Matthew 16:21-24, 17:22-23, 20:17-19
Isaiah 53:3-6 I Corinthians 1:17-25,
Death is universal. It happens to all things. It will happen to us. But when it happens to our families and friends it shocks us. There is something about it that does not seem right at all. Our heads say that death is normal. Our hearts tell us that it’s not. It is a violation. Even when a person dies full of years, and is content to go, there is still that sense of confusion among we who are left. Death appears to be one of the most meaningless events in life, and perhaps that is so because God has placed a sense of immortality within us. He has set eternity in our hearts.
But the confusion we feel is increased when death is premature or when the death is totally unexpected. It is as though we have come to the end of the story when we haven’t even gotten out of the first chapter. It is as though a painting that showed wonderful promise has been stopped in the middle of a brush stroke. It is as though a song of incredible sweetness was cut off in full swell. It appears to be so tragic. Death has cut a life short before its goal was reached. Some of us know of such deaths in our families and among our friends.
The New Testament tells the story of such a man. He was 33 year young. He had shown immense promise. He was a leader in the spiritual and moral life. He brought wholeness to those he encountered. People followed him gladly. He was the first person in their lives who made sense. He brought a sense of purpose wherever he went. Life took on new meaning when he was there. Hope sprang eternal in his coming. And then on a certain Friday he was led to a place of execution and was killed. What a stupid thing for us to do! Talk about meaninglessness. It looked like the most meaningless events to happen in all of human history.
But it is interesting to note, that those who knew Jesus best, went on to tell a very different story. They rush in to tell us that His death was not life’s worst disaster, but history’s most significant event.
1. The centrality of His death in the Gospels
There are four books that we call Gospels. They tell the story of Jesus.
The first one written was the Gospel of St. Mark. It is an surprising book. It begins by jumping into the story about Jesus just a few months before the end of his life. When the story begins Jesus is in his early 30’s. Just beginning his ministry. And a couple of pages into the book we begin to hear about a plot on his life. Half of the book is spent showing how he approached his impending death, and then comes to climax in his death and resurrection. But the book is clear. It is a not so much a story about how a man lived but a story of how a man died.
The Gospel of Matthew is not that different. It adds a story about his birth, then skips 30 years until a few months before his death. But even Matthew’s birth story has a nasty note. It tells the story of how Herod went out of his way to try to kill the baby and how that child was rescued for the moment, but came back later to face his death.
In fact if you read all four of these gospels you will notice a strange phenomenon. It is as though the 4 stories were on fast forward for the story of his life, and then suddenly the tape is run in slow motion for the story of the last week. 25% of their stories deal with his final days. The tellers of this story do not want us to miss the important part. The story of His death. They are convinced that the most significant event in His life, was His death.
2. The centrality of His death in Paul
But it is not only the Gospel writers who share this strange perspective. St. Paul, the great Apostle tells the same story in his own way. Paul writes all of his letters before the very first Gospel is written. His 13 letters formed the first part of our New Testaments. He has a lot to say about Jesus.
But Paul has a stunning lack of interest in the life of Jesus. He does not quote any of the teachings of Jesus. He hardly refers to the miracles he performed. If we were limited to Paul’s writings for our photograph of Jesus, we would know very little about Him, except for this: Jesus suffered, died, was buried, rose again from the dead and ascended to heaven. But if we were to charge Paul with telling us too little he would be quick to respond. But I have given you the essential bits. The rest is just nice to have, but not crucial. For St. Paul the important reality was that Jesus of Nazareth died for us.
Paul will declare throughout the thirteen books he wrote, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” He glories in the cross of Christ. He tells one congregation, “the message of the cross is foolishness to some, but to we that believe, it is the power of God.” (I Cor. 1:18) He can say “We preach Christ, crucified.” And to another congregation, “May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Gal 6:14) Paul knew that the central event of history was not a life lived to the full, but a death, that on the surface seemed so meaningless, but which had become the one event that made sense out of the rest of life.
By the way, it is not just Paul’s letters. It is central focus of all the other N.T. books as well all the way to the Book of the Revelation, when St. John records the new song being sung in heaven. The gathered choirs sing to Jesus, “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open the seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Then John heard the voices of hundreds of millions singing “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise.” Because the One who was slain, by means of his death, won an astounding victory.
3. The Centrality of His death in the Lord’s Supper
The New Testament is aflame that the most important event in life, was death. His death.
But they did not invent that idea. It comes from Jesus Himself.
There are only two events from the entire life of Jesus that he asks his disciples to remember.
They occur very close to each other in time. The first one involves a woman who coming into a banquet gathering begins to weep and wet the feet of Jesus with her tears. And then she breaks open a vial of very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus with it. Some protest the waste. But Jesus responds, “Why do you trouble the woman. She has performed a good service… by pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The second event also deals with his impending death. It is the night of the betrayal. Jesus takes bread and wine and initiates the first communion service. Listen to the words, “He took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, he broke it and said “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also after supper saying “This cup is the New covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it,
in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
Jesus is ensuring that with all of the forgetfulness of the human mind, that the symbolizing of his death will not be forgotten. It is Jesus Himself who asks us to focus our minds on his death.
It is Jesus own way of saying that the event of His death is the central event in His life and ours.
4. The Symbol of our Faith
But one more note needs to be noted. The church as it evolved through the following centuries kept faith with the message of Jesus and the Apostles. They chose very early a symbol for their faith. A symbol is a short form of something that would take much longer to describe.
The church did not choose the symbol of the dove, though the Holy Spirit was crucial in their lives. They did not choose a manger scene, though they celebrated his birth with joy. Neither did they choose the symbol of an empty tomb. Though again, there could be no life without it.
If they could only choose one primary symbol, let it be the cross. It spoke to the central issue of history.
That cross was placed on top of its buildings. The cruciform shape became the most frequent architectural pattern for the construction of churches. Crosses were placed on interior walls, and on altars, and on banners, and today it is on necklaces, and earrings as a mark of identity. It has been chosen because it is the primary symbol of our life: a symbol of his death.
But the church did one more thing to keep central in our minds, the central event of history. They worked on the Calendar. They established the season of Lent, which began this past Wednesday. They marked off seven weeks on the calendar, and asked us to think about his death and resurrection for the next seven weeks. In December they marked off four weeks for Advent, for us to think about his birth. But they wanted seven weeks for the more important event that remembers his death.
Were they morbid? Oh no. They simply did not want us to forget that it was His death, that looked so meaningless, that added meaning to our own lives and our own deaths. They did call the day he died, “Good Friday”! They knew it was Good News!
And in the next two weeks I want to share with you how his death makes our life well worth the living.
* Hymn # 98 “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”