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Dying Well

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

Palm Sun - 04/17/11 Is. 52:13-:19-33; Ps. 24; Phil: 2:5-11; Mt. 27:1-54

Jesus enters Jerusalem today, looking forward to Good Friday. He knows what is coming, and He will be the perpetrator of it. Jesus is on the offensive, He is not the victim. I hope it will be helpful in our common spiritual life to contemplate a week ahead of time the meaning of the death of the Son of God. We must prepare ourselves for the Easter event. Indeed, the whole of Lent is looking forward to Good Friday. "If you don't bear the cross, you can't wear the crown."

That is what I want to explore. The Christian faith is not so much about life after death, but rather life through death.

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There are some questions we cannot answer here on earth, some questions will be answered only in heaven. But it might behoove us to ask them nevertheless, and to listen for nudgings from the Spirit of God.

I occasionally wonder about Jesus in Gethsemane, and His time praying, asking the Father, if it be possible -- to take the cup away from Him. He said, "...nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."

Was that a freewill decision on Jesus' part? Could He have decided not to die on the cross? My musings on the question lead me to think that He indeed could have decided so, and that if He had, the whole of God and of heaven would have been 100% behind that decision. He would have ascended back to the Father without the crucifixion.

The whole of human history would have been different. There would have been no conversion of Rome, no Christendom, no Gospel, no Christian civilization. The Sadducees would have been right, there is no resurrection, at least not for us humans. Paganism, I imagine, would have sooner or later overwhelmed or stamped out Judaism. And the human race would have been locked into its downhill spiral into darkness and death.

If Jesus had so decided, God would have continued to be God. Jesus would have continued to be the Son of God, and there would be no quarrel in heaven about the "change of plans", as it were.

If that is the case, then Jesus, in a sense, had nothing to lose and much to gain by making that decision. So why did He decide to go through the crucifixion? What could have made that decision worth the pain?

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Again, my musings have led me to believe that His agreeing with the Father was an indication that God, the whole of the Trinity, had already in eternity made that decision. It would be done. But why? What could have made it worth that terrible cost? Jesus did not have to die to get to heaven. He needed only to decide to return. What was at stake?

As we know, it was not Jesus that needed to die. It was, and still is, we ourselves. We needed, and still need, to die. But, without God, on our own, we do not know that, we would disagree with it if told so, and even if we did agree, we would not know how to go about it, or even the reason for it.

We need to die in order to get to heaven. That is the reason. But what's the connection? We know that we are going to die. All of our ancestors have, and we have no reason to think we will not. So, what's this "need" about "going to heaven"?

The need is that, just as Jesus told Nicodemus that there is a second kind of birth we must have in order to see, to live in, the Kingdom of God, so also there is a second kind of death we must traverse to see the Kingdom of God. We must die to self. A spiritual birth and a spiritual death.

The spiritual death must happen in order for the spiritual birth to be complete, whole, and lead to Godly maturity. Life through death, as much as life after death.

But we are not willing to do that. We do not know how. We hardly have an inkling that it must be done at all. And we do not like it.

If we had been praying in Gethsemane without the Spirit of God in our hearts, we would have made the other choice, at any cost -- to avoid the crucifixion. We do it all the time. The disciples did it. We do not like dying at all, especially to ourselves.

But to be fair (to ourselves), in the world without God, dying to self really does not make much sense. Without God, successful power struggle is the only way to survive. Dying to self is nonsense, leading nowhere, certainly not to heaven.

Why did Jesus have to die? Because we have to die, and without Jesus leading the way, we will not make the journey. Jesus has to lead us through that Dark Tunnel, through death. Or we will just get stuck along the way, plunge downhill into oblivion, and never emerge at the other end of the Tunnel. The Light of the World has to light the way through death.

Paul says that we must be buried with Christ. I used to wonder how we got buried with Christ. It seemed like a rather bizarre image.

Then I realized that that is the answer to the death of Jesus. We get buried with Jesus first becoming dependent upon Him, learning to trust Him, and then by following Him on the Way of the Cross. "Pick up your cross daily and follow Me." We must get buried with Him in order to rise with Him. No cross, no crown -- and no seeing the Kingdom of God.

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Following Jesus means coming to a place of the deepest kind of trust and obedience. Trust and Obey. You get attached to such a person. Attached at the deepest levels of one's being. We begin to identify ourselves with Him. We begin to see our lives attached to His. We come to the place where we cannot imagine ourselves surviving without Him, like branches on the vine.

Jesus' ministry with the disciples was to draw them into that kind of trust and obedience, because without that trust and obedience, no one is going to follow another to lead them through death to self... into life.

And, that is exactly the point. Without Him, we have no enduring life. It all ends in the terrible vortex down into the real death. God has the only eternal life there is, so we either build heaven with God, or we build hell all by ourselves. Choose this day whom you will serve...

But by our Fall, by our rebellion, and the consequent ignorance, confusion, and self-centeredness, we can no longer find our way back to truth, or to the God of truth. So He has to come to us, and draw us back to Himself. And death to our old fallen selves is the only way that drawing back can happen. The death to self is the giving up of our ultimate trust and obedience to things in the world. We will have provisional trust and obedience in our human relations. But those human relations of trust and obedience are to be defined and guided by our primary trust in, and obedience to, God.

