Overcoming the Fear of Death


Filed under: Pastor Jeff’s Sermons
A sermon preached on March 19, 2018 based upon John 12:20-33.

Our Gospel lesson requires an introduction; otherwise you may find yourself totally lost at sea as you hear it. Part of the reason for this is that this year the lectionary mostly follows Mark’s Gospel, but it makes these occasional detours into the Gospel of John. The last of the four Gospels to be written, it can seem like we are entering an altogether world with John’s Gospel.

The Jesus you get here can seem less human than the one you get in the other three Gospels. It’s easy to get caught up in the question which Jesus is the “real Jesus”, but it’s better to appreciate we’re getting different perspectives on what God has revealed in Jesus, and try and listen to what each Gospel writer is trying to tell us.

Death is a major theme in John’s Gospel. It is only in John’s Gospel that we hear the famous story of the raising of Lazarus. That takes place in chapter 11, the one immediately before the chapter our reading this morning comes from.

You may remember the story. Mary and Martha send word to Jesus who is several days journey away that their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, is deathly sick. Please come and save him from death!

Oddly, when Jesus receives their message, he intentionally takes his sweet time before making the requested trip. Though he loves Lazarus, he seems strangely unconcerned that he is near death. Mary, Martha and Lazarus live in Bethany which is just outside of Jerusalem. In John’s Gospel Jesus has made an earlier trip to Jerusalem where he drove out the money changers from the Temple. When Jesus announces to his disciples that they are going to Lazarus, the disciples are alarmed because there are people in that region who want Jesus dead. To the disciples, going to Bethany means going to die, and they aren’t too happy about that.

But nonetheless they go to Bethany and by the time they get there, Lazarus has been dead several days and his corpse buried in a tomb. The sisters Mary and Martha are grief-stricken and angry with Jesus for taking so long to get there. In response he says, “I am the resurrection and I am life. He who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

Jesus goes to the tomb where people are mourning Lazarus’ death. Seeing them, Jesus begins to weep. Why does he weep? The usual notion is that he too is grieving for Lazarus, and maybe so. But it seems more likely that he weeps because he is saddened by the way people are bullied by death.

Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, back to life, which causes quite a sensation.

That’s chapter 11. At the beginning of chapter 12 it is now just six days before the Passover festival – the day in John’s Gospel that Jesus dies. Jesus is reclined at table at a dinner party hosted by Mary and Martha. Lazarus is there.

At some point in the evening Mary comes to Jesus with a jar of expensive alabaster ointment which she breaks open, filling the house with a beautiful fragrance of the perfume, and weeping tears of love, she anoints Jesus’ feet.

Judas gets mad. What a waste! Why wasn’t the expensive perfume sold and the money given to the poor. A good question. Jesus rebukes Judas. Don’t shame Mary. She is preparing my body for burial, he says. “The poor you always have with you, you won’t always have me.”

These words of Jesus are often grossly misused. Jesus isn’t saying it’s okay to ignore the poor. Precisely the opposite. The poor will always be with us, and it is in serving them that we are given the opportunity to commune with Jesus.

After that Jesus enters Jerusalem during what we call “Palm Sunday” welcomed by a great crowd, many of whom have been drawn by the news that Jesus has brought Lazarus back from the dead. The Pharisees – the religious establishment – bemoan the fact that “the whole world is going out to Jesus and there is nothing we can do about it” – nothing other than kill him.

And then to demonstrate the fact that the “whole world is going out to Jesus” in what we are about to hear the first thing that happens is that some Greeks ask to see Jesus.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.
27 “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.
28 Father, glorify your name!”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

The Greeks ask to see Jesus, but they never actually get to see him, because shortly afterwards Jesus withdraws with the disciples to a cram teaching session before he dies.

In John’s Gospel, the Greeks represent you and me and everybody else including John’s congregation who never got to see Jesus when he walked upon this earth leaving us feeling as though we’ve been deprived. We know the feeling: “If only we could have seen him heal the sick, heard him teach. How much better off we would be!”

That’s wrong, John is telling us.

In response to the request Jesus receives from Phillip and Andrew regarding the Greeks, Jesus begins to put his impending death front and center – his death, and our deaths.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” This is the hour Jesus has been waiting for – the hour of his death, when he will be lifted up on a cross and draw all people unto himself. The hour he will be lifted up from the grave.

He turns to a very concrete metaphor – a kernel of grain. Unless a kernel of grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. As with the metaphor he uses earlier with Nicodemus, the Holy Spirit will take these seeds like the wind and plant them into the hearts of persons in all times and places who put their trust in Jesus. To be in Jesus’ presence before his death was to have him remain only an external reality. His death made it possible for the seeds of eternal life – the Kingdom of God – to be planted deep inside our hearts so that a deeper intimacy of communion with Jesus to bring about the transformation required of our hearts.

