What's Tony Thinking

My Sermon of March 17


Here’s my sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. You may watch and listen via to the sermon and service via the You Tube channel and recording or read the text below. The link to that recording is here.

The Death That Is Behind Us

John 12: 20 – 33

Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2024, Community Church of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Last Sunday, Ken Smith, who was assisting in worship leadership led  us in our confession of faith, the Apostles Creed. Ken noted, quite rightly, that the Creed says virtually nothing about the life and ministry, the teachings and the healings, of Jesus of Nazareth. You go from “born of the virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” with but a comma to suggest that was much between Christ’s birth, death and resurrection. 

What Ken called our attention to is a danger. I’ve heard it called “jack-in-the-box theology.” Christ died/ Christ risen. Little else. And yet . . .  in each of the four gospels the story of Christ’s death, his crucifixion and resurrection, is — and there can be no question — the longest part of the gospel story. It is this, Christ crucified and risen, that is unavoidably the focus of the earliest Christian preaching in the Book of Acts.

Moreover, and here I agree with my friend and the eminent preacher, Fleming Rutledge, “The mainline churches have grown weak in proclaiming Christ. Jesus of Nazareth is revered as a teacher and moral exemplar, not infrequently side by side with other religious figures, but the apostolic witness about the unique identity and destiny of Christ has become attenuated.” At least in the parts of the mainline church that I know best this is very much the case.

So Lent and Holy Week present a challenge, demanding our attention to what is arguably the heart of it: Christ crucified and risen.  Theologians address these matters with what are called “doctrines of atonement.” These are the attempts of the church and its theologians to explain, and to help us understand the crucifixion. What’s going on there? How is it to be understood? What is God doing and what is Jesus accomplishing on the cross? If you have or have had such questions, do not be embarassed. These are good questions and the answers are not self-evident.

Again, without getting too deep into the weeds, it is fair to say that two “doctrines of the atonement” tend to predominate. One holds that we human beings have so failed to fulfill the demands of the Law that something must be done to placate a righteous God. Jesus suffers the judgment that rightly falls on us. Jesus paid the bill, so to speak, which we could not ourselves pay.

The other main theory, is in part a reaction to the first one. Here, instead of seeing the cross as a payment of some sort, this one sees in the cross an example. Jesus’ death is an example of his selfless dedication to the cause of God, an example to inspire us to work harder for God’s kingdom. 

There is truth in both, and there is that which false, and misleading, in both. But one thing they have in common is that both doctrines of the atonement, of Christ’s work on the cross, become what might be called “spectator theology.” That is, they are theologies “about the cross,” rather than life invaded and transformed by the cross and resurrection. 

These theories fit the cross and resurrection into some pre-existing framework, into a system of meaning we already have, which was also what Nicodemus was trying to do last week. In one, paying a debt. In the other, a moral example.

While such theories of the atonement and others are interesting and can be helpful, it’s a mistake to think we can just adopt one or another theory and call it “good.” The point is a changed, a utterly new life. “You must be born again from above,” Jesus told Nicodemus.

Not a few seminary students and clergy arrive at what they hold to be the correct doctrine, the right answer, and then defend it to the hilt. But Jesus gives us no theory about the cross. He gives us himself and says to us, “Follow thou me.” 

Here in today’s lesson from the Gospel of John Jesus speaks of his death. It is now near. He has now entered Jerusalem on that last fateful week, where he is surrounded by all sorts of great expectations. The people of Jerusalem, the Jewish people, hail him as a new king, one who will restore the nation to its former glory. 

There’s more. As today’s passage begins Gentiles, representing the non-Jewish world, arrive asking to “see Jesus.” The verse immediatly preceding our lesson makes  a good case for the practice of reading around the text or verse at hand which I mentioned last week. 

In that preceding verse, the Pharisees say, “Look, the whole has gone after him!” How ironic! Though the Pharisees bitterly oppose Jesus, they have nevertheless spoken the truth! In frustration they say, The whole world is coming to Jesus! And, right on cue, the Gentiles, arrive!

And yet just at the moment of seeming triumph — the new administration coming to power — when it seems the time has come, Jesus throws them — and us — a huge, looping, gravity-defying curveball. It’s the kind of pitch that leaves a mighty hitter, say a Mike Trout, tied in knots and looking silly. The wild cheers of a screaming crowd suddenly reduced to a groan.

Jesus speaks of death, of his death. “I tell you the truth, unless a kernal of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He continues, “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.” 

And while it is clear that he, fully human and like us every respect save one — he is without sin — he does not relish death and is distressed at the prospect, “Now my heart is troubled,” but what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, it was for this very reason that I came to this hour.” In fact, he speaks of his death as “glorification.”

As we listen to Jesus speak here in the Gospel of John of his impending death, do you — as I do — get the sense, a feeling, that it is as if his death is already behind him? “Now,” he says, “is the time for judgment on this world, now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifed up will draw all people to myself.”

Have you ever encountered someone for whom it seemed in that death was already behind them?

On the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, April 3rd 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech, a sermon. You’ve heard the final paragraph before. Listen again:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. 

“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

King sounds very much like a man who, commanded by a great moral cause, has death already behind him.