Jesus died so that we could die -- successfully. He died so that our death could find its way through that dark worm hole, on into the Kingdom of God rather than plunge downward. Jesus died to teach us how to die well.

On Ash Wednesday, we administer the ashes with the exhortation: "Remember, o man, that dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return..." But I am thinking, and sometimes add from the funeral service, "yet in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life." We go down so that we can find that secure Hand of God at the bottom of all things, which then lifts us up again. We cannot find that solid bottom until we let go of everything else.

Going down means that death to self, the self built on our dependencies in the world -- giving up those so-highly-valued dependencies.

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When someone dies upon whom you are dependent for your very identity and meaning in life, something in you dies with that person. Just so, as Paul says in Romans 6, we get buried with Christ. The disciples experienced that most directly because they lived it with Him in the flesh.

We worship many persons as God in that manner. We have heroes who we think embody what it means to be a "somebody", a real person. And when they die, we can be devastated. They are not the Son of God and cannot carry us through to a resurrection. We just die. No resurrection.

But if that person is the Son of God, when He dies, we die with Him, and then when He rises, we rise with Him -- because we are attached to Him in a way deeper than death can touch. He draws us through.

There is no use getting attached in that way to other persons, because they will not rise again -- not without God. And, if attached to them, we will stay dead with them. That is why we must give up all our idols, all our immature and rebellious worship of persons who are less than the Son of God. Letting go of those dependencies is the death to self we will not traverse without the Son of God. It is just too scary -- full scale panic.

That is why Good Friday is Good Friday. Death can no longer make cowards of us all. It turns death into just another journey, a transition from the fallen world to the Kingdom. Death becomes more like a birth canal, the final segment of the journey of being born again into eternal life.

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So, give this Holy Week over to fasting and prayer, coming to the place where Jesus means so much to you that your reputation, your income, your family, everything you might be tempted to trust as an idol, will be released into His hands.  Let go, and let God. Receive everything only as coming from Him, and for the building of His Kingdom.  Own nothing yourself.  That is holy poverty -- the kind for every Christian, not just monks.  If you are trying to own things, you are stealing from God.

I learned from a charismatic pastor to pray, "More of You, God! More of You! More of You!"  It is a wonderful prayer.  But then I heard God respond, "More of you, Earle! More of you! More of you!"  God was not mocking me.  He was telling me how we get more of Him. 

And so, as you come to the altar today, give all that, give your body and your blood to Jesus, as you receive His.  The body and blood of Jesus is consecrated on the alter so that you can become, and walk out the door, as the body and blood of Jesus.

What would happen to the world if every Sunday morning hundreds, thousands, millions of Jesuses would walk out the church doors -- into the world, people who knew how to die well, whose whole lives were so given to God that the life of God shone through them?

That is the way of the Cross, and what Holy Week and Good Friday are about.  And that is the sort of Good Friday that leads indeed to the Resurrection three days after.  Not only that of Jesus, but yours.

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About 15 years ago, I had gotten a tape and made copies of it, and put them in a box.  I just last week rediscovered that box.  The tapes had only the name, Darryll Scott on the front.  I could not recall who he might be and wondered why I had made so many of them -- until I put one into the player.

Darryll Scott was the father of Rachel Scott, one of the students murdered at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, back in the middle 1990's. His son, Craig, had been miraculously spared death, though the students on either side of him were killed. The tape was Darryll’s and Craig’s story of how God had prepared many of the students, including his daughter, for the event of the killings. Darryll and Craig were going around the country after the event, telling their story.

They told their story to Congress, that without God, all the laws passed by them are nothing worth. They were not appreciated by most. Nothing changed.

When we visit events of life and death, we are most likely to get an honest report on the realities of life. When we stand on the border of the choice between good and evil, we are most likely to grow in our own spirits as we struggle to make our own choices about life.

In the book of Revelation, Jesus shows disgust for the shallow and the half-hearted Christians at Laodicea. He seems to be saying that we might be closer to Him in open rebellion than in our quest for comfort and security. We will certainly be closer if we are asking honest questions, seeking the truth -- no matter how far off the track we might be.

Rachel was a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. She had an inkling that she would not be living a long life. She prayed for a faithful companion who would walk with her down the halls of terror and tragedy. God was preparing her long before the Columbine killings. Something in her spirit knew that tragedy was coming. God was preparing her to know how to die well. Indeed, she did, and, I think, with no regrets.

Next Sunday, I will play that tape at Sunday School as a part of our "Acts of St. Luke's" series. All the themes of Lent and Easter appear there, notably resurrection through death.

Darryll and Craig Scott’s presentation portrays the meaning of "charismatic renewal" better than anything I have come across. It has little to do with the things we typically associate with renewal in the Holy Spirit. It does say much about being one's real self, being open, honest, living in the light. It says much about the deep intervention of God in our lives here and how. It says much about bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ from Jerusalem, Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the world.

Our liturgical goal, beginning with Advent, through Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, the Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost is the Trinity Season later this summer, the summation of all that God has shown us, all the way from Abraham through to Pentecost.

I urge you to take seriously this next week, and for the rest of your lives, the calling to a joyfully disciplined life in Christ. Death to the worldly self, a life of fasting and prayer, a life of reaching out to others in love and caring, a life of telling people about the glory of being a child of God, and manifesting all the authority of the Word of God. A life of passion in the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 04/17/2011    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012