Dear Disciples of Jesus throughout the North American Lutheran Church:
May the Lord bless your journey with Him through the Easter Triduum!
In the Easter Gospel reading from the 24th chapter of Luke, I was captivated by the words the angels spoke to the women as they stood inside the tomb looking for Jesus.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words (Luke 24:5-8 NIV).
According to Luke’s Gospel, Jesus clearly tells His disciples about His death three times prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. The first occurs just after Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20 NIV). Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.” Jesus not only tells them about His impending death, but He reminds them that following Him will mean self-denial and taking up their cross daily. What follows is the powerful event of the Transfiguration. They see Jesus in His glory.
Another time, on their way into Jerusalem, Jesus took His disciples aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again” (Luke 18:31-33 NIV).
Again, after healing a demon-possessed boy and while everyone was marveling at all that Jesus was able to do, He told His disciples about His impending death (Luke 9:44).
In each of these passages Luke reminds us that the disciples didn’t understand. They couldn’t grasp the meaning of His words, and they were afraid to ask about it. Instead of trying to understand it, they began to argue about who was greatest! Jesus knew their thoughts and placed a child in their midst and reminded them: “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (Luke 9:48 NIV).
By the time we get to this passage, Jesus has called His disciples, taught them who He is and the nature of His kingdom. The disciples have observed the power of His love to heal and transform the lives of others. They have been empowered with that same love and they too have touched the lives of others with preaching, teaching and healing in His name. Jesus wanted them to know the rest of the story.
He also realized that this would be a very difficult subject for the disciples to comprehend. It would touch them more deeply than any other teaching about the Kingdom. In an intimate setting, Jesus wanted to teach them about His passion, His suffering, death and resurrection. Those who have experienced the death of a loved one in which there was time for honest conversation about the end of life here know what that is like.
The end of His public ministry in Galilee was approaching, and Jesus wanted the disciples to have a clear picture of where He was headed — to Jerusalem and a cross. He tells them He is going to hand over His life or give His life.
Mark uses the word “betrayed” and that may make it seem as though what is about to unfold is simply the work of others. Judas has a part in this passion, but there is a far more powerful hand at work. No one is taking away Jesus’ life. Rather, Jesus is giving His life for the forgiveness of sin, for the reconciliation of the world, for the salvation of all who believe.
Luke makes it clear that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask Him. It is not because the disciples were stupid that they didn’t understand. It is rather the shock of dealing with the reality of the imminent death of a dear friend and teacher, one who had become their Master and Lord, one who was the chosen one, the Messiah, the Savior.
After traveling with Him for just a few years, Jesus is telling them that there is an end coming that will be very difficult for them.
In the grieving process, first comes the shock and then denial. It is a normal reaction to resist letting the reality of the death of a loved one enter our lives. We refuse to accept it. We refuse to permit this new reality to displace our current reality. We deny it to avoid the pain and grief associated with it. The disciples were afraid to ask not because they didn’t know what Jesus said but because the implications were so overwhelming they were not sure they wanted to know more. They knew they should have asked, but emotionally the answer was not able to find a place in their hearts. So they said nothing about His teaching.
Put yourself in their place for a moment. You have been following Jesus for several years. He is now telling you what is in store for Him — suffering, rejection, death and then resurrection.
I know what question I would be asking: “If that is what is going to happen to Him and I am following Him, what is in store for me?” The denial would have expanded exponentially! There is so much behind their saying nothing. Their minds are spinning and their hearts are pounding with fear and apprehension. They are preoccupied with their own anxiety and grief.
Around 385 AD, St. John Chrysostom wrote these words about the disciples’ response to Jesus. “If ignorant, how could they be sorrowful? Because they were not altogether ignorant. They knew that He was soon to die, for they had continually been told about it. But just what this death might mean, they did not grasp clearly, nor that there would be a speedy recognition of it, from which innumerable blessings would flow. They did not see that there would be a resurrection. This is why they grieved.”
The problem with dealing with death is that it brings our lives to nothing, to a point of meaninglessness. It forces us to deal with a common denominator — we are all mortal. We will all die. No matter how much power, money or possessions we accumulate, the same end awaits all — the heart stops, we draw one last breath and life here ends. Regardless of how little or how much we have accomplished, we will die. Regardless of how popular or how unnoticed our lives are, we all face the same end. No one makes it out of this life alive!
Dealing with death is a struggle, but failing to deal with death is deadly. It leads to a fruitless struggle, the compromising of values and the manipulation of others. It creates a more profound meaninglessness than what we were trying to avoid in our denial of death.
