Three Little Deaths

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45

Over the last six weeks, our Gospel lessons have been tracking Jesus’ movement. We began in the Roman garrison town of Ceasarea Philippi, then to Galilee, then south to Judea, and now we find ourselves on the road towards Jerusalem. In each of these places, Jesus performed wonders that restored people to health and wholeness. He also sparred with his opponents over various issues, and he taught his disciples many things. But one thing he taught them just didn’t sink in, and so he teaches it to them over and over again – three times to be exact – he teaches that he is walking to his death.

In Caeserea Philippi, after Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned, killed, and after three days rise again. Peter just can’t handle this information, so he tells Jesus off. As they pass through Galilee, Jesus tells them a second time he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. They don’t understand what he is saying, and they lapse into an argument about which of them is the greatest. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem. The time is near at hand. So Jesus tries one more time to prepare them for what is coming.

The problem is – we skipped those verses this week. For over a month, we’ve read every verse of chapters 9 and 10* of the Gospel according to Mark, and now suddenly we skip three verses. Apparently, the framers of our lectionary don’t think we need to hear all three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I disagree. So here’s the third one, which is sandwiched between last week’s Gospel reading and the one I just read.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

(Quick aside – They’re afraid because Jesus was relatively safe in the boondocks of Galilee, but his fame has spread south to Jerusalem, where he has few friends. Apart from his seemingly clueless disciples, no one thinks he’s coming home from this trip.)

The skipped verses continue: “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ ”

Of the three predictions, this last one is the longest and most explicit. It’s the only one that mentions his mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. In fact, all three predictions are different, but they all share one common phrase: he will be killed, and after three days he will rise again.

Even after this third most strident attempt, the notion that their Lord could ever suffer such an ignominious fate still doesn’t sink in. And once again, the disciples lapse into an argument about places of prominence when Jesus enters into glory. You can see that their current outlook is untroubled by such a mundane thing as reality. They are stubbornly unwilling to engage Jesus on such a weighty topic as life and death.

Or should I say death and life. This small distinction, this tiny flipping of two words, makes all the difference. The disciples put their fingers in their ears the moment Jesus starts talking about dying in Jerusalem, and so they miss the most important part. They miss that life comes after death. They miss the rising again.

And we miss it too. We miss the resurrection because we tend to place it in chronological order after our own physical deaths. This makes sense because the death of our bodies terrifies us, and so hoping in the resurrection gives us some comfort. Let me be clear, this chronological thinking about the resurrection is not wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. The whole picture is drawn on the canvas of eternity. If we believe we are given the gift of eternal life in the power of the resurrection, then we already have it – even now, here, this day, long before our physical deaths. Eternity, after all, has no start date.

But this eternal life, this resurrection life, does have one kind of beginning: the day we awaken to this beautiful reality, the day we decide to participate in God’s mission of renewal, the day we choose to live. This awakening doesn’t happen just once, God knows, but again and again – because, like the disciples, we are clueless and stubbornly unwilling some of the time. How does this awakening happen? Remember, we’re not talking life and death here. We’re talking death and life. Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death. Let me say that again: Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death.

Here’s what I mean. Notice that each time Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, he follows his disciples’ lack of understanding with a call for them and us to let little gangrenous pieces of ourselves die. After the first prediction, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – in other words, let your own will die. Too often, we let the selfish or petty or abusive or apathetic or ruthless pieces of ourselves take the wheel. We lapse into these death-dealing behaviors when we are scared, which is why Jesus tells us so many times not to be afraid. Let your will die a little death, he says, so mine can come alive in you.

After the second prediction, Jesus puts a little child among his quarreling disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome the lowest of the low – in other words, let your own presumption of privilege die. Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in death-dealing hierarchies – caste systems built around money or race or any number of ways we can differentiate ourselves from others. Let your presumption of privilege die a little death, says Jesus, so my compassion for all life can come alive in you.

And today, after the third prediction, Jesus silences the disciples anger toward James and John when he says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Serve each other – in other words, let your own complacency die. Too often, we expect life to be easy. We like to coast along, untroubled by the death-dealing evils of world around us. And to be honest, life is easy when we ignore everything that makes it hard. Jesus invites us to awaken to the power of servanthood so we can help others awaken to the power of the resurrection in their own lives. Let your complacency die a little death, says Jesus, so my mission of healing and reconciliation can come alive in you.

Three times Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Three times he encourages us to let parts of ourselves die little deaths in order that we might awaken again and again to the beautiful reality of resurrection life here and now. As we live into this reality, as we participate in resurrection life, remember this: our faith is not a matter of life and death. Jesus turned everything around, so our faith is really a matter of death and life.


*I lied a tiny bit. We also skipped verse 10:1.

One thought on “Three Little Deaths

  1. Thank you for reminding me of the “little deaths”, deaths we have to die in order to awaken to resurrection, to new life—I really needed to hear that. And for the insight that Eternity has no start date.

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