Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A Good Death/The Benefits of the Cross

(My sermon from Easter Sunday '09 delivered to the Wenzhou Medical College Christian Fellowship)

Hymn: How deep the Father's love for us by Stuart Townsend

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

I’d like to thank you all for this opportunity that you have given me to address this congregation on this very special occasion. In case you may not have noticed it, I was privileged to address you during Christmas, and now during Easter; so I guess the experience has come full-circle because I get to speak during the commemoration of Christ’s Birth and Death/Resurrection.

In the Christian Church, two seasons in particular are the most celebrated: Advent, which culminates with Christmas, and Lent, which culminates with the Holy Week. The reason for this is that these two seasons in particular are the fulfillment of God’s promise of redeeming humanity by restoring that bond (between God and humanity) that was damaged by sin.
The sermon today principally addresses the notion of “A Good Death”, and for some it seems like I’m taking a step back. In some Christian traditions, Lent is a really somber reflective period during which the “alleluia” and “Gloria” tend to be omitted from the services, and, in particular, Good Friday, is a day when (in the Catholic tradition) the Church is left dark, and people retreat, only to return for the Candle light vigil on Saturday night, and rejoicing breaks out on the morn of Easter Sunday (Resurrection Sunday) replete with chants of “Gloria” and “Alleluia”.

So, it seems like I’m taking people back a step by focusing on “Death” at this point, so please bear with me (the message is just as pertinent).

In celebrating Christ’s Death, one issue in particular usually trips up a lot of individuals: Christ’s choice of last words. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
Depending on which of the Gospels you read (Matt 27:45-46; Mark 15:34;
Luke 23:46; John 19:30), His last words can either be,

a) “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
b) “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”
c) “It is finished”

It would not be too far-fetched to imagine that He actually did say all of these things before He passed away; the problem appears to be the various ways in which people interpret this one statement (“My God, My God…). Concerning this issue, I have heard the following explanations

i) Jesus was delirious with pain, hence in deep agony He blurted out this answer
ii) Jesus felt abandoned by God
iii) God had actually abandoned Jesus because the Son was covered with our infirmities and God abhors sin. (Ref: 2 Cor. 5:21; Hab. 1:13; 1 Pet. 2:24.)

I have a different view, which becomes clearer once you examine the notion of “A Good Death”

In defining A Good Death, I think Christ came pretty close when, in John 15:13, He talks of a person laying down his life for his friends as a great act of love. On a personal note, this is my definition of the best of deaths:

To die peacefully in one’s bed, surrounded by the ones you love, having made peace with God and fellowmen (…and ideally, parents should be buried by their children)

From the start, my notion of death seems is at odds with Christ’s death, because in His particular case His mother witnessed His suffering, and eventually laid Him to rest. However, from the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:35 (“…a sword will pierce your heart…”), I think it’s safe to say that His mother knew, especially towards the end, that her son’s own death would precede hers. In contrast to this, I will also give you my definition of a bad death:

To be walking down the street, and getting tragically run over as you cross the road. Barely a moment for your life to even flash before your eyes, and no chance to say goodbye to anyone or put your affairs in order

I think every person on this earth would at least want to have Dismas’ chance of earning some last minute salvation (Luke 23:39-43). I am basing this on two very important aspects of what impending Death means for our lives.

1. Clarity of mind
Death forces you to come to terms with what’s important in your life. I recall once as a college student, a situation in which I rode my bicycle and slammed face-first into a brick wall. In the space of time that it took me to pick myself up, clean my wounds and rush to the clinic for a check-up (roughly 5 minutes), I noticed that the vision in my right eye was severely affected (akin to a fuzzy TV screen).

In that moment when I realized that something that I usually take for granted was gone, everything else faded in importance. My clarity in the situation was perfect: that which I was about to lose was worth more to me than anything else I ever hoped to gain. At that point I just had to negotiate with God, and I believe I just might have promised Him the world so long as I did not permanently lose the use of my right eye.

Suffice it to say, I recovered the use of my eye after (A LONG!) seven or so extra minutes, and my eyesight is unaffected. I’m sure you can appreciate the parallel between this situation and that of impending Death…only with Death, it is starkly more serious. Then you learn, or are forced to come to terms with those things that matter most in this life. Knowing that “…Man is fated to die once and the face judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27), you will reflect on all the wise sayings laid out in the book of Proverbs and a myriad more laws contained in the Bible. But principally, I think you would remember the Greatest Commandment – To Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as love yourself yourself (Mark 12:32-33)”

Hence, you have to be at peace with God, and to be at peace with God you also have to be at peace with your fellowmen, especially those whom “the fingerprint” of your life directly affects.

