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Sunday 10 October 2021

Trinity 19, Twenty-eighth In Ordinary Time, Proper 23

Death makes life urgent for love!

Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31


By Paul Rowan

Assistant Head Teacher of Beaulieu Convent School, Jersey and Director of the Beaulieu Institute of Theological Literacy; author of The Scrappy Evangelist. Chesterton And A New Apologetics For Today (2017).

Context: a typical parish congregation in secular UK culture: mixed ages (toddlers to the elderly, and everything in between) and levels of faith commitment (committed, curious, disengaged …), income (from deprived to affluent) and education; drawing people from Jersey, British, Polish and Madeiran backgrounds.

Aim: to remind people that life (and all the good things in it) is a gift given to us for a while, that we may learn how to love, and so the horizon of death makes life urgent for love.

G. K. Chesterton says that any healthy religion reminds us that one day we will die, but also that we are not dead yet, and so there’s a lot of life to be lived in this world! The houses, parents, siblings, children, land, and every other blessing granted to us are on loan, that we may flourish. But life in this cosmos is given only for a while. This world is not our ultimate destination (which is why we should pray with our Psalmist: ‘make us know the shortness of our life’). To hold in tension the dual nature of life as a good but impermanent gift is to receive the spirit of wisdom, praised in our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures as being more precious than silver or gold. It is unwise, therefore, not to keep an eye on where we are ultimately heading. No amount of wealth, pleasure, renown, or any of the other goods of this world, removes the rock-bottom reality of death. That said, it is equally daft to ignore this world, since the only way ‘to inherit eternal life’ is by engaging with life here and now. All the good things of life are a gift from God to be enjoyed. How do we do that?


Saint John of the Cross says that, ‘In the evening of our life we will be examined on love’. ‘Did you love?’ (‘become a saint?’, to use the technical term) is the only question on God’s eternal exam paper (see also Matthew 25:31-46). Everything we have and are is on loan for a while, for the purposes of God, for the purposes of moulding us into conduits of God’s love in the world. We inherit eternal life by sharing life here and now with others, in love. The horizon of death makes life urgent for love. If, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, God’s Word is something alive and active, a person, we need to let him into all the nooks and crannies of our day-to-day living, where the soul is divided from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. This prospect may make us not a little nervous but letting Christ in on every area of who we are and how we live is actually liberating. True, it is not always easy (a life ‘not without persecutions’), but it is a lot easier than the alternative - trying to live the gift of life without reference to the Giver of the gift. If we are to have any chance of joy (which is a share here and now in eternal life), we need to remember that to love is to be truly alive, and not to love is merely to exist.

Arguably, today we prefer not to think about death. We used to put our graveyards right next to our churches in the middle of town. Now we bury or cremate our dead far from the centre of our lives. We try to eliminate signs of aging from our bodies, maybe dyeing our hair, or (if we have a few more quid) using a bit of Botox or plastic surgery. Now, blonding your roots, resorting to Grecian 2000, sticking on a bit of lippy or (in my case) going for a run to lose a beer belly in a vain attempt to re-live former glories, do not necessarily indicate a person in denial of death! There’s nothing wrong with trying to make the best of ourselves as we age. But how we look on the outside is not as important as how we look on the inside! That’s a lesson we can come to learn through the detachment encouraged by Jesus and feared by the rich man.


Reflecting honestly on the past 18 months, did we learn anything? Hopefully, we were not so obsessed with Covid that we stopped living our life. But ... did we ever wonder what life we had previously been living? Were we living? The words ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ have been mentioned a lot, of late. In that gospel today Jesus tries to slip like a double-edged sword into our lives to point out the real essentials and non-essentials. A pandemic does not change whether we are going to die; it only changes when we might die. If death is decades away, it is not urgent. If it is potentially a fortnight away (or five days away in the case of my brother-in-law, who died in April 2020), well, we should at least give it a second thought, and ponder what we will do with the days we have left. We’ve only got so many, so I’m going to shut up now and not waste any more of your precious time. Go out and love someone! Happy Sabbath!

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