Saturday, 31 October 2015
A sermon for All Souls/All Saints
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Oh, the joys of the R.E. teacher. I was looking back in my teacher’s planner recently and came across this – some of which I shared a few weeks ago at the Wednesday morning Communion:
Today I have hormonal 15 year olds who are largely resistant to education in any form and particularly resistant to R.E.
“Why do we have to do this Sir?
“Sir, is the Pope a Christian?”
Oh blimey! Here we go.
“Sir what is a saint?” I should be used by now to being the fount of knowledge relating to all things randomly religious, but we were supposed to be looking at Buddhism and the environment at the time. I was going to launch into an explanation about key figures of special holiness throughout the history of the church when my inner voice told me to stop and think.
I was sure the New Testament implies that all disciples of Jesus are saints - not just the inner group of twelve. So I looked it up. Yes, there are about fifty references to saints and the word is frequently used of those who were followers or who had “died in the faith”. Well if it was true of the earliest disciples, is it such a leap to assume that it applies to latter day disciples like you and me?
Anyway, I tried this explanation out on Darren in a subsequent lesson. He was not impressed. “You a saint Sir?” (In a voice which seemed to carry more than just the seeds of cynical doubt.) A little harsh I felt.
Many of us are a bit suspicious of the idea of saints. It’s all a bit Roman isn’t it? But the Protestant churches have become more comfortable with the concept of saints, especially recognizing that all those redeemed by Christ are saints. Saints are merely sinners who haven’t given up. We don’t so much seek to appreciate the moral and miraculous lives of the famous – some of whom, if we are honest, we aren’t even sure were real people - as to remember that those who have gone before us in the faith are united with those who share the faith in the here and now in what we call the communion of saints.
Part of the mystery is that the Bible tells us very little about death and the afterlife and what it is like for those who have gone before us in the faith, and what there is, is tantalisingly vague and raises more questions than are answered. We’d like a few more details please, and failing to find them in the Scriptures, we often turn to ideas found in poetry, and song – or Eastern traditions, as if faith were an eclectic off-the-peg set of options. Pick the bits you like.
“Sir, Christians believe in reincarnation don’t they?”
“Well I do!”
“Good for you then.”
That we continue to live on in the memories of our loved ones is obvious: we have an immortality of sorts based on photos and videos and shared memories, but unless we are very famous like Mozart or Shakespeare – or infamous like Hitler or Stalin – once those who have known us have also gone, we really do cease to be.
When my parents died and we were sorting through their stuff, there were so many photos. I lost track of the number of times Rachel said to me, “Who’s this?” and I had to reply, “I’ve no idea.”
We live on only as long as there are people still living to remember us.
What we do know from the minimal details found in Scriptures is that God has prepared for those who love him, and that there is no condemnation for those who are followers of Jesus. Beyond them there is the assurance that we, who have been buried with Christ through baptism, will also rise to newness of life. Details may be fascinating to us, but they often have little to do with ultimate truth. Truth is sometimes better communicated in brevity, in symbol, and in mystery. How could the writers of scripture give us concrete details to go on? They had never experienced it first-hand. And they rightly, I think, chose not to speculate too much.
In today’s Gospel lesson, a man dies and is restored to life, sisters complain and weep, and the crowd comments, weeps and complains. In the centre of this story, however, is Jesus. He is the focal point of the story, not Lazarus. He determines what will happen. He says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” So it is with our own understanding of life and death. People weep and commiserate. They wonder what happens next, to them and to the one who has gone ahead. But Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, is the focal point at the moment of death. He says, “Peace be with you.” He alone will determine what happens next, so when we have Jesus, we should be prepared for anything that follows. As Jesus approaches Lazarus' tomb, we realize that it is an in-between time for him. Jesus here is at a moment between life and the death that awaits him on the cross. And even though he will rise again, just as he will resurrect Lazarus, that fact does not negate the pain and suffering and dying that he will choose to walk through for our sakes.
One of the things Jesus does in this in-between time is weep. In the in-between time there are tears. No matter how sure we are of God's promises and how strong our hopes are, we will still be moved to tears. When John says that Jesus was deeply moved and troubled, his words literally mean that Jesus groaned violently and was shaken to the very depths of his being. Weeping is not a sign of a lack of faith. Mary and Martha and God in Jesus wept tears at the pain, struggle and sorrow. We live with hope in our future but here and now we live with the reality of the confusion and chaos of our world.
It is interesting, too, that Jesus gave others work to do. Jesus could have raised Lazarus any way he wanted to. Instead, he chose to ask others to roll the stone away. He chose to resurrect Lazarus with his grave clothes on, and then he asked others to help take off the linen shroud.
God seems to be like that - always seeking human cooperation in accomplishing his purposes. He doesn't have to. He chooses to. It is a model of mission: see where God is already at work and join him there. Jesus told his disciples - and us - to follow him: to love as he loved; to serve as he served; to lay down our lives for others just like he did. It is a serious calling that honours each of us. We are invited to join God in his work of redemption - to be part of his church and help roll stones away and remove grave clothes from people in this world who are entombed in fear or loneliness or failure or resentment or a need for healing. We don't raise people to new life in Christ, but God lets us help. That is the privilege and purpose he gives us, and it is not to be taken lightly.
Today is a day when we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. We know that all those who believed in Jesus have seen the glory of God and now share a joy in which details of who we were and what we did are not important, neither to us nor to them.
We thank God for his grace in the lives of these saints, and for the ways in which they have touched and influenced us. We remember them by name in our prayers today. We may be at different places in our grieving for those who have only recently been lost to us, but we know that death has no power over them nor does it have power over us.