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Dying a Successful Death

F. Earle Fox

[COMMENT:  This was a sermon preached on Palm Sunday, 2007 Anno Domini, at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Placentia, California, where I assist. 

Several years ago when my two boys were about 12-14 or so, they and I and some parishioners from my church went up from Moodus, Ct., to Springfield, Ma., every evening for a week-long seminar
conducted by Bill Gothard, one of the finest teachers of our time.

He commented recently in a newsletter that we should not seek a life of pleasure, but rather that we should seek to have a productive death.

Kind of brings you up short.

So how does one have a productive death? By having a death that issues in resurrection and a death that glorifies God and His kingdom. That should be the primary aim in our lives. All else is peripheral. It would certainly change our attitude toward death and funerals. Death is not the end of life. Rather, life is the preparation for death. And beyond. Christianity is not about life after death, but about life through death. "Pick up your cross daily and follow me."]

 

Jesus is just entering Jerusalem today, but I want us to look forward to Good Friday because I hope it will be helpful in our common spiritual life to contemplate 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. As we hear, "If you don't bear the cross, you can't wear the crown."

That is what I want to explore.

 

There are some questions we cannot answer here on earth, some questions will be answered only in heaven. But it behooves 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.  Heaven would have gone on, but the invitation to the human race would have been withdrawn. 

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. 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?

 

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 effort? Jesus did not have to die to get to heaven. He needed only to decide to return. What was at stake?

It was not Jesus that needed to die. It was, and still is, us. We needed, and still need, to die. But, without God, 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 out of this fallen world and into 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. First a spiritual death, and then a spiritual birth.

The spiritual death must happen in order for the spiritual birth to be complete, whole, and lead to Godly maturity.

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. We do not like dying at all, especially dying 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.

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 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 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.

 

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.

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.

 

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, we get buried with Christ. The disciples experienced that most directly.

We worship many persons as God in that manner. We have heroes who we think embody what it means to be a real person -- to be a Somebody rather than a Nobody.  And when they die, we can be devastated.  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 leads 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. So 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.  Only when we know how to die well, can we live well. Death can no longer make cowards of us all.  Good Friday 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.

 

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 the body and blood of Jesus.

What would happen to the world if every Sunday morning hundreds, thousands, millions of Jesus's 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 Good Friday is 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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