Fr. Philip Sang: Being Participants With Christ

Sermon delivered on Lent 5B, Sunday, March 22, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

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Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 51.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33.

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The fifth Sunday of Lent is a Sunday that is traditionally given in the church to think about the passion of Christ. It marks the beginning of an increased emphasis on the sufferings of Jesus. To speak of the death and sufferings of Christ is to be reminded of the human side of the One we confess to be the Son of God.

This stands in contrast to the first four Sundays of Lent which are traditionally given to a personal reexamination of our lives and to penance. We move from that emphasis to the last fourteen days of Lent which become a time for thinking more exclusively about the sufferings of Jesus. And so today with our text our attentions is turned to the passion of Jesus.

No writer speaks well about the humanity and sufferings of Jesus than does the writer of Hebrews. In this Epistle we see Jesus as one with us. The writer says in chapter 2 of the One whom he has already declared to be the Son of God, “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

In a wonderful way the writer speaks of the full identity of the Son of God with us. Hebrews 2:17?18: “Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” It is, of course, as one with us that the Son of God suffers and dies. In his sufferings we see him fully human, enduring the testings of this life as we also do. And even as we learn through our experiences of pain and suffering, so also did Jesus. What did Jesus learn? The writer says “he learned obedience.” This was obedience put to the test in the darkest hour of his life. The writer of Hebrews gives a very vivid description of that ordeal in verse 7.

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”

He was tempted and tested in every way that we are and yet he was without sin. When offered early in his ministry ways to avoid the cross by embracing the values and claims of this world, Jesus refused to give in to the desires of the flesh. When he could have fled for his life to some remote part of the world, Jesus stayed the course to do the work God had sent him into the world to do. He learned in his sufferings to put his trust completely in God and God heard his prayers because of his reverent submission.

Learning obedience and suffering do go together. That is to say, obedience is always tested in the trials and tribulations. Of course, It is easy to obey when there is nothing standing in the way. If we were placed in a protected environment, obedience would be easy and perhaps also meaningless, since it is not really tested.

In our gospel lesson today Jesus is talking about his death. This is, however, something we do not talk about. Yes I mean Death. We acknowledge death when it happens but for the most part we do not talk about death with any real depth or substance, and certainly no enthusiasm. We don’t deal with it. We deny it. We ignore it. We avoid it. No one wants to die. We don’t really acknowledge, talk about, and deal with death. The death of our loved ones is too real, too painful. Our own death is too scary. The relationships and parts of our lives that have died are too difficult. So, for the most part, we just avoid the topic of death. Especially in a culture that mostly wants to be happy, feel good, and avoid difficult realities.

The Greeks in today’s gospel did not go expecting to talk or hear about death. They just want to see Jesus. And who can blame them? Jesus has a pretty good track record up to this point. He has cleansed the temple, turned water into wine, healed a little boy, fed 5000, given sight to the blind, and raised Lazarus from the dead. The gospel does not say why they wanted to see Jesus but we know the desire. We want to see Jesus. I think everybody wanted to see Jesus. We too are not left out we would want to see Jesus. Seeing Jesus makes it all real. We all have our reasons for wanting to see Jesus.

If you want to know your reasons for wanting to see Jesus look at what you pray for. It is often a to do list for God. I want a good job, I want a good house, I want a good car. When in trouble, Lord save me from this. When sick, Lord heal me. You probably know those kind of prayers. We want to see Jesus on our terms. We don’t want to face the pain of loss and death in whatever form it comes. Sometimes we want something from Jesus more than we want Jesus himself. There is a real danger that we will become consumers of God’s life rather than participants in God’s life. We pick and choose what we like and want but we skip over and leave behind what we do not like, want, or understand. Christianity, however, is not a buffet. Christianity means participating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is what Jesus sets before the Greeks who want to see him.

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. If we want to see Jesus then we must look death in the face. To the extent we refuse to acknowledge the reality of death, to the degree we avoid and deny death, we refuse to see Jesus. Really looking at, acknowledging, and facing death is some of the most difficult work we ever do. It is, as Jesus describes, soul troubling. It shakes us to the core.

There is a temptation to want to skip over death and get to resurrection. So it is no coincidence that this week and last week the Church points us towards Holy Week and reminds us that death is the gateway to new life. Death comes first. Death is not always, however, physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. We die a thousand deaths every day. There are the deaths of relationships, marriages, hopes, dreams, careers, health, beliefs. Regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. Resurrection is always hidden within death. There can be, however, no resurrection without a death.

Is death something we can avoid? No way, to the extent we avoid death we avoid life. The degree to which we are afraid to die is the degree to which we are afraid to fully live. Every time we avoid and turn away from death we are proclaiming it stronger than God, more real than life, and the ultimate victor.

The unspoken fear, anxiety or the big dragon as Fr. Ric calls it, and avoidance of death underlies all our “what if” questions.” What if I fail, lose, fall down? What if I get hurt? What if I don’t get what I want? What if I lose that one I most  need and love? Every “what if” question separates and isolates us from life, from God, from one another, and from ourselves. It keeps us from bearing fruit. We just remain a single grain of wheat. We might survive but we aren’t really alive.

Jesus did not ask to be saved from death. He is unwilling to settle for survival when the fullness of God’s life is before him. He knows that in God’s world strength is found in weakness as Paul says when I am week then I am strong, he knows that victory looks like defeat, and life is born of death. This is what allowed him to ride triumphantly, as we are going to see, into Jerusalem, a city that will condemn and kill him. That is what allows us to ride triumphantly through life. Triumph doesn’t mean that we get our way or that we avoid death. It means death is a gateway not a prison and the beginning not the end.

Regardless of who or what in our life has died, God in Christ has already cleared the way forward. We have a path to follow. That path is the death of Jesus. Jesus’ death, however, is of no benefit to us if we are not willing to submit to death, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Ultimately, death, in whatever way it comes to us, means that we entrust all that we are and all that we have to God. We let ourselves be lifted up; lifted up in Christ’s crucifixion, lifted up in his resurrection, lifted up in his ascension into heaven. He is drawing all people to himself, that where he is we too may be. Grains of wheat. That is what we are. Through death, however, we can become the bread of life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains just a single grain.”

In the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.