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When Death Serves Life
John 12: 20-33
LIFE FROM DEATH IN POP SPIRITUALITYThe band of guerillas had nearly completed their rescue mission. They had located the princess and secured her release from prison. Relying on the brazenness of the smuggler Hans Solo and the technological skills of R2D2 the band had maneuvered through the enemy ship to their spacecraft. While this newly formed band of insurgents were fighting the Imperial forces, Obie Wan Konobie walked the corridors of the starship alone in search of his enemy the dreaded Darth Vadar. They finally meet and their lightsabers flash in perilous combat-the Master and the pupil. Obie Wan is no match for his former pupil who has gone over to the dark side. The old man knows that he will not be able to defeat his enemy by conventional combat. He must rely on the secret of the force. Suddenly Obie Wan Knobie senses his opportunity. He lifts his light saber in a defenseless position. With a flash, Darth Vadar strikes the old man and Obie Wan Konobie falls dead.
Luke Skywalker who has been watching from
a distance yells in helplessness. Obie Wan Konobie was to have been his
mentor. He was going to train Luke in the art of the Jedi Knights. Skywalker's
hopes died with Obie Wan's death. But the older Jedi knew the power of
the force when he was a young apprentice watched his master Qui-Gon Jinn
die at the hands of Darth Maul. Ironically, George Lucas' immensely popular
sci-fi movie confines a very Biblical truth-death is the precursor to life1.
This was theme of our Lord's message as he walked to Jerusalem with the
day of his death approaching.
THE GRAIN OF WHEATOur Lord's words were prompted by the request of a group of Gentiles who wanted an audience with him. The whole situation seems rather confusing. Why did the Gentiles have to go through the disciples to get to Jesus? Why did Phillip have to go to Andrew? Did the Greeks ever get to see him? These questions are all good questions but are unanswered by the apostle John. We never find out if the Greeks talk with Jesus. We are never informed of the reason for this complicated chain of command but we do know that their request acted like a trigger on the mind of the Lord.
Up to this point, Jesus had always referred
to his coming death as a future event. The appointed time was always coming.
Even while the conflict with the Jewish authorities was mounting, he would
talk about his hour as a pending appointment but when the Gentiles began
to clamor for his attention a page in his calendar book turned. The hour
moved from the future to the present. Jesus said, "The hour has come for
the Son of Man to be glorified." Before the request by the Greeks, the
scope of our Lord's ministry was limited to the Jewish people. When a Syrophenician
woman came to him asking him to heal her daughter Jesus declined at first.
He tells her that his ministry must focus on the nation of Israel. When
he sends out 72 of his disciples, he tells them not to go into Samaria
but only to the lost sheep of Israel. The request by the Gentiles is the
signal that his ministry to the Jewish nation was drawing to an end. His
time had arrived to be glorified so that he might draw all nations of the
world to the Father. However, before he would receive his honor Jesus knew
that he would first would have to take a downward step. To help his disciples
understand the meaning of this he uses the image of a grain of wheat.
THE TRUTH OF A WHEAT SEEDIn an agrarian society, the image of a seed dying in order to produce fruit would be readily understood. Before spouting, seeds must be buried in the soil. They absorb water from the ground. They do not require very much, even a thin coating of moisture will penetrate the outer husk activating the plant embryo and generating growth. Oxygen is also necessary. The respiratory functions of the seedling increase tremendously at the time of germination. Light is the third component required for growth before the seed that died becomes a miracle of life. While his disciples would have recognized the truth of the grain of wheat, our Lord's application of it to his own life still confused them. Death was the enemy to avoid, to resist, and to struggle against. The thought of their Master dying would have naturally generated great fear in those men.
I am convinced that the fear of death is the source of all apprehensions. For us to deny our fear of death would be to offer a lie. The fear of death is a natural human response. Hope comes from a love for life and a wish not to leave it. All of us naturally fear death. This is not all bad. The fear of death bestows a value, affection, and gratitude for this life. This is why the psalmist writes, "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom." In that prayer the psalmist is asking God to remind him that his days our limited so that he might not take even one day for granted but enjoy each day to its fullest. However, death is the inevitable conclusion of life and the source of our greatest fear.
At the heart of the Christian faith is the message that we do not experience our death alone. Nothing lies outside the experience of God-even death. The church boldly confesses that "In him, [in Jesus] is the fullness of God." The creator of all things, the life of all life has himself undergone that which is most common to all of us not to avoid death but rather to transform it. Like the seed, Jesus died and was buried but he was not destroyed. On the third day, God raised him to new life. In baptism, we participate in the death of Christ. We die with him so that we might live with him.
