All three readings this evening deal with death in different ways. In Habbakuk, all is death and things are falling apart – the fig tree and the vine traditionally represent the people of Israel and in his concluding verses he laments that “Though the fig tree does not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines etc.”...... “yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation” So it is a spiritual, social and moral death that has beset the people of Israel that he laments, yet amidst all of that he still finds hope and peace in God.
In Corinthians, Paul is talking of physical death, and here we must remember that at the time of writing he was expecting the imminent end of time when God would bring all things to a close, so he excitedly says “we shall not all die, or we shall not all sleep”. But of course, he was mistaken and we will certainly all die which makes what he says all the more poignant. He talks of death as a mystery, and it is a mystery. I don’t know about you but I get tired of hearing people tell me that they know exactly what is going to happen when we die, what it’ll be like etc. It is a mystery, but that isn’t to say we don’t have a little insight.
Paul says “For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality”. And just before this extract we heard today he says “I tell you this, flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the imperishable inherit the imperishable” which incidentally leaves the Christian idea of the resurrection of the body in mid air – unless you interpret that doctrine as a spiritual body.
Which leads me to the gospel of John where words attributed to Jesus had perplexed me for years.
“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.
Not exactly a great rallying call to attract the masses is it? “Hate your life and look forwards to death!”
Since the death of my wife Alex I’ve had an awful lot of time to think about and come to terms with death. To understand what Jesus meant by “losing” your life I had to first encounter Buddhism for spiritual insight. Jesus is talking about the ego. Paul also talks elsewhere of “dying to self”. And in so dying to self - the perishable - you find the real you, you find real life, you find Yahweh at the centre who is the true you, the imperishable as Paul calls it. In dying to self, one realises the ground of our own existence and the ground of all existence is the same. In dying to self one finds the source of all things at your centre who is the true you that can never die. In dying to your ego and reaching down within yourself in silence you find yourself. You find the light that enlightens every person as John says earlier at the very start of his gospel.
And that is true healing, because you intuitively know that this part of you can never die. Death loses its sting. You are ultimately neither totally your body nor your ego. You realise that we don’t come from nothing and go to nothing – we come from something and return to something. Our life is like a wave on the sea. When a wave forms, it doesn’t appear from nothing, it is the sea taking on a certain form for a short while. When the wave loses its power it doesn’t die, it simply returns to what it always was, the sea. In Biblical poetry we read “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(Jer. 1:5)
Only in finding God who transcends religion, have I, like Habbakuk, found a certain peace no matter what is happening around me. I can just smile at it all.
What is happening around me is simply form – like waves on the sea. A good example of this is that this is a service premised on Christian unity. In fact the Christian church would find it hard to be more fragmented in the world, and probably full visible unity will never happen in the world, but I can just smile at that safe in the knowledge that actually we are all united already on a much more fundamental and spiritual level. Our earthly divisions are transcended by a transcendent God. Our institutional differences are of no importance or consequence on the grand stage of life.
Finding this personal connection with the transcendent God is what Jesus is talking about. Hating life means hating this version, this parody of life that is a life cut off from its life source. Cut off because we are caught up in ourselves and see all life as separate and compartmentalised rather than as a wonderful unity. Dying to self, you find life.
In typical fashion after saying all this Jesus says “If anyone serves me he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if anyone serves me, the Father will honour him.
The father, the source and ground of all things will be there and will be found if we follow Jesus and look inside ourselves to look beyond the perishable to find the imperishable I AM, the light that enlightens every man.