Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’ 52The Jews said to him, ‘Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.” 53Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?’ 54Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, “He is our God”, 55though you do not know him. But I know him; if I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. 56Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.’ 57Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’* 58Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ 59So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. – John 8:51-59
I always think of John as the most difficult gospel to understand. It seems like he uses a more mystical way of saying something instead of just coming out and saying it in plain language. Of course, that’s my thinking.
There are people who have no difficulty with John. I will admit that there are parts of John that I love hearing, especially the first few verses of the first chapter of the gospel. But when John tells a story he does not tell the story so much as he gives a dialogue of what was said. The gospel reading for the Eucharist kind of goes in that pattern, and I have to say, the first sentence rather brings me up short, especially today.
“Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” It sounds very simple, whoever keeps God’s word will never see death. But then the reality sinks in — everyone dies. Some never draw a breath of air while others live to 100 and beyond. Yet they all die. No matter how good they were, there is always an end.
This week I got news that a very, very dear friend of mine had died last weekend. Margaret was 97 years old, and had had a long, full life, despite advancing age and health challenges. I have known her ever since I can remember. I knew her from church, and I got closer to her when we both sang in the choir. I drove her crazy because as she tried to sing the alto, I would be singing whatever part I did not hear well enough to balance the sound. She helped me make a formal for my senior prom, and she taught me to cook some lovely food that our home economics class never did. I do not think Jesus would never have passed over someone who really needed a chair repaired or hugging a child who really needed it.
I spent many happy hours at her house, especially after the death of my adoptive mother, and, in a way, took over as a combination big sister, foster parent, and best friend. She and her husband had a daughter of their own, but there is always room for me to sleep on their couch all weekend and be part of their family, which I loved. She was also a big help to my adoptive father, struggling to make a living and trying to understand the mysteries of a teenage girl that puzzled and quite often frustrated him. Margaret took care of that for both of us.
Over the years, we grew a little apart, mostly caused by distance, but whenever we talked on the phone, within a minute or two it was like we had never been separated. We had some along conversations, and those conversations were about exchanging information, but more than that, it was about building a bridge. That bridge was something I counted on, no matter what was going on in my often-chaotic life.
Margaret was a firm believer in Jesus, and very conscious of the things Jesus taught. During her lifetime, she helped people and she tried to live her life, so the glory was reflected to God. She was a child of God, in every sense of the word, and just looking at her smile, which was radiant, it was like seeing God smile. She died last Sunday, and the world is a poorer place because of her absence.
I go back to John and consider the part about the people who keep God’s word will never see death. Margaret was fervent in prayer, constant in reading the Bible, faithful in attendance at Sunday school and church, and a practitioner of what she heard and understood from the Bible. And yet she died. It’s hard to reconcile Jesus’ words with the reality of life, especially a life as exemplary as hers.
During this epiphany season I’ve been looking for insights, ways of looking at things through different lenses than I usually do, and seeking to view things from a different point of view. Sometimes it’s very simple, but sometimes it is almost impossible. In thinking about Margaret’s life and death, I think the insight that I got from her was that she did not look for praise or wealth, or even pats on the back. She lived her life and did her ministries with enthusiasm and great love, not only in the church, but in the greater world. The insight comes when I think of all the time and love that she gave me when I was growing up and beyond. She did her best to live up to all the things that Jesus required, but she never spoke of it; her actions showed it. She gave to charity, she supported the church, she performed her ministries to the best of her abilities, and she was a dear friend to so many people. I have a feeling that the Baptist church at home today will be full of people who loved her and whom she loved, gathered as a community to remember her and to give thanks for her life and witness.
So, in all, I guess the insight is that there is joy and value in living the Christian life, one that accepts people as they are, one who helps those in need, one who puts the love of God above all. Margaret has given me a prime example of what that means. And although she has now seen death, I know she did not fear it, but rather saw God’s open arms waiting to embrace her. That would be her greatest reward.
Rest in peace, Margaret, and most assuredly you will rise in glory. I will miss you, and will love you for all that you meant to me.
Until we meet again,