Sermon at St James, Colwall, for Trinity 12 2016
To hear the sermon as you read:
To paraphrase Dr Johnson: "when a man or woman knows that he or she will be dead in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully."
I am sadly aware that some of us have friends or family who are approaching their death and others who have already died and our minds have also been concentrated wonderfully in recent weeks. We must also be aware that for many in our troubled world today death and dying are all around them – a mother wondering whether to risk fetching her child’s football which has rolled into the street in Aleppo where snipers and shells are everywhere; or a family stepping into a rubber, inflatable boat, trusting themselves to people smugglers in the Mediterranean.
A Muslim will trust in Allah with “Inshallah” (if God wills it) on his lips and face death in a resigned but still fearful way. Are we Christians very different?
Certainly the English do not like talking about death. They prefer to put the reality of it to the back of their minds by using euphemisms. The RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain would say of one of their number whose plane had crashed in the North Sea – ‘Harry, or Frank, or John has bought it’. With no time for emotion they moved on to the next sortie. And there are hundreds of other euphemisms from ‘He’s popped his clogs’ which refers to the practice of taking a man’s clogs to the pawnbrokers after his death, to ‘dropping off one’s perch’ or ‘She’s gone to sing with the celestial choirs’, which is OK so long as she was not tone deaf.
I mention death this morning because Jesus raised the topic in today’s Gospel from St Luke. Jesus is looking ahead to his death and not only is he looking ahead to it but he is feeling great stress about it. It is concentrating his mind and he says, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised and what stress I am under until it is completed”.
By ‘baptism’ Jesus means his painful death through which new life would come – a dying and a rising.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptised and what stress I am under until it is completed”.
A few chapters before this St Luke has already told us that Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem which suggests a single-minded purpose on Jesus’ part. And all four gospel writers are agreed that Jesus knew beforehand what was to befall him and yet was intent on facing it head on.
In St Mark’s Gospel Jesus makes three very specific predictions of his death which the other three evangelists all take up in their different ways.
In the first he spoke of the Son of Man undergoing great suffering and being killed and rising again and then Peter rebukes him and tries to counter him, but Jesus stamps on Peter – “Get behind me Satan” – a harsh response.
In the second Jesus refers to his betrayal into the hands of sinful men, being killed and rising again.
And in the third Jesus is striding out ahead of his disciples heading for Jerusalem and they become fearful especially when he refers to the chief priests and scribes handing him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and killed before rising again after three days.
So our Lord is stressed and anxious as he looks death in the face and he then tries to prepare his friends, trying to get them ready for what is to come.
The life of Jesus was unique in that he was the Son of God leading a human life. Our lives are unique in that each of us is different from anyone else, and yet we can always learn from the glimpses we get of the humanity of Jesus.
We are each of us attempting to live the Christian life and in doing so we really need to embrace the Christian view of death. We love life and we want to live it to the full but we know what awaits us.
So we go on our various journeys towards death, journeys which are enriched by the rituals of friendships and family love and community life; journeys which are also enlightened by the loveliness of nature and music and art and so much else; and journeys which are nourished by prayer and belief.
Perhaps it would be helpful for us to be more up-front about death and dying because in the back of our minds is our faith that death is a rite of passage, a kind of baptism. There will be pain and suffering and grief as there was for our Lord leading to a rising and a new life, but that is where the mystery begins and where faith is so vital.