Palm Sunday is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ active ministry on earth. His arrival in Jerusalem, foretold in the millennia before he took human form, sets into motion all of the events of Holy Week. This post is based on a sermon I delivered at Shoregate UMC this morning as part of the series “7 Last Words”, focused on the final words Jesus spoke on the cross.
In John 19:29-30, we read:
A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. When Jesus had tasted it, he said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and released his spirit.
“It is finished” seems about in the middle of the road as far as famous last words, but there is so much rich meaning in those three words. In that moment, it wasn’t only Jesus’ mortal life that drew to a close. His final breath ended a life, yes, but also an active ministry and a time of learning. Most importantly, it ended humanity’s indebtedness to sin – for when Jesus gave his life on the cross, he did so to pay the price for the sins of the world.
In fact, the scripture passage above contains an important reference to this holy sacrifice: the hyssop branch used to deliver sour wine to Jesus’ lips. For millennia before and in millennia since, different oils and substances have been used for anointing in the temple. Jesus even refers to this when Lazarus’ sister Mary anoints his feet with a jar of expensive perfume (“she did this for my burial”, John 12:7b) Kings, priests, wedded couples, the dead – each has a scent. Rachel Held Evans spends an entire chapter in Searching for Sunday breaking down the different elements. Hyssop was used to cleanse and consecrate the temple.
Jesus is an active participant in leaving this world to return to heaven. He “releases his spirit” – he feels death and steps courageously into it. The picture I get in my head is from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest – 10 year spoiler alert – when Captain Jack Sparrow stares into the mouth of the Kraken, knowing that it has come for him and rushing headlong to meet it.
Or perhaps like the youngest brother in the “Tale of the Three Brothers” from the Harry Potter series. After years of wearing the Invisibility Cloak, the old man removes it and greets death like an old friend.
But Jesus doesn’t delay or deny his inevitable death even before he enters Jerusalem. From the very beginning of his life and ministry on earth he knows that his death on the cross, and what it will create, is his purpose. Consider his exchange with a group of Pharisees at the end of Luke 13. The Pharisees warn Jesus that his radical ministry has attracted the notice of King Herod Antipas, who wants to kill him. Hear his response in verses 32-33:
Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox that I will keep on casting out demons and healing people today and tomorrow; and the third day I will accomplish my purpose. Yes, today, tomorrow, and the next day I must proceed on my way. For it wouldn’t do for a prophet of God to be killed except in Jerusalem!” (emphasis mine)
Jesus reveals quite a bit in this comment. He says “on the third day I will accomplish my purpose,” referring to his death of course but also alluding to his resurrection – the transition of his death on the cross is necessary for him to leave the tomb on the third day, and there is a meaningful parallel here. In Christianity, mortal death is a necessary stop on our journey from what we understand as “life” here on earth to the eternal, glorious true life that awaits us at the right hand of Christ. Words will never be invented to capture the awesomeness of that promise.
And yet, we fear death and change as things to be avoided, whispered about, delayed as long as possible. We are like Voldemort – we may not murder others and physically store pieces of our soul in different objects, but we seek the modern Muggle equivalent of immortality. We pour ourselves into technology and social media to create a digital autobiography. We strive for greatness in our careers to perhaps leave a legacy that will land in the history books…or at least warrant a fond mention at family reunions. We push for medical treatments that will push the limits of what our bodies can achieve and keep them in some working order for as long as possible.
We acknowledge death only in hushed tones. When the goal is immortality, death can only be considered a loss.
I think back to Sweetest Day in 2013. Brian and I had been working on our end-of-life wishes in the months since Arthur’s birth – beginnings inevitably conjure images of endings – so we visited Western Reserve Memorial Gardens to price out cemetery plots and burial services. Great date, huh?
During our meeting, the director told us that he was used to seeing couples in their upper 80s who were only just beginning the process…usually because someone close to them had died or they were ill and could no longer put off the decision.
Now, Jesus didn’t have to worry about his tomb because he knew he wasn’t staying in it for very long.
After all, death leads to resurrection.
In her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says that following Jesus is “about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.” As someone whose own path to ministry began with a death, she knows intimately of which she speaks. (I highly recommend Pastrix to any and all if you want to learn more about Pastor Bolz-Weber. You can also find her on Twitter @sarcasticluther)
Death, and resurrection.
Death clears away the old to make way for the new. When the tall, ancient trees in a forest fall or are cut away, the sunlight filters down onto younger saplings which may then grow tall and strong. Jesus leaves behind his mortal life and ministry so he can rise from the tomb and send the apostles to spread the Good News of his resurrections throughout the world. Every ending, every change or time of transition, is an opening for God to do His most beautiful work.
In preparing for this sermon I started thinking about some of the places of transition in our lives where we can see God at work if we pay attention. I thought about rainbow babies, the children born to couples following a pregnancy or infant loss – the bright rainbow of hope after the storm of tragedy. A rainbow was God’s promise to Noah of a new beginning for humanity after the Great Flood, so the term is apt. I am a rainbow baby, conceived six weeks after my parents lost a pregnancy they had awaited for three years. I can’t imagine the devastation of that loss, but I am the living, breathing, and pretty cool proof of God’s work in their tragedy.
Transition is also the most intense stage of labor, where the laboring mother does the most work before she pushes her child into the world. I made the choice with both Arthur and Zara to birth without medication, so I can remember the pain and emotion of both transitions without much difficulty. There was fear and pain, of course, but there was also fierce love and the anticipation of meeting each of my children for the first time.
Another very important but still too-often marginalized group undergoes transitus to varying degrees: transgender individuals. In a way, a death does have to occur for a transgender person to live into the person they are meant to be. The identity assigned to them at birth – biological sex, often names, their thoughts and dreams of who they might be – must pass away in order for them to be reborn into a physical identity that matches their gender identity. I can only speak of this as an observer and ally, but I would love to hear from any readers who are transgender and would like to share their experience.
To follow Jesus, we must become experts in death and resurrection and embrace times of transition. In Luke 9:23-24:
“Then he said to the crowd, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.”
Mark 8:34 is nearly identical. Later, in Luke 14:27:
“And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.”
“So you cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own.”
Scripture is clear and unquestionable – to be true disciples requires that we die to ourselves, turn away from our sinful natures. We have to embrace death – or, change – from a focus on the things of the world and open our selves to the life that Christ offers us. When we invite Christ to work in us we each become, so to speak, spiritual rainbow babies. In 2 Corinthians 5:17: “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” Or, as my devotional yesterday phrased it, “You begin where you end and I begin.”
This Holy Week, my prayer is to follow Christ’s walk to the cross in a way that I hadn’t considered before. Dying to the things of the world is uncomfortable and often unpleasant, and Jesus guarantees that it will cost us the things we hold most dear. Each of us will face our own kraken. But I pray that I will be open to facing mine with the sure knowledge of the new life Christ promises when we take the leap.
Prayers for a blessed and meaningful Holy Week!
All product links are provided through my Amazon Associates account, which does provide me a small commission for any purchase.