Jesus prayed, ‘Father if it is your will, take this cup away from me
. But not what I will, but your will be done .’ Luke 22 v42, Mark 14 v36 and Matthew 26 v39
Today is Maundy Thursday, when we commemorate the Last Supper and the agony of Jesus in
Gethsemane . Tomorrow, Good Friday, we will think about how Jesus died, and on Saturday we will review the events of Holy Week and see what they mean for us . Then on Easter Day we will celebrate resurrection . Through all of this we will try to see what it means to overcome the dominion of death . Living things die . And mostly they die without fuss . The gazelle running from the lion is not fleeing death; she flees because she has inherited flight-inducing genes from her ancestors who fled successfully often enough to reproduce . Although some animals seem to mourn the death of their fellows, as far as we know only people have the concept of death and the self-consciousness to be able to imagine life going on without them, after their death . We sometimes forget how deeply puzzling death is, what an affront it is to our sense of self . Perhaps I should say ‘we try to forget’ . And it is in that ‘try’ that we reveal our proneness to fall under the dominion of death . Its most potent expression is seen in our efforts, if not finally to avoid inevitable death, then at least to postpone it for as long as possible at all costs .
Jesus of Nazareth had spent about three years urging his people to understand that they could go beyond the superficialities of Jewish religious practice to get to the sense of faith and blessedness that they inadequately try to pin down
. How this hugely good news was obliquely delivered to a people whose human sense of faith had been stifled by religion is a story for another day . What matters today is that it was certainly not seen as good news by the religious establishment . As far as they were concerned, Jesus was just a heretic, undermining the religious traditions of his people . It would come as no surprise to him to know that the religious establishment wanted to silence him in the way common to such people: they wanted to kill him, one way or another .
So why would he go up to
? Why not just continue his revolutionary teaching outside the city in which his enemies had their power-base? Why walk into what would surely turn out to be a fatal ambush? The clue is in the words of the dying Jesus in John’s gospel: ‘It is finished’, where ‘finished’ means not just ‘over’ but more importantly ‘completed’ Jerusalem . He had nothing to add to his teaching; he had said all that needed to be said; if people hadn’t heard by now, they never would . To the extent that he understood that his life had a purpose, that purpose had been achieved . If there was anything left to do, it was to challenge the religious authorities in their own backyard . So he overcomes the dominion of death first by demonstrating that what matters in life is completing the task we accept as our life’s work, recognising that when that is achieved, death need not be seen as an enemy .
Perhaps he considered trying to go back to woodworking in obscurity
. But that was hardly possible: people would still want to hear him repeat his teaching, and the religious authorities would still want to kill him . A successful return to obscurity would have involved a denial of all that his life had come to mean; he could have lived on perhaps, but not really as himself . The only way to go on being himself was to go forward, to and probable death Jerusalem . So the second thing Jesus’s decision shows us is that finding ways of going on living may in some circumstances have too high a price on it – the price of not being true to ourselves . It is better to die authentically, as ourselves, than to live inauthentically, trying to be someone else.
Besides, there was a certain logic to risking death in
Jerusalem . There was perhaps an outside chance that the religious authorities would capitulate and admit that their attachment to religious traditions – and the social advantages those traditions were used to justify – was misguided . What a victory that would have been! And how unlikely . Had they been subtler and braver, they might have tried to deal with the threat Jesus posed by simply ignoring him; that might have worked, but they wouldn’t have been prepared to take the risk . It was much more likely, practically certain in fact, that the religious authorities would act true to form and try to kill Jesus . How better to demonstrate the falseness of the religious establishment’s outlook than by showing that it would kill the preacher who had actually brought some genuine consolation to people bowed down by the burdens of religion? His death would be the final, devastating demonstration of the truth of Jesus’ teaching . Thus Jesus teaches that our deaths as much as the actions of our lives may be part of our life’s work .
These grand thoughts don’t necessarily make facing death easyAnd so the moment arrives, and the tension of this night is over
. Overcoming the dominion of death involves a struggle – that’s what ‘overcoming’ means . The tension in the group round Jesus must have been almost unbearable, especially in the quiet of the night-time, which was when the authorities were most likely to make their move . Every evening meal could have been their last supper together . No wonder they went out to breathe a little more easily in the open air of Gethsemane . There is a wonderful contrast between the mindless bravado of some ancient hero stories and the account of Jesus in the garden . He accepts the logic of what is going to happen, but he does not want it to happen . He does not have a death wish; indeed his whole teaching is life-affirming . And this too is an aspect of overcoming the dominion of death; it is how life ends, but it is not the end, not the objective, of life . What matters is what we do between now and our death, which, when it comes, may be part of life .