On death

Click here to listen to this 17-minute message.

(This sermon was preached on 25 August. I was away at the time, so unable to load it until now.)

The week leading up to this sermon was quite a challenge. A dear colleague of ours, Prof Tessa Hochfeld, was killed in a freak biking accident the previous weekend. During the week leading up to this sermon, I attended her funeral and lead a memorial service for her at our university. Tessa was one of those rare human beings – brilliant, compassionate, humble and rooted in social justice. Her death shook us all and was uppermost in mind during the week. So, it was inevitable that the question of death should become the topic of this sermon.

As it turned out, in the week after the sermon, another colleague of ours, Dr Memory Mathe, was brutally murdered, along with her domestic helper, Ms Pretty Moyo, by men who wanted her car. We buried Memory yesterday.

In addition, a spate of femicides in South Africa have led to a rising tide of anger, particularly among women, leading to demonstrations around the country. Uyinene Mrwetyana, a university student, was lured into a post office where she was raped and murdered. She also was buried yesterday. Death in all its forms has been prominent in our thoughts.

Death is not a comfortable topic for most people. We tend to shy away from it. We regard talking or thinking about death as morbid. We often shield children entirely from death. When an older person talks about dying, we often tell them to ‘buck up’. And when they are on their deathbed, we sometimes do more than we should to prolong their life, no matter how poor its quality, no matter their own wishes. Most of us appear to suffer from thanatophobia – the fear of death.

Christians are by no means exempted from this fear!

I have long thought that if Christians cannot talk openly about death, who can? We, of all people, should be able to look death in the eye and, while not welcoming it, not be afraid it.

In this message, I grapple with Biblical views on death. In simplistic terms, the scriptures present two views of death: death as bad and death as good. I walk us through these views and suggest a way forward for us as Christians to engage with death holistically.

I dedicate the message to Tessa Hochfeld and to Memory Mathe, Pretty Moyo, Uyinene Mrwetyana and other women who have died at the hands of men.

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Feature image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_in_Clouds_by_Sunset_2.jpg

Dying to live

Click here to listen to this 10-minute message.

I am still reeling at the destruction of Notre Dame through the fire yesterday. That cathedral was a symbol of God’s presence in France, and its burning reverberates powerfully with me. The burned church evokes images of Christ’s death on the cross. Like the cathedral, Christ is damaged and destroyed. Its devastation leaves an empty shell. We are shocked, dismayed. How is this possible?

But in John 12:20-36, Jesus talks about his own death, not as something to be avoided, and not even as something inevitable, but as something necessary, intended, perhaps even desirable. He uses the analogy of a seed, that must die in order to produce more seeds.

And he also says that we who follow him, must similarly die; that if we love this life on earth too much, we’re in trouble; that we need to hold on to it just lightly. Instead, if we follow him, through death, we will be with him in glory.

He raises the question of what we have to die to today. Of what in our lives needs to burn to the ground, so that something new can spring forth.

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Feature image: Interior of Notre Dame following the fire on 15 April 2019, CNN.

Being God’s Beloved: Day 34: The Death of God

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50).

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last” (Mark 15:27).

“Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).

“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

Jesus died on that cross.

God died on that cross.

This is a hard concept for many of us. We may prefer to think that just the human part of Jesus died on the cross. But, as I have noted before, Jesus Christ was a perfectly integrated person comprising both human and divine natures, blended together, distinct but inseparable. When Jesus suffered and died, God also suffered and died. That is the inevitable and right conclusion to draw in light of the incarnation.

Let me try to put this more precisely. When Jesus suffered and died, God the Son – the Second Person of the Trinity – also suffered and died. ‘God’ is shorthand for the triune God – Father, Son and Spirit. Of course, God the Father was not incarnate in Jesus; nor God the Spirit – only God the Son.

Let us step back a bit and reflect on this notion, which many Christians find hard to digest. Indeed, it is one of the great mysteries of our faith.

In the incarnation, which we reflected on back on Day 19, we saw how the eternal Son of God had to empty himself – we used the Greek word kenosis – in order to become human. It was a diminishing of God. Philippians 2 tells that for this to happen, the Son had to not consider equality with God something to be grasped. This suggests that the Son had to separate himself out from the perfectly intimate fellowship that had been enjoyed by the Godhead since before the beginning of time. God – Father, Son and Spirit – had spent eternity in the most wonderful and intimately connected relationship. At the incarnation, God the Son separates out from that fellowship in order to become small in order to become human.

This was a tremendous sacrifice for God to make – the Son experiences smallness and aloneness for the first time in his existence. And the Father and Spirit experience a gap between themselves, without the Son. What an amazing gift the incarnation is – God’s offering of Godself to be immersed in human form among us!

