Earlier this year, our congregation hosted a series called “The Art of Dying.” The name came from Brother Aaron’s history knowledge: in Latin, it’s “ars moriendi” a 15th century Christian text that taught faithful people how to “die well.” The text was composed in the wake of the Black Plague, a pandemic that killed somewhere between 75 and 200 million people.
In the shadow of so much death, people were seeking ways to die well. The book was published in two versions – the shorter one composed of just 11 woodcut images that people could easily understand and memorize. What did it mean to “die well” in the 15th century? In the short version, it meant resisting five big temptations: lack of faith, despair, impatience, spiritual pride and avarice.
We don’t talk a lot about what it means to die a “good” death, these days, though that series we hosted over the winter was a great opportunity to consider some usually taboo topics. Our culture doesn’t like to talk about death at all, really. But, like in the 15th century, the last year’s plague has forced us to confront some of those questions. We have done some thinking, together, about what it might mean to die well.
What does it mean to die a good death? We spend so much time trying to avoid death altogether that we miss out on the opportunities to understand that there might be different kinds of death, different ways of dying, different meanings behind different endings.
In our text this morning, Jesus is talking about death. In John’s gospel, Jesus is kind of obsessed with “the hour.” He puts people off again and again when they try to compel him to reveal his divinity or tell more of the story saying that his “hour had not yet come.” But here, in chapter 12, Jesus is clear: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
And he follows that up with a strange little parable: “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 who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going to die. But he is also telling them something important about the KIND of death he will die: this will not be a worthless death; it will bear much fruit.
That doesn’t mean that Jesus is perfectly serene, facing his own earthly end. He says, immediately, “my soul is troubled, but I am determined to allow God’s name to be glorified.” And here, at this confession, a voice speaks from the heavens – just like at Jesus’ baptism, just like at Jesus’ transfiguration – and says “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” Some of the people standing there heard the voice, others heard what sounded like thunder.
Jesus sees their shocked faces, and says “the voice is for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
And John lets us know: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.”
The kind of death he was to die. Jesus spent a lot of time trying to explain to his disciples that he was GOING to die, but this line from John tells us that he also wanted them – and us – to understand the KIND of death he would die.
We don’t often think about different KINDS of deaths, do we? Even the idea of a “good death” or the “art” of dying is sort of hard to get our 21st century heads around. Our culture spends more time avoiding death altogether than it does sifting through the different kinds of deaths – good, bad, tragic, pointless, fruitful…
Can a death be…fruitful? Jesus seems to be saying that his own death will be this kind of dying. And, more than that, he also seems to be inviting us to consider signing up for it: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” he says.
Rev. Denise Anderson, in her commentary on this passage, reminds us that “change, even when welcomed, means death.” She tells a story about having the “unenviable task” of pastoring a congregation that was on the way toward being dissolved – the end of its life together. “We realized,” Anderson says, “that change would either happen with us or tow us. We could die to some things so that we could live to others, or we could hold onto what is and die with it. Only one of these is a faithful way forward.”
Our theme for this Sunday is “again and again, we are being reformed.” Jesus is trying to explain to his disciples that he is about to lose his life – and that this is both inevitable and FRUITFUL. And he is also inviting his disciples, then and now, to understand that dying to some things is the only way to live.
I do not think that Jesus is asking us, here and now, to become actual flesh and blood martyrs – although following Jesus is costly, and we have no real way of knowing where faithful discipleship will take us. I do not think that Jesus is asking us to hate ourselves. But I DO think that Jesus is telling us that unless we surrender all of our selves to God’s transforming love, we will not find the truth of abundant, eternal life.
There’s this weird part of Jesus’ comments in this passage, where he says “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Jesus is not talking just about Pilate or the Roman Empire when he talks about “rulers of this world,” and his words are not only referring to Donald Trump or other selfish world leaders who drag us into war and poverty.
The word “world” in this verse is “kosmos” in Greek, and it doesn’t mean the whole natural world that God created; it means the human hierarchies and structures that we impose on God’s creation. Some scholars say we might translate it as “the System.” Jesus says, as he invites all of us to learn how to die to some things in order to become fruitful followers: “Now is the judgment of this System; now the ruler of this System will be driven out.”**
The System imposes a structure of dominance, violence and death onto God’s good creation – it happened then, and it happens now. The System is not some conspiracy theory, hidden away in basements and back rooms; it is the powerful structures of society that govern how we live, act, and interact. In 2021 America, the System is better known as White Supremacy.
White Supremacy isn’t just an evil philosophy that attracts skinheads and neo-nazis, it is the operating principle behind nearly every one of our government agencies, societal institutions and habitual social customs. It isn’t just a few evil people pulling strings; it is an essential piece of the DNA of the American history, narrative and identity. Our nation was built on white supremacist assumptions: that all men are created equal (unless you are not white or don’t own property); that declares life liberty and happiness as the rights of man (unless you were a “merciless Indian savage,” as the Declaration of Independence names Native Americans. It has been present through slave labor, Japanese internment camps and police brutality, and it has been present through “voluntary” segregation, unjust hiring practices and centuries of economic inequality. The System is what some of us began to see as police murders of unarmed Black people began to fill the headlines over the last several years. The System of white supremacy is what motivated a young white Baptist man to kill eight people this week in Georgia spas, six of them of Korean and Chinese descent.
White supremacy is The System that governs us and that lives in us. It is what Jesus came to judge and drive out. And it is what Jesus asks us to die to.
I struggled for several days to say this in a way that made sense, and of course Rev. Dr. Barber said it so much better at a rally in Georgia yesterday:
Jesus told his disciples about The System, John tells us, because he wanted them – and us – to understand what kind of death he was going to die. Jesus consistently refused to participate in the System of his day – over and over again, he refused to retaliate with violence. Over and over again, he refused to inhabit roles of abusive power. Again and again, Jesus refused to participate in the System’s insistence on domination, violence and death.
And again and again, Jesus sets us free to die to the system, ourselves.
Our congregation has been working at exposing the System in our world and in our own hearts. We have been learning ways to recognize the System at work when we see it – and this is no small feat. For those of us who are white, the System of white supremacy is so deeply rooted that it often FEELS like dying when Jesus judges and drives it out of us. I know you know what I mean: that moment of defensiveness when someone confronts your prejudice, that feeling of shame or guilt when God convicts you about your own contributions to oppression. It does not feel good. It hurts. We want it to stop.
And there’s really good reason for this: it hurts because it is a death. Death of the System that is rooted inside of us. Death of pieces of ourselves that we were pretty dang attached to. Death of certainty. Death of being centered. Death of being right. Death of understanding the world around us.
This is what Jesus asks of us: to die to the System so that we can be set free to live for love. To move beyond our wants, beyond our fears, beyond the safety of the System into the truth of the gospel: that Jesus will draw all people to himself.
It is tempting to keep the System hidden, to make excuses, to distance ourselves from it in order to keep living these blissfully oblivious lives that we love. But Jesus is inviting us to come and see what is real and true, to peek behind the curtain and see for ourselves what is really happening. Jesus invites us to recognize the ugliness of the System’s ways and learn to hate them, so that we might learn how to live with love eternal.
Thanks be to God for those invitations, even when they hurt, even when they demand that we lose parts of ourselves. Thanks be to God, the one who knows us fully and wholly, in whose wisdom we can trust to cast out what needs to be cast out and hold fast what needs to be held fast. Thanks be to God for the example of Christ Jesus, dying in order to live, a grain of wheat falling to the ground in order to bear so much fruit. Amen.
**with gratitude to Charles L. Campbell’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2