John 12: 20-36
‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’. I find our Gospel reading today, on this day, this Tuesday in Holy Week, to be really moving. We are in company with Jesus as he gets ready to die. He is fully prepared. As Son of God he knows that his death will bring life and salvation to the world. But he’s also Son of Man, he is just like us: flesh and blood. He is fearful. ‘Now, my soul is troubled he says’. We hear similar words in the other Gospels, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; (Matthew 26:38)
Each day of this Holy Week, Jesus draws closer to his death. We meditate again on his gracious words and actions, culminating in that glorious final commitment from the Cross, ‘Into your hands O Lord I commend my spirit’. In doing so we can I believe be strengthened to prepare for our own death. Jesus was fully prepared for his death, and we should be too. There is something rather important being said in the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer when we pray to be ‘delivered from dying suddenly and unprepared.’ It is good to be ready, to be prepared for when our own death comes. St Francis of Assisi could speak of death as ‘Sister Death’, because she was for him a familiar and welcome companion. It is said of Pope John 23rd -good Pope John- that as he lay dying of a rather terrible stomach cancer, he told his secretary, ‘My bags are packed and ready to go.’ In the Rule of our Society we read, ‘We are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial.’ (Chapter 48). Death for the Christian is no enemy, is not to be feared, but is rather a kind angel waiting to lead us into the presence of our heavenly Father.
Today we celebrate All Souls Day. We ‘celebrate’? How can we celebrate when shortly we shall be remembering by name before God our loved ones who have died, and whom we so miss?
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed. In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible.’ Those amazing, thrilling words from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I can never read them without hearing Handel’s Messiah ringing in my ears! And they are words which tell us just what it is that we are celebrating today. We are celebrating what lies at the very heart of our faith as Christians. Jesus truly died, and yet was raised to life by God. And all who have faith in Jesus, although we too will die, will also be raised to life by God. Paul goes on to proclaim in ringing terms, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ The promise and hope of resurrection, of new life, IS our gospel as Christians. It seems to me that so much in life points to this. Just as winter leads to spring, so death and resurrection, loss and hope, seem to penetrate the very fabric of life itself.
I have always loved these two days, All Saints and All Souls. They evoke something deep within me, that I often have difficulty putting into words. This is especially true as I get older. Somewhere, deep in my soul, I feel as if I am letting out a great sigh, not so much of contentment, although I am content, but of consent, because these two days put into words, what I believe to be true in the very depths of my being.
The history of these two days is actually quite fascinating. It takes us from the earliest days of the faith to the magnificent Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, from the Pantheon in Rome to the trenches of France. Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have attempted to put into words not simply what we know from experience, but what we know in the very depths of our being, to be true.
What we know from experience is that death is real. Yes, we do our best to deny it, delay it, and pretend it didn’t happen. We mask it with make-up and hide it away with polite euphemisms. Yet in the end we cannot outrun it, and like Jesus, can only weep when faced with it. Once however, our tears are dry, we are left trying to put into words another reality: having lived and loved on earth, do the dead continue to live and love in that place where they can no longer be seen?
For some the answer is a resounding ‘no’. Death is the ultimate disaster because it is the end of all things. All that is left are our memories, like the lingering scent of someone’s cologne. Anything else is wishful thinking.
For the Christian, the resurrection of Jesus challenges the notion that death is the ultimate disaster, for in Jesus, life is changed, not ended, and death becomes not the end, but a door, not a wall, but a gate, not the end, but a new beginning. It is this which we proclaim on these two days, as we put into words our belief in the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ.
We do so, not as wishful thinkers denying, delaying, and pretending that death does not happen. We do so with the stink of death in our nostrils. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead four days,” or, as the King James Bible puts it, “Lord … he stinketh.” She says this, having just made her great confession of faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Martha’s great confession that Jesus is the Messiah, is an affirmation that the long-awaited messianic age, when the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, [and] the poor have good news brought to them, has arrived, with the coming of Jesus into the world.
In the face of so much contradictory evidence, such a claim is bold, brash, and incredibly audacious. Yet that is the claim we make as Christians. Evidence to the contrary, these are the very things we see happening today. The blind do receive their sight, the lame do walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf do hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. If these are not true, then Jesus is not who Martha claimed him to be, and we of all people are to be pitied, for if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
And we make this claim, not for ourselves alone, but for all those whom we love, but see no longer. And that is the crux of these two days. We are making a bold, brash, and incredibly audacious claim, not simply for ourselves, but for countless women and men who have lived lives of faith, or even just attempted to, in ages past.
Like Martha, we too confess that [Jesus is] the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. In making that confession we say something specific about the dead. We boldly, brashly, and with incredible audacity claim that the dead are raised to life. This does not deny the reality of death. After all, even Lazarus stinketh.
Such audacity claims for the dead, and for us, that death is not a disaster, nor a wall, nor the end. It claims that death is a door, a gate, and a new beginning.
