ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 18, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
LIFE THROUGH DEATH
Ezekiel 37: 1 – 14; John 12: 20 – 32
A teacher asked the children in her grade one Sunday School class, “What do you have to do to get to heaven?” The children sat quietly, so the teacher aksed, “If I sold my house and car, had a big garage sale and gave all my money to the church, would I get into heaven?” “NO!” the children answered. “If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would I get into heaven?”
Again, the answer was “NO!” “Well,” she continued, “what do I have to do to get to heaven?” There was a pause and a boy called out, “You gotta die!” I think the answer the teacher wanted was, as St. Paul put it “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) but I must admit the child wasn’t entirely wrong.
In speaking of his own impending death, Jesus said, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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” (John 12: 23 & 24). Jesus was preparing his disciples for his arrest, crucifixion and death. His message was: if I go to the cross and die, then new life will burst forth yielding more fruit than they could imagine. The disciples may have been confused but from our side of history we see that through Jesus’ death came resurrection life, not only for Jesus but for every believer since – millions of us, an unimaginable yield. And through Jesus’ death came The Church. Jesus’ death planted a seed that emerged from the dirt as a little shoot which grew into a massive, living, world-wide organism. Life comes through death.
In the same way, the only path to an abundant spiritual life is through a spiritual death, physical death is nearly always painful; spiritual death also comes at a price. Jesus quickly turned his illustration about his own death into words of wisdom for his disciples. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12: 25 & 26). This story has taken a bad turn – lose my life? Hate my life? Follow Jesus? Where? To death? To the cold, dark, dirt of the ground? But that’s the message: “…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain”. If we want to live fully, to make an impact and to have our lives count for something, death is the only route that will get us to our destination.
When my son was about 3, he asked, “Mommy, what’s death?” Not wanting to scare him yet wanting to give him an honest answer he could understand, I said, “Death is when your body stops breathing.” But, what is spiritual death? Spiritual death has many components. First, it’s dying to our old assumptions and to our set ways of seeing things. It’s unlearning what we think we know and opening ourselves to see things differently. This may include the lies we’ve been told, particularly as children – that we’re not good, smart or loveable enough. It may include lies we’ve been told like: you will never survive on your own. I knew a woman whose husband beat her, landing her in the hospital with broken bones. I encouraged her not to go back to him, her response was, “A woman is nothing without a man.” A very sad lie that she had absorbed at a young age. Or it may mean breaking old habits and learning new ones. Along the way many of us have had prejudices of one sort or another broken down – we’ve come to view people as individuals valued by God. We opened our hearts to more people. It may mean we mature in our faith. Many people who went to Church as kids, stopped going as young adults. Their understanding is stunted and their relationship with God is tenuous. One such belief would be: God exists to give me what I want. A more mature attitude is that we exist to serve God and answer to his calling in our lives. We may need to relearn our understanding of sin. If I asked you what sin looks like, you may say, “being unkind, getting angry or being selfish”. But in the right circumstances sin may be just the opposite: Jesus was nasty when he cleared the temple; in the face of horrible injustice and abuse it’s a sin not to be angry; and to be so selfless or self-abasing that we let people walk on us is a sin of self-disrespect. We also need to relearn the stories we’ve told ourselves – that we’re doomed, helpless victims, instead of people who share in Christ’s resurrection life. We may need to unlearn despair and re-learn hope and joy. We have had to re-learn how to care for the earth. In the mission field we’ve unlearned the practice of doing things for people while imposing our culture on them and learn how to partner with them in their efforts to become self-sustaining. Letting go of old practices and viewpoints is a form of self- reflection and repentance. We turn from the thought patterns that shape our behaviour keeping us stuck and dead and re-learn the truth from God’s perspective.
