The joy of the eternal present

St Andrew’s Anglican Church 



Sunday 4 November 

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost 

Isaiah 25:6-9 

Psalm 24 

Revelation 21:1-6a 

John 11: 32-44 

The joy of the eternal present © Sue Wilton  

In 1908 the British Idealist J.M.E McTaggart famously argued that time  can’t be real at all. He drew attention to the language of past, present  and future as states that change; today was the future yesterday and  will be the past tomorrow. This means that the same moment can have  completely contradictory properties; somehow a single moment can be  past, present and future. This ‘neat philosophical party trick’ makes of  all time an illusion. What we have is this moment- perhaps all we ever  have- and that is the quality of eternity. 1 T.S Eliot captures this idea of  course in the first of his famous Four Quartets saying; 

human kind…Cannot bear very much reality. 

Time past and time future 

What might have been and what has been 

Point to one end, which is always present. 

Today is the Feast of All Saints, where we celebrate all those who have  died in the faith, known and unknown, and the bond shared between  the living and the dead in the Church of God. It is a day when we  recognise that our experience of time moving forward creates a sense  that we are not there yet, but that we have the fire of eternity burning  deep within us. Linear time may be an illusion, distracting us from the  eternal ‘which is always present,’ but it remains our lived experience, never more clearly felt than in the loss of those who have died- those  whom we love and now no longer see. All Saints Day is a day to  celebrate an alternate reality – that eternal present that we inhabit  right now as we worship together with ‘all the saints and angels.’ The  power of this feast is therefore not to be found in thinking about what  happens when we die, but about how we live into eternity now. 

The Church suffers a great loss when it makes faith into some sort of  transaction with God that will ensure us a place in heaven when we  die.  

All through scripture- and particularly in the readings today- is this  revelation of God as the God of life one who gives it, reanimates it  and constantly exhorts us to choose it.  

If our focus is all on heaven, we devalue the very God-breathed life we  have been given in the here and now.  

We can turn this great gift of life into some sort of waiting room for  heaven. 

When we do this, we can not only miss our chance of life now, but miss the point made in Jesus teaching us to pray for God’s will to be  done on earth, as it is in heaven. We ignore the words from the reading  from Revelation that tells us “the home of God is among mortals.” The  glory of God being found in human form means that the human  experience of mortality is utterly transformed by Christ whose  resurrection shows us that death does not have the last word, and we  do not need to be afraid. Life in God begins now, and there is no power  on earth that can stop its unfolding. 

And here, I believe, is the heart of the message of today’s Gospel  reading. It is a passage that is full of the dread we feel at the passing of  time, of not having enough time, of time running out. Weeping at the death of her brother, Mary says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here,  my brother would not have died.” If only you had made it in time,  Jesus. Yet just before this passage, John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had  intentionally delayed two more days after hearing that Lazarus was  sick. Jesus appeared to waste time. It is as if the story is trying to make  clear that our fears do not need to drive us into trying to beat time.  

When Jesus does arrive, time again frames the message. Lazarus,  Martha tells us, has been dead four days. In Jewish belief there is a  tradition of the soul hanging around for three days, so the story leaves  us in no doubt that Lazarus is dead and gone. And if that were not  enough evidence that Lazarus is dead, Martha very practically reminds  Jesus of the stench of death that will be present. I love the King James  version here which reads, “Lord, by this time he stinketh.” Our physical  bodies mark very clearly the passage of time.  

And finally, overshadowing this whole story is the time rapidly  approaching where Jesus will face his own death in Jerusalem. Lazarus  is raised from the dead and returned to his mortal life, revealing Jesus  as the Christ, who is as one with the author and giver of life, having  power over death itself. In John’s Gospel it is this act of raising Lazarus  which effectively signs Jesus’ death warrant, prompting the Chief  Priests and Pharisees to plot his execution and the high priest Caiaphas  to declare that “it is better to have one man die for the people.” Jesus  act of giving life is so threatening that the fear-filled response is to  arrange for his death, and the clock starts ticking faster towards that  moment when he will be handed over.  

But here’s the thing. John’s Gospel is showing us that in the raising of  Lazarus, Jesus is lord over death. Jesus is living into the prophecy of  Isaiah that the shroud of death which is cast over all peoples will be  destroyed forever, and the raising of Lazarus is a sign to us that death  and decay are no barriers to the God for whom all time is eternally  present. As the baptised people of God, we need not fear the passing  of time. We do not need to rush in fear lest time run out because we are all held, the living and the dead, in the loving, present attention of  the Divine, who sustains us in life.  

Life is so much more than the beating of our heart and the passage of  air through our lungs. I sometimes wonder if our cultural fascination  with zombies, particularly around the popular celebration of  Halloween, has something to do with the uneasy awareness of how we  can be alive, but not really living. I am sure most of us have  encountered people who go through the motions of life, meeting  needs and superficially entertaining themselves, but whose spirit  seems to be absent.  

Sometimes it can be easier to just settle into tombs of our own making,  and we become so used to them that we don’t notice “it stinketh”. It  may be through our hurt, or fear, or difficult life experiences, but  sometimes we can find ourselves being the walking dead. Like Lazarus,  we are unable to release ourselves from the shroud of death that  covers us and we need to hear loudly the voice of Christ calling us to  come out and live. Often, for me, Christ has spoken through the voice  of a friend or a faith community who have helped me to wake up and  shown me the way to choose life.  

The feast of All Saints is an invitation to come out from whatever  entombs us- whether that be pain or fear- and step into a life where  eternity begins in the present moment; a moment where we keep  constant company with all the saints and angels. Time past and time  future point to one end, which is always present. 

So may we be a community that by the Spirit is able to lift the shroud  on the illusion of time and help one another to choose life. 

And may you recognise the voice of the One who calls you to come out  into the abundance of the life which begins here – now- and continues  to all eternity. 

In the name of Christ, Amen. 

1 “Is Time an Illusion?” in New Philosopher, Issue 22, November 2018-January 2019, “Use your Time Wisely”. 

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