2. Making peace with God & fellowmen.
In the typical model of a parent ideally being buried by his/her children, my mind is directed toward that time in most College-aged students’ lives when, having left home for the first time, their parents (and elders) load them with knowledge in terms of typical parental/family requests. These usually go beyond the typical “study hard”, “avoid mischief”, “keep good company” type of advice, and delve into other issues like
“the type of tribal affiliation of which they are forbidden from bringing back home as a fiancé/fiancée."
 “the distinct vocation that they are supposed to undertake in College” (usually based on the fact that the family is renowned for producing generations of doctors,lawyers,etc... and so like it or not, you too must be a ...”
 “the type of things that you must attain for the family once you start to work”, etc.

As relates to parents, God laid out a specific commandment (No.5) emphasizing how children are meant to honor them. Deut 5:16 spells this same law out with a promise of longevity for the children. However, when you get down to tracts like Col 3:18-21 & Eph 6:1-4, you can see that God also expects the parents to treat their children in such a way that they will not end up frustrated. So, impending death safely sweeps away all the accessory requests and things are distilled to the bare minimum.

In also remembering that Jesus Himself warned us that God would judge us for every careless word that we utter (Matt 12:36), the words from a dying person are weighed more importantly. In my own view, the words of a dying person can be measured in Gold.

So, with these two issues in mind (Clarity of mind, making peace with God & Fellowmen), we still have to address the issue of Christ’s words (“My God, My God…).
One very important thing we must remember is that any words that our Lord uttered are steeped in the “shared experience” of His society. We would tend to lose the meaning when we decontextualize things; literally, we ought to best understand them in terms of “shared experience”.

Borrowing a lesson from my “communication’” classes in college, I remember that it was estimated that as much as 75% of our interpersonal communication could consist of non-verbal cues. What I find, especially the closer our relationships are, is that even within the minor portion expressed through language, there is a point at which we can anticipate each other’s responses; hence, we can deduce entire meanings by merely being given either the beginning or ending of certain phrases.
For example:
God is good…” in certain circles immediately evokes the response “…all the time
The Lord is my shepherd…
To everything there is a time, and a season for every activity under the sun.
I have a dream...” Ideally this can be ambiguous, but once someone hears the long drawn out Bishop-type overtones used to convey these words, then they are immediately associated with Martin Luther King jr.
Our Father…
In our particular fellowship, hearing the cue “Surely…” immediately evokes the response "…goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…” (Psalm 23:6)

One example of personal significance comes from my past. In slightly less than 2 months, I will celebrate the 10th anniversary since my father passed away. My family consists of five children (3 elder siblings and a twin brother). However, during my father’s last days, my 3 elder siblings were abroad; hence, it was only my mother, a close family friend, my twin brother and I, who were around to hear my father give his last true testament a few days before he passed away. He had brief specific advice for each of us, but when he got to me, the 4th child, he paused a bit longer than usual. My mother prodded him twice with the question: “What advice do you have for Opiyo?”

At last his answer was thus: “Opiyo, Open up!

My legacy from my father is in reality a mere 2 words long!
However, because I knew my father, and he knew me, I know exactly what he meant, and it honestly is a hard task trying to fulfill this mission till this day because it carried a lot of depth.

With this guiding notion of “shared experience”, to understand Christ’s words on that day, we ought best to understand what His “shared experience” was. We could of course base it in His Jewish roots, or the small town of Nazareth where He grew up; but, in light of His importance as “the word” (John 1:1), an ideal shared experience of Christ is actually a firm understanding of the Bible because it all points to Him.

There is a sentiment that we start to see in the Bible as early as the Book of Joshua (Joshua 1:8), where Joshua is advised to meditate on the Law (day and night). By the time we get to Jeremiah (Jer 31:31-34), this sentiment has changed somewhat, and it is carried in this very form into the New Testament (Roman 2:12-15; Heb 8:10; Heb 10:16): the law is written on their hearts.

The Bible’s message is most potent when it infuses our very being – when it becomes one with our heart, soul and mind. Such an issue perturbed Jesus concerning the Pharisees because they revered the very Word that alluded to Him, but did not understand the Word well enough to practice it in its entirety.
Suffice it to say, if we understand the Word, we understand Him (Jesus). We also need to reflect on the fact that some of the things Christ did were specifically for our benefit and not His; being of one being with the Father, He knew exactly what the Father desired (John 11:41-42); the manifestations were principally for the benefit of our disbelieving hearts.

