A sermon delivered on Sunday November 1 at St. John’s (Port Elgin) and St. Paul’s (Southampton)
Texts: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
The narrative of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead has all the elements of a great screenplay: a depth of human emotion, moments of heightened tension, and a climactic finale with an unexpected twist. Indeed, it is these elements that make Jesus’ raising of Lazarus one of the enduring episodes in the Bible.
The themes of life and death, of faith and doubt, and the range of emotion draw us in, not as passive observers but as participants in the unfolding drama. Moreover, like those who were part of the actual event, we have the choice as to how we will respond to what we have witnessed: will we be critical of Jesus’ apparent inability to prevent the tragedy from occurring in the first place, will we incredulously insist that this account is a fabrication, a myth, because raising the dead an impossible feat for any mortal, or will we, like Mary, fall at Jesus’ feet and believe that he is the one with power over life and death itself?
The very purpose of all four Gospels is to not to objectively narrate the events of Jesus’ life on earth; the authors of each Gospel are painting a picture of who Jesus is. Yes, each Gospel has its own idiosyncrasies, yet, this serves to underline the fact that the authors were not trying to corroborate with each other to create an objective report that would pass the scrutiny of modern historians. They are, each in their own distinct ways, telling us who Jesus is.
The author of John focuess his attention on Jesus as the Word, the Light, and the Life. The well-known first chapter of John is essentially a re-telling of the creation story of Genesis 1. What John 1 seeks to make clear is that the very God who created the cosmos is the same God who became human and lived as one of us.
John 11, the chapter in which today’s Gospel reading is located, is the culmination of Jesus’ entire earthly ministry; indeed, chapter 11 is a microcosm of the entire Gospel of John. Moreover, John 11 portrays Jesus humanity in a way that stands in stark contrast to the description of Jesus’ divinity in John 1. Indeed, Jesus humanity is nowhere more clearly on display in what is commonly referred to as the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept.
Here we see the full humanity of the Incarnate God. Jesus does not weep at what some considered his inability to prevent his friend from dying (cf. 11.32, 37). Rather, Jesus cries because his friend is dead. He cries because of the devastation that death brings on God’s good creation, on His good creation.
We know from our own experiences that the world is everywhere marked by suffering and death, undoing the goodness God has made. We have all shed tears born out of this reality; tears of frustration, sadness, and loss. Because Jesus is the word made flesh, our tears become his tears; the tears he sheds are tears he sheds alongside Mary and Martha amidst their grief. The tears Jesus sheds are tears he sheds with us in the face of suffering and death. However, Jesus’ tears are not born of hopelessness, this much is abundantly clear when he raises Lazarus from the dead. The Word of God speaks three simple words – Lazarus, come out – thereby demonstrating his power over death.
At this point, our modern sensibilities start to take hold and the poignancy of Jesus’ tears begins to erode under the weight of our suspicion. However, let us not fall into the trap of assuming that our modern scientific worldview is more advanced than that of first century Palestine. After all, once a person is dead, they stay that way, whether in the first or 21st century. Our reaction today would be no less different than that of the crowd who witnessed Lazarus walking out of the grave: utter shock! The following verses in John chapter 11 tell us that many who saw this believed in Jesus. Nevertheless, there were those who simply refused to accept the miracle as a sign of who Jesus is. Their reaction was to plot Jesus’ death, despite their witnessing the impossible.
In this way, the author of John’s Gospel is using Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead to set the stage for what happens in the rest of the book, namely Passion Week, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead is anticipation of his own resurrection; it is the beginning of the end of death’s hold on God’s creation. Jesus’ power over death is not limited to his own resurrection; it extends over all death. All people are offered God’s promise of resurrection.
The tears Jesus sheds in response to Lazarus’ death and the tears Jesus sheds in the Garden of Gethsemane are not final; Jesus’ victory over death is final. Yes, we will undoubtedly shed more tears in our lives. However, in the light of Christ’s resurrection, we have the promise that Christ will return to live among us once again and that upon his return “he will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev. 21.4). Christ’s resurrection is the foundation of Christian hope. The human story does not end in tears; it ends with God reconciling heaven and earth. Now that is good news worth sharing!
