Last Saturday we, as the KGIJ, also celebrated the commemoration of our departed. During the service I preached this sermon, inspired by John 12:25: “He that loves his soul shall lose it; and he that struggles against himself shall keep it unto life eternal” (according to the Dutch translation by H.A.P.J. Ogilvie).
The Greek philosopher Epicurus is thought to have written:
“death is nothing to us,
since when we exist there is no death,
and when there is death we do not exist.”
Sometimes it seems to me to be a comforting thought indeed. For let us imagine that it is true: death is the definitive end of human consciousness. What more do I have to fear then? To my ears it sounds rather liberating. There is no pain, no suffering, no grief which would last longer than a lifetime. A Polish poet and priest, Janusz Pasierb, wrote once a letter to the Biblical figure, Job, including the words:
“Wytrzymaj, ta próba nie może trwać dłużej niż życie”
(Hold out, that trial may not last longer than life)
These words often come to my mind. Especially when someone says to me again: “For me, life may already end”…
But is it really that simple as it seems when we read Epicurus’ words: “when we exist there is no death, and when there is death, we do not exist”? I’m looking at you now. During the last months you unexpectedly looked death in the eyes. The death of your husband, your beloved, your father, your grandfather. He was here. He really was. It suddenly came into your lives in order to take someone away from you, someone you actually cannot live without. Someone who was a part of your lives for so long. Partir, c’est mourir un peu: “To leave is to die a little. Die from what you love.” Now you know very well what it means… You know what it means that you have to continue to live, even though you don’t have any strength left for it, and from time to time perhaps also no will. You exist, but death does as well. Always. Despite Epicurus and his wisdom…
The wisdom of the Gospel is different. Jesus speaks about losing the soul as part of our reality. The soul means life in the Bible, what is vital in a human being, his/her vital force. His message is then that losing this also belongs to this life. Or, in words of Lebanese poet and painter, Kahlil Gibran, which we also heard a moment ago: “… life and death are one, just like the river and the sea are one.” They cannot be separated. They don’t exist apart. Good Friday and Easter so often fall on the same day, even on the same moment…
But the soul means also the individuality, your ego, yourself. What we cherish and develop throughout our lives. So Jesus says also, and this, I think, is the essence of his message, that you shouldn’t love this, but that you should struggle against yourself in this life. Difficult? And still, this was the recurring topic in the conversations we had the last year, after both the death of T. and of J. To live with each other means to make space for the other: in life, in shared life. To accept his individuality, let her be who she is. And this is often impossible without struggle against yourself. Who can’t do it, who is not able to resign of a part of him for the sake of being with someone, sharing his life with someone, will never be a true partner in marriage, but also a father or a mother capable of accepting their children’s otherness and appreciating it.
Huub Oosterhuis [the author of the lyrics of hymns sung during the service] takes this even further: completely in the spirit of Jesus, by the way.
“Who doesn’t want to give his life,
doesn’t want to share it, with so many,
with the other,
will be lost.”
Perhaps you will think that I’m changing the subject quite abruptly now. We were talking about marriage and family, but in this moment I’m reminded of the commotion accompanying the deportation of Mauro [Mauro Manuel is an 18 year old refugee from Angola. After eight years in Holland he has to leave the country which became his homeland]. I’m afraid. Not only for him and not only because I know from my own experience what it means to be an unwanted alien in this allegedly civilized country. I’m afraid for Holland, us all. “Who doesn’t want … to share his life … will-be-lost”… I’m saying this as a Dutch citizen who less than ten years ago wasn’t deported only because it was too difficult to do technically…
To live in the spirit of Jesus means [as we will soon sing in our table prayer]:
“to be joy and life for EACH OTHER”
EACH OTHER: in marriage, in family, with the people who are dear to you, but also with all the unknown (and unloved) who disturb your peace and question your rules. To be joy and life to EACH OTHER. And in this way become for EACH OTHER:
“the bread of grace, the wine of eternal life.”
This is how you become human. Human for others, human with others. Human according to God’s desire… A neighbor…
“And those who have nothing, who will make them a part of this?
And those who are wallowing in their wealth and know nothing,
Who will make them long for righteousness?”
Who or what will teach them, teach US, that life and death, resigning and accepting, giving and receiving, belong with one another? And that this all has something to do with righteousness, that is with the right to be human among other people. Not without a reason we decided to commemorate our departed not by laying flowers, but fruits. You can see it as a reminder of the seeds each of us could take home after the Easter service. “Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” says Jesus just before the words we read a while ago. At the beginning of each of these fruits there was a seed, which, following the laws of nature, had to lose its individuality, its soul, it had to cease being a seed in order to become a fruit. But also these fruits, which now look so beautiful and fresh, can only fulfill their role if they cease to be fruits so that the seeds hidden in them may find fertile soil. That is how it goes. Only by saying goodbye to what you are at this moment and what you perhaps would like to remain, you can become a person whom you have always been as a seed.
During the preparation of this service we were asking ourselves the question what it actually means: a fruitful life. And, obviously, we were thinking then about the life of T. and J., how different they may have been. You cannot determine for someone else what fruits he or she is to bear: in life. You cannot also determine where is his or her garden: the place where she or he may bloom and ripen. For one it will be family, wife, children, grandchildren, for another the whole world. But one thing is certain: in order to become a fruit you have to be ready to struggle against yourself, to resign a part of yourself, to say goodbye to what is dear to you and what you would like to identify with, what you would like to keep in your hand. “Do not keep gazing at what has been…” Live your life, change, go with and on the waves of existence. Do not fear losing yourself. Be a seed when it is time to be one, be a flower when your time comes to bloom, be a fruit when you should bare fruit. And do not be afraid of becoming a seed again. Because LIFE AND DEATH ARE ONE.
And do not forget the answer Dorothee Sölle gave once to a schoolgirl who asked whether everything decays with death: “If you are everything to yourself than everything decays with your death. But if you don’t live only for yourself, certainly not everything will decay.” If you don’t live only for yourself, if you are ready to share your life with others: a partner, a child, a neighbor, a friend, your fellow man, also with the refugee Mauro and so many other “unwanted” people, if you are ready to change your life focused on itself into life filled with love and devoted to others, then you affirm by deed your faith in the One who “is greater than our hearts, who doesn’t forget any name, who doesn’t despise any human being.” Then you really long for the day when
“we, now still divided people,
in his city will be gathered,
in her united and fulfilled,
in him immortalized.”
And you will certainly not be ashamed. “And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance”…
May it be so!