This separation of God from God – of Son from Father and Spirit – explains why Jesus spent so much time in prayer. He was working to maintain his fellowship with Father and Spirit, a fellowship that he had always taken for granted, but was now pulled apart by the incarnation.

Thirty something years later, as Jesus hangs on the cross, he draws closer and closer to a much greater separation, a much more fundamental pulling apart. He anticipates death. And he suffers with it.

When we think of Jesus’ suffering – and we have heard this often in sermons – we often emphasise Jesus’ physical suffering. To be sure, death by crucifixion is a grotesque way to die – too awful for me to even begin to write about. But in truth, many many people were crucified and Jesus’ crucifixion was no worse than anyone else’s. In fact, mercifully, he died quickly, while others lasted a day or two – a prolonged and agonising death. The physical suffering was bad, but this is not what crushed his heart.

An important aspect of Jesus’ suffering was the Cup of Suffering that he drank, on which we reflected on Day 31. While in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus anticipated this Cup, grappled with what he understood was coming, and eventually agreed to drink it. But on the cross, he did the drinking. He took into himself the sins of the whole world. The hatred and arrogance and carelessness that prompted his execution were devastating. This man of peace and love treated with such contempt and violence. I imagine my own sin – spread over the past 46 years – and Jesus drinking that. Ghastly! And then I imagine the sin of my family and friends, and then the whole world, and then the whole human race throughout history, together with this history of the world to come. I cannot conceive how deep that Cup must have been, how long it took to drink, how bitter its contents. Jesus the human and Christ the Son of God suffered.

But as his death was immanent, Christ Jesus experienced a new and most painful suffering – he realised that he would be entirely cut off from the Godhead. God the Son would die and be separated from God. The separation of the incarnation was a tremendous sacrifice, but nevertheless the Son still had a relationship with the Father and Spirit. But in death, this would terminate, and he would be cut off.

And so, “at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’– which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34, also Matthew 27:46). As his death approaches, Christ Jesus experiences separation from God – he experiences being completely alone. One theologian refers to this as Jesus’ experience of “Godforsakenness”.[1] Let us not take the easy route of thinking of this as the human Jesus experiencing the loss of the Son of God – as if the Son quickly abandoned the man just before he died. No! Let us affirm that when Jesus died, it was the whole divine-human person who died. And thus it was the whole divine-human person who experienced being forsaken by God.

It is so shocking. Almost overwhelming our mind as we try to contemplate the horror.

Can you try to imagine the devastation experienced by God the Father and God the Spirit, as they lose a third of the Godhead? The terrible rupture in God’s being? The huge hole as a third of God is ripped away? The terrible loneliness of death?

As much as Christ felt Godforsaken, so too the Father and Son, because they too had lost contact with the Second Person of the Trinity, with God. No wonder there was darkness and earthquakes – the whole cosmos reeled with the enormity of the death of God.

Perhaps you need to just pause here for a few minutes, and close your eyes, and consider what you’ve read.

 

 

We need to accept our part in perpetrating this terrible deed. We may feel that because it occurred before our time, we personally did not do this. But in the cross, all time – past, present and future – come together, and so we were as much a part of it as those who cried out “Crucify him!”. The Cup of Suffering contained our sin also. And it was his drinking of that Cup that resulted in Jesus’ death. It was the collective sin of the entire human race that did this. And you and I are members of that race. We did this to God.

This is the part of Easter that should cause our hearts to be wrenched asunder. That I should have done this to God.

In my church, on Maundy Thursday evening, the day before Good Friday, we strip the sanctuary. In other words, we carry everything out from the front of the church – all chairs, tables, books, decorations, flowers, linen, everything. All that is left is the altar – stripped naked. And the lights are dimmed. And we leave in silence. It always devastates me.

Then on Good Friday afternoon, we have a three-hour service, where we keep vigil at the cross during Jesus last hours, until he dies, and then we leave in silence. This long, quiet, contemplative service is often excruciating. I want to run away from the terribleness of it – I can barely bear to stay at the cross.

By the time I get home on Good Friday, I am a spiritual and emotional wreck. I stay at home quietly until Easter Sunday. I cannot go out, cannot go shopping, cannot get together with family. I am immobilised. It feels like a lead weight is resting on my heart. I can’t breathe.

This is the death of God.

It is time to be silent.

Meditation for the Day

Make some time to be silent. To just sit with this. To not rush off to something happier. To not sugar coat it.

Prayer for the Day

Lord, forgive me.

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[1] Moltmann, J. (1993). The crucified God. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, p. 227.