Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 – Fifth Sunday of Lent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Psalm 51:10-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
Hymns: “Lift High the Cross”, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, “All the Heavens”, “O Jesus, I Have Promised”, “Jesus Calls Us O’er the Tumult”, “Let Us Break Bread Together”, “God of This City”
“Perhaps Today Is a Good Day to Die”
In the just over a year that I’ve been here, I’ve made more than one geeky pop culture reference in my sermons. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Marvel Comics have all made appearances, just to name a few. But there’s one that really has yet to make its presence known, and it really surprised me to realize it.
You see, Star Trek was sort of my entry point into geek culture, many, many years ago. It was the nerd counterpoint to my full-on commitment as a fan of the Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns. And there’s one Star Trek character who has been part of more of Star Trek than any other.
I’m speaking of the first Klingon to join Starfleet, Mr. Worf Rozhenko. In the mid-1980s, when he first appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he served as representation both for minority communities and for adopted children – orphaned in a space battle as a young boy, he was adopted by a pair of Russian scientists.
Worf appeared in 272 episodes across two series as well as five movies. By the third of those movies, Star Trek: First Contact, he has become the tactical officer for the space station Deep Space Nine, and regularly commands missions undertaken by the station’s battle cutter, USS Defiant. In First Contact, Defiant has been tasked with helping to defend Earth against the evil cybernetic race, the Borg. Unfortunately, Defiant is vastly outmatched and suffers severe damage. Before long, the only system still working on board the ship is her propulsion.
And so, believing that he can make a sacrifice that will put a stop to the Borg scourge once and for all, Worf sets course for their ship, growls, “Perhaps today IS a good day to die!” and orders the helm to engage ramming speed. But before Defiant can carry Worf to glory in the Klingon Valhalla, Sto’Vo’Kor, the heavy cruiser USS Enterprise comes swooping in from above, shielding Defiant and dealing a death blow to the Borg ship.
In other words, here we had a heroic figure, somebody not of this world, who had been adopted by human parents, who was ready to willingly sacrifice his life that everybody on Earth might live. Does that sound at all familiar?
Now, I’m not saying that Worf was supposed to be Jesus. But Star Trek has been chock-full of religious imagery, most of it Christian, since the first episode aired in 1966. And the Klingon language just so happens to have numerous fundamental similarities to Hebrew. And I mean, come on, he was ready to sacrifice his life to save EVERYBODY ON EARTH.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that in spite of having seen that movie at least twenty times in my life, I didn’t catch the religious symbolism of that scene until the middle of chaplain school, last October.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the Greeks who have come to see him that he must be “lifted up” onto the cross. Only through his death, he says, can new life be accomplished. And the hour for that death is coming soon.
This is not the only time in the Gospels that Jesus makes such a declaration. You may remember a few weeks ago, when he told his apostles that he must die – almost immediately after Peter’s confession of him as the Messiah. He also told them that if they wished to follow him, they must take up their own crosses.
Here, in this Gospel reading, Jesus goes a little bit further: you must die to yourself, he tells them. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Much like Nicodemus puzzled over the question of what it meant to be born again, so too do we sometimes wonder just what it means to die to ourselves. What does this death of self mean?
“Those who love their life will lose it,” Jesus explains. And just what does THAT mean? It’s certainly not something that fits with the culture we know today. We’ve been taught that we are meant to love our lives. Enjoy every minute you have, we’re told. Do the most that you can. Use every second of every day to improve yourself!
By no means is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t do that. What Jesus is saying that when we allow our worldly pursuits to eclipse the heavenly pursuits that God has set before is, we risk losing ourselves. We must willingly offer up ourselves as a sacrifice to God so that we may be used to do the work of God here on this earth.
And here, we see Jesus modeling that particular part of life for us. Before this crowd of strangers and a few of his apostles, he makes it clear that he is about to sacrifice himself so that the work of God could be done on earth. In fact, if you read John as a narrative rather than a collection of teachings, you could almost look at this as the point in the story where the hero realizes the sacrifice he must make, and willingly steps toward his destiny.
But we know that Jesus would resist that label of “hero”. The hero always gets an out. Look back at all those moments in nerd history – Mr. Spock died at the end of Star Trek II; the Genesis Planet brought him back in Star Trek III. Tony Stark flew a nuclear missile into the void at the end of The Avengers, only to fall back to Earth and be rescued by Bruce Banner. In Return of the Jedi, when our trio of heroes – Luke, Leia, and Han – were all prepared to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the Rebellion, a rampaging band of teddy bears struck a death blow to the Empire.
And yes, we can certainly say that Jesus gets an out as well – the empty tomb on Easter morning stands as testament to that. But Jesus didn’t do what he did simply to save lives. Jesus didn’t do what he did because of a spur-of-the-moment decision to take on the forces of evil.
No. This was where Jesus had been heading since Day One of his ministry. He knew that he was the Son of God, the beloved, with whom God was well pleased. He knew that his human life would end in sacrifice. And so, before he got to that point, he spent three years teaching as many people as he could about what it meant to die to yourself. He didn’t just want to stop the bad thing from happening to the good people – he wanted the good people to learn how to stop the bad things from happening on their own.
“Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” Jesus told the gathered Greeks. He wasn’t telling them to forsake the lives that they had, but rather to recommit their lives. Don’t commit yourself to the ways of the world, he told them. Commit yourself to living for God, to doing God’s will for the people of this world.
And what does that mean for us today?
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we acknowledge it before all of God’s people. We choose to be baptized, whether in physical water or simply in the grace of God, and we do it so that all people can see that we are a new creation.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we do so on faith, and not sight. We don’t come to believe simply because we have seen the might of God, but we come to believe because we have accepted that God loves us and wishes the best for us, that God would give us his only Son to be our teacher, our guide, our Messiah.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we do so in spite of our doubts. When we hear the call of God in our lives, we don’t resist what we’ve been told, but we accept it. Instead of fleeing from God’s presence, we step willingly into it, no matter what our misgivings may be.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we accept that we can follow him no matter the sins which we have committed and will yet commit. We believe that Jesus was given the authority to forgive sin, and we accept that gift of forgiveness freely, without demanding signs and miracles.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we choose to follow him wherever he may lead. The church, we realize, is not just these four walls that surround us. It is the people both within and without. All persons on earth are the beloved of God, and Jesus came for each one. Just as we lose our lives that we yet may live, so too are we called to proclaim the same word to the sinners.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we commit to the changes that are instilled in our lives. Whether the changes that our belief in Christ lead us to ministry as pastors or to serving those driven from their homes by war and violence, when we bear fruit, we fully commit our lives to that to which God has called us.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but in so doing, we take up the crosses of our lives. We recognize that we live in a world where being a Christian can lead to scorn, hatred, even persecution in some parts of the world. But we choose not to be ashamed of that fact. We choose to say, “I follow Jesus, and His church is my home,” and we truly mean it.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we accept that that choice means that some things have to change. We accept that if we are truly going to allow our grains of wheat to bear fruit, we’re going to have to drive some cows out of the sanctuary, kicking and mooing, so that that wheat can really grow.
It means that we don’t just choose to follow Christ, but we follow him with love. He came to show us love and not condemnation, and so we, when we die to the world so that we may live in Christ, show love and not condemnation to those around us.
When Jesus goes riding into the city of Jerusalem on the back of a colt, he is greeted as a king, but he comes as a teacher and a friend. He encourages us to live in the ways that he teaches, and he seeks that all should share in the eternal life of God’s glory. He offers himself to be lifted up as a sacrifice, serving as a model so that each of us may, too, look at the ways of our old lives, and say that perhaps today is a good day to die.