And so, we come to these two days, All Saints’ and All Souls’. While the stink of death is in our nostrils, we say: I believe in the resurrection of the body. In the face of overwhelming grief, whether it be from COVID, or the trenches of France, we say: I believe in the resurrection of the body. When someone we love dies, at a great age, or a young age, ripe in years, or full of unrealized promise, we say: I believe in the resurrection of the body.
I love these two days, not because I am a romantic, lost in wishful thinking, pretending that death is not real, but because I am a realist, who has smelt death. I am a realist who has smelt death, and who with Martha knows Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world, even while someone I love, but see no longer stinketh.
The world stinks right now, and the answer to that stench is not wishful thinking. The answer to the stench is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world, who cries out in the face of all the stench and grief of the world, “Take away the stone … Lazarus, come out! … Unbind him, and let him go.”
Today and tomorrow, as we remember the countless saints and souls, known and unknown, who have lived lives of faith, or simply tried to, we do so with the echo Martha’s confession, and the sound of Jesus’ command, ringing in our hearts, as we proclaim boldly, brashly, and with incredible audacity, in the face of all the stench, I believe in the resurrection of the body, and once more Lazarus emerges from his tomb, and we take from him the rags of death.
I love these two days, because somewhere deep in my soul, I breathe out a long sigh of consent, as I say once again, I believe in the resurrection of the body.
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: All Saints’ Day (Transferred)
 John 11: 35
 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing Incorporated, 1979, page 382
 Episcopal Church, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, Church Publishing Incorporated, 1997, page 410.
 John 11: 39
 John 11: 27
 Luke 7: 22
 1 Corinthians 15: 14 – 19
 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing Incorporated, page 504
 Episcopal Church, Book of Common Prayer, Church Publishing Incorporated, page 96
 John 11: 39, 43, 44
It’s not unusual for me to get something in my head, and be convinced that I have it correct, only to discover that I have it backwards. For the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself a phrase, which I was positive I had right, but was actually wrong.
In the midst of death, I’ve been telling myself, we are in life. The phrase comes to us from the Prayer Book burial rite, and we Brothers sing it at the midday service on Holy Saturday. The problem is, I have it backwards. What the text actually says is, in the midst of life we are in death.
It seems however, that the trick my mind has played on me, has some merit. This past year, has been one long, long season of death. It will not surprise you to hear that the number of cases of Covid-19 in this country alone, will soon reach 31 million, with over 555,000 deaths. In the midst of death.
Nor may it surprise you to hear, that since the beginning of the year, there have been 125 cases of mass shootings, with a total of 481 people wounded, and 148 others killed. In the midst of death.
We see unfolding in the news, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes rising. The other day the George Floyd murder trial began. In the midst of death.
or Psalm 119:9-16
We are in the deep end of Lent now, the far side of the wilderness. The forty-day path of prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy, is drawing ever closer to the cross. It’s like the last few miles of a marathon; the last set of finals before the end of term; the last month of a pregnancy; all yearning and aching to end well but not quite there yet. Too far to go back, and so we continue to strain forward. There are so many ways that life in the world in general these days has been like a long journey. You would be forgiven for feeling a little or even very weary. But, take heart, because there is hope on the horizon although, it may not be readily apparent.
The Jesus whom we encounter in this 12th Chapter of John has also set his face toward Jerusalem and the completion of the race marked out for him. In fact, Jesus is more aware of this unravelling than most. When Philip and Andrew go to tell Jesus about a whole new group of people that want to see him you can feel a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm at beginning to know Jesus. His fame is spreading. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified!”
Oh, but glory looks different than fame and notoriety, which is why Jesus immediately begins to explain what it means for him to be glorified. It’s like a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies so that it may bear much fruit. Without descent and death, there can be no new life. Without transformation and conversion, it’s just a lone grain of wheat, small and ineffectual. Without being broken open, it remains closed and unto itself.
Cognitively we know that seeds produce plants. But, it’s a hidden process that takes place in the darkness of soil and isn’t immediately apparent to the eye. Planting a seed in the hope of new growth takes trust and patience. Experienced gardeners and farmers grow in that trust but planting is never without risk. What if the seed doesn’t grow? What if something goes wrong and it’s all for naught? That waiting in the dark can be terrifying when a crop is badly needed.
These days of sowing the seeds of renunciation and penitence can feel exhausting when spiritual fruit is hard to see and only the darkness, fear, and pain of death are near. Our rule of life describes the nature of this kind dying, “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death. Through them we practice the final letting go of dying, so that it will be less strange and terrifying to us.” (Ch. 48, Holy Death)
At this point in our Lenten journey, Christ points to a glimpse of the glory we await because seeing is part and parcel of God’s glory. The root words in Greek and Hebrew that are ascribed to God both take on the meaning of visible splendor, power on display. Glory is outward. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God and displays God’s power in his life. The death he was willing to die, like a grain of wheat falling to the earth, has produced great fruit for us to see.
