With Him in Death, With Him in Life
When I saw the Whoopie Pie truck in the drop-off lane of a local workout facility, I was reminded that life is full of oxymorons. Or at least things that go together that seem to be contradictory. (Chocolate and cream-filled power up for the elliptical? Yes, please!)
Jesus once said:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
There’s another oxymoron for you—or at least it sure sounds like one. The disciples thought it was. “Lose your life to save it? If you lose your life, you’re dead.”
Jesus applied that idea to himself. Before he could rise again from the dead, he had to… well… die first. That you would have to die before you could come back from death is logical enough. But that Jesus even could come back once he was in the irreversible state of death sounded as oxymoronic to the disciples as a dessert delivery driver stopping by the morning Zoomba class.
Peter “knew better.” After his teacher’s death-to-life crazy-talk, Peter pulled Jesus aside and started to “rebuke him.” Jesus rebuked him right back, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Shortly after that episode with Peter, Jesus said again to his disciples, “‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’”
Once again, the Gospel of Mark tells us, “They did not understand what he was saying,” but this time they “were afraid to ask him.”
I-Thou: Why Jesus’ Death Was So Devastating
Peter and the others thought that death could only be the career-ending move that it has been, is, and will be for every other human being. It’s not something you come back from.
The idea of resurrection supersedes rationality and, generally, so-called empirical evidence.
And underneath Peter’s blockheaded attempt to tell Jesus who he really was and what he should do, there was a real love. Peter would confess Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
The disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching of, “I must die and you must die so that we together may truly live.” And even if they could grasp it intellectually, Jesus’ disciples were a group of men and women who had left home, jobs, ways of life to follow someone they believed was going to save them, guide them, and just be with them.
Someone you love that much is the last person you want to even think about dying, let alone hear that person repeatedly referring to their death and saying it has to happen. So there was, I’m sure, an emotional resistance on the disciples’ part to hearing Jesus talk about his own death.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber offers some insight into why the death of a loved one is so difficult. In his I and Thou, Buber writes that the identity of the individual is constituted not just in isolation, but in relationship to others:
If Thou is said, the I of the combination I-Thou is said along with it.
The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
There is no I taken in itself, but only the I of the primary word I-Thou.
The disciples’ sense of self was fully interdependent with their sense of who Jesus was. They knew, at least at some level, that they lived and died with him. When they heard Jesus talk about his own death, whether they kept living or not, they knew that a part of themselves would die with him.
It was that knowledge—that gut sense of their intertwined identity—that would lead Peter to say just before the crucifixion, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.”
Jesus’ death was devastating to his followers. Their sense of self and of the world would never be the same. How could they ever hope again? How could they ever trust? How could they dig out of the hole they now found themselves in?
In the Gospel John’s resurrection account, the stone is gone, but the disciples still don’t understand about Jesus’ dying-then-living. Even with the tombstone rolled away, it was all Mary Magdalene could do to stand “outside the tomb crying… [weeping].”
But There’s More Beneath the Surface
It seems like every time I walk back to our house from the church, I find something new in the driveway or yard. As the snow continues its slow, steady melt, we keep discovering things we forgot we lost. A whiffle ball bat. The pink plastic shovel that caused so much discord back when the kids were fighting over who would use it. Or that hand towel I was reaching for to wipe snotty noses in between shoveling piles of snow off the van several times a week.
I asked our Deacons if they, too, were able to testify to the signs of life emerging from underneath the snow, shooting up from the ground. And they were—let me show you.
There’s always more beneath the surface. Life is so rich and the universe so mysterious and wonderful that what you see on first glance isn’t all that’s there.
The workings of God exceed what we can comprehend. We may think or live as if he’s limited by natural laws. Yet the One who wrote those laws, who put them into place, can re-order the universe as he sees fit.
The one who breathed and still breathes life into creation does not find death to be an obstacle to his purposes.
What seems to be the end is not the end. What the disciples thought was the Last Supper they would ever have with Jesus was, in fact, the first communion meal, an observance that would be repeated countless times by Christians everywhere. That bread—in its brokenness‚ representing death—would be the very source of life to followers of Jesus throughout the ages. One early church father called the communion bread, “medicine of immortality” and “an antidote to prevent us from dying.”
I-Thou, Redux: With Him in Death, With Him in Life
Jesus’ death was heart-wrenching to his disciples. This is because, for them, participation in Jesus’ suffering and death was not a spiritual discipline, or a spiritual state to try to attain—it was their natural reaction to an immense loss. They died with him, as the fire in their hearts went out.
But if they died with Jesus that awful Friday we dare to call “Good,” they came right back life with him, at his resurrection.
“I have seen the Lord!” Mary Magdalene proclaimed. When Jesus came—in person—to the fear-struck, mourning disciples, John says they “were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”
The disciples were buried with Christ, and they rose again with him to new life. Jesus breathed on them, gave them the Holy Spirit, and the book of Acts happened. The church spread at an amazing rate. Christ’s followers could not contain the joy of new life.
We who call ourselves disciples today also have participated in the death of Jesus. We take part with Jesus in his suffering any time we are compassionately attuned to the unjust treatment and oppression of others. We associate ourselves with Christ’s crucifixion again today when we receive the elements of communion. We join with the first disciples when we observe Holy Week, or practice austerity during Lent, and when we affirm that we, too, were there when they crucified our Lord.
One well-known disciple, Paul, would say, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”
We participate in Jesus’ death when we accept that it was a sacrifice made on our behalf, offered to bring us into communion with God. From the cross came life–our life, springing forth from the cold, dead ground.
Elsewhere Paul would write, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
If we have died with Christ, then we live with Christ. We have participated in his death, so we participate in his resurrection.
Conclusion: The Stone Has Been Rolled Away
The stone has been rolled away. Jesus did not stay in the land of the dead, but rose to the land of the living. When death gets the last word in the lives of the ones we love, we know that life actually has a rejoinder. Dead isn’t dead forever.
This is why the Psalmist, perhaps in anticipation of the coming Messiah, could say, “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.”
So, like those beautiful buds and flowers that improbably spring forth from under an impossible mound of snow, come on out of the hole you’ve dug into the ground. The stone has been rolled away–Jesus himself has done this! There’s no more need to hibernate or hide out.
Jesus, thought to have breathed his last, springs forth from the grave, finds the disciples he so loves, and breathes his own new life on them, so that they can share with him in the resurrected life. The darkness of the tomb is now illuminated by the light of Christ. The somber purple of Lent has give way to the bright white of Easter.
Jesus is risen from the dead! Death is so last season. Resurrection is the new black.
Apparent endings can become starting points, seedbeds, for unexpected beginnings. We now have access to new life in Christ.
The world is lit up with the light of the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus died and lived through it. He took us with him from cross to grave to glory.
We who have died with Christ, who “were there” when they crucified our Lord, now share in the abundant, new life he gives us, through his resurrection from the dead. Thanks be to God!