the witness of a Greek God-fearer
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:17-32
Death seems to be so final, doesn’t it? And yet, sometimes the lines between death and life seem to blur. We came to worship at the Passover festival here in Jerusalem bearing the remains of our family members to be buried here. We are not children of the covenant – but we are called God-fearers. We are moved by the devotion of the children of Zion, though even they do not all agree that there is some kind of life after death. Perhaps there will be a general resurrection when the messiah comes. Some believe that eternal life will come first to those whose bodies wait near the temple mount – even those who were not children of the covenant. So, some of us make pilgrimage here – not every year from such a tremendous distance – perhaps once or twice in a lifetime – to connect with this holy place and seek atonement for our sin in the temple, and to bury our dead. Ours is a pilgrimage of both the living and the dead. I carry the remains of my father – empty flesh now for more than a year.
This is my first time in the holy city. I’m overwhelmed by its beauty, its golden stone walls and paving, its marble-clad temple and gilded braziers, its fragrant gardens. It is a glorious city of life. I have been overwhelmed as well by its darkness and squalor, and the pervasive odor of death. The hills, as we approached, were dotted with the posts of Roman crosses – some of them still bearing human remains, being pecked at by dark clouds of carrion birds. It is a city of life and death. Just across the valley is the necropolis where the dead wait in their tombs. I’m sorry to dwell so much on death, especially in the spring of the year, when trees and flowers bloom, nests are filled with newly hatched chicks, and cavorting lambs dot the hillsides too.
Just before our arrival in the city we passed through Bethany and heard of an incident that further blurs the lines between life and death. A man, a teacher from Nazareth in Galilee, a healer they say, had just been called to the home of a dying friend. He arrived too late and all the town was weeping for one of their beloved neighbors. But upon the Nazarene’s arrival he went straight to the tomb of his friend and called out to him. The man arose and came out. The people were astonished. What had become of the boundaries of death and life in the presence of this compassionate healer?
Word traveled fast, and we followed the rumor into the city. When we arrived, we learned that this Jesus had gone on before us and was teaching in the city. We found one of his disciples, also a Greek speaker – also from Galilee. We wondered, could we see him. For we bear the remains of our loved ones. Could he restore them as well? Could he call my father out from the darkness of death? Perhaps if we could just see him. That disciple went and found another, and together they made their way to where the rumored master of life and death was teaching. We followed. If we could just see him. If we could just call out to him. If he would just glance our way – just see us. My father might also be brought back to the living.
As we made our way closer we saw that a crowd had gathered to hear this Jesus. He seemed so ordinary, and yet he was clearly filled with prophetic spirit and authority. In that golden city, everything seemed to glow with a golden light, and he was bathed in it too. There was no hope of pressing through the crowd, but we saw the disciples we had met come up to him, speak to him, and turn to point in our direction.
He looked up and my heart leapt.
He saw me across the crowd as if I were within arm’s reach.
He saw the burden I bore, and I heard as if whispered in my ear, “Put your burden down. It is safe with me.”
Then he turned to the crowd and spoke, still as if to me, as if to answer the questions of my heart.
He was saying to us, “No matter what you are going through, no matter how much it hurts or how difficult it is to imagine a future with hope, I promise you, you are not alone. I am with you to the end of the age.”
● One day, you will have work again.
● One day, your divorce will be a thing of the past.
● One day, shame will no longer control your life.
● One day, your grief will become manageable, and you will smile and laugh again.
● One day, you will no longer be a slave to your addiction.
● One day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
● One day, the sins of the past will all be forgotten, and you will be given a fresh start. The slate will be wiped completely clean.
The days are surely coming.
“Very 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. Those fond of their life destroy it, and those who reject their life in this system will set it aside for life without beginning or end.”
Though he spoke in a normal voice, his words struck me like lightening and thunder. He spoke as if it were the beginning of creation. Indeed a new world, a new system was opening before me – a system in which life and death are part of a single whole – a promise that all will be reconciled.
He said, “Now is the crisis of this system; now the authority of this system is repudiated. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to me.”
With that, he was swallowed up in the crowd.
But not before he saw me one last time, as if to say, “Follow me.”Or did that voice come from somewhere deep inside?