I’m sharing a sermon I preached last year at Diversity in Faith: A Christian Church For All People about lessons for how we face death and loss in the death of Jesus. So often we focus on Jesus’ death from above — focusing on Jesus as God come to save, and Jesus’ death as a way this expressed. This is appropriate, but also Jesus’ death also shows us how in our losses, in our grief, and in facing our mortality we can encounter God in new and important ways. Having spent this past year serving as a hospice chaplain, these lessons from last Good Friday bring even greater meaning to me.
I hope this message blesses you this Good Friday.
And I’m not just whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Our Gospel reading comes from John 20, verses 16-26.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: jesus of nazareth, the king of the jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
24 “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,
“They divided my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.”
So this is what the soldiers did.
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
I want to start by playing Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying”.
This song shows us one lesson someone learned when facing the final farewell of death.
Have you ever faced the passing of someone in a way that led you to confront lessons about your own life?
For me one of the moments the reality of our final farewell came home to me was when my good friend, Sherry, passed about 4 years ago. Sherry was perhaps the person most full of life I had known yet. During college she was someone who could always bring laughter to fill a room. She had a passion for living, and for loving others, I had rarely seen. After college, when I began affirming ministry and many of my “good Christian friends” turned their back on me for my stances, she reached out to me. When Kat and I moved back to NC she was one of the first to welcome us with open arms. Sherry started to have some bad health problems around this time, and one day just fell over, dying quickly afterwards.
In the time following I felt really shattered, but I had moments where I felt Sherry’s presence near me, and a sense God was reminding me that her life had not ended, but she was continuing in his presence. It also caused me to put my life in a new perspective.
In the last couple of weeks we began to look at Jesus’ life and how it helps us understand our own lives. In a deeper way then Sherry’s death does, I want to suggest that in Jesus’ farewells, we find some powerful lessons about how we can say goodbye to each other, including the final farewell we all will share in.
Do you see any lessons in this passage for us?
First, I want you to notice the most obvious lesson: Jesus’ death shows us that death and farewells are a part of our lives. In Jesus God had to become fully who we are, fully flesh and blood, taking on all our vulnerabilities, weaknesses, except sin. As one early Christian saint put it, God became as we are, so that we might become as God is… because whatever God becomes, God heals.
To be fully human, Jesus had to die as we die. This shows us that death is a part of life, not something to be feared. And since Jesus faced death, he transformed it not into an end to be feared, but into a place we can encounter him.
I believe this is a part of why Paul tells us that now to be absent from the body in death is to be present with Christ; and in the Gospel of John speaks of death by saying sometimes the grain or seed must die in order for new life to grow. But I believe it is not just in going to heaven that we will encounter Jesus, but in all our farewells, we experience Jesus because they force us to confront our lives more fully.
This is true not just of physical death, but also endings too.
This is beautifully pictured by this song from the musical, “Rent”
Life is full of seasons when relationships begin, grow, change, and sometimes end; when churches or ministries begin, grow, and change; jobs come, go. Farewell is a part of life.
Learning to embrace the need to say farewell, whether from death or changes in life, is a part of learning to embrace the presence of God in our life, in each moment. Only by being open to say farewell do we take time to appreciate the people in our lives, the experiences we’ve shared. Trying to hold on too tightly to them can crush the joy from them.
I am sure you have seen people so caught up in a fear of loss happening that they never embrace the joy of the moment – the person so worried their partner will betray them that they never enjoy their time with them, a person so worried about what comes after college they never enjoy the time in school, a person so afraid of their illness getting the better of them they never enjoy the days they are healthy.
I heard a speaker in my high school youth group give the following example: it is like those we are blessed in with our lives are birds. You hold birds too tightly, you crush them. You have to let the bird be free to stretch its wings for it to thrive. Holding on to others too tightly, to their time with you, to your or another’s time in any season of their life, to your time in this world, can actually steal your joy from it.
Second, I want you to notice Jesus does some important things in his final farewell.
Notice in this passage that leading up to his death, Jesus makes sure to ensure his mother is taken care of, committing her to the care of the beloved disciple. If you read through the accounts leading up to Jesus’ death in the Gospels, you find that Jesus prepares for his death. Jesus takes time to spend time with his closest friends who he is – sharing his heart, sharing who he is. Jesus introduces communion to them, as a way of them staying close to him after he goes and remembering who they are. Jesus spends time in prayer, connecting with his Father. Jesus even, in a way, gives his friends’ last wishes when he tells them to love others as he has loved them.
This shows us that a part of learning to embrace death as a part of life is doing the hard work of wrapping up things in your own personal life. This is a part of the work I end up doing as a chaplain – listening to people, helping them discover what stands in the way of peace with God, peace with others, and what other unfinished business might be there. Sometimes people have things they want to make sure are not left unsaid. Also sometimes it involves helping people come up with what their last wishes are.
This is work we all need to take part in in our lives to ready us for our final farewells – looking at what is left unfinished in our life, what ends we need to wrap up. We don’t have to wait til our last days to begin to say those things we don’t want left unsaid, reach out to build bridges where they have been burned. We don’t have to wait til the end to talk with those we love about our final wishes, or to reach out to build a relationship with God. Doing that work now helps ready us for that moment, and this is the work we must face when we face our farewells or the farewells of others.
I would suggest this work too is a part of what we face even in less permanent farewells, when we pass from one season of life to another or when we say farewells to others passing out of our shared seasons in life into new seasons in life. When we say farewell to that person, or to that job, or to that season of life it is also a time to look, take stock. It is a time to look at what is unresolved in those relationships, what we don’t want left unsaid, and ways in that experience we can more fully connect with God. It is also time to find new beginnings in our lives.
Finally, it is important to note that Jesus’ death also shows us that farewell is never the final word.
I say that because we know how this ends – Easter Sunday comes. And on Easter Sunday we see that Jesus rises victorious over death, promising that though his physical body leaves us in the resurrection, he will continue to be present with us always in the Spirit.
Our faith teaches the same thing about our other farewells – they are not forever. Just as I sensed when my friend Sherry passed that it was not over, that somehow she was gone forever but still going on, alive in a new way, we are promised that death brings us into the presence of Christ, and with Christ we come to be with all who’ve gone before into his presence.
And this is true not just about our other farewells. In this life, there is something called “the communion of the saints” – the promise that even when we part ways physically, God’s Spirit who is everywhere present continues to connect us with each other. It is because of this that in the letters to the Corinthians, Paul writes saying that though he is not present physically with them, he is present with them spiritually. I encountered this in a powerful way many years ago when a family of mine nearly took their own life and people who I had not spoken to in years began to contact me out of the blue saying they were praying and felt something was wrong and knew I and my family needed support. It was a reminder that even though we were separated by miles, that farewell was not final – the Spirit reached across the divide.
And as Jesus told us when he said that if a seed of grain dies, it produces new life, so it is important to know that in each ending a new beginning is possible. Jesus’ death is not the end of their story; nor is any ending in our lives.
Let us pray
God whose love surrounds us,
God of ends and new beginnings,
Grant us grace to embrace the changes in our lives as times to encounter you
Times to enter into new opportunities
Help us to embrace each moment
And each other as gifts.
In Jesus’ name,