in the dust when they come to meet with Jesus?

Phillip goes to tell Jesus that some folks are there to see him, and then it’s like there’s a spotlight on Jesus who does this grand soliloquy as if he’s in a Shakespeare play, while the Greeks are off to the side wondering if he’ll actually come to see them.

 This passage sounds a little strange, especially how it begins. And we’re not really sure if Jesus ever did go talk to his Greek visitors.

But why are the Greeks there?

To get to this answer we need to situate our reading in the larger context of John 12. This whole encounter happens right after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We’re actually going backwards because next week will be Palm Sunday.

Maybe the lectionary committee, who put together our readings, decided for us to hear Jesus’ words before his actions on Palm Sunday so that we would know the whole theme of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and all of Holy Week before it begins next week. This week is to prime us for what is to come.

What is so fascinating is that right before the Greeks show up in our passage, John tells us that the crowds had gathered to hear Jesus, and they all marveled at him. On top of that, Lazarus was with Jesus, who was like a living billboard of what Jesus was capable of. This man-among-the-crowds can even raise the dead!

But then John includes this line about the Pharisees—who are off to the side—jealous, angry, and downright confused about this Nazarene teacher. And almost as if it’s a throwaway line, the Pharisees say to themselves in verse 19, “Look, the world has gone after him.”

That’s where our reading picks up today. Some Greeks have come to worship at the Passover festival. What Jesus is doing seems to not only appeal to the children of Abraham, but now the whole world is becoming curious.

Jesus then says some stuff that neither Jew nor Greek would expect or understand. He starts talking about death. A grain of wheat dies before new life comes. Apparently loving your life isn’t the thing to do, but losing your life means keeping it for eternity.

Even the smartest Greek philosopher would be scratching their head at this statement.

Before Jesus was handed over to suffering and death, he talked to his disciples about the role of death. And so, before we enter Holy Week next Sunday, it seems like we need to talk about death. And you thought I was gonna do a sermon on St. Patrick today!

But really, today’s reading isn’t that shocking. How many times in the gospels has Jesus told his disciples that they are gonna have to give everything up to follow him? A bunch! They are going to have to let their expectations of him and themselves die because he has other plans. Constantly Jesus tells them that he must die, they will die, and in the meantime it’s best if they lay their pride and ambitions aside too.

He even says, you’re wasting your time storing up things here on earth where moths and rust destroy—your best investments are those that are eternal. You’re gonna have to lay everything down, including life itself, to gain the real, true life he has for us on the other side of the veil.

Jesus doesn’t just say this to other people. He knows he must die too.

All that talk, about “the hour” in our reading today; Jesus says his hour has now finally arrived. The bell has tolled so that God’s name may be glorified. “The hour” is the hour of his death.

Maybe you remember at the wedding of Cana when Mary tells Jesus that the wine has run out. What does he say? He says, “Lady, my hour has not come.”

But that has changed. Three some-odd years later his hour had finally arrived. The sense we get from Jesus is that the climatic work he had been sent here to do would involve death.

Friend or Foe And so, I would like for us to consider a question. For a Christian, is death a friend or foe? Is death something we long for or resist with every fiber of our being?

Let’s first look at death as a foe.

I’ve already mentioned Lazarus as the prime example of what Jesus is about to do in Holy Week, but Lazarus can also help us think about death as a foe.

When Lazarus died, Jesus was so overwhelmed with his death that he wept. Death had a profound effect on Jesus—I can’t emphasize that point enough. Even the Son of God was shaken by the reality and finality of the grave.  

And because of that, Jesus called out to his friend and brought him back to life. In the gospel of John, this is the crescendo and final miracle of Jesus’ ministry and points directly to what is to come. Jesus cast out death because of his love for Lazarus.

But even after all of this, Lazarus was not spared a final death. The poor guy had to go through it all again at some point. If dying once isn’t bad enough, probably the next time he muttered to himself, “Here we go again.”

Later on, Paul equates death as a great enemy in 1st Corinthians 15. He says at the end of the age Jesus will hand over the kingdom to God the Father after “he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power” (v. 24). He’ll put all enemies under his feet. And who is the final enemy? Paul says the last enemy to be defeated is death (v. 26).

And then at the very in of the Bible, right before all that good stuff about a new heaven and new earth that God will bring about, and the heavenly Jerusalem coming down from heaven, John says this in Revelation 20: “Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13b-14).

Death is put to death! Clearly, this shows that death is the great enemy of God and his children. It has been vanquished once and for all by Jesus, and is making its way to its final doom even now.  

Friend But can death also be a friend, of sorts?

If someone is suffering, can it be a merciful thing for death to come, so that there is no more pain and they can now be with the Lord? For all of us, until the Lord does return to this world, the only way to get to his is through the gate of death.

The author John Behr has likened death to a womb. This whole life is preparation for the life to come. Death is the portal that brings us from this broken world into God’s presence (his kingdom). Though we know full well that God’s plan all along has been to link these two worlds—these two realities—in and through Jesus—and this will come to its fullness in the future as Revelation 21 describes.

But was death always a part of God’s plan or was it a result of the Fall?

John Behr makes some interesting points in his book The Mystery of Christ and says: Look at the story of the Garden of Eden. The punishment for eating from the forbidden tree was death, but they didn’t eat the fruit and keel over. 

And even after eating of the fruit, God still talks with them, he even continues to deal with humans after he banishes them from the Garden. Look even closer, and there is no reference that Adam and Eve were immortal before they sinned.

Instead, Behr claims, they were mortals who had the chance at immortality—and failed (p. 81).

There are a number of times in the Old Testament that the writers don’t seem to interpret the death of one of the great patriarchs or matriarchs as a curse or punishment for sin. Rather, it’s the blessed end of a life well lived. Many times the line is, “They breathed their last and died at a good old age and was gathered to their fathers” (similar phrasing Gen 25:8).

Even Paul—in the New Testament—grapples with the positives of death. He tells the Philippian church, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (Phil 1:21-24).

For him, it’s a win/win scenario. Either you get to be with the Lord or continue serving in his vineyard.

Conclusion And so, for Christians can death be both a friend and foe? Can it be something that we resist, that we see as the enemy and fight against while also not fearing it?  It is an enemy, but one that is defeated, and is limping to its ultimate demise at the end of the age.

One afternoon in June of 1963, C. S. Lewis wrote a note to a woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He, like Paul to the Philippians, was reflecting on the Christian witness to life and death. He wrote, we are like “a seed waiting in the good earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. I suppose that our whole present life, looked back on from there, will seem only a drowsy half-waking. We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming.”

Remember what Jesus said in our gospel this morning? “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.

Lewis would die five months after writing that letter to Mary Shelburne, but maybe it’s better to say, he finally woke up.

Because of Jesus, and only because of Jesus, can death be both friend and foe. Death is no longer a judgment on God’s people because Jesus took that judgment on himself.

As followers of Jesus, we should not fear death, for though we must die, it is not the end. The grave has been dealt with, once and for all, by the One who died and rose for us. But if you want to know more about how that happened, you’ll need to come back for the next few weeks.

5th Sunday of Lent. Year B. John 12:20-33. The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death by John Behr. Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash.

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Mar 17

Best sermon yet!

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