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The Edge of Life and Death

Lent 5: 2nd April, 2017
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Ez. 37:12-14; Ps 130; Ro 8:8-11; Jn 11:3-7,17,20-27,33b-45

Our lections today encourage a reflection on death; as we approach the end of Lent, they are preparing us to enter once again into the great mystery of the Paschal Triduum.

Death is not a topic of conversation that most of us feel comfortable with. Recently my wife and I were enjoying a delightful evening with friends who have recently retired, but who are a long way from death, God willing. We were covering a wide range of topics, and moved onto the architecture of their new house. "Our house has no steps," one friend started to explain, "it is all on one level to avoid trips when we get older. I don't want to end up in a hospital or a rest home. In the end I would like to bring a bed into the lounge, so that I can die here, looking out on our garden." "Are you trying to tell us something?" another friend retorted. We all laughed. "No, no. I'm in good health, thank God. Sorry to be so morbid." And we moved quickly on to the next topic of conversation. But perhaps we should have lingered a bit longer. It is a good and healthy thing to contemplate death.

Woody Allen famously said: "I'm not afraid of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens" (cited in Jonathan Sacks, From Optimism to Hope [2004] p. 65). Sigmund Freud, in Reflections on War and Death (1918), posits a theory that the religious sentiment itself stems from meditations on human mortality (www.bartleby.com/282/2.html):

Contemplation of the corpse of the person loved gave birth not only to the theory of the soul, the belief in immortality, and implanted the deep roots of the human sense of guilt, but it also created the first ethical laws. The first and most important prohibition of the awakening conscience declared: Thou shalt not kill. This arose as a reaction against the gratification of hate for the beloved dead which is concealed behind grief, and was gradually extended to the unloved stranger and finally also to the enemy.

Building on the medieval tradition of Ars moriendi ("The Art of Dying") Jeremy Taylor, a seventeenth-century English cleric, notes in The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651) that: "He [or she] that would die well must always look for death, every day knocking at the gates of the grave" (www.ccel.org/ccel/taylor/holy_dying.html).

We are not encouraged to reflect on death in order to foster melancholy, pessimism or nihilism; quite the contrary. An honest and holy reflection on the excruciating reality of death ironically leads to life; life in its fullest abundance.

For Ezekiel this was a political as well as a personal reality. His ministry as a prophet took place over the first three decades of the sixth century B.C. The tiny state of Judah was easy pickings for the rising might of the Babylonian empire under the reign of King Nebuchadrezzar (c.605-562BC). Jerusalem surrendered in 597 but then ten years later, after an uprising, the full wrath of the empire descended. The city, and temple, was destroyed and her people forced en-masse into exile to prevent further rebellion.

Ezekiel's earlier prophecies, before the fall of Jerusalem, reprimanded the people of Judah for trusting in foreign gods and foreign powers. As one of the leaders of the Jewish people, he was then among the first to be exiled, and there follows a prophetic silence of some 13 years. The reading we hear today is a new voice, emerging from the silence; a whisper of divine life-giving hope to a people suffering the literal and spiritual death of exile, oppression and marginalisation:

Thus says the Lord God: "I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord ... I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live ..."

This is an ancient truth, known to Christians and Jews alike, and no doubt to all people of faith: even in our darkest night of suffering and death there lie seeds of life. Archbishop Justin Welby, in his book Dethroning Mammon (2016) puts it like this: "no experience of suffering or sorrow is able to overcome the capacity of God to bring life. The generosity of God overflows with such power that even death is swept away" (p.11).

It is a great privilege, as a priest, to journey with people to the edge of life and death. My experience over 30 years of pastoral ministry is that people of faith almost invariable sit more peacefully in this place of life's end. Just this past week one of our parishioners, from her hospital bed, looked into my eyes and said, with such great courage and faith: "I am not afraid to die." She will be there when death happens, as will God's Holy Spirit, of that I am sure.

John the Evangelist's narrative of the raising of Lazarus is an archetype of this truth. The public ministry of Jesus is drawing to a close, the Passion looms, and our Lord comes full circle to the place where his ministry began: "across the Jordon to the place where John had been baptising" (Jn 10:40). His dear friends, Mary and Martha, send a message: "Lord, he whom you love is ill" (Jn 11:3).

We don't know much about Lazarus, but Jean Vanier (founder of the L'Arche community) puts forward a beautiful suggestion: Lazarus may have been a person with a disability. His life-story is not told in the gospel, he has no voice. We just know that he lived with his two unmarried sisters, and that Jesus deeply loved him (see Welby, p. 16). Whatever the story of Lazarus' life, his death deeply affects our Lord. It is the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, but surely the most moving: "Jesus wept" (Jn 11:35). And then our Lord is moved to enact the seventh and final sign of John's gospel; he raises his dear friend from death. This is all the Sanhedrin needs; the lot is cast that will now lead to his own death. The story of Lazarus sits on the very edge of life and death in so many ways and at so many levels.

So, where do we sit, you and I? St Paul's words in his letter to the Romans perhaps give us a pointer: "If the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Ro. 8:11).

The one great continuum is the Spirit of God: in life, in death, and on the edge of life and death. I remember experiencing this spiritual reality vividly when my sister died in 1987. My parents, my other sister and I were distraught and in deep pain, but the Holy Spirit journeyed through the grief with us; at times in absence, at other times tangibly. This past week on my hospital visits I felt the same presence of God's Spirit as I broke bread and shared wine with people. Here in church we will do the same, as we recall the death of Lazarus in scripture, and our Lord's own death in the real presence of Eucharist.

It is a good place; the edge of life and death. It does not need to be feared. It is a Spirit-filled place. It is a place we will all travel through in due course. It is a thin place; a place where God dwells. Thanks be to God.


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