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Lent 5

Sunday, 17 March 2024
Marion Chatterley, Vice Provost

One of the functions of a place like this is that we hold within our space the tension between death and resurrection, the dynamic between the stark reality of death and the promise of new life in Christ.

Lent 5

John 12: 20-33

Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

I speak to people who tell me that they routinely spend time thinking about the kind of death that they will die. For some, that may be as a result of living with a life limiting illness and a fairly clear idea of the likely trajectory. For others, it may be that wondering about how they will die holds some kind of interest, whether that is purely intellectual or more psychological or spiritual. But the truth is, we can’t know. Sometimes, life is snatched away in a tragic accident; sometimes life is extinguished as a result of an act of violence. And sometimes, someone who was expected to die doesn’t and finds themselves having an unexpected additional period of life, perhaps even a better quality of life than they had previously experienced.

We can spend an awful lot of time thinking about something over which we have no control. And yet, there is significant public discourse at the moment over just that – the desire to have control over when and how people die.

The proposed assisted dying legislation is making its way through the parliamentary system, both in Scotland and in England. If it becomes law, it will allow people, in certain defined circumstances to choose the time, and effectively the manner, of their death. I’ve heard many compelling and emotive arguments in favour of the legislation. We’ve, no doubt, all heard the arguments that we treat our pets better than our human families; that if we have the option to end, or perhaps avoid suffering, it would be cruel to deny people that opportunity. If we love someone, we can support them to let go of life by giving them permission to make a planned exit.

This isn’t the time and place to explore all of the arguments for and, indeed, against assisted dying. But it is the time and the place to explore our attitudes to our own mortality, which may then inform our views on assisted dying.

So let’s go back a couple of verses to the parable that Jesus offered to those who were questioning him. … 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.
This is very stark imagery. We can imagine the single grain, valiantly trying to survive as the weather changes and it is perhaps battered by the wind and the rain, and inevitably that single grain falls to the ground – it doesn’t actually have a choice. But the falling to the ground isn’t an ending but the beginning of something that is much fuller, much more productive, much more exciting. It dies in order to enable itself to bear much fruit. Just notice that although the text says: unless a grain of wheat falls, we know that there is eventually no option but for the grain to fall. In the same way, we know that there is no option for us. One day, we too will metaphorically fall to the ground and die. If you look at a field of wheat, or indeed any patch of growing things, some fall earlier than others. There are those that push through the ground early, and there are those that return to the ground early. There are those that appear to be battling to hang on and those that gracefully accept the inevitable. And all then have the potential to become something more, something that bears significant fruit.

And here, John’s Gospel is illustrating for us the fundamental truth that Jesus witnesses both to death and to life beyond death. Death is a pivotal moment that has a before and an after. Before is life as we know it; after is life in the world to come, life that we can’t yet know but within which our faith is rooted. And one of the lessons of this parable is the reminder that the life we are called into is a life of abundance. We are invited into the fullness of life, with all of its joys and its sorrows.

And we usually find ourselves sharing those joys and sorrows with others. We are not made to be solitary beings. That single grain of wheat doesn’t do too well until it falls and multiplies; until it becomes part of something that is more like community. And we, too, are drawn into community. We form community in our personal lives, whether that is reflected in our living arrangements or how we spend our time. One of the lessons of Covid is that we don’t want our loved ones to die alone. We find ways to live that enable us to know we are loved and we hope to find ways to die that enable us to experience that love to the very end of our time on earth.
Sharing our lives with others is an important part of our faith journey. Being part of a worshipping community is one of the ways that we identify ourselves as members of our faith tradition. We gather to pray together, to praise together, to consecrate bread and wine together and to care for one another. That is evidenced week by week in this place – and in other similar places.

One of the functions of a place like this is that we hold within our space the tension between death and resurrection, the dynamic between the stark reality of death and the promise of new life in Christ. Our liturgies and our hymnody speak into that space. The imagery that surrounds us reminds us of that fundamental truth. Crucifixion and Resurrection, alpha and omega, endings and beginnings – that is the meta narrative within which we are held.

And so let’s return to thinking about how that informs our thinking about mortality. We often think about journeying through life; I want to suggest that we will, one day, journey through death.

We will each make a journey through the process of dying which will take us to that place we can’t yet know; will take us into the promise of eternal life and peace. We might choose to hasten the beginning of that journey, but we are unlikely to have control over its length. Just as our journey through life has unexpected twists and turns, I won’t be surprised, when my time comes, if the journey through and beyond death is similar.

As we find ways to reflect on our own mortality, and perhaps to consider the way we might die and whether we would want to have a choice about that, I suggest that we need to hold in tension a reflection on the new life in Christ that is promised to each one of us. To hold onto today’s reminder that death is a moment on a journey that has a before and an after.

Thinking and talking about death and dying might not seem like a fun topic, but if we can hold those conversations within a space like this that enables us to recognise the interaction between death and resurrection, we can perhaps begin to see death, and in particular our own death, as a moment, a significant moment on a journey towards God that will take us onwards into that promised place of eternal peace and rest.

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