Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
March 25, 2012
March 25, 2012
In the early 70s we were living in Illinois when I first encountered John Woolman (1720-1772) while reading Elton Trueblood’s (1970) book The New Man for Our Time. Trueblood
described Woolman as someone who could think, act and pray. John Woolman was a
great Quaker saint who lived in Mt. Holly, New Jersey and championed Christian
social justice before the American Revolution. Trueblood’s book got me to read John Woolman’s Journal and Essays. It is a spiritual classic on a par with Augustine’s Confessions, Pascal’s Pensées and Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. I read how he silently got up and walked out of dinner when he discovered his host kept slaves. He was a tailor and refused to wear or work on any fabrics whose dyes were involved in the slave trade. I read how he left his tailor shop each afternoon to walk up the block to Three Tuns Tavern to encourage the iron workers to only have one drink and take the rest of their day’s pay home to their families. At the time I had no idea we would move to Mt. Holly, New Jersey in 1980. Three Tuns Tavern is still there, is now called The Mill Street Hotel, and is still a center of alcohol abuse and violence. It is only about 3
blocks south of 1st Presbyterian Church where I served for 17 years. Just a couple blocks west is the Friends Meeting House where John Woolman worshipped, which the British used as a commissary when they occupied Mt. Holly during the American Revolution. I walked past the Friends Meeting House several times every week. John Woolman died of small pox in England, where he is buried, but his wife Sarah is buried behind the Friends Meeting House and a
memorial stone for John is next to hers. Every year on Martin Luther King Day the churches of Mt. Holly held a commemorative march from 2nd Baptist Church to 1st Presbyterian Church and stopped for a moment of silence by those memorial stones in honor of John Woolman.
Woolman’s whole Journal, indeed his whole life, is interpreted by one particular entry.
I then heard a soft, melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice on an angel who spoke to the other angels. The words were, “John Woolman is dead.” I greatly wondered what that heavenly voice could mean.
I was then carried in spirit to the mines, where poor oppressed people were digging rich treasures for those called Christians, and heard them blaspheme the name of Christ, at which I was grieved, for his name to me was precious. Then I was informed that these heathens were told that those who oppressed them were the followers of Christ, and they said among themselves, “If Christ directed them to use us in this way, then Christ is a cruel tyrant.”
All this time the song of the angel remained a mystery, and I was very desirous to get so deep that I might understand this mystery. At length I felt divine power prepare my mouth that I could speak, and then I said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me, and the life I now live in the flesh [is] by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20, KJV). Then the mystery was opened, and I perceived there was joy in heaven over a sinner who had repented, and that the language “John Woolman is dead” meant no more than the death of my own will.
John Woolman understood, as we saw in the Gospel last Sunday, that death and eternal life are not distant future events but are daily realities. Lent is an uncomfortable season as we focus on our mortality and sin. Yet our Lenten journey culminating as we walk through Holy Week is the path not just to resurrection for Jesus and for us, but is the gateway to abundant, eternal life
Death is usually understood as the end of physical life, but the message of the Gospel is that death is the beginning of life. In relationship with Jesus, death opens flourishing life now.
As strange as it may seem, the contemplation of our mortality has long been understood as a positive, healthy spiritual discipline.
Perhaps you remember the Robin Williams film Dead Poets Society in which English teacher, John Keating impresses his young students with the brevity of life and urges them to pursue their dreams with the aphorism from Horace carpe diem – “seize the day!” Though with a view to God rather than ourselves, the sentiment is not far from Psalm 39:4 “Lord, let me know my end
and what is the measure of my days.” Or Psalm 90:12 “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
The fading flower is a recurrent image of the brevity of life in both Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Matthew 6:30 (Luke 12:28)
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
1 Peter 1:24-25 (James 1:11)
For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” That word is the good news that was
announced to you.
When Jeremiah wrote, Israel seems on the verge of death. The Northern Kingdom had been obliterated, and Judah was exiled in Babylon. As we read this morning in 31:31-34, out of the death of the broken covenant, God brings a new covenant in which all will know God and have God’s righteousness within. The Gospel, the entire New Testament springs from this promise. Out of the death of exile comes the resurrection to eternal life!
In John 12:20-33 Jesus changes the image of death from fading flowers to fruitful seed. [Tell passage.]
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip
went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father,
glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
The fruitfulness of the dying seed is not just a symbol of Jesus crucifixion and resurrection, but it is a metaphor for the totality of being his disciples.
John’s Gospel does not include an account of Jesus prayerful agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Instead, it tells how even before he got to the Garden, Jesus had been praying with determination as the hour of crucifixion approached. Hebrews 5:7 describes this praying as reverent submission.
John’s Gospel also does not report Jesus’ Transfiguration. Yet, the Father speaks from Heaven to confirm that Jesus is on the path of glorifying the Father, as paradoxical as that may seem. The
Heavenly voice affirms that the Father has been glorified in the past and will be glorified in the future.
With the emphatic NOW Jesus commits to glorifying the Father in the present. NOW is the
judgment of this world, NOW the ruler of this world will be driven out, Jesus confirms the immediate reality of eternal life. In relationship with Jesus, death opens flourishing life NOW.
Many monastic orders have found unusual ways to include the contemplation of personal mortality as a regular spiritual discipline. We may find them odd if not macabre. Sometimes the
first task for a monk after taking vows is to build his own coffin which will serve as his bed until he is buried in it. The cemetery of a monastery in New Mexico is in front of the refectory where they take their meals. A fresh grave is always open and ready. A fresco at the Basilica of St. Benedict in Subiaco, Italy shows a monk using decaying bodies to instruct young men about the
brevity of life. I don’t think Emily will add that to our youth ministry curriculum.
John Woolman heard the heavenly song, “John Woolman is dead” and that was when his flourishing, fruitful life began. When we know we are already living the eternal life Jesus has given us, the contemplation of our own mortality becomes a loving look ahead, not so much at the grave or even to life beyond the grave, but anticipation of eternally increasing intimacy with God in Jesus. As 1 Corinthians 15:26 says, death is still the last enemy, but Jesus has defeated and driven out this enemy. Since Jesus has already opened the flourishing of eternal life to us, we need not dread the contemplation of our own mortality. Rather, we can release ourselves to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.
I think many of us can identify with what Ralph Milton wrote in his Sermon Helps for Preachers with a Sense of Humor.
I’m afraid that I have passed my “best before...” date. I’m not sure when it happened – just that it has happened. I don’t have the energy I had in my twenties, the commitment I had in my forties, and I don’t even seem to have all the memory cells I had in my sixties. I’m on the downhill side of life. When the flame finally burns down, I shall want someone with me. Someone to hold my hand, to stay near me as I take life’s final step. I will not want information or theory about companionship, or community, or caring. All the doctrine and dogma in the world cannot replace
a real relationship. When it really matters, all I’ll want is to feel God there with me, holding my hand.
The Prayer of St. Francis ends by embracing the reality that in relationship with Jesus, death
opens flourishing life now. I invite you to pray it with me.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving
that we receive;
it is in pardoning
that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying
that we are born to eternal life
through Jesus Christ our Lord.