Dead Man Walking
"Dead Man Walking" is the title of a 1990's nonfiction book and movie about a man on death row in Louisiana. "Dead man walking" is what prison guards call out when they're escorting a prisoner who has a death sentence. I also want that phrase to remind you of how you seem to go through life like a dead man. You live with a blueness, with an ennui, with an inertness, with a lassitude that is crippling. I contend that it is because we're not the first kind of dead man walking is why we are the second.
One thing the crowd agreed on is that Jesus was a dead man walking. Did you notice that? Jesus asks, "Who do the crowds say I am?" The answer is, "John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets of long ago." That is, the crowd thinks Jesus is someone who had died and come back to life. He is a dead man walking. But note well, they don't see Jesus as a man condemned to die. They see Jesus as risen from the dead.
Calling out "Dead man walking" while escorting a condemned man is thought to have come about to warn other prisoners that here was a man who had nothing to lose so beware. You can't execute a man twice. But the crowds saying Jesus is a dead man walking expresses their belief that Jesus has everything to gain. Jesus cuts a swath of power through the minds of the crowds. When the disciples report the crowds say "He has come back to life," that's an active verb. It's a statement of power. And it makes sense. Jesus had just fed the 5000, and the crowds had wanted to crown Him king. And right after that Jesus came to the disciples walking on water.
I know where you're going. Maybe seeing Jesus as a dead man walking around in power as a miracle worker and Lord over nature would rescue me from walking around as listless as a dead man? Maybe a more energetic Jesus would energize me? For a time perhaps, but Jesus doesn't give us much time at all to even consider this. As He often does, Jesus quickly puts a damper on "My God is so great, so strong and so mighty. There's nothing my God cannot do" - theology. You can't see this in Luke's account, but in Matthew's, Peter keys off what the crowds say about Jesus being one who has come back to life. Peter confesses Jesus to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God." Yes, if Jesus is a dead man walking, He's walking away from death.
But notice where Jesus goes. He admits to being a dead man walking. He is as good as dead. In fact, He must die more certainly than any death row inmate. Our text takes place a year from Good Friday, and there's not going to be any last minute stay of execution. Where Peter had used the powerful title "Christ" or "Messiah" to say who Jesus was, Jesus uses the benighted, lowly title "Son of Man." Where the crowd, and Peter too, confess Jesus to be living and active, Jesus says He's a dead man passively going to His death. The words rejected and killed are passive. Others do these to Him.
Jesus is a dead man walking. Crimes were committed; laws were broken. You know that dream you have of doing a terrible, shameful, lowlife thing and waking to the relief that it was only a dream. Jesus doesn't wake up. It's reality. You may be going through life as a dead man immune to the guilt, the punishment, the judgment you are accumulating with each breath, but not Jesus. Isaiah said He was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. That sorrow and grief are yours. And just because you can't be reached or touched or moved to feel the true depth of your guilt, the real stench of your sins, the actual weight of your wrongs, doesn't mean that will always be the case. One day you will awake to the full horror of what you deserve for your sins, and when you do may you also awake to the fact that Jesus was conceived, born, and walked in what you deserve already.
A death sentence and more was passed on Jesus. For your unbelief, your misbelief, your despairing, and your other great shame and vice, Jesus was found guilty and sentenced to death. In our country, we specifically outlaw cruel and unusual punishment. We go out of our way so that dead men walking enter death as peacefully as possible. That wasn't Rome's way. Crucifixion was meant to be cruel and it was usual to take anywhere from 3 to 5 days to die. Moreover, Rome tortured, abused, and savaged those sentenced to death. Ever seen a boxer after a particularly brutal fight? Isaiah saw Jesus as worse than that on the cross. He says, "There were many who were appalled at Him. His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness." And you and I go through life "woe is me; how bad it is for me?"