How this actually occurs is not explained
by the NT. When a church asked Paul "In what body shall the dead rise?"
he wisely avoided a concrete answer. He knew that he did not have a blueprint
for the nature or circumstances of what life with God shall be. Instead
he summarizes it with a general description, "if we live, we live to the
Lord and if we die we die to the Lord: so then, whether we live or whether
we die, we are the Lord's." The apostle Paul understood that life comes
from God, is sustained by God, and in death returns to God.2 His concern
was not in the mechanics but in the response of every disciple to the mysterious
truth, that from death comes life.
DEATH AND DISCIPLESHIPJesus saw that the analogy of the grain of wheat could be exploited in a number of different ways. After he applied it to himself in hopes of teaching his disciples that hope lies beyond the grave, he then employs it to describe a life of discipleship. The application is plain. Anyone who loves his life loses it. The more we cling to the material possession of this world; the more we grasp for the reward and honors in this life, the more we tragically lose the very thing we seek. It is a self-defeating process. To love this life destroys the life we truly want.
There is a fourth century story about a young king who went to visit a saintly desert monk. The old man lived in the desert outside Cairo after the age of persecution. He was one of many who sought to live out the commands of Christ by forsaking the pleasures of the world and selling all that they owned. When the King saw the monk, he dismounted his great stead and approached the man. They stood in silence for a moment and then the king said: "What a wonderful sacrifice you are making!" The monk answered, "What do you mean?" "Your sacrifice is much greater." Startled the King asked, "What do you mean?" The monk answered "Because I have only renounced the passing world, while you, young king have renounced the eternal world."3
The monk and the king are two people whose choices had diametrically opposite results. By choosing to live, the King had chosen to die. By choosing to die to the pleasures of the world, the monk had chosen to live for eternity.
In 1992, the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl with an explosive victory over the Buffalo Bills. Seventy five thousand people gathered on the mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument to cheer their team and Coach. Four days later, Chuck Colson called the Redskins' office to see if any football players could attend a rally at a prison the next day. Many of the players had given their life to Christ. Joe Gibbs the head coach answered the telephone and told Colson that all the players had left the city for a well-deserved rest. With his characteristic humility, Joe Gibbs asked Colson, "Will I do?"
Colson immediately accepted the offer by the coach of the championship Washington Redskins. Five days after winning the Super Bowl, Joe Gibbs could have opened any door in Washington DC but he was willing to walk behind the locked steel doors of the penitentiary for the District of Columbia to speak to men about his faith in Christ.
Joe Gibbs stood up to speak to the cheers,
whistles and applause of 500 prisons five days after he had won the most
prestigious event in pro sports. He told those men:
A lot of people in the world would probably look at me and say: Man, if I could just coach in the Super Bowl, I'd be happy and fulfilled... But I'm here to tell you, it takes something else in your life besides money, position, football, power, and fame. The vacuum in each of our lives can only be filled through a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Otherwise, I'm telling you, we'll spend the rest of our lives in a meaningless existence. I've seen it in football players' eyes, and I've seen it in men who are on their deathbed. There's nothing else that will fill the vacuum.4
AUTOPSIES AT MEDICAL SCHOOLAt a medical school in Paris, surgical beds stand in several rows allowing the medical students to move from one to the other. The room is well lit but a coldness lingers in the air. Above the entrance to the room hangs a sign to remind the students of the purpose of the autopsy room-"This is the place where death serves life."5 The message reminds the medical students that death does not destroy life. It does not undermine hope or negate the wonder and beauty of life. When accepted as necessary for the renewal of life, death is no longer feared and may actually be embraced allowing the disciple to live an unguarded and free life. Life becomes a free gift because death has lost its dominion.
1 Adopted from D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary, gen. Ed. D. A. Carson, (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 438.
2 Adopted from a section of an article in the Christian Century by Joseph Sitler, September 26, 1975 quoted by Glendon E. Harris, "When Death Serves Life," Pulpit Resource, Logos Publications, Vol. 19, No. 1, p. 38, 39.
3 Glendon E. Harris, "Your Best Shot," Pulpit Resource, Logos Publications, Vol. 20, No. 1, p. 40.
4 Chuck Colson, The Body, (Dallas TX: Word, 1992), 377.
5 Harris, "When Death Serves Life," 37.
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