April 2, 2017 5th Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1–14 Romans 8:6–11 John 11:1–45
This Lent we have been talking about repairing the brokenness in our lives and today finally we come to our separation from Eternal Life. I think it is the hardest to preach on because it involves something that we don’t usually like to talk about in our 20th century – the subject of death.
There is something interesting that I’ve noticed about the subject of death: Younger people today seem to have more despair attached to this subject. Separation from our loved ones through death is always hard but I think that since our average life span has increased this has resulted in many people not facing death at an early age. Today, if death is faced when you are young, it is usually as a tragic accident, rather than as something that is attached to all of us that we go through as part of the natural process of living. I have talked to a lot of people in their late 20’s and early 30’s, who have lost someone who is significant to them for the first time, and they just don’t know how to think of it or handle it. When you come face-to-face with another person’s mortality your own mortality becomes real. And you start to question: What is the purpose of all this life if it is just going to go away?
I think that death is especially hard if you have no religious background or upbringing.
No matter what the atheists argue about the lack of proof of God and the afterlife; the worthlessness of the concept of God and the afterlife; or even the political argument that religion, God, and the promise of the afterlife, are just political tools to placate the masses; if you believe that there is something beyond your physical life then you have a stronger hope of a meaning in your life and less despair that your life will amount to nothing. The people I’ve talked to, who don’t think there is anything, have less hope and more despair for themselves when they come up against the heavy loss of someone they love.
In Jesus’ time, death was a heavy, daily fact of life. Half of all children born didn’t live to be past 5; 50% of adult males died before they were 35; 50% of adult women died in childbirth; the rest, male and female, could expect to live into their 60’s, if they stayed healthy. Life as a state of being was far more precarious than it is now – and as a result I think much more precious and more concentrated an experience.
Lazarus’ death is probably the most famous story of Christ’s reviving someone from the dead. Not just because it’s the longest and most descriptive of these stories but also because it is the most intimate of them. The Bethany family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus appears many times in the Gospel. Their home was a place where Jesus stayed often, and we know from Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ interactions with the siblings that he truly cared for all of them, as if they were his family.
Martha’s conversation with Jesus about her brother’s death reveals some of this intimacy. It is very apparent that Martha is familiar with Jesus’ power and ability to work miracles when she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” From this phrase we don’t know what Martha wants Jesus to do for Lazarus. Does she want Jesus to resurrect Lazarus or does she want the assurance that Lazarus will be a part of God’s Kingdom?
Jesus replies: “Your brother will rise again,” and Martha replies: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Readers in the 1st century would have understood that Martha believed in a prominent philosophy about the afterlife: That if you were a good person and you really tried to do your best, that when you died your soul would hang out in a stasis mode, and when God remade the world into a more perfect place, then you would be reborn and live again. Another belief was that we don’t live on in an afterlife. You get one shot and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things. And yet another school stipulated that there was an afterlife for really righteous people, but, as I have mentioned before, no one could really decide when good enough was good enough.
But Jesus came to bring a different viewpoint. No more of only this life, or never knowing if you are the best, or waiting until God is ready. Jesus came to connect us to God’s eternal life that is happening right now. Jesus says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Martha answers yes, and Jesus goes to the tomb, where he prays: “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.” It is interesting to note that before Jesus even arrived at Bethany he had commented to his disciples: “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
The operating word here is BELIEVE. In the Gospel of John he is continually asking and telling his disciples to believe in Eternal Life: Not the fact that our souls stop living, or that only some selected souls will continue to live; or that eventually we will be able to live again – but that: We don’t stop living. In the belief system of Christ, “death” is not final. It is only a point between giving up the bodies that we inhabit for the conditions of the next life that is waiting for us. But we need to believe in order to participate in this new phenomenon of Eternal Life that Christ is offering to us. If we do not believe that Jesus is who he is, and has come to teach us about God’s love and the promise of Eternal Life, then it is just not going to happen to us.
Once an atheist pooh-poohed my beliefs about life after death. I told him that at least I was prepared. If I die and there is nothing, I won’t have any worries because I won’t even be there to know that I was wrong. But if he dies and finds out that I’m right – well, he’s going to have a lot of adjusting to do.
But what does Eternal Life get us? What is so important about it that Jesus is constantly preaching about it and proving its existence by bringing other people back to life and finally by bringing himself back to life? And why was it so important that it be available to everyone who believes?
First of all, it qualifies that life has meaning beyond just what we do within the inhabitation of this body. Remember the philosophy that you only live once, get one shot, and if you are a good person then God rewards you with good things? Well, this takes away the importance of proving that you are good person by acquiring good things. It takes away the importance of physical perfection and puts the emphasis on working towards a strong spiritual perfection of belief.
It also expands the inclusion of an afterlife from really righteous people into all people who are trying their best to be righteous. Remember one of Christ’s stipulations is not that you are righteous in rules, but that you are righteous in trying to live as a person who is healing yourself and others in kindness and love. No one is ever “good enough” but rather we are forgiven for not being “good enough” if we try to live as Christ wishes us to live.
Finally if you are a good person then your reward of eternal life is assured – you don’t have to wait in some sort of stasis mode. You are going to continue to participate in God’s love, the creation of God’s kingdom, and the renewing of the world.
And finally there is no separation from our loved ones. If Lazarus, the widow’s son, and the official’s daughter, and Jesus can come back from the other side, then the line between this world and the eternal one is pretty thin and the connections pretty strong.
The miracles of those resurrections were the proof positive that Jesus gave to us to allow us to begin to believe. We believe that the impossible can become possible. When we believe in eternal life, we believe in eternal hope and endless possibilities within God’s working love.
We believe that we are actually participating in eternal life with the life we are living in now, because this life is going to continue into eternity. So never feel that you are separated from your loved ones who are living the life eternal, because our lives are all one with Jesus Christ.