Last month Vladimir Putin, who presents himself as the protector of Christian civilization from the godlessness of the west, murdered Alexi Navalny. Navalny was not only Putin’s leading opponent, he was — I for one did not know this at the time — a Christian. 

When asked why he would return to Russia after being nearly assassinated two years before, Navalny also spoke of his death. If I die, said, Navaly, it shows how powerful we are, and how weak Putin is. 

Russell Moore, once a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention before being purged, and now the editor of the “Christianity Today” magazine wrote:

“Before the world forgets the corpse of Alexei Navalny in the subzero environs of an Arctic penal colony, we ought to look at him—especially those of us who follow Jesus Christ—to see what moral courage actually is.

“Navalny was perhaps the most-recognized anti-Putin dissident in the world, and he is now one of many Putin enemies to end up ‘suddenly dead.’ He survived poisoning in 2020, recuperated in Europe, and ultimately went back to his homeland despite knowing what he would face. 

“Speaking of his dissent and his willingness to bear its consequences, Navalny repeatedly referenced his profession of Christian faith.” Listen:

“‘The fact is that I am a Christian, which usually sets me up as an example for constant ridicule in the Anti-Corruption Foundation [the ACF was Navalny’s opposition organization], because mostly our people are atheists. I was once quite a militant atheist myself.

“‘But now I am a believer, and that helps me a lot in my activities because everything becomes much, much easier.

“‘There are fewer dilemmas in my life, because there is a book in which, in general, it is more or less clearly written what action to take in every situation . . . It’s not always easy to follow this book, of course, but I am actually trying.’”

“Specifically, Navalny said, he was motivated by the words of Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”

Navalny spoke as one who had already died, for whom death was behind him. And there is a way, isn’t there, in which we cannot truly live if a fear of death and it’s power rules our lives?

You may be thinking, Martin Luther King Jr., Alexi Navalny . . . yes, these are awesome examples, heroic people. But I’m not that; we’re not, them. 

In a sense, that is true. And yet is it not also true that if not perhaps in so grand a way as a King or a Navalny or other notable saints and martyrs, we too — by the grace of Jesus Christ — may also live as those who have also already died? 

We may and do live as those who do not calculate each move or decision in a way that is chiefly about us, as a protection of ourselves and our self-interest. By God’s grace and the work of Christ in us, we may live not as those for whom life is constantly guarded and grasped, but instead given freely away.

Not a King or a Navalny, perhaps, but in our way the testimonies of life not hoarded up but given away, living with the sense that death is already behind us.

Sometimes Christian faith and eternal life are presented in other ways, in ways at odds with those of which I have spoken today. As if Christian faith were an ultimate insurance policy, a guarantee of our personal survival. As in, “Jesus died so I don’t have to.” Or as we said last week in preaching on John 3: 16: accept Jesus and punch your ticket to heaven and eternal life. Don’t, and go to hell. 

A theologian as eminent as John Calvin warned Christians against focusing too much attention or speculation on one’s individual fate and life beyond death. Calvin thought such a focus risked leading people to being self-preocccupied, focused on themselves. Rather than being freed to a certain self-forgetfulness by God’s love and promise, such a focus encouraged an anxious self-interest, which actually contradicts a Christian witness.

Eternal life, particularly here in the Gospel of John, isn’t something that suddenly begins at the grave or in the cemetery. It begins when we put our faith in Jesus. And so, and again this is particularly evident in the Gospel of John, eternal life is not so much a quantity of life as a quality of life. Life lived with death, at least in some measure. already behind us.

But having said all this I am, I confess, a little worried. I worry that I have only adopted or communicated what I said was one of the two predominate theories of the atonement, that the cross of Christ is but a moral example of a self-less life and unremitting dedication to the cause and Kingdom of God. 

As I said, there is truth in that understanding, but it has problems as well. It easily becomes a new law — a demand for utter selflessness — but Christ came to put an end to the law, to all that we must do or accomplish to get on God’s good side. We turn it into, “we must be selfless heroes and martyrs of the faith” to enter into God’s presence, to gain heaven.I don’t want to communicate that to you because if I do, or if I have, I have simply given you a new law, a new call for moral perfection, which is not, the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his righteousness imputed to us as a free gift. Besides, the absolutely self-less — or those who think they are — also turn out to be pretty much the absolutely insufferable! 

The gospel is not that we must climb up a ladder of moral perfection or achievement to get to God or to get on God’s good side. And the truth is that neither King nor Navalny, as courageous or admirable as they were, were perfect people. They were in their own ways flawed, sinners in need of grace, sinners in need of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, just as are you and I. 

So the point is not that if you or I should experience some fear or anxiety about death or fail to live wholly and completely selflessly, we have failed and fallen short of the glory of God. As St. Paull put it, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Not “some,” “all.” All of us stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Here’s a line I love from Pascal, the great 17th century mathematician and Christian. Listen: “The world does not divide between saints and sinners; the world divides between sinners who believe themselves to saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners.”

When we do, in some measure, die to the self-centered self and rise to new life in Christ it is not our achievement, it is the work of Jesus Christ in us. It is the work of Christ to take flawed people, imperfect people, like us, to cover us in grace and to work in us in such a way that our lives may point beyond ourselves to Him who is the light of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.






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