St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 4 November
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
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”.