Today the Church celebrates All Saints Day, a day on which we commemorate the faithful witness of apostles and martyrs who’ve gone before us. We do not remember and celebrate them simply because of their good deeds or ethical example; we remember and celebrate them primarily because their lives stood as witnesses to Jesus Christ – their lives are a powerful example of how God uses simply and ordinary people to cultivate God’s heavenly kingdom on earth in extraordinary ways; their lives remind us that God alone brings dead things back to life.
However, the Saints are not simply religious superstars from a bygone era. Sainthood is not for the spiritually elite who have their lives all together and know the answers to life’s mysteries. Rather, sainthood is for outcasts and misfits who realize their utter dependence on God; sainthood is a life of one’s continual conversion back to Christ and acceptance of the new life he offers. Sainthood begins with baptism and continues through one’s life as they participate in the life of the Church as it witnesses to Jesus Christ and the life he brings. To be baptized is to enter the life of sainthood; to receive Christ at the altar is to receive new life. As my friend [Jonathan Turtle] recently said, “Saints are those who, like Lazarus, have been summoned out of death and sent out”.
Yes, every one of us will physically die one day. However, the Church is tasked and sent out with the mission of proclaiming that does not get the final word. Our hope for the future is rooted in Jesus’ raising of Lazarus form the dead and in Jesus’ resurrection. When the saints confess to “believe in the resurrection of the body”, we are confessing not only our belief in Jesus’ resurrection, but also hope in the resurrection of our bodies, hope in the restoration of God’s good creation.
Christian hope is not wishful thinking in the face of death; rather, it is a lived reality, a way of life practiced in light of Christ’s resurrection and promised return, a way life that seeks to bring God’s promised future into the present. Indeed, the mission of the Church can be summarized in two words: Practice Resurrection.
The Church practices resurrection every time she gathers for worship, every time she tells others of what God is doing through Jesus Christ, every time she feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, visits the prisoner, and welcomes the stranger. In word and deed together, the Church practices resurrection.
Practicing resurrection is not a spiritual path to enlightenment and cannot be reduced to a church program or event; practicing resurrection is living in the muck and mire of human brokenness, weeping with those who weep. Practicing resurrection is following in the footsteps of the God who became human in order to restore and reconcile his broken creation.
Practicing resurrection is what saints do as they testify about and embody Christ-centred hope in anticipation of the day when God will wipe away every tear and renew all things.
Practicing resurrection is bold and risky business, especially in our culture where political correctness is the norm and where it is expected that religion be relegated to one’s private life. Moreover, the Church often excels at finding distractions and reasons why it cannot practice resurrection, be it bottom lines, in-fighting, apathy, or fatigue. Yet, the very life of the church is rooted in new life in Christ; a Spirit-led, mission-focused church is in the business of resurrection.
Today, we have the privilege to hear about an opportunity for our parish family to practice resurrection by supporting a Syrian refugee family. Not only is this a huge undertaking, it is also risky and, to some controversial. Nevertheless, it is a way for God’s saints in Saugeen Shores to practice resurrection. So, as we listen to Katherine’s presentation, let us seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we reflect upon ways in which our parish can practice resurrection.
Let us pray.
God of light and love, as we celebrate All Saints Day, we give you thanks for all your saints who’ve been faithful witnesses of your Son. We give you thanks for the saints in our lives who’ve shared the good news of your love, mindful of the fact that it is because of their witness that we are here today. Thank-you for the work of Katherine and the Saugeen Shores Refugee Fund. Continue to bless their work. When doubts and distractions pull us away from worshipping and following you, call us back to new life. When we weep amidst our suffering and in the shadow of death, remind us that Christ shed tears with us and for our sakes. And as we leave this place today, grant us strength, and boldness to practice resurrection as a way of saintly living. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.