I can still recall the wonder of the childhood experiments where we would place little beans against the side of a clear plastic cup lined with just some wet paper towel. It seemed like overnight we would come back to find that the outer casing had cracked open and little shoots were coming out, top and bottom. Before long, that original little bean was hardly recognizable as the plant grew right before our eyes. It was quick and gratifying to young attention spans and it gave me the visual confirmation of the process that typically goes on in secret in the soil. I could see with my own eyes how the death of that seed produced new life.
But the stakes are higher with a human life. The fear and uncertainty of death are magnified. And they get personal when Jesus tells us to follow him into a death like his. Thanks be to God, Jesus was willing to feel this, and to make it evident. “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.”
Faced with death, and the ignominious death of the cross, Jesus goes to great lengths to encourage us along. “Father, glorify your name.” Show them what I have seen! And like, thunder the voice replies, I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The signs and wonders of Jesus were all God’s visible splendor. The work of the cross is God’s power on display. “When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself.”
Christ was lifted up in his obedience to the Father as the letter to the Hebrews says. His obedience and submission to the Father has become the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. As Jesus calls us to follow him, to serve him, to lose our life like him, we are inexorably drawn to him like a strong magnet. Pulled inwardly to remain with him.
And we have seen this glory.
Who in your life has drawn you to Jesus?
Can you see them? Name them?
Do they know what fruit has been born of their dying to self?
They may not know it just as we may not know who is being drawn to Christ because of us.
The good news is that is has happened, it is happening, and it shall happen.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)
Take heart, dearly beloved of God. The path we walk with Christ will lead us all the way to through death until our baptism is complete. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain” Unless we lose our life in this world we cannot keep it to everlasting life. Unless the bread is broken it cannot be given. Bind yourself to Christ in his passion. Pray for the consolations of Christ in this home stretch of our pilgrimage. Be nourished by the prayer, Anima Christi, in poetic translation by John Henry Newman:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
The scholarly journal, the “International Bulletin of Mission Research,” has for more than thirty years compiled an annual table of Christian martyrs. The journal defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Martyr. The journal’s estimate: in the last 10 years, 900,000 Christians have been killed worldwide for their witness to Christ. That’s, on average, 90,000 Christians martyred each year during this past decade.[i]
The English word “martyr” comes from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” translated as “witness.” May we be spared shedding our blood as a martyr; nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give “witness” to Christ. There will be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for someone, another child of God, probably even today. The invitation may not be in an act of heroism – no shedding of blood – but more likely in a very mundane and rather hidden way.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we will have the occasion to show kindness or to forgive. We will be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience; the withholding of our judgment; the readiness to be helpful and not hurtful, or retiring or rebuffing; the opportunity to bless and not to curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once even today. To die. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.”[ii] We’re to be fruitful. Something will need to die for us to be fruitful. Whether it be something great or something puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs may need to die. It may be some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or privilege, or fear, or time that we feel is our rightful possession. It’s going to get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “abundant life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t surrender it, don’t let it die.[iii] Today will probably be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and in our claiming the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak of our identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks, but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Die, again, and again, and again, we must die.
[i] See the International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2018 study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939317739833
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Jesus speaks of “abundant life” in John 10:10.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House. I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves. It was a beautiful and melancholy experience. Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss. A time to remember. In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away. This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.
A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance. I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end. After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.” I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope. As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow. Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)
But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died. There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying. “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?
I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life. He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money. And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)
The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first. Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.
And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.
It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s the pattern at work in all the saints. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)
And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!
So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see? Does he see someone too full already? It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us. Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.
Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us. Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.” Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.
At times we may feel the burden of sin. Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse. There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.” I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’ And we say, “I can’t keep up! I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’
And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you. Let me take the weight off you. Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’
I love this time of year – the season of fall. Things seem to be falling and dying. But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.” And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery. We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.
And so with us. Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives. To let die all that does not give me life. To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.
Let it go. Learn from those gently falling leaves. And let it go.
Isaiah 25:6-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, John 5:24-27
Today we celebrate All Souls. This feast was added in the tenth century to remember all the dead, not simply those deemed notable saints down the centuries, and to particularly remember deceased family and friends.
We remember the dead with thanksgiving: for how they touched us, for who they were and are to and for us, for relationship, influence, nurture, and the gift of their life. These “whom we love but see no longer.”[i]
We remember the dead with confidence. As in the Letter to the Thessalonians: We do “not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” And from Isaiah, God will “swallow up death forever. … and wipe away tears from all faces.”
We remember the dead with expectation. Today’s gospel says: “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” We each die broken and incomplete. We need and receive more beyond the grave. The dead will live, not simply awake but continue to grow and heal.
Jesus came standing next to Mary Magdalene, but she did not know it was him. When Jesus called Mary by name, she recognized him. A most brief and beautiful portrait, so intimate, so familiar. Mary felt she had lost everything: her Lord, her friend, her way. Called by her name, Mary was found; she regained sight, saw Jesus beside her.
Jesus calls us by name. Some people hear God speak literally, audibly, as Mary did. That is not my experience. If it is, I missed it. If you experience that, be grateful. I do hear God call me by name, and it is powerful, resurrection power, like what Mary experienced. I bet you have experienced it too.