In George Seaton’s 1956 film, The Proud and the Profane, the steps of a young nurse are traced to Iwo Jima where her husband had been killed in World War II. She goes to the cemetery where her husband is buried and turns to the caretaker, a shell-shocked soldier, who had seen her husband die. “How did he die?” she asked. “Like an amateur,” he replied. “They teach you how to hurl a grenade and how to fire a mortar, but nobody teaches you how to die. There are no professionals in dying.” 1
Death. Like some of the other words in this series on The Passion Story, death is a hard word. It sounds harsh. It has a roughness to it. It’s cold. The word calls forth a variety of emotions––anger, despondency, fear, regret, relief, and sadness to name a few. Death. From the Greek word thanatos, it means the termination of life, the extinction of something. Everybody has or will walk through the chasm Psalms 23:4 called the “darkest valley”––the “valley of the shadow of death”, that is. Again the Psalmist observed in Psalms 89:48, “Who can live and never see death? Who can escape the power of Sheol?” The answer? None.
There is only one way you and I can escape death’s grip: the return of Jesus in our lifetime. And if the Father chooses to delay the Second Advent of Christ, then all of us will, as Herschel Hobbs observed, have a rendezvous with destiny. And that destiny is death. Hebrews 9:27 reminds us that “it is appointed for mortals to died once…”
Death is a reality that confronts us all and none of us can avoid its disconcerting company on the path of our daily journey. Death is all around us. As a pastor I see it all the time. Truth be known? So do you. It is in nursing homes and hospitals. It is in homes across Carroll County. It afflicts the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the atheist and believer, African, American, Asian, and European. None can escape death.
Tomorrow’s issue of Newsweek is a special edition devoted to the voices of the fallen from the Iraq War. “Our Soldiers’ Stories: The War in The Words of America’s Dead.” On the cover are the words of Travis Youngblood, who died in 2005 at age 26, from a letter he had written: “Any day I’m here could be the day I die.” I want to modify Travis’s words for this moment called Palm and Passion Sunday. “Any day… could be the day I die.” And even though this is April Fools’ Day, there is no fooling in that statement. “Any day… could be the day I die.”
Death really is everywhere and has been everywhere since the day Adam and Eve decided to modify their diet. Because death is everywhere and has been for so long, one might be persuaded to think that humankind, by now, would know how to face death, whether in war or peace, with less futility and struggle. But, as the shell-shocked soldier, who was the cemetery caretaker, answered that young, widowed nurse about how her husband died, most everybody still dies “like an amateur.” There still are “no professionals in dying.” Or are there? I come back to this in a bit.
Dying like an amateur. No wonder our passion in death is devastating. It doesn’t have to be, though. Yes I realize that is easier said that done. But our passion in death doesn’t have to crush us. This is why believers have, historically, turned to Jesus and learned from His own passion in death.
The Passion Story culminates in the Lord’s death on Good Friday afternoon. That is the thrust of the words from Luke 23:44-49. The crucifixion texts from Luke and John have been read, rather intentionally, during some of these Lenten Sundays. These passages have been preached and acted out in drama. We know the story. It’s familiar. So on this Palm and Passion Sunday morning, we conclude The Passion Story by reminding ourselves that Jesus died. Hopefully we’ll remind ourselves of that each day this week, a week that is Holy––a week that is to supposed to be different from all the rest. I remind us that it is up to you and me to make it is different.
It has been observed that people die the way they have lived. Usually the priorities they have spent a lifetime building are reaffirmed in death. If the priorities are centered in biblical faith through Christianity, then people have the potential to die, not as amateurs, but as professionals. I’m in the process of helping one among us get ready for death. This person is dying, knows it, and is not afraid to talk about it. Why? Because this person’s priorities have been centered in biblical faith through Christianity.
Jesus has been this individual’s Great Example. In fact, Jesus is the Chief Example. Even in His own passion in death, He was able to reaffirm those priorities that He built His ministry and life upon while showing us God. In the blackness of that “God Friday,” as He hung on the Cross, He died as a professional, not as an amateur. How do I know that? Because of what He said in those last moments of His life around 3:00 that afternoon: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Then Luke says, “he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). Or, He died.