With this in mind, we can now look to the Bible for specific precedents with regards to Christ’s words, and surprisingly, they are the first line of David’s lament in Psalm 22. The “lament” is a unique stylistic device that may not exactly be familiar to most people. Though, in the course of life’s hardships we usually question whether God sees our suffering, this does not mean that we mistrust Him or have despaired. Reading the whole of Psalm 22 (lengthy as it is) should convince anyone that these are not the writings of someone in despair. If anything, this person (David) still persists in his faith despite being openly mocked for it (Verse 9).

This sense of victory and trust in God is clearest in the last third of this Psalm (Verse 22-31), and the last words in verse 31 (“…for he has done it.”) sound exactly like “It is finished” (John 19:30). Notice also that the whole incident plays out just as Christ’s Passion, so finally we see that there was nothing random about the choice of this Psalm.

And I believe that this is the most perfect translation of Christ’s words. There was no despair in Him despite how bad things were. "It was His love that held Him there…” as the song says. Even as He lay dying, knowing how distraught and frightened it would make His followers, there He still is giving us hope. Ideally, Christ could have quoted a lot more benign sounding things in His last words; He could have used the more user-friendly Psalm 23 or Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (of a poetic quality widely approved by Christian & non-Christians alike). But just as I experienced with my own father, even with a drastic economy of words, you can convey the deepest of meanings to those whom you’re intimately associated with.

And this is what A Good Death comes down to: HOPE. In 1 Peter 3:15, St. Peter wrote that we should always be ready to give an answer as to the reason for the hope that we have. In dying, as everything becomes truly clear, we are forced to answer this question. In my father’s last testament, he let me know that he knew where he was going, and this fulfilled my hope for him; and, in his confidence, he spelled out his hopes for me, and what was necessarily for my life.
Hope shared, hope building upon hope, my father’s hope in his destiny reassuring my own hope for his destiny, and his hopes for my life passed down to me such that despite his absence, there is still continuity.

This is the same thing that happened with our Lord. There is no ambiguity in His words, there is no despair, and there is no weakness. He is simply giving us Hope (as He always has), and that is why this was A Good Death.

Not one to end on a somber note, I’ll also give you the Benefits of the Cross portion of this sermon.

*You know what God will do for you, how far He’ll actually go.

In my last sermon, I mentioned that the ways of this world play out like a game of chess: the King is protected at all costs, and everybody else can be sacrificed first (the lower the status, the more likely the quicker you’ll be sacrificed - pawns).
This is probably why Christ’s death troubled people so much that they had to come up with ways of explaining it. Two very unique heresies arose because of this: one asserts that Christ was not fully human, implying He did not bear as much pain as we would expect on that cross; the other suggests that God cast the image of Jesus on a certain traitor, and it was in fact this man who was crucified while Jesus was safely spirited away (Ref: The Gospel of Barnabbas).
These heresies are probably meant to soothe the soul, but inadvertently they commit the same mistake as St. Peter in Matt 16:23 when he put the things of men above those of God. The reality is that our King died for us, for the not-so-bad to the most wretched ones among us. Truly, the Father’s Love for us RUNS DEEP.

*I once read someone’s Facebook status and the message put up was:
“Back home life is hard right now; that’s how you know history is being made”

Bringing us to yet another truth: we are more likely to reflect on God’s true power when the illusion of grandeur and control is stripped away. In those moments when we are truly broken, when hope is at an end, when we just can’t go on, then, as St. Paul proclaimed, “…God’s power is made perfect in our weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
And when we do realize how powerful He really is, then we understand that He is not limited by circumstance. After all, who else could elevate such a notorious torture tool as the cross into such a revered symbol for believers the world over?

*Finally, I would like to reflect on Ephesians 2:10
“We are God’s creation, created in Christ to do good works that He prepared in advance for us to do”

In a prelude to the sermon, Oliver (Bennet) talked about God’s aim to Re-concile and Re-connect us to Him; to basically Re-generate us. And in my reading of this verse, I have always understood that it spoke of the original unspoiled plan; that God always meant for us to do these good works, and as soon as we strayed from the path, He always intended to bring us back, and He set this work of salvation into play. Hence, none of this is random. The God who made us from nothing cares for each one of us and He desires for us to be with Him, and He acts upon that.

In relation to this, and in closing, I reflect upon my very first chapel at (Daystar) University. While we the students sat there, naïve as ever, the Chaplain laid depressing words upon our hearts in his opening speech:

“Every system in this world will fail you!”

He then went on to expound on how every system that we rely on in this world (parents, friends, finance, etc) would one day fail us. But at the end, he brought things full circle and he completed his opening statement:

“Every system in this world will fail you….BUT THE LORD WILL NEVER FAIL YOU!”

I wish you all a happy Easter, and hope the joy and clarity of mind that this season bring will never be far from your heart. May the Lord bless you and keep you.

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