Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday

  1. Passion Sunday.21 “What Dies With Jesus” John 12:20-43

Jesus says that “whoever loves his life loses it(!), and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.(!)” But do you think Jesus really means all that stuff? Maybe He’s exaggerating? I mean, churches have been mostly empty this past year, while hospitals and quarantine zones were jam-packed. One might think it’d be the opposite way around, if we took him straight up?

He says on the death thing: “Truly, truly I say to you: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

If we consider carefully what exactly dies with Jesus on the cross, maybe we will see what it is that rises from death to live forever with Him. And seeing how lousy the things are that die with Jesus on the cross, and how good, true, and beautiful is that which rises from the dead with Him, we just might be drawn into this whole dying-to-live-Xn-cross-business of Jesus, ourselves! I mean, I’m all in. And if someone as generally selfish and mean-spirited as I naturally am can come to love the cross and follow Jesus, it will surely be much easier for all of you who’re much nicer!

Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic (and prophetic!) 1981 book “After Virtue” shows how since the “Enlightenment”—really, ever since the 18th century—the West has been lost, captured by barbarians who replace the ancient Greek-Christian-Medieval virtues of truth, courage, and justice with deceit, cowardice, and corruption—basically calling good evil, and evil good.

One misconception: the ancients didn’t think virtues were rules to follow—like the best rule-follower would win a prize, get servants, free beer, float on the clouds, and order everyone around, forever. No, they saw being truthful, courageous, and just as simply what Divine Life involves. They figured: if God is Good, then evil must be courageously opposed (even, especially, the evil in ourselves!); if God is True, then lies must, by truthfulness, be banished; if God is Beautiful, then the ugly must just be renovated.

The high middle ages were a different time, you understand: Back then, kings and knights and beautiful ladies went on grail quests, took back Jerusalem, built kingdoms, gorgeous cathedrals (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem, or Notre Dame de Paris). They left magnificent stories (often, like Mallory’s Morte de Arthur, written in prison), poetry that sets our minds on heaven, fires the imagination, helps us see life as a grand and dangerous adventure.

Modernists, by contrast, figure out new ways to shut down society, obsess over safety, invent new drugs, Office Spaces. We (idiocratically) burned Notre Dame down, and appear incapable of ever rebuilding. We leave mounds of medical records, tax forms, trillions of dollars of paper money. When Thomas Aquinas was my age, he’d been dead 7 years and left behind the Summa Theologica. I think the medievals were like Roy in Blade Runner: their star may have burned half as long, but it shined twice as bright.

MacIntyre and Co. think that maybe by comparing our world to theirs, we can get a little of that holy hate going, as Christ commends; maybe turn this thing around?

But why is it necessary that Jesus lay down His life—suffer, and die(!) for us and share His dying with usto turn this thing around? Well… because, as the ancient Greek philosophers and medieval Christians realized: deceit, cowardice, and corruption are like viruses (to choose a random, but perhaps timely example?) which infect us all and destroy the Good Life. Some kind of vaccine or cure is needed for all so affected. And how would we get that?!

C.S. Lewis uses this very analogy in “Mere Christianity”, saying sin is basically a virus and the Death of Christ begins what he calls “The Good Infection”. He notes there is no other way for us to share the Good Life of the Triune God than by taking our place in that dance that ever goes on between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Lewis says:

“There is no other way to the happiness for which we are made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm, you must stand near the fire; if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not like prizes which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry…”

That fountain flows from the cross of Jesus Christ; and this week we mean to journey right to the very source, ourselves.

This is what dies with Jesus on the cross: first, deceit. The devil conned Adam and Eve that by looking out for number 1, pursuing our own knowledge of good and evil, we could get beyond good and evil (like Nietzsche!) and simply be gods, ourselves. And that is what brought death to us all—the infection of sin. The devil is a liar and the father of it, Jesus says. And he lies only in order to kill and destroy. By dying on the cross, Jesus reveals the Truth: death is nothing but a thing. It simply kills—like a high fever!—the virus of sin, thus leaving us open to be filled with the Truth—which is: that it’s only by dying with Christ Jesus that we live forever and become truthful, ourselves…

Which is why cowardice is the second thing that dies with Jesus on the cross. Jesus and Paul warn that fear is the real thing that kills. In Luke 21, Jesus says fear of the things coming on the earth, the shaking of the powers of heaven, our hiding from that is what really brings the world to an end! FDR was right about that “only thing we have to fear…” thing. Seeing that death is defeated by Jesus, that He rises stronger and more glorious on the third day, frees us from the fear of death that keeps us from Real Life. Dying with Jesus makes us courageous

Which leads us to the third thing that dies on the cross with Jesus: corruption. Corruption is not just crooked, criminal, [*cough*] Cuomo. Corruption is what the ancients called death—that corrupts and destroys! But by suffering death’s corruption, Jesus reverses the flow and His blood is the fountain that justifies us all…

I read an interesting article a few months ago in The New Yorker on phages: these are bacteria that actually destroy viruses against which even the strongest antibiotics are powerless. And phages are best grown with waste from sewage plants! Gross, but if it works…?

Jesus’ death is a phage: it is terrible, awful, no-good, disgusting. It is what we, quite naturally fear and would do anything to avoid. But it’s also the Great Reversal. It is the phage that destroys the virus of sin, death, and hell. It is the dirt that builds our immune system—that makes us clean, strong, impervious.

“There is a fountain filled with blood…” so the hymn goes; unless we’re wet with that, there’s no life in us. Because we are all horribly infected, like zombies, really, with deceit, cowardice, and corruption. But these are the first things to die with Jesus on the cross(!), so… why not come up and git you some of that? (IT’s here, now, for you, at His Table!). IT’s the best, fastest, indeed the only Way to the truth, courage, and justice that is Life, Peace, surpassing all understanding, in Christ Jesus. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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