“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
- Hebrews 2:14-18
When I was a senior in college, I lived in a house with four other guys from our movement. One of the first weeks of the school year, we had a movement-wide party at our house.
Cut to about a week later, when we started to notice this horrific smell coming from near the kitchen. Each of us initially thought it was somebody else's rotting food, so our initial reaction was to just ignore it, which we succeeded at doing for awhile longer—but the smell got worse and worse. Through the process of elimination, we realized it was coming from the downstairs bathroom adjacent to the kitchen, and immediately launched a full-scale investigation. We started opening some drawers under the sink. Nothing in the drawers on the left-hand side. Then we started opening drawers on the right-hand side. The top drawer wouldn’t open all the way, and we realized that someone at this party from earlier that week had duct taped a raw chicken breast to the underside of that drawer. There were fat, nickel-sized flies and thick maggots wriggling around on the wood of the drawer and liquidy chicken residue everywhere.
After briefly considering burning the drawer and possibly the entire house, we threw away the chicken breast, killed the flies and let the drawer air out on the porch outside. But days went by, and the smell was still there. We thought that maybe it was some leftover residue of the rotting chicken breast, and chose to (once again) ignore the very obvious problem. After a few more days, we realized that there must be something else in the bathroom.
And sure enough, someone—presumably the same person—had duct taped a second raw chicken breast to the underside of the sink, in the main cabinet with the cleaning materials. This story not only illustrates our lack of follow-through and clear thinking, but it also shows how rarely we cleaned our own bathroom.
I was thinking about that story recently, and it struck me how it seems to mirror our attitude towards death. Just like the literal stench of death and rotting meat permeated that house but we chose to ignore it as long as we possibly could, we can ignore the death that’s all around us—in our family, friends, in the news—and we often choose to ignore it as long as it isn’t right in our faces and demands our attention.
My wife and I are fans of the singer-songwriter, Sufjan Stevens. We saw him last spring while he was touring to support his most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, an album that is all about the death of his mother and how he has processed and dealt with her death. One of the songs—“Fourth of July”—ends with a long, repeated refrain of “We’re all gonna die.” After he finished playing that song, he stopped for a moment to speak to the audience:
“Sometimes death can leave a very deep and unforgivable wound that feels like it’s a permanent resident in you like a disease or a cancer or something permanent. And maybe there is some truth in that. It’s good for us to face that and to admire that, and to maybe perceive death not so much as an antagonistic force, but as a companion—something to carry with us, a good friend, a companion, to keep us alive, with joy and humility—and that’s something I’m trying to do every day.”
Sufjan was essentially encouraging us all to develop a healthy awareness of death around us and in us. And for the Christian, death is (seemingly) a paradox: both an enemy of great power, and an ally of even greater power.
Take a look at the passage from Hebrews at the top of this post. Let’s unpack it a little. The “he” in that chunk of text is obviously referring to Jesus, so we can understand a few things about him based on this passage: namely, that a) he became like “the children” in every respect, b) he did this so that he could die, c) he died so that he could destroy the power of death and deliver those who are subject to a lifelong slavery to the fear of death.
The fact that he became like us in every respect means that there are certain things about our nature that were true of his human nature. Think about when Jesus was praying in the garden of Gethsemane before he was arrested and crucified. We’re told that he asks God to remove the responsibility of his death from him, and that he sweat like drops of blood. He was afraid of death—and yet he faced it with courage because he knew that we needed him to. Jesus was keenly aware of death all around him. He would speak of his own death often to his disciples, to the people around him. And they were often confused, unaware of what was coming. Much like most of us most days.
There’s a theologian named F.F. Bruce who wrote a commentary on the book of Hebrews. When writing about this passage in Hebrews, he wrote that
“It calls for an exceptional effort of mind on our part to appreciate how paradoxical was the attitude of those early Christians to the death of Christ. If ever death had appeared to be triumphant, it was when Jesus of Nazareth, disowned by His nation, abandoned by his disciples, executed by the might of imperial Rome, breathed his last on the cross. Why, some had actually recognized in his cry of pain and desolation the complaint that even God had forsaken him. His faithful followers had confidently expected that he was the destined liberator of Israel; but he had died in evident weakness and disgrace, and their hopes died with him. If ever a cause was lost, it was his; if ever the powers of evil were victorious, it was then. And yet—within a generation his followers were exultingly proclaiming the crucified Jesus to be the conqueror of death. This sudden change from disillusionment to triumph can only be explained by the account which the apostles gave—that their Master rose from the dead and imparted to them the power of his risen life. His death has transformed the meaning of death for them. To them his death means not judgment, but blessing; not bondage, but liberation.”
The blessing and the liberation that F.F. Bruce is talking about is now ours—and it was won through death and is achieved by death: through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is because of this one death that we can now willingly die to self (give up our reputation, fame, rights, etc.)—and that we can now confidently face the death we all must pass through before we reach the life we long for. We can trust the One who goes before us. He passed through death so that we might die, and God raised him to life so that we might live. It is through Jesus alone that we have any hope, and this hope runs deep—let us live in light of it.
If you’re leading a team then you know you that this is crunch time. There are a few precious weeks with these people who have been entrusted to your care before your staff peel off to focus on MPD and prepare for their summer assignments. You can help your team end well by reminding them that they are not lone rangers. You can lead a discussion on what it means to be a TEAM.
There is tremendous comfort in the knowledge that we are "seated" with Christ. You have a seat at the table with Jesus. You are seated with Him right now. You are at the Greatest Table with the Greatest King.
“Perhaps the most undervalued quality of a great mind or, at least, an awakened mind, is the willingness to abandon cherished ideas that cannot stand up to new evidence.” Joseph Loconte “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”
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