“Rediscovering Who We Are: The Paradox of Death”
John 12: 1-11 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ April 7, 2019
I feel like Easter has come early this year and my heart is filled with joy. I am very happy this morning because I have been finding this Lenten season to be a very deep and rewarding experience serving as your minister. In my observation, so many have gone increasingly deep in their faith explorations once again. And that is an especially good thing in this penitential season. Lent is a uniquely personal season of faith growth where we particularly attend to stripping away all the ‘stuff’ that separates us from God. Lent is a time where we focus on our faith. Some have explored sacrifice: giving up a favourite thing that they regularly enjoy and thereby opening up space for God to enter. Others have taken on a new spiritual practice: prayer, meditation, gratitude, compassion, service ~ and they have been discovering God in new places. Like Jesus walking in the desert for forty days, we too have been walking the Lenten journey exploring and further deepening our faith.
And Now…we are nearing the end. Now…we are preparing to go with Jesus to Jerusalem. Now…we are preparing to re-enter the complex life we live. For Jesus, after his forty days, he was about to enter Jerusalem where the Roman legions would be set up to enforce the peace … flexing Imperial muscle and showing their supremacy. The pilgrims would be constantly reminded of their insignificance. For us, the parallel is that, after Lent, we re-enter a world that will, once again, rally for our loyalty, seducing us away from following God’s Way as expressed in Jesus. So…I must confess that I am not entirely ready to leave this Lenten solitude…this simpler time…this time of prayer. I wonder if I am ready? Am I prepared enough to enter Jerusalem next week? Am I ready to walk through Holy Week with a depth of faith knowing that ‘all will be well? Am I ready to hold the palm branches? Am I ready to meet Jesus in an Upper Room? Am I ready to gather around the cross on a Friday with a faith that knows God will transform it to be “Good”? Am I ready to join the vigil and watch over Saturday’s tomb? Am I ready to be renewed with the sunrise of an Easter morning? You can see the sources of my uncertainty. Perhaps you share my feeling of unpreparedness as well?
There is a theme lifted up in this morning’s scripture that, I think, helps us walk towards the conclusion of Lent in an even deeper way of preparedness, a way that takes us even further beyond our previous week’s considerations of trust, of love, of patience, and of joy. I believe this morning’s text calls us to embrace the spiritual truth of death. That, in order to fully embrace life, we must learn to die before we die. I would like to suggest that this morning’s text calls us to consider the paradox of death: that we must die before we die.
There are, in fact, several paradoxes found in this reading that lead us towards this powerful theme: The first is the physical journey to Jerusalem. As the beginning of the passage lifts up, the Jerusalem pilgrimage was taken as a purification practice for people of faith. It had been done by all the generations in celebration following their Egyptian liberation from slavery. There was a second reason, though, for their journey. They were looking for Jesus. Anticipation was in the air, as the text records: “surely he will come to the festival, will he?”. Will he be there? Will we get to see him? Hear him? Touch him? This festival, of course, was the liberation festival of Passover commemorating God’s protection and liberation as the Hebrew people were freed from Egyptian slavery. The people were coming home to their spiritual centre for purification, for liberation, for…life. It would not be simple though. The religious leaders were preparing to squash the hopes of the people. Jesus had become a problem with his growing popularity, and his raising of Lazarus from the dead was the final straw. The Chief Priest and the Pharisees had given orders for Jesus to be arrested on sight. They would put Jesus away for good; squash the dreams of the people and reclaim their authority.
The paradox occurs when we view the intention behind Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem. While the pilgrims were going to Jerusalem to celebrate liberation in this life; Jesus’ trip would be one that would bring a new liberation that they had not begun to comprehend. It would be one that would ultimately redefine people’s understanding of the scope and depth of life. Jesus would endure the depth of humanity’s cruelty, the darkness of humanity’s oppression and demonstrate how God’s love transforms even the ugliest depths of our humanity. The people’s return to Jerusalem was to celebrate liberation in this life. Jesus’ return to Jerusalem was to create a new form of a liberation of life beyond death. Jesus would soon demonstrate a liberation that reveals that the ways of the world have no power or control over us; a liberation that demonstrates the grace and mercy of God; a liberation that shows the grace of life that continues even beyond death. Jesus arrives anointed for death…a death that paradoxically brings hope, revealing new ways of life never before comprehended. Jesus opens the window to show how we might die before we die. The paradox shown is that the pilgrims arrive to celebrate life; whereas Jesus arrives to liberate death and celebrate a new life for all.
