This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The text was Mark 9:30-37.
I am going to die. It’s true. I don’t like to think about it too often, but a day is coming, perhaps a long way off, or perhaps not, when I will die.
That’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? And it’s not just the thought of me dying that’s uncomfortable. But it reminds us that all of us will die. Our days are numbered. I am going to die.
In today’s gospel, Jesus said the same thing to his disciples. He told them, “I am going to be betrayed, and killed.” That’s not all he said, but I think that’s all they heard. And this was actually the second time Jesus told them this. The first time he said it, Peter took him aside and told him to stop it. This time, nobody told him to stop it. Mark tells us that they didn’t understand, and they were scared to ask him about it.
They were scared. Scared of Jesus, I wonder? Or perhaps scared of death? Death was a somewhat different concept to them than it is to us. There’s a common belief today that we each have an immortal soul, a part of us that cannot be destroyed, and when we die, our soul flies out of our body and goes somewhere else. But that’s not a biblical understanding of death. The idea of the immortal soul actually comes from Greek philosophers, and over the centuries eventually worked its way into common belief. But that’s not how the Israelites, or the early church, understood death. Scripture does not teach us that we are a soul trapped in a body. Scripture teaches us that we are, each of us, one complete being, a body, a mind, a spirit, a soul, all interconnected, and when we die, we die. Death isn’t the moment when the soul is set free. Death is the moment of…death. Dead is dead. And actually, as we’ll see, if we hold that understanding of death, then what Jesus has done for us is even more remarkable.
Well whatever made them scared, the disciples did what many people do when an uncomfortable topic comes up. They changed the subject. Instead of thinking about death, they started arguing with one another about which one of them was the greatest.
Maybe we should change the subject too. What if I asked you, who’s the greatest in this congregation? Or, who are the ones who do all the work? What if I asked you, who are the ones whose opinions carry more weight than others? Who runs the show? Who should run the show?
If I asked you these questions, I bet it wouldn’t be hard to answer. And that’s not because there’s anything particularly wrong with this congregation. You could do it just as easily with your workplace, your school, your family, our country.
It’s part of our sinful human nature. We all try to figure out who’s the best, who’s the worst, where we fall in the mix. It seems like we feel better about ourselves when we find someone worse than us. Or when we find people around us who agree with us about who’s important and who’s not. It’s almost as if we’re scared, maybe scared that we’re not good enough, maybe scared that we just don’t know where we fit in, maybe scared that we’ll never amount to anything important.
It’s remarkable, actually. I am going to die, and I spend so much of the short time I have judging other people, scared of death and scared of where I fit in. I know I will turn to ashes, and in the meantime I act as though I already am ashes. Just like the disciples.
But this is not the final word. Jesus said more. After saying, “I am going to die,” he immediately added, “and after three days, I will rise again.” Yes, death was a reality for Jesus, but it was not the end. Yes, death is a reality for us, but thanks to Jesus, it will not be the end for us as well. Death may destroy us through and through, body, mind, and soul; yet Jesus is stronger, Jesus is bigger, Jesus is holier, and Jesus resurrects us, bringing new life where once there was only death. Bringing new life to our new body, our new mind, our new soul, our new existence. Thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus, God takes the ashes of our existence, and turns them into amazing, eternal life.
And so I can say this: I am going to die, but I will rise again.
And that is still not all, because Jesus said even more. Jesus held up a child, and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and in fact also the one who sent me.” Which means that we can encounter Jesus right here in this lifetime. That we can encounter the source of all life and resurrection here and now. Simply by welcoming children. And as you may know, people in Jesus’ time did not view children the way we do. We consider children to be cute, innocent, and above all, important. But in the first century, children were a burden, they were useless and quite unimportant. Welcoming a child meant welcoming someone at the very bottom rung of society. It meant doing something that went against social norms. It meant deliberately acting against our human instinct to judge one another, to rate one another. To welcome and embrace the exact people our instincts tell us to avoid. They are where Jesus promised to be.
Jesus promises to meet us there today as well. Precisely in the hearts of the people who don’t seem like the greatest. Precisely in the hearts of the people we would write off as worthless. Jesus is there, and we can see him and experience him there today. It’s hard to let go of our instinct to judge and rate people. But when we do that, we can find Christ in the hearts of all people. When we leave our comfort zone, we just may see Christ there, experience Christ there. And when we do, we just may find that the ashes of our lives are set ablaze again. We just may find that we don’t have to be scared. That we don’t have to judge ourselves or others, because we know that Christ has already proclaimed us as worthy. We may just find that we can live now, really really live.
And so we can say this: I am going to die, but I will rise again. And I am truly alive now. Praise be to God.