A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 21 March 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: John 12. 20-33
Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway centres around two characters. Clarissa Dalloway is the wife of a cabinet minister. She hosts high-society London parties. The novel all takes place on a single day, as she prepares forx, and then entertains, everyone who’s anyone, including the Prime Minister. Septimus Smith is a First World War veteran, haunted by hallucinations of his friend Evans, who died in the war. The novel is written as a stream of consciousness, with memories, reflections, and regrets swirling almost non-stop, and a whirl of London streets, unfulfilled relationships, missed opportunities and serendipitous surprises. It’s hard to follow, and makes little or no coherent sense, until you realise what it’s really about: our powerlessness in the face of death.
The novel is set in 1923. London’s still under the merciless and murderous thrall of the First World War. The two main characters represent the two halves of the war. Clarissa kept the homes fires burning. Septimus fought in the trenches. The novel portrays how they respectively deal with the ravages of time and the inevitability of death. Big Ben looms over the action of the novel, its regular chimes signalling the way time stops for no one. Each passing quarter-hour is like a little death.
Clarissa’s strategy is depth. She can’t extend life, so she’ll explore and cultivate the meaning in every second available. That’s what the stream of consciousness achieves – it renders the myriad texture of every passing second – its resonances, implications, layers and connotations. That’s why she throws such dazzling parties: she’s seeking to make connections and multiply relationships, so every conversation will have plentiful meanings and every moment be multidimensional. The infinite possibility that lies inside each person creates a plethora of meanings that offsets the impenetrable wall of death.
By contrast Septimus has none of Clarissa’s drive to manufacture meaning and somehow generate hope. For him time’s a prison and death’s inescapable. Something profound in him died with his friend Evans during the war, and he can’t get past it. Told he will be taken into a psychiatric hospital, he deals with death by confronting it on his own terms, suddenly taking his own life.
The two main characters never meet in the novel. But it turns out several people know both of them. In particular a friend of Clarissa’s had been Septimus’ psychiatrist. Suddenly, from different directions, everyone at the party’s talking about the same tragic case. ‘Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.’ Yet despite Clarissa’s efforts to fan the effervescence of life, she understands Septimus’ action. ‘Death was defiance’ she thinks. ‘Death was an attempt to communicate … . There was an embrace in death.’
The poignancy of the novel is that the two characters represent the two halves of its author. Sixteen years after the publication of the book, Virginia Woolf, after a long struggle with bipolar disorder, took her own life. In her novels she was Clarissa, making rich and exuberant connections to celebrate life; in her inner fears she was Septimus, struggling with a terrible enemy. ‘Here’s death at my party’: it’s a suitable epitaph for the life of Virginia Woolf.
It’s sometimes said by critics that Christianity’s just one massive, constructed attempt to come to terms with death. Like many sentences that include the word ‘just’ in a derogatory sense, I think if you remove that particular word, it’s both substantially true, and nothing to be ashamed of. Rather than say ‘You’ve rumbled me,’ I reply, ‘And what is your strategy for coming to terms with death? Don’t try to pretend you don’t have one.’ I remember someone saying, ‘The church is great at handling death. It’s life it hasn’t yet come to terms with.’ It was meant as a criticism. I took it as a compliment.
The twelfth chapter of John’s gospel is about death. ‘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.’ What on earth does that mean? It’s one of those familiar lines from the Bible that sounds profound but on closer inspection seems inscrutable. Now you’ll be used to the portrayal of Jesus as a wandering agrarian sage who told stories about countryside things with which farming people were surrounded. But John’s gospel doesn’t have those stories, besides one shepherd. You search in vain in this gospel for sowers, soil, yeast, or tenants. Except here. Thirty years ago one researcher noted a distinction, in the ancient world, between wild and domesticated wheat. Wild wheat relies on wind to distribute its seeds. Wind distribution doesn’t make for healthy growth. Domestic wheat is different. You have to take every single head of wheat, break it up, and distribute it evenly. Then you get a bumper harvest. The phrase ‘grain of wheat’ in today’s gospel means a harvestable quantity of already-sifted grain. Now the saying begins to make sense: let the stalks of wheat simply grow in the field, and they eventually die, bearing no fruit. But pluck the heads of wheat and break them up into seeds and plant them, and they bear much fruit. (Wes Howard-Brook. Becoming Children of God, 279-80, quoting Antony Gittins)
If we return to Mrs Dalloway in the light of what we’ve discovered about wheat in John chapter 12, what we find is that both Clarissa and Septimus are onto something. That something is, you can’t spend your life perpetually postponing your death. It seems obvious, until you reflect on what we’ve taken for granted in the last year. The one thing no one’s questioned is that in the face of the pandemic we must restructure our whole society to minimise the number of deaths. The hospitals mustn’t get overwhelmed, or they’ll not be able to treat those suffering with the virus, let alone others with chronic or acute life-threatening conditions. But look more closely at why we think the critical care medical staff are marvellous. Is it because they’re achieving the goal of saving the maximum number of lives – or is it something slightly different: that by going into the place of danger, by spending whole days among people who have the virus, and thus taking immense risks, these medical staff are proclaiming to the whole world that there’s something more important than deferring death – and that’s living a good life?
