Easter & the fear of death

I had A Thought while listening to the sermon on Sunday. Bear with me here and let me know in the comments if I’m full of crap.

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but Jesus starts off by talking about death. Well, glorification and then death. It appears that the path to glory is death. Jesus is going to die and the result of that death is going to be the opposite of death. That’s the point of the seed illustration, I think. It’s easy to read that as being about the church and the growth of the Christian faith, but I don’t know if that’s what he had in mind. The picture is marred by a bad translation. Many seeds should be much fruit. This changes the metaphor completely: Instead of being about creation of disciples, it’s about what happens in this death/glorification. Before the death, you are a singular seed. After the death, you multiply much fruit. And Jesus followers are expected to follow him into this death.

Most important here is Jesus speaking of what happens when you hold closely to life (or in the negative when you strongly avoid death). If you hold on to your life (or your self, your psyche) too closely you end up losing it. Or more to the point you end up devaluing it. The value you assign to yourself is inversely related to how much self worth you actually have. If you give it up, on the other hand, it gains value — infinite value, in fact. In terms of death avoidance, what’s more valuable than eternal life?

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?

Jesus is afraid. Like anyone would be in the situation of predicting your own death. It’s natural to fear death. Much of our behaviour is driven by death avoidance. He quotes David in the psalms here, but where David cries out for salvation, Jesus immediately rejects his own prayer. What Jesus says next turns our death avoidance (and all the sin that comes with that) on its head:

No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

The response to the death is, “Father, glorify your name!” Not the usual human response, to surround yourself with money and possessions and status and all sorts of stuff to help soothe that fear of death.

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

I’m interested in the idea of “the prince of this world”, alternatively translated “the ruler of this world”. This can easily be read to be the devil, however that would seem to come out of nowhere here. Maybe a more coherent reading is to think of “the ruler of this world” as death itself. After all we start this bit of scripture talking about death, the middle is about death, and it goes on after this bit to talk about death some more. Doesn’t it make sense that Jesus here isn’t referring out of nowhere to some Big Bad but instead to the concept of death? Or perhaps these are the same things, death being the personification of the devil. Hebrews says something to this effect: “…that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil”.

As a side note (and this a bit of inside baseball, so if any of these words don’t make sense to you, feel free to skip this paragraph; it’s not as important as it sounds), it’s easy to read this passage in the usual satisfaction model of substitutionary atonement, but let’s be honest, that’s reading a lot of stuff into the scripture that isn’t there. A more plain reading is a Christus Victor reading, which I think makes more sense. It can also be interpreted from a psychological/existential standpoint, which I think the passage supports quite well.

Here we see Jesus dying and rising again to drive out death or the prince of death, however you choose to interpret that. The point is the same. We are in bondage: We die, and we’re afraid of dying. My natural tendency is to hold my life close and to be threatened and fearful in the face of anything that so much as reminds me of my mortality.

To fix this, Jesus dies. He inverts the whole thing. He uses death against itself. He is raised again and in that rising again he casts out the prince of the world. He breaks the backs of the powers that be. He shows us how to hold loosely to our lives, how to be willing to give our lives away, and how this changes how we engage with the world. No more do we have to subscribe to the death avoidance of our previous lives and all the sin that brings about. No more do we have to participate in the rat race. When we give away our lives we’re free to experience them as a gift. We experience our lives as grace from God.

His death isn’t about shifting beads around on some moral abacus or settling some artificial honour score. It’s not about God satisfying God. Jesus’ death actually does something. He defeats death. He wages war and wins. And that is the message of Easter.