Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
Although it is healthy, our fear of death can become toxic. It is our fear of death can make us greedy as we look to our own wellbeing at the expense of others; it can create war and violence as we perceive others to be a threat to us; it can create xenophobia and hate when we fear that the inclusion of others will cause us to lose our own collective identity. Our fear of death in all its forms ironically does not prevent death, but only drives us to create more death.
This is the problem of death that God first sought to correct with the covenant to Israel forged on Sinai. God saw Israel languishing in slavery and rescued them, reformed them from a bunch of slaves into a faithful nation, bringing them into a new homeland so they could establish a society where everyone would know and trust God, and no one would have to fear death. In order to do that, God brought them empty-handed into the wilderness and gave them everything—even manna and quail for food and water from a dry rock—so that they would know that God would provide for them. The power God displayed in the 10 plagues and at the Red Sea proved that God was more powerful than the Pharaoh, the mighty Egyptian army, all the myriad gods of Egypt, and even Mother Nature herself—a promise that God could defend them from anyone who would do them harm.
In short, God showed the Israelites the incredible power and strength at God’s disposal to reassure them that, no matter what, God would protect them. In spite of the unbelievable power God showed to protect and sustain Israel, they turned away from God to worship the Ba’als, these other gods who promised to bring rain, to increase wealth, to give them children, and other things they didn’t trust God enough to do alone.
When Israel broke the Sinai covenant, instead of abandoning them, God remained faithful. It was clear that while a show of power and strength is what we want, it will not teach us to trust God; so God decided to try something else, to take a new approach. God decided to make a new covenant. “'It will not be like the covenant they broke, though I was their husband,’ says the LORD. ‘They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.’” God’s new covenant is not based on the use of force or the demonstration of power, but on simple love and forgiveness.
In our experience, these are not the kinds of things that inspire confidence; instead, these are the kinds of things that display weakness, that allow others to take advantage of us. Nonetheless, this is the promise God makes to us: not to destroy the armies that threaten us or punish the disobedient with eternal hellfire, but rather to allow Godself to be abandoned and abused again and again, responding to every insult and injury with mercy.
To us, this is not strength, but weakness. We have seen firsthand too many times that such behavior only invites death; and so our fear of death compels us to reject this new covenant. A God who would offer love and forgiveness to the worst of the worst is a God who is too naïve, too weak to protect us from the power of death.
And yet this God is anything but naïve; this God has taken on flesh and lived among us. As a human being, pain and suffering and loss have taught Jesus the same lessons we all learn: that if we don’t look out for ourselves, nobody will; that only the strong survive; that the early bird gets the worm. He has also graduated from the school of hard knocks, and he has the scars to prove it. What sets him apart, what allows him to recognize these lies for what they are, is that while he is fully human, he is also the Son of God. He knows God’s mind and God’s heart in a way that we never have; he knows what God has intended for us from the very beginning and what God has planned for the rest of history. He is the perfect intermediary between God and us—the Great High Priest, as it were—the only one who is able to bridge the gap between God and humanity so that each may fully know the other.
As the Great High Priest, he is able to fully know both the anxieties of humankind and the promises of the Most High God, and his experience of each allows him to speak with confidence the reassurances of the one into the fears of the other. As the Great High Priest, he alone is able to save us. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “having been made whole through his experience of human suffering, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who follow him.”
If all you get out of this is that God will always love you, no matter what, fine. That’s good news, and good enough to walk away with; but there’s more. Jesus didn’t die to say “God loves you,” Jesus died to give us eternal life, and as Pr. Stephanie said last week, eternal life is not life after death; or if it is, that’s not all it is—that’s just the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae. Eternal life is life as God always intended it to be. It is life free from violence and fear, life which builds itself up rather than tearing itself apart. It is the life that God offers to us here and now, because eternal life can’t be eternal if it doesn’t also include the present.
Eternal salvation means being rescued here and now and for all time from the fear of death that causes us to grasp and cling to life. Eternal salvation is the realization that what we call life is no life at all, but merely the absence of death. Our struggle to protect ourselves and our tribe from death is as silly as if a grain of wheat were to fight and claw its way out of the earth. Unless the grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. The grain is designed (for lack of a better word) to die, and in so dying it experiences life which has no beginning and no end—life that is truly eternal.
Just as the purpose of the grain is to die and produce a new stalk of wheat, we, too have a purpose: to do the good works that God has prepared for us beforehand. (Eph 2.10) When we allow our fear of death to keep us from fulfilling our purpose, we are already dead; but when we reverently submit to the will of God as Jesus did, we will find that we have already been given eternal life through Christ. Eternal life cannot be ended, it can only be changed. Following Jesus will change our lives: sometimes for good, sometimes for ill, but always for God’s purposes and always to help establish God’s reign on earth.
Following Jesus and living lives ruled by love and forgiveness does make us more vulnerable; it makes us less safe and easier to abuse. The world sees mercy and compromise as a sign of weakness, but these things are how God has chosen to be made known to us. Jesus’ love for us and for God got him killed, but instead of death being his ending, it ended up being his glorification. In his love and forgiveness, he became the embodiment of God’s new covenant, so that through him we can have a full relationship with God. This is what we mean when we lift up the cup at the table and say that this cup is the new covenant in his blood. The sign of the old covenant was the blood of soldiers spilled in the sand far away in Egypt, but the sign of this new covenant is the blood of God’s own son, poured out willingly for us. It is not somewhere far away, but ever near. We drink it every week; it is a part of us.
Everybody dies from something, but if by dying we can bring the world into relationship with God like he did, then death is not death at all—death becomes just another part of eternal life. Because of the love and forgiveness of our Great High Priest, we, too, can help others to know God—not through strength and fear, but through love and forgiveness. Even in death, Christ lives; and baptized into his death and fed on his life, we live with him eternally. “Where I am, there my servant will be also,” Jesus says. That is a promise not just for someday when we die, but for right here, right now.