“Live and Let Die”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
March 18, 2018
University Baptist Church
Our scriptural journey is leading us closer and closer to Jesus’ ultimate and final encounter with worldly power. His disciples are getting increasingly paranoid, with good reason. This cannot end well, they deduce. Jesus is getting too close to Roman and Jewish leadership. He’s questioning their morals, their motivations. They have enlisted special counsels to expose Jesus as a fraud, but the more they push back, the more followers he gets. They are closing in on an ultimate solution to their problem. That’s what’s happening when we get to this portion of Scripture.
The setting is the Passover feast. This is the time of year when people from across the region return to Jerusalem to remember when the angel of death once passed over the Hebrew people, enabling them to escape their four hundred years of Egyptian slavery. Each year the faithful come to Jerusalem, the final resting place of the ark of the covenant that symbol of God’s deliverance and law, stored in the secret chambers of the temple. The gold box holds the fragments of Moses’ tablets hauled down from Mount Sinai inscribed with the holy words of God. The holy words about getting along with each other, honoring your family, not lying, cheating and stealing needed to be remembered—especially on Passover.
Each year, after making the obligatory stop at the temple for their purchased sacrifice, they go to family homes for the ritualized meal. Each portion of the meal symbolizes a piece of their journey from slavery to freedom. Their tables always have an empty place reserved for Elijah, the prophet who is said to visit when it is time for the Messianic age to begin and bring them another deliverer. Order would finally be restored, peace and holiness for the whole land. The people were waiting for this kind of event to occur. And the people wondered if Jesus was the one, the savior, the anointed one, the child of all humanity prophesied long ago.
As the scripture opens, Greeks worshipping at the Passover festival requested an audience with Jesus. He’s is attracting international attention, just like he did when he was born and eastern astronomers wanted to see him. They asked to meet with him. Jesus ignores the request, saying that the hour has come for the son of humanity to be glorified. That’s an odd response to a simple request. Maybe the time for questioning was done. He’s even talking of himself in the third person. When that happens, the time for dialogue is over. Jesus never speaks to them. How rude…
But the hour may well have been ushered in by the international visitors. Jesus’ fame had spread beyond the borders and if one small man and a ragtag bunch of followers could muster such attention and threaten Rome’s control on Israel, then nation-states across the Roman Empire could fall. Something had to be done to keep the “peace.”
But Jesus never said, “I am the Messiah.” He never let the people believe that his life was any more special than theirs. Everyone who had pursued this kind of messianic quest had been killed and their followers scattered. Jesus knew this would be the same for him. So Jesus says another one of his maddening reversals:
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Try to get your brain around that statement. It gives a different twist on the common reversal of the first shall be last and the last shall be first. That’s easier to understand. But if you hate this life, why would you want a life you hate for eternity? Doesn’t sound attractive to me. How literal is Jesus being? How literal do we take many of this things Jesus says?
Hatred of life in this world is to get eternal life. Would this be the life you hate for eternity? Not the best evangelistic metaphor, Jesus.
Okay, so maybe hating this life is the same as giving up on one way of life in favor of another. The result is eternal life. But this little eternal life equation seems a bit self-serving to me. Jesus was always other-serving. This seems out of character for Jesus.
I think Jesus is fed up. He doesn’t have time to parse out things. He gives us a reversal and says hate the things in this life that are worth hating. Love the things that are worth loving.
What does he mean when he says hating this life?
It’s a metaphor.
What are the kinds of things that Jesus hates?
Collusion with evil
Policies that keep the rich rich and the poor poor
Maybe some of those thou shalt nots written on those stone tablets
The way we set up barriers between us.
The fear and despair in which too many of us wallow.
Yes, Jesus says to get rid of these things. Hate these things and you will have life worth living.
What in this life would Jesus love?
Wind, what he called Spirit
When people really love each other and are truthful with each other.
That’s what’s worth living for. Let the other things die away.
Walter Wink calls the world, a world bent on violence. Jesus says that he is not of this world, this violent system. Therefore, he will not respond with violence. He won’t be a warrior messiah. He’ll give up his life so that people might be willing to embrace a new way of being.
