Sermon preached Sunday June 5, 2011
Some of you may have seen the rather bizarre news story yesterday of the motorcycle police officer who was seriously injured while riding home from the funeral of a motorcycle officer who was killed while riding home from the funeral of another motorcycle officer who died in a tragic accident.
It’s almost as if we can’t escape death.
Last Thursday a friend of mine, not a member of this parish, was with his wife in his backyard, where they were in the process of burying their cat when his wife seemed to slip, and she fell and rolled down this little hill. My friend rushed to her and she was laughing, apparently uninjured, until they realized that she couldn’t get up, and then they realized she was having a stroke. Yesterday I reached him at the ICU where his wife is recovering. He said, with a kind of wonder, “It happened just like that,” and he snapped his finger. “It can happen to any of us, just like that.”
This, of course, is the most ancient of insights – this kind-of funny, quite horrible kind of surprise when we realize how close death can be.
3,000 years ago, writing on stone tablets, a man named Shin-eqi-unninni wrote down what was for him one of the oldest known works of literature, written 1,000 years before his time, known as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Many of you, no doubt, are familiar with the epic, which features the demi-god king of Uruk, Gilgamesh. He was the great hero of the ancient world, kind of the Hercules of his time; he had a sidekick named Enkidu and together they had many heroic adventures until one day Gilgamesh witnessed Enkidu’s death. Then, suddenly, there it was – the great surprise; just like that: the realization of the close proximity of death.
This sends Gilgamesh into a panic around his own mortality: does this mean I’m going to die, too? And so he goes off on an epic journey to the eternal city to find the secret to eternal life; and after many heroic deeds and many set-backs, he finds it! He finds a plant, living at the bottom of the sea, which when eaten bestows eternal life. But instead of eating the plant, he decides to take it home and test it on an old person to see if it works. But on his way home, while he is sleeping, the crafty serpent sneaks into his campsite and eats the plant! Gilgamesh wakes up to the realization that his entire heroic quest for eternal life has led to nothing; which gives birth to one of the most poignant and universal speeches in all of literature:
O woe! What do I do now, where do I go now?
Death has devoured my body,
Death dwells in my body,
Wherever I go, wherever I look, there stands Death!
His words are so similar to the traditional declaration from our prayer book, as we commit our bodies to the earth: “In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succor….”
And so it is throughout the history of mankind: the heroic quest for the secret to eternal life, inspired by this magnificent surprise of death.
The phrase “eternal life” runs all through John’s gospel, of course; for the community that formed around John’s gospel, the secret to eternal life was not found in a plant growing in the bottom of the sea but rather in the mysterious knowledge of Jesus Christ, the son of God.
This is the message of this long, rather esoteric and difficult speech that Jesus makes to his disciples in John’s gospel. It’s the night in which he was betrayed; Judas has just been revealed as the agent of Christ’s death, and then Jesus launches into what scholars call his “farewell address” – which goes on for five chapters. Jesus knows that his time is short; and so he tries to pack all of his last words in so that the disciples are not left, as he says, as orphans, but have the necessary teaching to carry on the work of the gospel.
Those of us who have tried to read through this farewell speech would, I think, all agree that just getting through it is something of a heroic journey in itself. Of course, it’s not meant to be easy – this is true for all esoteric knowledge: it’s supposed to be difficult. Here we have the answer to the greatest and most ancient question ever asked: how do I find eternal life? Here is the answer for Gilgamesh; here is the answer for us.
“This is eternal life,” Jesus says, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
In this context, knowing Jesus, and believing in Jesus, and following Jesus are all one and the same thing. They all lead to a moment of recognition in which the glory of God is revealed. And at the heart of that moment of recognition is this secret knowledge found in verse five: that the glory of God revealed in Jesus is the glory that Jesus had with God before the world existed.
Raymond Brown, the great scholar of John’s gospel, tells us that this is the secret knowledge, knowledge that draws us through the glory of Christ on the cross into relationship with the most primeval of all revelations: which is the name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush: I AM.
When we declare Jesus Christ as God, the 2nd person of the Trinity, that is what we are proclaiming: that through knowledge of Jesus we are drawn to the fire of that burning bush, where the source of all life and the source of all being is revealed.
We don’t need a mythical Gilgamesh to cross the river of death in order to get to the eternal city so that he can receive the secret instruction and dive to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve the magic plant that will make him immortal, only to fail in the end. What we have in Jesus is what we need: Jesus, in his glory, raised up on the cross, humbling himself unto death out of love for us; through this sacred knowledge we find eternal life.
Death, to Jesus, was just as present as it is to us; at the Garden of Gethsemene, when he saw death approach, he was as surprised as the rest of us. But he didn’t run from it; and he didn’t try to defeat it like the mythic warriors of the ancient of days. Instead, he followed where love led; he trusted love over death; and in the process revealed the secret to eternal life.
Last September, I was sitting in a hospital room with my brother Chris. My whole family was there, and for days we were telling stories, remembering the days of our youth with him, the golden boy of the family. And so we were switching back and forth between past tense and present tense: telling stories in the past tense, and asking questions in the present tense: how are you feeling; where does it hurt; what do you want. And the day came when it was time to fly back to California; and I realized that in a very few days, we would no longer be talking about him in the present tense; very soon, we would only be talking about him in the past tense.
That was my little moment of surprise about death.
I was reminded of that the other day, as I was meditating on the Ascension, which we celebrated last Thursday and which is described in our reading from Acts. I realized that when we stand together to affirm the mysteries of our faith in the Nicene Creed, we are talking about Jesus in the past tense: He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary; he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc… until we get to the Ascension, when a stunning shift in tense occurs: “he ascended into heaven” (past tense) “and is seated at the right hand of the Father” (present tense) and “he will come again in glory” (future tense).
And then it hit me: when Jesus rose up into the sky, he broke the bounds of the past tense; by defeating death and ascending to the Father, Jesus eternally became present tense. Now and forever more, it’s Jesus IS, not Jesus was; just as the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush is I AM – present tense.
And just as my brother, now fully alive in Christ, is, forever more; present tense. I was wrong about that past tense thing; in God we are all brought into glory in the great, ever revealing, ever burning, never consuming presence of God, who lives beyond time in the eternal now.
That is where I will see him again (future tense); in the meantime I believe on Jesus, and give thanks for the love that he reveals, which is the path that I follow as long as I am present to his presence - present tense.