Encountering Death


Encountering Death

This morning is Palm Sunday. It had been our intent to begin worship with a parade, waving palm branches and music. However, the circumstances of our present time with the Covid-19 Pandemic caused me to have a change of mind as I prepared for this morning and preach the text for the Passion.

Scripture: Psalm 31:  9-16 and Matthew 27: 11-54

Today is Palm Sunday and it had been our intention to being the service with a parade. Sitting at the church are a stack of palm branches and we planned to have ChimeTime + play and then parade down the centre of the church in celebration.

Our plans have taken a wide turn as we are unable to be together in the Sanctuary today. On Palm Sunday we have the option of reading the lesson of the Palms or the lesson of the Passion. It had been my intention to preach of the lesson of the Palms, the triumphal entry. However, in light of all that is going on around us I have elected to preach on the lesson of the Passion. Because sometimes we must have a good reckoning with death. We need to confront our sorrows, questions, confusion and anger. We need room for lament and if we cannot do that in the church, then where does that outlet exist for us?

Today we look at the events that led to the death of Jesus and we confront that death. We will do so again in five short days, but today we sit with the words as “The earth shook, and the rocks were split” (Matthew 27:51).

When we think of natural disasters, earth quakes and the like, they are never framed as a positive. We know that lives will have been lost, property damaged and lives changed forever. It is with a similar sense of gravity that Matthew uses these words. When Jesus gives up his spirit, it is at this moment, that the earth shook and the rocks were split. These words provoke violent and destructive images and yet they are words to cling to as they display for us the depth and range that Jesus death means for humanity and creation.

The question of why did Jesus have to die comes up often. It has been answered in a variety of ways over time. In “The Heidelberg Catechism, at one point a very important question gets asked: Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death?  That is a big question, so what is the answer? Did Jesus have to go all the way to death to pay for sin? Yes. But listen: why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because he had been made truly human. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because you and I must do so, and had Jesus found a way to beam off this planet in a way that would have neatly side-stepped any kind of death, then he could not be considered just like you and me after all. Jesus had to leave this world via death for the same reason he couldn’t get into this world without exiting a woman’s uterus: because that’s how all people get here. (Scott Hoezee)

This helps explain why Jesus had to go all the way to death, but why did Jesus have to die in the first place? Wasn’t there another way for Jesus to accomplish his mission or task? Why death? There are many theories on why Jesus died for us, we call these theories theologies of atonement. Some of these ideas are very old, such as ransom theory or substitutionary atonement. That Jesus is paying a debt owed to God on our behalf.

However, it is a more recent idea that I find most helpful. It expresses the idea that Jesus came to break us from cycles of violence. That his death demonstrates the profound damage we cause to one another and creation and seeks to restore the relationship we have with God, our creator.

The death of Jesus is profound and thus the earth shook, and the rocks were split.

When we consider the death of Jesus and our current times it provides us with an opportunity for reflection, here I turn to Prof. Karoline Lewis who writes, “Our very human instinct is to take over when we think God cannot adequately meet our expectations or when we assume that the protocols we have put in place are the only ways through which God can work. And how we navigate such issues can sometimes bring out the worst in us. Communion or no communion? How do we define community? What is the definition of church? Does virtual “anything” count for anything? This is not the time to take sides, but a moment for mercy and grace. Take a breath. Let it out. God’s church has survived much, this we know. (Karoline Lewis)

Which leads to another thought, equally important during these times. In light of the death of Jesus, in light of Covid-19 and in respect to the lives we live is everything that we once held dear to worth returning to. Was our previous normal ok, or was it actually a crisis that we had been managing? I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I do believe they are questions that need to be asked and explored. As a community of faith, these are questions we will explore about how we operate as people who follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

These words signify the death of Jesus, a profound moment of sorrow. But we also know that they heralded something new. The earth shook, and the rocks were split because something new was happening in creation. We know the story, we know what happens next. We know that God was doing something new in creation. Now, I’m not saying that Covid-19 is God’s doing, but I believe that in this moment, as in every moment, we must ask questions of ourselves about who we are as a people. That we must seek those answers in scripture and in prayer.

We know that death is a part of life and in our present time we are seeing an abundance of death. We are seeing that play out in different ways. We are witnessing our society reel and shake under the strain of the present time with the Covid-19 pandemic. We are watching as our health care and social services systems are being split under the load. We are being asked to isolate and avoid gatherings with loved ones. Death now becomes more than just the physical passing from this life, we are watching death play out in many different ways.

A story I read this week, “She didn’t know what else to say. As a mother, she had always steered well clear of religious clap-trap, even priding herself on not force-feeding her children to believe in anything when it came to spiritual matters. But then a beloved neighbor died. He had been a kindly old man whom this woman’s children had adopted as a kind of local grandpa. But now he was dead, and the woman’s young son was very upset. The little boy wanted to know why this had to happen. So his mother reached for some naturalistic rhetoric. “It’s just the way of the world, honey. It’s part of the natural cycle of all things, and so our friend has now returned to the earth. And next spring, when you see the daffodils and tulips coming up, you can know that your friend is helping to fertilize them.” The little boy did not hesitate. He shrieked, “But I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”

“In relating that story, author Peter Kreeft notes that indeed, even the non-religious in this world have a deep-down sense that humanity is meant to be more than fertilizer. Death is a natural part of the world, yet internally we rebel.” (Center for Excellence in Preaching)

We know that death is a part of life. We know that Jesus had to die, if not as he did, eventually of old age. The earth shook and the rocks split. Yet, within all of that, within all that is happening around us God is still present. God is still with us. Faithfully calling us to live out the gospel, even in our present time. Amen.

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.

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