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A Chance to Die

Bonhoeffer when christ callsA Chance to Die

Sermon for Passion Sunday

21 March 2021

St John the Baptist Felixstowe

Awesome vicar socksText:   Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12v24)

God give you peace my Sisters and Brothers.

Last week Philip mentioned that he and I, along with Peggy and Ann, were members of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis.  Besides it being a useful explanation for our eccentricities such as swimming in the North Sea in Winter and wearing sandals without socks all year round – though that can be a challenge as my friends often send me socks as gifts – we try to keep a set Rule of Life.

Each of us has a Personal Rule of Life with the same nine headings;

Holy Eucharist.
Penitence.
Personal Prayer.
Self‑denial.
Retreat.
Study.
Simplicity.
Work.
Obedience.

To which, since we are a worldwide community from widely different circumstances, we all respond differently.  But we are tied together by the Rule of the Order in which is laid out the Principles of the life we feel we are called to leave.

The very first paragraph of The Principles [1]reads:

Dashwood - FrancisJesus the Master speaks, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.” (John 12:24-26) 

By the example of his own sacrifice,
Jesus reveals the secret of bearing fruit.
In surrendering himself to death,
he becomes the source of new life.
Lifted from the earth on the cross,
he draws all people to himself.
Clinging to life causes life to decay;
the life that is freely given is eternal.  
Jesus calls those who would serve him to follow his example and choose for themselves the same path of renunciation and sacrifice.
To those who hear and obey he promises union with God.

The object of the Society of Saint Francis is to build a community of those who accept Christ as their Lord and Master and are dedicated to him in body and spirit.
They surrender their lives to him and to the service of his people.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain

I don’t know about you but I hate being alone.  Don’t get me wrong, I am content with my own company but I have been known to be rowdy, boisterous and loud – polite people refer to me as being ‘somewhat gregarious’.

I can be solitary, of the things that I have lost over this year of Covid lockdown the most precious has been a week of Retreat on Holy Island and a week of study at Ripon College Cuddesdon, but the time away just fills me with energy and enthusiasm to return to life with my sisters and brothers in Christ.  I miss you all so deeply when I am away.

The secret to not being alone, to not being a lonely grain of wheat, according to our Beloved Jesus Christ is to die…

It is a paradox that we see each year as we enter Passiontide.  As we watch our Redeemer walk boldly, though fearful and troubled in soul (John 12v26-28), ascend the hill of Calvary to make out of a cross of shame the throne of the King of Glory we come to realise that we live because He died.  And in response it is only as we die to ourselves that we can bring life to those around us

20th century martyrsWas it not Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  one of two World War II martyrs whose statue stands in the West façade of Westminster Abbey, who told us that ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die?’

Living is about dying.  From the day we are born we begin to die and the only choice we have about that is how we will die.  Science suggests, and Hollywood perpetuates, the idea that we are subject to a Seven Year Itch.  Not that every seven years we want to run off to make a love nest with someone new, but that every seven years of our life every cell in our body is made, grows, becomes worn out, and dies.  Each seven years – give or take a few years – all of us have brand new bodies.  All the time bits and pieces of us are wearing out and, if we’re lucky and young enough, replaced by a new body.  (What would I give for a pair of re-treaded knees!)

If we look at our bodies this way, we do not so much ‘live a life’ as ‘die a death’.  And if living is about dying, (and to be a saint, as Desmond Tutu used to remind us, you have to die first), then we have an opportunity every day to ‘be saints, and very great saints’. 

We only have two ways to live our lives, which are in reality two ways to die – to give our lives away and stand with the crucified or to take our life in our own hands and become a ‘suicide’. 

‘But’, our old self wants to argue, ‘What if people make fun of me?  What if people think I am being foolish or stupid?  What if my friends stop being my friends and I am left alone. What if I really enjoy those little sins that make me feel better but don’t really hurt anyone else?’

Then it is that;

Jesus the Master speaks, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 

I used to be frightened, and if I am honest I still am a little, of what the future holds.  The arguments against choosing the path of the self-giving crucified against the selfish keeping of taking my life into my own hands whirl around inside my mind.  ‘Will Lesley-Anne and I have enough to live on when we retire?  Will I stay healthy enough to work full-time until I am 75 and so have a slightly larger pension?  Will the next Bishop think  I am worthwhile enough to be ‘kept on the books?  Will we have anywhere to live?’  Yet I am learning the glorious truth that because of a death on a rugged cross on a hill far away I no longer need to live in fear of the future and can willingly and joyfully give myself away.  As the writer of the Book Hebrews reminds us Jesus..

TSSF Cross and AIDS ribbon copy…through death [destroyed] the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and [freed] those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. (Hebrews 2v14-15)

I don’t suppose any of us have yet realised this truth completely.  We are no longer slaves to the fear future and of our coming death because we know that we are set free to give our lives away in the service of our Beloved Redeemer for the good of others.

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life…

Living in Christ, being part of the fellowship that is the Body of Christ has always been about dying to self that others may live.  Amy Carmichael, a very determined missionary from Belfast who went to India as part of a Church of England Missionary group in 1895, writing to a young woman who was praying about following her footsteps wrote, ‘How wonderful that you are being offered a chance to die.’

In the days ahead, as we look towards the cross of Good Friday, the empty tomb of Easter, and in the middle of it remember the thousands upon thousands who have died in this year past due to Covid, let ‘Jesus the Master speak’ to our hearts and begin to look for a chance to die, a chance to give ourselves away, a chance to no longer be held in thrall to the fear of death, a chance to bear much fruit and find ourselves living in the Friary of Brother Jesus were we will find ourselves sometimes lonely but never ever alone.

A prayer from Amy Carmichael.

Make Me Thy Fuel

From prayer that asks that I may beAmy Carmichael
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher,
From silken self,
O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee

From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the crucified)
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me.

Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire;
Let me not sink to be a clod:
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God

 

[This blog ‘A Chance to Die’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2021 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]

[1] For a study of The Principles please read my series of blogs entitled ‘Walking in the Footsteps of Christ’.  The first of which may be found here.

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