I like the way Eugene Peterson translates this passage: “Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
Jesus makes it real when he introduces a horticultural metaphor. As the snow melts and we see tulips breaking through their winter dormancy, it seems real. “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.”
Throughout scripture there are many seed parables. Life and death are there in the plants as are the change of seasons.
I see this in our maple trees. Each year they lose their leaves, slowly dying away as fall turns to winter. They cannot produce the sap unless the tree has appeared dead—winter hibernation. But right about now, their internal thermostats go off and say, it might be safe to try this life thing again. The sap stored deep down in the roots climbs back to it’s summer home in the branches, giving new life to flowers, leaves, little helicopter seed wings and eventually a canopy for the ecosystem above and below it. We take a small part of the nectar to get us through the eleven months of the year when we can’t get pure maple syrup.
There is something about the figurative dying which brings us life.
Back in 2002, I was working with Soulforce, a movement of people of faith that use nonviolent tactics to change hearts and minds over issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. I was chairing the team that was protesting at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual meeting in St. Louis, MO. At one of our trainings, Arun Gandhi came to speak with us. Arun is the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. He called our work, holy and important work. One night he told us a parable similar to the one Jesus just said. He said that we can have a beautiful harvest. He told us that we can take the very best seed and put it on a shelf. We admire the seed, ponder its complexity, revel in its creative nature, even remember the wonderful fruit that it produced. Often times we can put that on a shelf and over the years it collects dust. Even though we give it honor.
He said that we ought to remember that a seed is no good if it is by itself on a shelf. It needs to be mingled with the earth, with rain and dew and soil and grit. Only then can it bear its true purpose. He then said that we are all seeds. And if we dare to get ourselves dirty, we can make something hopeful grow, but only if we are willing to take the risk of taking the seed off the shelf. “To be successful with anything in life, you have to plant the seed, cultivate and let it grow in the elements, help it to blossom and then it will multiply, but if you keep it to yourself, nothing will change. Likewise if someone has found peace and keeps it locked up in their heart, it would perish with them. If they interact with peace, it would sprout and grow and very soon we will have a whole world of peacemakers.” Gandhi said his grandfather encouraged him to become a peace farmer.
“So the key to peaceful nonviolence and change in the world is to spread the seed.” So at our commissioning service later that weekend, we gave each other seeds as symbols of our commitment to planting seeds of justice and truthfulness.
So what are you willing to live for?
Have you found something worth dying for?
As you witness the melting of the snow, the donning of short sleeves and pants, as you see the tulip bulbs break forth, as you see the trees bud, contemplate what long dormant muscles you might use this season. What ugliness will you eschew? What beauty will you celebrate? What’s below the surface itching to break forth?
This week, thousands of students left their classrooms and marched to the capital to make their voices heard about gun safety. It was a stunning sight that happened across this nation. It’s one that will be repeated this coming weekend in Washington, DC. Deidre Druk wrote about her class’s reaction to this and I’d like to close with the hopeful words of her students who want to live and thrive:
My third period students as well as all of Battle Creek Middle school participated in the National Walk-out by 'Sitting-in'. Our WEB (Where We All Belong student leaders) planned the program. We watched a 17 minute video in remembrance of the shooting victims from the Marjory Stoneman School in Florida and then our students wrote down what they would do to bring more kindness into our part of the world. They did this by finishing the sentence, "Today, I will........" on a bright yellow strip of paper that will be posted in our hallways. My students were completely silent in reverence during the 17 minute video. Then they filled out sentences that said things like, "I will give my lunch to someone who is hungry." " I will not only say hi to someone who is alone, but I ask them to join my group." and many other very beautiful, heartfelt statements! I am very proud of them all and was very happy to tell them about my enthusiasm for protesting (in all its forms)!
Jesus encouraged us to reverse ourselves when death begets death. We are to live in a way that begets life, safety and peace. This comes from taking the very best parts of ourselves and accentuating them to the end that our better, God-given natures of goodness prevail. When we do that, then we have life that lives beyond us. May it be so.