The question about greatness is a very human response to the denial of death. We avoid the commonality of our annihilation by replacing it with a question about being someone great, as if our greatness could preserve us. Rather than the commonality that death forces us to face, we desire to focus on what will make us stand out, giving us a unique position above others, over others.
Jesus clearly knew what the disciples were talking about, so He asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” They had been arguing with one another about who was the greatest. Jesus could tell at this point that they were still struggling with His teaching about His passion. Their response was a human response to the reality of death.
But Jesus did not miss the chance to influence their worldview. Life in His kingdom is different. In this world where people fail to deal with death, they seek to be the greatest. But in the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35 ESV).
As Jesus trained His first followers, He called them, taught them about His identity and the nature and characteristics of His kingdom. They experienced the power of that Kingdom in Jesus’ ministry, preaching, teaching, healing and casting out demons. They had experienced the reality of the kingdom of heaven worldview and now the challenge is: Are they ready to begin to live in the reality of that Kingdom even now?
This invitation challenged Jesus’ disciples to live lives completely transformed by His reign, integrated into a wholeness that is possible only through Jesus. This new life and freedom are only possible through obedience to Jesus and all He commands. Such a transformed life becomes a model for others.
Jesus describes that new life in Him: Instead of the highest honor, pursue the things in last place, pursue being the least valued of all, pursue being the lowliest of all, pursue being the smallest of all, pursue placing yourselves behind others.
Dealing with death frees us for such a life! The implication for discipleship is obvious. The one who follows Jesus in the way of the cross must live a life of sacrifice and service.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “The cross is laid on every Christian. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death — we give over our lives to death. When Christ calls a person, he bids him come and die. … But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ” (The Cost of Discipleship, pages 89, 91).
Life in Christ starts with death. That is precisely what we proclaim in Baptism. Any Gospel that does not deal with the reality of death is no Gospel at all.
At every funeral we speak these words from Romans 6: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him by Baptism into death so that as Christ was raised by the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
From the beginning of our lives in Christ we are dead men walking. That is both Law and Gospel. We are dead men walking — dead to sin. We are walking — we are living a new life in Christ, even now! Failing to deal with death is deadly as it prevents us from true faith.
This reality frees us for the priorities of the kingdom of heaven, for ministry and mission, and for true discipleship, following Jesus.
We can live by faith or fear. Jesus invited His disciples to live with the reality of death without fear. This is where the reception of a child has its place. Jesus places the child in His arms and says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Luke 9:48 NIV).
Children live totally dependent on the love of parents and adults around them. They are trusting and not naturally fearful. They learn distrust and fear, but a far more natural disposition of children is to trust, to depend on others and to live by faith.
The meaning of the symbolic action of putting a child in the midst of them cannot be grasped without recognizing the lowly place occupied by children in ancient society and a realization that the same Aramaic word means both child and servant.
A child in the Bible is a symbol of innocence, helplessness and vulnerability. I think the child in this text represents any helpless person but especially a humble fellow believer whom the true disciple is to receive. To “welcome” or “receive” means “to be concerned about, to care for, to show kindness to.”
Perhaps even more important in this text is that the child represented the disciples. Picture this image: The child is safe in the loving arms of the Lord of life, the Savior of the world. There is nothing to fear! This is perfect love that casts out fear. The child is also a sign of promise for the future. We embrace others with the love of Christ to remind them that there is no need to fear.
The disciples who were wrestling with Jesus’ teaching about His own death and resurrection needed this image of trust and certainty about the future. They did not yet have the experience of Easter. They did not have the image of the empty tomb or the presence of the resurrected Jesus, but Jesus gave them an image of a child in His arms. They had His love and they were to love others in the same way!
On that first Easter morning, the women heard the first proclamation of Easter from the angels: “He is risen!” The angels asked them to remember Jesus’ words about His suffering and death but also that on the third day He would be raised again. “Then they remembered his words” (Luke 24:8 NIV). Jesus’ words were true in life and death and are true for all eternity. The experience of the Risen Lord could not be disconnected from His words. He embodies the Word and, in the Word, you receive Him.
Dealing with death from this perspective, from the perspective of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, reminds us that we have a cause worth living for — which is the same as having a cause worth dying for.
For what cause are we living? This is not a morbid question but one that brings the certainty of a life truly worth living in Christ. Everything else is illusory hope! Beyond our preaching and teaching let us be bold to live in the certainty of Easter! May we boldly proclaim this truth, teach this truth and disciple others to live such a life in Christ.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia
Bishop John Bradosky