On August 8, 1974, in the wake of the Watergate scandal, then-President Nixon resigned from that office. The final words, the exit lines of his speech on that occasion were: "To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American. In leaving it, I do so with this prayer: May God's grace be with you in all the days ahead."
Baseball player Lou Gehrig's farewell speech on July 4, 1939, is memorable. Gehrig stood in front of the podium, speaking to the Yankee fans present, proclaiming despite his recent health issues that he considered himself to be "the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." That was the last day Gehrig would ever wear a baseball uniform. What is known today as Lou Gehrig's disease claimed his life two years later.
Do you remember Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, human–computer interaction, and design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh? Pausch did not know he had pancreatic cancer until September 2006 and died less than two years later.
About a year before he died, Pausch delivered an upbeat lecture called The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. Some of you may have seen it. It became a popular YouTube video, and later a best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Among the many lines that emerged from this lecture is Pausch's comment that if he only had three words of advice, "I'd say, 'Tell the truth.' If I had three more words, I'd add 'All the time.'"
This last lecture was an amazing exit and an equally inspiring exit "line" or lines.
Each of these individuals illustrated and proclaimed the value and beauty of life even as they faced impending death, either metaphorically or literally.
In the religious category, one source says that three leaders are tied for the best exit of all time: Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha.
Of the three, Jesus is the only one who exited more than once. Jesus even made a practice of exiting during his brief three-year ministry, beginning with baptism. Jesus makes an unexpected appearance at the Jordan River where his cousin John is baptizing people. As Jesus is baptized there comes a confirming “voice from heaven.” Jesus exits for 40 days into the wilderness immediately following this momentous event.
Every gospel mentions that Jesus often made quick exits from crowds to get away to pray alone.
Jesus exited the Last Supper for Gethsemane for the same reason- in order to pray.
And then came the big exit. Jesus died. On a cross. A few sympathizers were able to get Jesus’ body and put it in a tomb. The final exit?
No. According to the New Testament Jesus reappears, spending time with the disciples before exiting again. We recently read about this in our Monday Bible study group in The Book of Acts.
As for exit lines, Jesus had a few of those, too. Probably the best-known are the so-called "seven last words" on the cross. These are not literal words, but 7 separate expressions. One of the best-known is, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Then there is the post-resurrection exit line, one of my personal favorites, recorded as the last words of the gospel of Matthew gospel, "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
Another of these lines, spoken only days before his death, is found in today's text.
"And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die" (vv. 32-33).
Soon after Jesus enters Jerusalem for the Passover festival, some Greeks approach the disciple Philip and say to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus" (v. 21).
Philip relays their words to Andrew, and then the two of them take the request to Jesus. Not actually responding to the request, Jesus tells them -- in so many words -- that he will die soon, and then compares himself to a seed: "Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (v. 24).
These Greeks grew up with Aesop's fables, so they know the power of a simple story to teach a moral lesson. But in case they do not get the point, Jesus goes on to say, "Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (v. 25).
In other words, although death is very close for Jesus, he tells the disciples that his own literal death is a metaphor for understanding how his followers must live every day: they must live by dying. When they do, like a seed in the ground, their lives will grow and bear fruit.
I can understand the confusion of those Greeks. They know that the dead tend to stay dead. But here is Jesus telling them that fruitfulness comes from going into the ground, and a loss of life leads to eternal life. It is then Jesus drops this exit line: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (v. 32). In other words, unlike typical death, when Jesus is lifted up on the cross and dies, this will not repel people, but will actually draw people.
Both fruitfulness and eternal life are connected to the cross; a cross that Jesus says elsewhere we must embrace as an instrument of our own metaphorical death. When we do this, we will bear fruit and live.
So the cross, in a sense, is not an exit but an entrance -- an entrance to a new perception or dimension of living, often described by Jesus as “abundant life.”
For some, the cross is both metaphorical and literal.
For example, on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. On the night before his death, Dr. King gave a speech in which he said, "Like anybody, I would like to live a long life -- longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land."
This was King's "mountaintop" speech. It contained some powerful truths about his life and about the Civil Rights movement. King was right to say that "longevity has its place," and it would have been marvelous if he had been able to live out his life and die peacefully. But at the same time, that vision of the Promised Land is a seed that continues to grow and inspire people today. Martin Luther King's death did not kill human efforts for justice, but instead it gave life to a movement that is larger now than it has ever been.
"I've seen the Promised Land," said King. "I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land." He was right. He went into the earth like a grain of wheat, and his efforts have borne much fruit.
Jesus says that "those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (v. 25).
Who are those who love life? Some say these words are directed toward those who are attached to the things of this world; who want and pursue wealth, fame and power at the expense of everyone and everything else. Jesus knows that you cannot take material goods, worldly achievements, or social status into the grave, so in the end these kinds of lives are lost. As the country song says, "I ain't never seen a hearse with a luggage rack."
The Greeks who came to see Jesus were probably mystified by his exit line: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself" (v. 32). They saw the cross as a scandalous death; a humiliating defeat. As the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians, "Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:22-23).
Followers of Jesus know that the cross is the clearest sign of just how far Jesus will go to show us the love of God. Jesus gave his life to demonstrate the value of a life dedicated to God. Such a life is powerfully attractive, and people continue to be drawn by the power of the cross today by people who, modeling Jesus, are willing to die, literally or metaphorically, as seeds going into the earth, that Christ may live through them. May it also be so with us.
“There are four crosses in the world. There are four things worthy of us giving our lives to and for. The four things are love, truth, justice and beauty. When we take up one of these crosses and follow Jesus, we deny ourselves on behalf of love, on behalf of the pursuit of truth, on behalf of the making of justice, on behalf of the creation of beauty. We deny ourselves and devote ourselves to these things. But we also find ourselves. “
--Dean Snyder, "What does Jesus mean by self-denial?" Foundry United Methodist Church Website,
In our worship, in our breaking the bread of Christ together; in the very fabric of our lives may we follow where the cross leads us as people, and, following Jesus, may we be willing to die, literally or metaphorically, as seeds going into the earth, that Christ may live through us.