This morning we begin our celebration of Holy Week, remembering and reenacting the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. Once again, it is Passover, for the third time in gospel of John. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, which is the final straw for the religious authorities. They are afraid that Jesus is going to lead a rebellion against Rome and that many people will follow him. Rome dealt with rebellion swiftly and cruelly, taking what little the Jewish people had left. The Jewish religious authorities decide it’s better for one man to die than for the nation to be destroyed, so they begin to plot Jesus’ death in earnest.
Meanwhile, six days before Passover, Jesus returns to the home of Lazaraus and Martha and Mary. During dinner, Mary kneels at Jesus feet, anointing them with expensive perfume and wiping them with her hair, an extravagant act of honor and devotion. Let’s pick up the story in John chapter 12 verse 9.
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, at the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were trusting in Jesus.
The next day the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!”
Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it; as it is written:
“Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”
His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done to him. So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him. The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, 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. 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. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, trust in the light, so that you may become children of light.”John 12:9-36
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This is the day we begin our reenacting and remembering, which raises the questions, “What are we reenacting and remembering and why do we do it?” Oftentimes life doesn’t make sense in the moment. Oftentimes we can only understand the true significance of an event when we look back on it. I’m sure you know what I mean. You can’t see how things fit together when you’re in the middle of it. But when you look back, you see what was happening. Perhaps you’d even say that you see what God was doing.
That is the experience that the disciples have on Palm Sunday. Verse 16 says Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand what was happening as it happened, but after he was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven, when they looked back, when they remembered what was written in the Old Testament prophets and what happened to Jesus, then they understood. This is what makes Holy Week so interesting to me. We are simultaneously reenacting events, trying to experience them as Jesus’ and the disciples experienced them, and also remembering them from the perspective of knowing what happens at the end.
I suggest to you that one way we can look back on this, one perspective we can take as we reenact and remember is that this is all about the power of death versus the power of life. That’s a theme all the way through John’s gospel. The gospel starts by saying that in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. What came into being through the Word was Life and Light for all people. Life. Jesus the Word Made Flesh is the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, and the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus is life. Life with Jesus is true life. Trusting in Jesus opens for us the doorway to transcendent life, life that gives deep meaning to all our ordinary activities and empowers us to extraordinary things when the moment calls for it. Life.
In opposition to Life is Death. Not just dying, but Death. Death the ultimate scarcity, which drives all our bad decisions. The fear of Death leads us to cling to privilege and property and power. Death, the great unknown, the thing that at our core, we are most afraid of and so we run from it any way we can. Death is a power, a force, because the threat of Death is what we use to try to control people. The power of empire, the power of the political state in our world, is the power of death. The ultimate thing you can take from someone is their life.
Let me sum up the gospel of John for you this way: relationship with the Source through Jesus, relationship with the Father through the Son, to use John’s language, is available to each and every person. When we live in relationship with the divine, we will not fear death. The experience of eternal life here and now overcomes our earthly fear of scarcity and our ultimate fear of dying. To live transcendently means to live so completely and securely in God’s love that we are not intimidated by anything else because we trust that Life overcomes Death. That’s the message of Holy Week.
Jesus proves this to us and he invites us to join him in it. When he is crucified, Jesus allows himself to be killed, to be destroyed by other people’s fear of death, to die rather than be the catalyst for a rebellion that would kill thousands. Jesus is not afraid of death and so he chooses to die. The one small statement we heard today where Jesus says, “My soul is troubled,” that’s the only time in this gospel that he seems even the littlest bit disturbed by what’s about to happen. In this story there’s no agony, no sweating blood. Jesus specifically says that he’s NOT going to ask to get out of this, because he is confident that what is about to happen is going to prove once and for all who God is and what God values. God is Life, and so Jesus chooses to die because he’s not afraid of Death. (Come back next week and we’ll see what happens after he dies.) Jesus proves to us that he does not fear death.
And Jesus invites us to join him, to be joined to him, to abide in him so deeply that we also don’t fear the power of death in the world. The key to this is in what we read this morning. Let me read it to you again: “Very truly, 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. 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. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”
When we stop fearing death, we will bear much fruit. When we stop grasping at our privilege and property and power as a way to avoid thinking about dying, when we stop that, we will experience transcendent life. To follow Jesus is to serve Jesus, to be where he is, and that is the kind of life that God values, that God longs to see us experience and share. The message of the Gospel is designed to shape followers of Jesus who will not be intimidated. That is what we are remembering and reenacting this week. The victory of Life over Death. Amen.