To Grieve and to Believe
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John, chapter 11
Today is a special day: All Saints Day. During this Wednesday’s Twenty at Twilight I invited folks to reflect and give thanks for dearly departed saints in their lives; those who blessed them with special care and attentiveness.
On this morning, more than any other Sunday out of the year, we are mindful that the Church is larger than those of us in this room, especially this year in the midst of COVID quarantine. We are mindful that the Church is even larger than all the disciples across the globe. This morning, on All Saints Sunday, we acknowledge that the Church is comprised of believers who not only span the globe; they span the centuries and we are never far removed from those saints who have attained their glory ahead of us.
That knowledge, however, does not make us immune to the pain that sometimes accompanies this day. Although we believe, still we grieve. On days like this one, I remember my family gathered around the dining room table in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I remember my mother’s beautiful smile, my father’s heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving, and my brother’s quick-wit and sarcasm, accompanied by a laugh to rival Santa’s; I should add his belly would have rivaled Santa’s also. And so, in some ways, this day is bittersweet for many of us… just as it is for Mary and Martha in this morning’s bible story. This is a story that tugs at our heartstrings. Few here this morning lack the experience to empathize with Mary and Martha as they weep at the grave of their brother, their loved one. In that, we share a common humanity that is not to be denied or suppressed for, although we believe, still we grieve.
Sorrow and grieving are part of what it means for us to be human in this world. When death lays claim to someone we love, it brings us tremendous sorrow. Even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. There is a word in this passage that bible experts struggle with translating because in many writings in this time period, the word referred to anger. Here at the grave of Lazarus, the one who could and would resurrect him is crying and angry and agitated all at once. And that is what death does to us human creatures. Of all our gospels, none more powerfully communicates the message that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. And here, within this story of Lazarus – perhaps the most important story in the gospel, second only to the resurrection of Jesus – here, the divine Son of God, who will call Lazarus back from the grave, is also the flesh and blood friend who often visits this family and breaks bread with them and shares a special intimacy with them. Within this story, Jesus, the divine son of God with power over life and death, can still express the same emotions all of us feel when faced with the death of someone we love: anger, agitation, and deep sorrow. And so, even with our Lord and Savior, we share a common humanity that is not to be denied or suppressed for, although we believe, still we grieve.
Our gospel writer paints a portrait of this graveside moment: a picture of anger and sorrow and frustration. But that is not the end of the story because, while we share this experience of identifying with Mary and Martha as they weep at the grave of their brother, our very presence here this morning is a testimony that we also identify with Mary’s and Martha’s experience of new life made possible through Jesus. Together, we share not only a common humanity; we share a common eternity. And although we grieve, we still believe.
As powerful as the story of the raising of Lazarus is on its own, it’s important that we understand it within the context of John’s gospel. You see, this miracle plays a pivotal role. In a certain sense, the entire gospel has been preparing us for this very moment. As far back as chapter five in the gospel, Jesus heals a lame man at the pool of Bethsaida. It is the Sabbath and so the Jewish authorities confront Jesus and call him out. Jesus explains to them that he is doing the work of his Father. Now, they are offended by his words even more than by his actions as Jesus gives a very extensive explanation of who he is and what he’s all about. Jesus says these words:
Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life,
so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.
Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes…
has [already] passed from death to life… the hour is coming,
and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice
of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
For just as the Father has life in himself,
so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself…
the hour is coming when all who are in their graves
will hear his voice and will come out…[i]
Wow, talk about a spoiler alert. No one who had been paying attention should have been surprised when Lazarus, already dead four days, heard Jesus shout “Come out” and did. When Jesus calls Lazarus out from his tomb, Jesus validates that claim he made in chapter five; that he embodies life itself and is superior to the forces of death and destruction.
Just one chapter before this story of Lazarus, in John chapter 10, Jesus proclaims he is the Good Shepherd. He says that his sheep follow him because they know his voice. He says:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.[ii]
And that is what happens when he shouts to a sheep of his own flock, “Lazarus, come out!”
So friends, on this All Saints Sunday we celebrate the lives of those who have not really perished for they heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and they responded to his call. They followed him and so, although their bodies may have succumbed to the effects of cancer or heart disease or Alzheimer’s or COVID or any other form of bodily decay, nevertheless, they live eternally. And just as importantly, all of us who have responded to the call of Jesus live eternally with them. Although we grieve, that is what we believe.
Do you remember what I said just a few moments ago? Together, we share a common humanity that cannot help but acknowledge the pain and anger and frustration we feel in the face of death. But, even more importantly, together we share a common eternity because the good news of John’s gospel is that our eternal life in Christ does not await our physical death. Our eternal life in Christ begins the moment we respond to his call and place our trust in him. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes…has [already] passed from death to life.” Brothers and sisters, the saints we celebrate this day are not lost to us. We already are joined together with the company of heaven, those saints who now live in glory because, through Jesus, we share a common life, an eternal life. The resurrection of Lazarus was not only a blessing to Mary and Martha. It is an assurance for us as well when Lazarus becomes the walking, talking, clearly visible sign that Jesus is the source of life for all people in all times and places who trust in him.
Jesus sets us free from death that we might truly live: here and now and into eternity. That day when Jesus raised Lazarus, death and life were forever changed; nothing would ever be the same. Death would never again be what it once was – a final, decisive ending. Now, it is more like, I don’t know… transferring from the bus to the train. It marks a change, most certainly. But it does not mark the ending and that is why, although we grieve, still we believe. If you have heard the call of Christ, if you have committed to following him and trusting in him, then you have already passed from death to life eternal. We do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve as those who believe.
[i] Portions of John, chapter 5, beginning at verse 21 and ending with verse 29. NRSV.
[ii] John 10:27-28. NRSV.
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