You still don't get the full picture. What I've described is what happened to every dead man walking to the cross of Rome, but not one of their tortuous deaths paid for anyone's sins. Jesus' death did because He died cursed of God. Jesus had to be hung on the tree of the cross because God had said long before there was crucifixion, "Cursed is any man that hangs upon the tree." Your guilts, your shames, your sins, your excuses justly call down curses, sufferings, damnation upon your head. However, God cursed Jesus instead of you. God cursed and cursed and cursed Him till all His wrath was satisfied. Unlike that scene in Forest Gump there were enough rocks for God to throw at Jesus to satisfy His rage, His wrath, His anger at your sins and sinfulness.
Jesus says He's a dead man walking to the judgment, to the cruel and unusual punishment, to the death all men merit, deserve, and have earned. Yet what's this? This dead man walking walks right out of death. "On the third day He will be raised to life." It's important you note that while the crowd had an active view of Jesus, "He has come back to life" which even Peter keyed in on, Jesus uses a passive. In the same way that He will be rejected and be killed, He will be raised. The passive means Someone else will raise Him, and that Someone is God the Father.
Do you ever pay a really big bill and not get a receipt? Even during those times you're walking around like a lethargic dead man, I'm still guessing you have enough energy to get a receipt that shows you have paid what you owed, and how glad you are to have it if you're later questioned! God raising Jesus from the dead proves that He accepts Jesus' payment for your sins. Your debt is paid off and Easter proves it. The only reason Jesus died was to pay for your sins. Once that debt was paid, that dead Man walked right out of His grave. So, neither the Devil, others, or your conscience has any right to ask for guilt, shame, pain, gloom, melancholy, or the blues, in payment for your sins. The dead Man walking out of the grave proves there's nothing more for you to pay, not even a little.
Now Jesus, the dead Man who walked out of the grave, says in our text we are dead men walking not walking around like dead men. He says that we who follow Him want to lose our life for Him. Don't you? I do. I want to lose my ideas, my expectations, my opinions. I want to lose my idea of what it means to be happy or sad. You know why? Because so often what I thought would make me happy hasn't and what I thought would be sad proved otherwise. No, I want to be free of me. You can see this is how it is for Jesus' followers if you translate Him saying, "whoever loses his self for Me will save it." The Greek word psyche can be translated "life" as our insert does, or as "soul" or "self."
But who can lose their self? O people say, "I lost my self" in this project, that job, this hobby, but what they really mean is they found something that really pleased themselves. To really lose the self means to say of it what Peter did of Jesus, "I know not the man." And again I ask, who can do that? No person can, but Baptism does. Paul says we meet the cross of Christ in our Baptism. Baptism joins us to the death of Christ. In Baptism, that self, that "I" that is at the center of "pride" and the heart of "life," drowns in the font. What I think, what I want, what I need, what I know is left floating in the font. What Jesus thinks, wants, gives, and knows as revealed to me in the Bible is now my life.
But don't think that in this life we ever are anything but dead men walking. Even though to the font we've traveled, we're not none with dying. Jesus speaks of daily dying to follow Him. St. Paul said that too. He said, "I die daily." Daily we go to our contact point for the cross. Daily we remember our baptism and what it indicates. It indicates that our old Adam has been drowned with all sins and evil desires and that a new man created after Jesus in true righteousness and holiness has arisen. Daily confession of sins takes us back to the font where our sinful self was put to death and our new man was created through the forgiveness of our sins.
In prison anyone following a dead man walking eventually ends up in the same place he does: the execution chamber. All his steps ultimately lead there. Jesus reveals Himself as a dead Man walking and paints a picture of Him going to the cross and us following in His train. But only Jesus bears the cross to pay for sins. Only Jesus dies the death of a damned sinner forsaken by God. We don't. We're dead man walking and daily dying because Jesus has delivered us from ourselves.
My life is not what I feel or don't feel I am but what Baptism says I am. My life is not about my self image, good or bad, but about what Absolution declares me to be: forgiven, freed, redeemed. My life is not limited to what I see going on with myself here and now. No bodied and blooded to Jesus through Communion I live the life He would have for me both now and eternally. And Jesus Himself called such a life abundant, not blue. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (20100627); Luke 9: 18-24