This paradox is further developed in the two supporting characters that we see alongside Jesus: Judas and Mary. Scholars suggest that it is all too simple for us to vilify Judas and beatify Mary, though it is often done. Mary is often viewed as the ‘faithful disciple’. She is the one who ‘gets it’ and knows what is ahead. In anointing Jesus’ feet with ointment and wiping them with her hair, she models the extravagance of God who loves us and cares for us beyond measure. In Jewish ritual, she prepares Jesus for his coming death, which no one, but her, can see coming. Some say that Mary is prophet, a priest and a servant all rolled in one. By contrast, Judas is often referred to as the ‘unfaithful disciple’. His concern is not for the poor. He is concerned how the money spent on the anointing oil would cut into what he would steal from the common purse. Judas bad…Mary good? Not so fast. There is much more to the selection of these characters. When considered together, however, Judas and Mary provide a paradoxical combination for the nature of discipleship. The incredible range of Judas’ and Mary’s characters reassures us of the range of who Jesus’ disciples are. Jesus way of grace includes both Judas the betrayer and Mary the Saint. And goodness knows we have been both throughout the course of our lifetime. To take this further, Karl Barth, a theologian of the last century, writing on the doctrine of election ~ essentially who is in ‘God’s favour ~ devoted 10% of his 500 page book to the redemptive significance of Judas. Judas’ presence is important for all of us who are not perfect. Barth writes that “Judas is an elect and called apostle of Jesus Christ”. I think Judas and Mary represent the polarity of disciples that are called to follow Jesus ~ sinners and saints. Mary prophetically knew of Jesus’ coming death. She prepared him for it ~ loving him into the next that she knew was there for him. Mary was as close to perfect as one can be. And Jesus called her a disciple.
Judas was at the opposite end of the continuum. He stole. Later on he even his guilt caused him to take his own life. Judas was not the only imperfect disciple though. Peter, the one Jesus would call “the rock on whom he would build his church” would deny Jesus three times. And I suspect that in the regrets of our own hearts, we all can count the number of times that we have denied Jesus, denied our faith, and been less-than Mary-like in our discipleship. The paradox found in these two disciples is that in the scope between these two people, we begin to sense the immeasurable grace of God. A God whose love is not for reserved for the perfect, but a God whose love is for the last and the lost, the perfect and the flawed, and all those in between. I love this paradox found in the discipleship of Judas and Mary for it gives us hope for our own lives…and the future of creation. Dying before we die allows us to know forgiveness from the past, allowing those ways to die, creating an opportunity for new life to be born in the future. To allow the ‘Judas’ in us to die and to allow the Mary in us to be born.
I think that this story draws us into a depth of faith that encourages us to die before we die ~ to put some ways to death and allow new ways to be born…Now. What is it about the extravagant faith of a Jesus follower which allows us to offer things which so quickly seem to die? Or maybe they have not died at all? A choir’s anthem offered over three minutes until the last note is sung and the choir is seated…comes to an end…or does it? A teacher’s lesson prepared so carefully…offered so selflessly comes to an end as the bell rings…or does it? Grace said at a dinner table…concluding with an ‘Amen’…ends…or does it? Flowers placed in memory at a cemetery…cut from their stem placed at a graveside until they wilt and die…or do they? For John, there is an abundance wherever Jesus is present. An abundance of loaves and fish for a hungry crowd of thousands; an abundance of water turned into wine for celebratory wedding guests; an abundance of life that continues beyond what we knew as death. The theology behind dying before we die is a depth of faith that allows us to know that there is more to come. It is that kind of inner knowing that prompts the caterpillar to spin about a hiding place from which it will die and later emerge with the delicate, iridescent wings of the butterfly. And so, as we prepare to go home to our spiritual centre of Jerusalem, may we have the faith to die before we die.