Spiritual death requires dying to self. Everyone of us has a true self and a façade self – the mask we put on to hide from or impress others. If we consistently live as this false self we cannot become our authentic self – the person God created us to be. Paul would refer to this false self as our lower nature, the flesh or the old Adam. Freud talked about the ego – the “I” that we present to the world. Our ego self is too busy “faking it” to impact or bless the world. Jesus came so we could have life in abundance. Unless that false sense goes into the ground and dies, our new, fully alive self can’t grow and bear fruit. The spiritual death of our false self brings maturity. We die to our self-pity, our touchiness, our inability to speak the truth in love, our manipulations, the games we play, and our sentimentality. Christians today can’t afford such childish behaviours and indulgences. We need to find our strength and to live from a solid place where, connected to Christ, we rise above pettiness to be ambassadors for Christ. We need to live like the new creations we are. A businessman was selling a warehouse that was in very poor repair. As he gave a tour to a perspective buyer, he promised to fix the broken windows, get a new HVAC system, and clean out the garbage. The buyer said, “Don’t bother, I’m going to tear it down and build new. I want the land.” God doesn’t want our damaged, trash filled egos, he wants our souls so he can rebuild us into something altogether new.
Spiritual death is giving up the need and desire to be the master of our lives. We like to be in control and call the shots. We want things our way. Like Adam and Eve, we don’t like being told what to do; we want to find out for ourselves. Submission requires us to place ourselves under God’s control and yield to his will. It’s surrender. We give up and let God have his way with us. We let go and fall helplessly, like a seed to the ground. In the Rockefeller Center in New York is a gigantic statue of Atlas, a muscular man straining to hold the world on his shoulders. There he is, the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand up under this burden. On the other side of Fifth Avenue is Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, and there behind the high altar is a little statue of Jesus, perhaps eight or nine years old. With no effort he’s holding the world in one hand. Spiritual death is letting go of our need to carry the world on our shoulders. When we say, ‘I give up, Lord; here’s my life. I give you my world’ we move through that death into new life.
What is true for us on a personal level is also true for the Church. We must die to our faithlessness, our despair and our lack of vision. In 587 BC Israel hit a low point in its history. The strong Babylonian army had wiped out the entire measly Israelite army. The temple was destroyed. The capital city was razed. Many of the people were killed, others were dragged in chains back to Babylon and the rest were starving in dire poverty. Mothers boiled their own children for food (Lamentations 4:10). The Jews lamented they were as good as dead. They were sure they had been left by God to rot in the desert sun until there was nothing left of them but a field of dry bones. In many ways, this is a picture of the Church in the West today. Many congregations are dead, others are enslaved to their traditions and buildings and some are struggling to get by. But even in healthier congregations like ours, there’s despair. Lately I’ve heard many people saying things like, “As we get smaller…” and “When there’s no one left…” and “we’re all so old” which I take to mean we’re nearing the end. I find this disturbing on many levels. In the last few years we’ve lost some key members and that has, naturally, brought with it a sense of grief. Those losses created a vacuum in leadership. We’re in a period of transition and that’s never easy. At the same time, these shifts have caused us to think outside the box and they’ve created space for new volunteers to step up, which is happening. What disturbing about this is that we’re losing perspective as well as hope. We are seeing doom and gloom and not acknowledging the consistent stream of new people who our becoming part of our Church family. Not only that, for a smaller congregation, we’re a mighty force. One of our members who was away for the winter returned and remarked on how amazed she was by how much is happening here. My brother was impressed by the activity level of our congregation. God is still blessing us and rather than being thankful and excited about our blessings, we’re lacking the vision to see them. We’re losing faith and when people lose faith, they start to act faithlessly. We need to die to our negativity. In 587 BC, God brought the prophet Ezekiel out to the desert to view a valley of dry bones. God asked Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wasn’t sure, but he trusted in God’s providence and power. God told him to prophesy to the bones. Ezekiel spoke words of faith and hope. Then the bones came together, sinews formed, flesh and skin came on the bones and they began to march like a great army. Life comes through death.
If the death of Christ teaches us anything, it’s that the very essence of God is to take what is dead and make it alive again. Like seeds falling into the ground, we need to die to the things we think we know, to our false and fragile self and to our willful stubbornness. Like a seed falling into the ground we need to die to our pessimism, our cynicism, our blindness and our disbelief. When we do, new life will burst from those graves yielding more fruit than we can ever imagine.