March21, 2021 / 5th Sunday in Lent / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Jeremiah 31:31-34 / 2nd Reading Hebrews 5:5-10 / Gospel John 12:20-33
Choosing Real Life
There are some people who are eager to die. We have a family friend, a Navy physician, who served on a deployment during the war in Iraq. He was in charge of a front-line medical unit in Anbar province, near the Syrian border. John’s unit was the first stop for wounded soldiers coming off the battlefield. Sometimes the helicopters brought in not only wounded Marines, but also wounded insurgents. Those insurgents received the same quality care as our own troops. But John described to us how some of the wounded insurgents resisted treatment. They wanted to die. He said it was like they got up that day and decided they would die for the cause before the day was out – and they were disappointed and ashamed to still be alive.
On occasion there have been devout Christians who were bent on dying as martyrs for the faith. But while the church has great reverence for martyrs – martyrdom is not the goal of a faithful life. Martyrdom at times may be a consequence of discipleship, but it is not the purpose of discipleship. Christians are called to grow up into Christ.
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On the other hand, some people are too afraid of dying. Soon we will hear again the story of how Peter pledged his absolute loyalty to Jesus – only to, shortly thereafter, deny even knowing Jesus. Why? Because Peter was afraid to die like Jesus. Later on in the first century, when the Roman persecution of Christians became intense, there were Christians who renounced their faith – because the alternative they were given was immediate execution.
Fear of death is understandable. Our natural instinct is to try to survive. The concluding scenes of the movie Titanic present a range of human behaviors. After hitting the iceberg, two things become apparent: the ship will sink; there are not nearly enough lifeboats. Some meet their fate with great courage and poise – like the string quartet that keeps playing together as the great ship goes down. Others display crass cowardice. There is a wealthy man who takes the last seat in a lifeboat filled with women and children, just as the boat is being lowered away. The crewman in charge notices his selfish action – but says nothing. The craven, shamed look on the wealthy man’s face says it all.
As we make our way through these final days of Lent we are given some insight into the mind of Christ as he ponders his impending death. What we see as Jesus anticipates his destiny on the cross is that he is not eager to die, nor is he afraid to die. Instead, Jesus likens his death to the planting of a seed: “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.” (John 12:24)
Jesus foresees life coming out of death: for himself and for the world. Jesus tells of life that continues beyond the apparent boundary of death. And Jesus speaks of eternal life as a quality of life that begins here and now – eternal life and also an enrichment of life. The message of Jesus is that the boundary of eternal life is a frontier to be crossed not just once, but each and every day. We enter into eternal life not only at the point of death, but whenever we let our old sinful self die and let our new self in Christ come to life. For Jesus, abundant life and eternal life are expressions describing the same reality. The new life Christ brings is abundant not only in terms of quantity (as in eternity), but also in terms of quality (as in fullness and goodness of life). Crossing the frontier into abundant, eternal life is not a one-time passage – it’s a crossing that gets made time and again, on a regular basis, over the course of a lifetime. In order to truly live, you and I need to live truly – that is, faithfully and graciously.
Abundant life is a daily decision for each of us – as it was even for Jesus in his full humanity. From the start of his ministry, when he faced temptation in the wilderness, to that fateful last night in Gethsemane, when he prayed and contemplated what was in store for him, Jesus made choices that were life affirming and life-giving – choices that carried profound consequences.
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Each day you and I also face decisions – some great, some small – yet decisions that involve choosing life or choosing mere survival. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the paradigm Jesus offers for making such choices. Upon seeing a man who had been robbed and beaten, lying in a ditch, the priest and the Levite choose to look to their own interests, their own survival. They play it safe and pass the man by. The Samaritan chooses life: both for himself and for the helpless, bleeding victim. He chooses to live in compassion and mercy, going out of his way, risking his own welfare – to extend life to a man in need. You may recall that Jesus told this story in response to a lawyer’s question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells the lawyer: “Do as this Samaritan and you will truly live – both now and later.”
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Crossing the boundary into true and abundant life can be intimidating. It’s scary to let go of yourself, to let go of self-interest. It’s not easy to risk loving, to risk making yourself vulnerable, to expose yourself to circumstances beyond your control. It can be hard to trust God and choose to do the Christ-like thing. Yet that’s what it means to choose life. Time and again we have the occasion to let our sinful, prideful, selfish selves die and let the faithful, trusting, Christ-like self come to life. St. Paul points to our motivation for doing so: “Christ died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2 Corinthians 5:15)
It's about choosing real life – abundant, eternal life. What’s hard about choosing real life is that it involves letting our old selves die – and our old selves are by no means eager to pass away. Vanity, greed, pride and selfishness need to die so that justice, mercy, and generosity can live.
As we approach another Holy Week, we join with Jesus in pondering the boundaries of life and death: not only that final, one-time crossing over, but also the daily movement from death to life: dying to sin, rising with Christ. How will we go about planting the seeds of our lives – in faith that abundant life will grow from them? This is a real challenge in a threatening, uncertain world, where we can easily become fearful, cautious and suspicious. It’s really hard loving when you’re anxious and concerned mainly about yourself.
Yet when we stop loving, we stop living. When we stop loving, we stop really living.
We need to learn again from Jesus not to be afraid to die to self. What Jesus shows us so clearly – not only on the cross, but throughout his ministry – is that to choose life is to become vulnerable and exposed, to take the risk of loving with all your heart. To choose life is to surrender control of your life and place yourself in God’s hands. To choose life is to live with faith like St. Paul, who wrote: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7-8)
Paradoxically, to choose life means to let it go. For, “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.”