These two statements are so subtly close to one another that it’s not surprising they get tangled up in our minds. But in fact, they’re profoundly different. If we clap the NHS because it’s saved a lot of lives, we could find ourselves co-opted into a large-scale project pretending we can actually get out of life alive. That project is, in the end, a lie. We’ve all got to die eventually. But if we clap the NHS because it’s a huge national statement, based on countless sacrificial individual commitments, that a good life is one spent seeking the well-being of others, even at risk of your own survival, then we’re clapping something that’s the greatest secular testimony to the claim at the heart of the Christian faith: that Christ died because God so loved the world.
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. Here’s the shift in thinking, and living, these words require. It’s not a choice between whether you die for a cause or live your life till the pips squeak. We all die. In other words, we all die for something. The choice isn’t to die or not to die. It’s what you’re going to die for. Think again about that wheat in the field. We can sway in the wind for a summer, and eventually fade from too much sun or too little, too much rain or too little, and autumn comes, and we wither and die. Or we can let our wheat be crushed and give bread or scattered and planted and create more grain. Why wouldn’t we choose the second course – unless we’re persisting with the fantasy that we can go on waving in the field forever?
Put that way, the gospel isn’t simply a story showing us a path to life: it’s an education in what things are worth dying for. Let’s go back again to those words. ‘Here’s death at my party.’ Clarissa and Septimus are both wrong and both right. Septimus is wrong that taking his own life will give him some control over it. But he was right in the trenches, years before, that laying down your life for your friends is a truly glorious way to live and to die. He regrets Evans died for him, and wishes it had been the other way round. Clarissa is wrong to think that creating exquisite moments at parties is a way to saturate life with meaning and so offset with depth the ravages time inflicts on life’s length. But she’s right to believe that spending her life catalysing relationships and bringing people into one another’s company to spark connections and trigger ideas is a good way to live.
The biggest difference between the church of today and the early church isn’t the spread of the gospel around the world, or the proliferation of other faiths, making Christianity one option among many, or the scientific method by which we become sceptical about miracles, or even the astronomy that tells us we’re a tiny planet in a colossal universe. The biggest difference is that in the first century, to be a Christian was to risk your life by proclaiming a truth contrary to the prevailing wisdom that said our lord and master is the Roman Emperor. From the moment being a Christian became conventional and unproblematic, Christianity’s been searching for the cutting edge that characterised the early Christians. But we don’t have to settle for a comfortable existence, or assume Jesus came to secure one. We can stand alongside one another as we each work out our salvation with fear and trembling, recognising the radical implications of our humble convictions.
Ten days ago, in the northern Myanmar city of Myitkyina, a protest against the military coup was confronted by a group of heavily armed police officers. Teargas and bullets began to be unfurled. A 45-year-old Catholic nun, Sr Ann Rose Nu Tawng, walked to the front of the protest and knelt before the armed police. She said, ‘I beg you not to shoot and torture the children. Shoot and kill me instead.’ It wasn’t simply a spontaneous gesture. In Myanmar’s northernmost state, tens of thousands of ethnic Kachins have fled their homes to displacement camps where nuns and other Christian groups have ministered to them. Sr Ann Rose’s life has been heading this way for a while. Three weeks ago, she made a similar kneeling plea for mercy to riot police. When asked, she said, ‘I have thought myself dead already since 28 February.’ But the second time she was not alone. She was joined by her fellow sisters and the local bishop. She hadn’t remained a single grain. She knew what was worth dying for. And what she was living for. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/mar/09/shoot-me-instead-myanmar-nuns-plea-to-spare-protesters)
The witness of Sr Ann Rose shows us that Jesus’ words about the grain of wheat aren’t simply those of sage reflecting on the transitory nature of life. He knew what he was living for. And he knew what he was dying for. He was the grain of wheat that died and produced much fruit. That fruit is us. God knows what Jesus was dying for. He was dying to be with us. That leaves only one question. What are we dying for?