Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
Saying goodbye to people we love is one of the hardest things we do; the pain of separation is one of the greatest pains we endure because we humans, made in the image of God, are made by and for love, and so we are made by and for union with God and one another. That is the deepest truth there is to know about us.
Despite being made by and for love, despite a desire for union being deep within us, we all have to say goodbye to people we love, and we all have to endure the pain of separation. Some of you, like me, have people you love on the other side of the world, and so have to endure the pain of physical separation. Some of you know the pain of someone you love being afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and other mental illnesses, when the person you love, though physically there, isn’t really mentally there anymore. Some of you know the pain of ‘we just don’t speak anymore’, the pain of estrangement, of volitional separation. Some of you know the pain of ‘how close am I to losing you?’, the pain of emotional separation. Some of you know the pain of divorce, when all these separations can come together. All of us know the pain of death. And this is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel lesson for today, when he’s explaining and preparing his disciples for his own death. He knows it will be painful for them. But only through this pain can he transform them, us, and the world.
I’m old enough now to have had several loved ones die. No matter how many times it happens, it’s never any easier. It’s always hard. And I think it’s hard for everyone. But we never talk about it. We’re not good, as a culture, or even as a church, about talking about death, even though it’s the most universal experience we will all share and it’s the experience of Jesus’s death we are baptized into and gathered around today.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus explains the meaning, the significance of his death for us. Now, it seems odd, if not perverse, to suggest that this could be good news. For how can death ever be good? It’s just so painful, and so hard to make sense of. But that’s what Jesus wants us to confront, and in so doing, understand something of more of ourselves, something we too often forget.
Death is so painful because of who we are, that is, our very nature. For we were created by Love to love one another and the One who is the source of love itself. So, when we love, we give expression to our nature, manifesting the most profound truth, the greatest goodness, and the supreme beauty of what it is to be human, and, thereby, we satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts, the desire for union with one another and the One who is the love that binds us all together. Now, when that union is broken, we feel pain, sometimes very intense pain. And that is the pain of death. But in this pain is transformation, or so Jesus wants us to believe.
When we say goodbye to people we care for, we are left with memories of how we shared our lives together and if we are lucky, photographs, too, which remind us of the time we spent together, a time with a beginning and an end. And maybe it is because we want to hold on to that time, in whatever way we can, that photograph albums are the possessions we treasure the most, because they help us hold on to a time, a time which has now come to an end, a time for which we are thankful. Such is the familiar pattern of life for us. So, when we say goodbye, we do so not only with a heavy heart, but also with a grateful heart for what has been and a hopeful heart for what is to come.
Life is so very short. Our time together is but for a moment. We do well to remember this, so that we can cherish each other and the time we spend together, remembering that we can never hold on to that time, to make it stop, nor one another. We’re always letting go in order to receive something, or someone new. The spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, speaks of this, in a letter to his father to help him make sense of his mother’s death.
Mortification—literally, “making death”—is what life is all about, a slow discovery of the mortality of all that is created so that we can appreciate its beauty without clinging to it as if it were a lasting possession. Our lives can indeed be seen as a process of becoming familiar with death, as a school in the art of dying. I do not mean this in a morbid way. On the contrary, when we see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift. The pictures, letters, and books of the past reveal life to us as a constant saying of farewell to beautiful places, good people, and wonderful experience…. All these times have passed by like friendly visitors, leaving [us] with the sad recognition of the shortness of life. In every arrival there is a leavetaking; in each one’s growing up there is a growing old; in every smile there is a tear; and in every success there is a loss. All living is dying and all celebration is mortification too.
Nouwen’s words are not far from Jesus’s words, ‘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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life’. This then is the transformation. By dying to the things of this world, the things which are merely temporary, we come to live in the beauty of eternity, where there is no saying of farewell. For in that place which no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him, is our home, where our restless hearts find their rest, and all things are made new. We taste and see that spiritual reality for a moment every time we take the Eucharistic bread and wine, for in those elements, is Jesus’s life given for us, our union with him, and through him with God and all those whom we love but see no longer in the communion of saints. This is the transformation we experience every time we experience the love of God in the Eucharist and come to share his life and our life with him.
Cornelius Ernst calls this moment the genetic moment, when we share in the life of God who makes all things new. He writes,
Every genetic moment is a mystery. It is dawn, discovery, spring, new birth, coming to the light, awakening, transcendence, liberation, ecstasy, bridal consent, gift, forgiveness, reconciliation, revolution, faith, hope, love. It could be said that Christianity is the consecration
of the genetic moment, the living centre from which it reviews the indefinitely various and shifting perspectives of human experience in history. That, at least, is or ought to be its claim: that it is the power to transform and renew all things: ‘Behold, I make all things new’.
Thank you for letting me share in your life, in which I have glimpsed the grace and glory of God, this genetic moment when this church has been transformed, and I have been transformed. The Greeks said to the disciples, ‘We would see Jesus’. And I have seen Jesus. I have seen him here, in this place and in you: in the love and care you show for one another and the community; in the self-less acts of service you do on a daily basis; in the joy you share in fellowship with one another. Yes, I have seen Jesus. And what a wonder it has been.
It is very hard to say goodbye. But I know that you are ready for a new chapter in the story of your life together, one that I can’t help you write. It has been a joy, a privilege, and a great honour to serve you and to worship with you the God who loves us more than his own life.
It’s often said that vicars have just one sermon they preach. I’m not sure if that’s true of everyone, but I expect it’s true of me. That one sermon for me is: God loves you, without condition, without reservation, and without end, and so there’s no need to be afraid, for he is with you, closer to you than your own skin, deeper within you than the air in your lungs. In life, in death, in life beyond death, you are not alone. You are loved. You are loved. You are loved. Thanks be to God.