I am not really afraid to die. Of course, I hope it will be painless and quick and peaceful. And of course, I hope I will have gotten to do all of the things I want to do, and travel to all of the places I would like to see.
And, of course, I hope it is still a long time away from now.
(Well, perhaps I am a little afraid to leave this world one day.)
But I have not seen any friends of mine die; and I go to a hundred times more weddings than funerals at this point in my life. But I know that will change. Like some of you, I may one day feel like I am the last one left out of all my friends.
But for now, death is not something that often crosses my mind, and I guess that is the luxury of being young.
Leaving this world is not something that I dwell on. But there are other kinds of deaths. The other morning, my smoke alarm started to chirp because the battery was dead. It was five in the morning, and I had to be at work at 6, and I just didn’t have time to change it. So it chirped all day. By the time I had gone to the store and had a new battery in hand to stop the chirping, it was ten at night. My dog was hiding under the bed because of the noise, and my sink was full of dishes, and I still had a paper to write. And as I reached up to replace that battery, I couldn’t help but shed a few tears.
I was so stressed that day that I died a little bit as I changed that battery.
It’s like that saying: I just died a little bit inside.
A little death, but a death nonetheless.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The time has come for Jesus; it is the beginning of the end to which all of John’s Gospel has pointed. Every syllable written from the beginning of Creation is about to take on meaning. It is the beginning of an end which we know will mean death—a death that is hardly a “little death.” It is a big death.
“The hour has come.”
Jesus must die. Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Word that was in the beginning with God and dwelled with God and was God—must complete His Earthly journey for a purpose that is not quite clear to his followers. His ministry was in full swing, and many Jews and Gentiles alike were beginning to follow him and to believe him to be the Messiah.
And so he must die.
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
This is the testimony he gives to the Greeks who have come to see him. You want to know who Jesus is? Hear him talk about death. Hear him say that we must not grip our lives too tightly; that following him might mean we will suffer.
And “He said all these things to indicate the kind of death that he was to die.”
The kind of death that bears fruit. The kind of death that has purpose.
He must die.
We must die.
Or so we seem to think.
Why did Jesus have to die?
I seem to ask myself that question a hundred times during Lent.
Using the Gospel writer’s own words, we might say that it was so that Jesus could be glorified. Or to prepare a place for each of us with God. Or to make God known to humans on Earth in a brand new way. Or so that we might know how much God loves us.
All of this feels true.
And I might add: Jesus died because we already do die. Because we die when we are old or when we are young, because we die before we get to do all the things we had wanted to do.
And we die a million little deaths every day. Our bodies do not work the way we want them to; we have pain. Our children struggle; they don’t live the lives we imagined for them when they were small. Our home countries change so much that we don’t recognize them, and home changes so much that we never want to go back. We die a little bit every day.
Jesus tells us that we must follow him in order to serve him. And that we must die to follow him. Jesus says this not in hopes that we might martyr ourselves for him, or that we might start finally acting right, but because he sees the ways we die already.
It is for this reason that he has come to this hour.
Jesus knows we are already quite familiar with Good Friday. When God comes to us in Jesus—Emmanuel—we are already Good Friday people. Dying a little every day at the hands of sins that distance us from who God made us to be; dying at the hands of sin that captures us systematically and makes us love everything better than we love ourselves.
We are already Good Friday people. Jesus must die for us to be an Easter people.
Lutheran theology calls this the Happy Exchange. Jesus comes to us because we are dying. Every day. And then Jesus dies so that we might live in the hope of God’s promise that God’s Kingdom will come.
A happy exchange indeed.
“And he said this to show what kind of death HE would die.”
In the final days of his life, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, telling them that unless they allow him to bathe them, they won’t truly understand what his life and death are all about. In our baptisms, with that water, Jesus has done that same thing. Washing us so that we might be a part of his death and resurrection. So that we might participate in that happy exchange.
Happy isn’t entirely accurate. Because Jesus knows it will be hard. “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” Jesus washed his disciples feet because they were dirty. Jesus died because we die. Because this life is hard and full of struggle. Because smoke detector batteries run low and our batteries run low. And run out.
Our deaths became his death; his resurrection becomes our new life. The Greeks who come to see Jesus have seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. They want to see the man who can do such a thing. They want to see the Messiah who can do such a thing for them.
As do we.
I cannot wait for Easter. On that morning, I see God in a new way—a God of life and of hope. But the Gospel writer tells us that we see God more clearly in God’s death on the cross.
God knows our little deaths because God knows the big death. And in exchange for that death, God gives us life. We don’t need to die for God. God died for us. We are the fruits of the wheat that drifted to the dusty ground, and the only way we can respond to such a gift as death is to live.