He proceeds to talk about our death: “The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This is extreme language, easily misunderstood. Jesus isn’t a life-hater. What he is talking about here is rejection of life as it is defined by this world — life defined by devoting ourselves to building castles in the sand – castles that become prison cells where our false, self-center selves are entrapped.

“Now my heart is troubled,” says Jesus, “and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?” A distinctive feature of John’s Gospel is that there is no Garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus in great agony asks, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me” – let me not have to suffer this death.

Here Jesus answers his own question with a strong, “Heck no! It was for this hour – this death – that I was born!”

Fear of death can be a pretty consuming thing. I have to admit, there are times when the thought of my own death terrorizes me. But I’ve noticed something. Those times are when what I might call “the power of sin” has pulled me into myself, making me a captive in the little prison cell of my ego. When I feel caught up in myself and isolated from others, then perversely the thought of my death seems horrifying.

But when by the grace of God I get out of myself – when I lose my self-preoccupation and get caught up in the love from God that connects me to others – then the fear of death disappears. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.

In the chapter that follows our reading Jesus retreats from the world to spend time with his disciples in what we think of as his last supper – to prepare them for his death. The first thing he does is bathe their dirty feet. This is the life you should aspire to, Jesus is saying – the life of a servant offering oneself in love.

For five chapters Jesus teaches his disciples. He tells them it is to their advantage that he goes away. Though he had a flicker of a troubled heart in this morning’s passage, now he tells his disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Belief in God. Believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you.” Basically, don’t be afraid of death. It is a necessary passage. And much of what he says is that in the time you have left in this world, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

One of the things Jesus says in this morning’s passage is, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.” Jesus’ followers will be found where Jesus is. And where is Jesus found? Among the poor, the people who are hurting, broken hearted, feeling left out of the circle. We who would be his followers – his church – must seek out such places as well to be a sign of God’s love.

One of the most Christ-like persons of our age is Father Greg Boyle. He hangs out places where Jesus can be found. Father Boyle has spent over thirty years in Los Angeles helping young men and women transition out of the violent life of gangs. He started “Homeboy Industries” which employs former gang members, often placing former enemy gang members side by side. Father Boyle’s ministries seek to help these young and men find the inward healing that can transform their pain so they don’t have to transmit it to others.

In his work, Father Boyle has become well acquainted with death. He has buried 220 young people who have died from gang violence – each somebody he has loved. On top of that, Father Boyle has been living with a diagnosis of leukemia for fifteen years. He’s undergone immunotherapy. Presently his cancer is in remission.

You might think surrounded by so much death that Father Boyle would be a depressing guy, but he’s not. When you listen to him being interviewed, he’s funny, light hearted. In spite of his fragile health, he says he wouldn’t change the journey he has travelled. His health concerns have provided his “homeboys” with their violent backgrounds the opportunity to express such tenderness towards him. “Padre,” they say, “I hear your cancer is in intermission!” Father Boyle laughs as he tells this, as though his cancer has gone to the lobby to get popcorn.

He marvels at the fact that in this country we so easily deny the fact that we are all terminal. There are far worse things than dying, he says. As one of his homeboys put it, “Death is a punk.” It pretends to be a bully, but really it’s just a punk. Asked about his own death, he says it’s not in his top ten things to worry about. Meeting payroll each month for Homeboy Industries is much higher.

He quotes the Dalai Lama who when asked about his own death shrugged and said, “Change of clothing!”

It is not by coincidence that Father Boyle in following Jesus and living the life of a servant in loving communion with other fragile human souls finds himself to be relatively free of the fear of death.

I invite you to think individually, and as a church, regarding ways that we can put ourselves in those places where Jesus already is. How can we move out of our self-preservation instincts and instinctive self-centeredness to serve a hurting world?

I’ve found interesting things about people through the small Lenten groups I’ve been leading. I learned that Newton Barreto, our Sunday School superintendent, spends two evenings a week tutoring elementary school children in math for free. One night he is in a library in Lake Hiawatha, and another night he is in a library in Newark. He realizes that in helping a kid who doesn’t know how to subtract to master the process he could be making the difference between a kid giving up early on — falling into a pattern of choices in life that lead to gang life or opiate addiction.

Many of us would think, “I would never go into Newark – it’s too dangerous.” But perhaps it’s such a thought that creates a life ruled by fear and keeps us from experiencing the abundant life Jesus came to give us.

Incidentally, Newton would love to have a couple of people who could join him in his quest to make a difference in a kid’s life that could last a life time through something as simple as time spent tutoring math.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.