How did Jesus handle His passion in death? The Passion Story reveals that He handled it by way of the communion He shared with His Heavenly Father. It is evident that Jesus lived a life of communion with His Abba. There was a far-reaching intimacy in life with the God who sent Him and because there was, there could be a far-reaching intimacy in death as well. Jesus was able to die in communion with God, because He had lived life in communion with God.
In death, Jesus reaffirmed His confidence in God and did so by quoting the first part of Psalms 31:5. “Into your hand I commit my spirit…” The word “hand” in the Hebrew text is in the singular. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament rendered it in the plural. Luke was working from the Greek translation. This is why there is a difference.
Psalms 31 is a prayer from an individual asking for God’s help in which petition, lament, and expressions of confidence lead into a final song of thanksgiving for the help that has been received. The first five verses are a prayer for deliverance. In its context, the Psalmist, David in this particular one, was entrusting himself to God in life. On the Cross, Jesus reversed His ancestor’s expression by entrusting Himself to God in death. Over the course of His brief earthly lifetime, Jesus had committed, into the hands of His Father, His spirit. Because He did, He could do the same in death. Jesus was saying, “If I can trust God in life, I can trust Him in death.”
Is it any wonder that Jewish children were taught a nighttime prayer based on Psalms 31? Most of us have prayed a similar word and taught it to our children, haven’t we? Sure we have.
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
And should I died before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul will take.
New Testament scholar Malcolm Tolbert said that, “Beyond the pain and despair, beyond the loneliness and the hate, God stands waiting to receive His Son.” 2 He stands waiting to receive us, too. That is what The Passion Story teaches us as we observe His passion in death. We really can entrust our lives to God in this life and we really can entrust our lives to Him in death.
That being said, our passion in death doesn’t have to be one of utter despair. Sure there is anguish in death. But there can also be confident hope because of a communion of immense proportions. So if you and I are to handle the passion of death, as Christ did, then we, like Christ, are to prepare now by deepening the communion we share with a Father who calls us to commit our spirits into His hands.
Near the end of first millennium, probably in the eighth century, one of our Christian ancestors, St. Angus, came to a beautiful valley surrounded by forested hills called Balquhidder in the Scottish highlands. Moved by its unpretentious beauty, he observed it was a “thin place”––a place where the separation between heaven and earth was very thin.3 He was so moved by that “thin place,” that he built a church there, east of Kirkton, and it has survived to this day. Each August there is a celebration in that church, commemorating the life of Angus and his preaching the Gospel. He reminded parishioners of the blessing of the “thin place.”
The death of Jesus Christ was a “thin place.” As The Passion Story notes, the heavens became dark and on Earth the veil in the Temple was torn. So thin was that separation that Jesus, even in His passion in death, was able to express confidence in the God of life, His Father, so much so that He could say, “into your hands I commend my spirit.” According to Luke, those who heard His prayer where moved to confession and repentance. We, too, have heard His prayer and we, too, are moved to confession and repentance. Or we should be.
Throughout the centuries since Christ, humankind has searched for “thin places.” Alan Culpepper notes that some have climbed mountaintops; others have painstakingly observed religious rituals; some have searched for spiritual wisdom; and still others have searched through prayer and meditation or one of the other spiritual disciplines. We’ve asked the questions: “Where is the Living God to be found in the human experience?” and “Where can we see God revealed through the veil that surrounds us?” Who would have ever thought that “The Skull”––“Golgotha,” that is or, as the Latin Vulgate calls it, “Calvaria,” from which we get our word, “Calvary,” the very place of the Cross––would be a “thin place?” 4 If we’re honest, not many of us I’m sure.
So in living, let us commit our spirits into the hands of our Heavenly Father as we make the journey through life by staying near the cross. If we’ll do this in life, we’ll be able to do the same in death. And when death comes to us, as it did Jesus, we’ll be able to handle its passion and die not as amateurs, but as professionals, just as He died, knowing for certain that Sunday is coming. Easter Sunday is coming. Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.
Jimmy Gentry is Pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Carrollton, Georgia.
Scripture references within the text are from The New Revised Standard Version, 1989, unless otherwise noted.
1. William P. Tuck, Facing Grief and Death (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1975), p. 11.
2. Malcolm O. Tolbert, “Commentary on Luke” Broadman Bible Commentary Vol. 9 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970), p. 181.
3. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 462.
4. Ibid., p. 463.