The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Tuesday In Holy Week      7th April 2020
Dying to all the globe
Jim Walters

One of the paradoxes of the last couple of weeks has been that, although we have not been in the same offices together, I feel I’ve got to know my work colleagues a lot better. For one thing, in these zoom meetings that have replaced everything else in my diary, we’ve had a little peek into each other’s homes. Pets and children sometimes disrupt the seriousness of the discussion. And we have to admit that the early days of well groomed hair and clean shaven faces have given way to a more relaxed aesthetic. People have got enough going without bothering about makeup for a one hour video call. And quite right. 

And as the keeping up of physical appearances has relaxed, so too have the emotional appearances. An initial plucky optimism in the face of adversity has given way to an honesty that we are all stressed, we are all struggling to be productive, we’re all anxious about people we love, and we all hate living with this terrible uncertainty about how and when this will all end. 

So the masks have come off. We’re not all perfect people and we’re tired of pretending to be. And perhaps, if we’re honest, we were pretending to be long before all this happened. We’ve been living in a world where huge amounts of pressure have been put on us to conform to expectations about physical appearance, about our emotional state, and about professional and personal success. For young people especially, social media has fueled a harshly competitive culture, holding before us unattainable standards. Everyone else appears happier, thinner, more beautiful, more fulfilled, and more successfulSo we have a permanent sense of inadequacy. And we don’t often realize that that’s exactly how everyone else feels too. 

That’s why some of the verses from our Bible reading could be dangerously misunderstood. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” A lot of people today do hate themselves and their lives and that really isn’t a good thing. Even St Augustine in the 5th century said we should not understand this as the self-hatred that leads to self-harm or suicide. I think instead we should interpret it precisely as a wariness to fall in love with the superficial self that is constructed by all these social pressures, its projections and expectations. 

We’re reflecting this week on how we pray the passion of Christ in the context of a strange rupture in the ordering of our society. And so this is an remarkable opportunity to see prayer as a recovery of the selves that we really want to be through deepening our relationship with God. We have the chance to step away from the hyperactive construction of a self that we present to others and find our core identity as one who comes regularly before God in silence and attention, reflecting on scripture and holding the troubling realities of our world before God. When those habits of prayer move beyond the superficial, prayer starts to become the cultivation of an inner life that is honest about who we are and that becomes more resistant to worldly projections about who we ought to be. 

A mature prayer life develops the inner capacities of a self that is reflective and questioning and which knows itself to be flawed but, by God’s grace, deeply forgiven and loved. This implies that prayer is something far more challenging and involving than we often assume. Prayer isn’t reeling off a list of our requests to God. It is the cultivation of an attentiveness to the God who doesn’t just listen but has things to say to us, challenging things about what we need to let go of in our lives and our self-understanding. 

Jesus says, “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.” This is clearly an allusion to his forthcoming death and resurrection. But for us to share in that resurrection, we are called to ask ourselves what needs to fall to the earth and die for us to be people who bear much fruit. Will it be the grains of our fantasies of glamour and success? The grains of our autonomy from other people that have been so shattered by this pandemic? The grains of our independence from God, the illusion that we are not in need of grace and redemption? 

So Jesus is playing with a lot of paradoxes in this passage. We need to hate ourselves in order to love ourselves. We need to let go in order to receive. We need to die in order to live. And that is at the centre of the mystery we celebrate this week, the Passion in which we are called to share. 

The hymn writer Isaac Watts expresses all of this in his famous Passiontide hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. 

His dying crimson, like a robe, 

Spreads o’er his body on the tree; 

Then I am dead to all the globe, 

And all the globe is dead to me.  

When we look at the cross of Christ we are confronted with total desolation – the death of God and the death of every pretense about ourselves as gods. But that is all to make possible the new life of resurrection. Our illusions die so that our true recreated selves can live. 

And perhaps this will be true of our global human family too in this winter of the virus where we are seeing much real death, but also where so much that defines our everyday lives has died. Perhaps when it is over a better, more sustainable, more equal society can be resurrected. In the words of another hymn we sing at this time of year:  

Forth he came at Easter like the risen grain,  

he that for three days in the grave had lain;  

fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;  

love is come again like wheat that springeth green. 

 

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