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“THE END OF THE BEGINNING”

 

 

A post-homiletical discourse delivered by the Rev. Dr. James R. Beebe

Rector, St. Patrick’s Church, Incline Village, Nevada, April 17, 2011

Text:  Matthew 26:64 – “From now on you will see the Son of Man….”

 

 

     Someone once asked Winston Churchill whether he thought that the invasion of the Normandy beaches at D-Day spelled the end of the war.  “No,” he replied, “it is not the end.  Or even the beginning of the end.  But it IS the end of the beginning.”

 

     True, the allies had a toehold on the beachhead.  But the defeat of Germany was a long way off.  It would take another year of hard combat and an invasion of the Fatherland to accomplish that.  But D-Day was the end of the beginning.  What began as the rout at Dunkirk had ended with an invasion of that same soil.  The end of the beginning.

 

     And so it is in the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday.  It is not, as Peter supposed, the end.  Nor even, as the crowd suspected, the beginning of the end.  But it was, for followers, the end of the beginning.  And it started when “Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem.”  Jerusalem.  The eye of the storm.  An irresistible force meets an immoveable object, Rome.  The end of the beginning.

 

     What must it be like for someone who is facing certain death?  We only ask that question because we suppose that our own deaths are very far off indeed.  It’s called denial and it’s part of our makeup.  We have a survival instinct that is very strong – so strong, indeed, that even in the light of our hope of the resurrection, we are afraid.  And yet, like Jesus, we are facing certain death.  So let’s move out of the pathetic mindset of the crowd, waving their palms, and let’s – just this one Palm Sunday – stare death in the eye. 

 

     “The Passion.”  Weeping and agony of spirit in the middle of the night on the Mount of Olives.  Betrayal by a one-time disciple and capture by an armed gang.  Trial by humiliation and deceit.  Flogging, crucifixion, death.  “The Passion.”  But, as the story goes, terror and death do not get the last word.  Maybe in life they do, but not here.  Here there’s a new and surprising possibility that this life is not the end.  Or even the beginning of the end.  The real end is ai-ON-ios Zoe.

 

 

     Ai-On-ios Zoe.  It doesn’t exactly translate into English.  Way back in 1611 King James’ crack scholarly team translated it, “everlasting life.”  That’s too bad.  The phrase, “eternal life,” isn’t much better.  Both phrases strongly suggest a life a lot like this one.  Only going on and on and on.  If you work this in with other literal interpretations of heaven being stocked with celestial choirs, harps without number, and streets paved with gold, you’ll probably come up with a place that’s colossally boring.

 

     But the Greek words ai-ON-ios Zoe don’t mean “everlasting” or “eternal” life.  They’re not much concerned with time, in fact.  Literally, they mean, “the life of the age to come.”  It isn’t a length of life, it’s a kind of life.  It is life as it was meant to be lived.  It is sharing in the life of God.

 

     Nor is it static and boring.  Jesus is recorded in John as having said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions….”  Now, there’s a quaint word – “mansions.”  But the Greek word for it is MON-ai and it doesn’t mean “mansions.”  It’s more like, “rest stops.”  Rest stops along the great, high-speed interstate of the age to come.

 

     But there are detractors.  One critic starkly states that there is no life after death:  “Religious theories that maintain that the soul or spirit lives on stem from fear of death,” he writes.  “We humans have invented immortality because we don’t want to die.” 

 

     But the argument cuts both ways.  [Tom Harpur]  Who is really whistling in the dark here?  Maybe refusal to believe in God or in the age to come itself is wish fulfillment.  Some can’t abide the thought of being accountable to anyone.  Some live completely self-absorbed lives.  Some have committed unspeakable crimes.  The rich and powerful who never submit to anyone. 

 

     And then there are others who say that all of this hubbub about life after death is just escapism.  I mean, why be so concerned about life after death when there are so many burning issues to be faced right now in this world – issues like poverty, global hunger, the despoiling of the environment.  The sort of “otherworldliness” that Christians like to dwell on is simply not relevant.

 

     But, again, the argument cuts both ways.  People can – and do – use causes and preoccupations and just plain busyness with this world’s problems as an escape from facing vital spiritual questions.  Many refuse to think or talk about life after death because it reminds them very sharply of their own mortality.  Far from being escapist, commitment to the life of the age to come brings intensity and meaning to living in this life.  Responsible engagement with practical, down-to-earth problems results from the realization that what you do has lasting consequences.

 

     Still, it’s one thing to conceptualize the life of the age to come.  And it’s quite another to contemplate – with Jesus – our certain death.  In his book, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of a 40-something middle class Russian judge who has just discovered he has a terminal illness.  [Ronald Blythe]  In chilling, plain language, Tolstoy tells with bleak honesty what it is like to die when the mind is “body-bound.” 

 

     In his unblinking prose, Tolstoy suggests that the reason we can tolerate death in others (even those close to us) is that it pushes it away from ourselves.  When the judge’s colleagues first hear the news of his death, it “evoked in them all the usual feeling of relief that it was someone else, not they, who had died.  ‘Well, isn’t that something – he’s dead, but I’m not.’”

 

     In one of the most poignant moments, the sheer desolating aloneness of dying is evoked when, “after supper his friends went home, leaving Ivan Ilyich alone with the knowledge that his life had been poisoned and was poisoning the life of others….He had to go on living like this, on the brink of disaster, without a single person to understand and pity him.”  Or, in the words of Jesus, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?”

 

     The lawyer in Ivan Ilyich tried to put together a case for his life’s worth based upon the values he had used to construct his life, only to discover that “there was nothing left to defend.”  When his wife suggests taking communion to make him feel better, he shouts in revulsion, “Leave me alone!”  Admittedly, their relationship had gone from bad to worse, but now his wife was offering the real thing – her love.  He is skeptical that there is such a thing as love in this fake world.  He is convinced that he can neither go forward or backward in his spiritual growth.  He is convinced he is lost.

 

     And it is into this vacuum of horror that love enters without words.  Ivan Ilyich’s delirious hand comes into chance contact with the head of his young son.  The boy had stolen into the room and, as he feels his father’s hand on his hair, seizes and kisses it. Looking up, Ivan Ilyich sees his wife is also in the room and that unwiped tears are running down her nose.  So THAT’S it!” he told himself just before an even greater recognition arrived with his stopped breath. 

 

It’s the same conclusion Jesus had reached…and it was worth dying for.

 

It is the end of the beginning.