All Souls –4 November 2018 @ 4 pm
John 11.17-37; 38-45 –
“I am the resurrection and the life, says the Lord. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’
The story of the raising of Lazarus is both inspirational and at the same time difficult to understand for us and all those who are in the midst of grief, especially those who – in the words of Mary Oliver – could not go any closer to grief without dying.
Jesus is visiting his friends in Bethany and, unknown to him, he arrives a few days after his friend Lazarus has died.
It is a moment high in grief and drama, one in which almost all our senses engage – from the sounds of the crowd to the smell of death. And it is another Kairos moment of disclosure on Jesus’ journey towards his own destiny.
But – notwithstanding the larger theological dimension of Jesus’ miracle – Jesus does something that in our experience simply does not happen.
Despite not being there at the right time, Jesus repairs what has been broken: he brings Lazarus back to life.
As we come today to remember all those we know who have died, indeed name them again before God as we do every year, Lazarus is a prime example of what has not happened to our loved ones.
And, just like Martha, we might be tempted to say, even shout: ‘Jesus, if you had been here, my brother, sister, husband, wife, father, mother, child, friend, would not have died’. But the fact is that all those we have come for today have died, and they are no longer with us in body.
‘If only you had been there’: and the fact is of course that God was there in times of suffering and pain, God was there at the time when death came, and God is here with us now as we seek to rebuild our lives after our loss. Often, we do not see, but seen or unseen, God is here.
The reality of our human condition is that our flesh is frail, and we are not immortal. Miracles do happen through the work of all those involved in the healing professions, but ultimately, our time is finite, whether long or short. Our bodies give up, accidents happen, and those left behind are left devastated by their loss, utterly bereft.
‘Jesus began to weep’ at the death of his friend Lazarus, and Jesus weeps with us when we weep, Jesus grieves with us when we are grief stricken, and the resurrected Christ encourages us as step by step we rebuild new life after death.
Because for Christians, death is not the end, but death is a transition. In the same way that birth is a transition moment that brings us into this human reality, from the depth of God’s love onto this earth, death is the moment when we transition back to the eternal life and love of God, after our human accomplishments.
For Christians, those who have died are not lost, instead they are gathered into the innumerable cloud of witnesses that surrounds us as we are gathered at worship, as we are joined together in God’s timeless and spaceless grace which knits us into this great multitude of those who believe.
Jesus says : ‘Those who believe in me will never die’
And that is why we continue to pray for all those we have known and lost, that is why we come to say their names again and again, because we know that they are in God just as we are in God, and we are comforted by this proximity of souls and spirit – even if physically we can be unbearably separated.
‘I have said this so that the crowd may believe’
Jesus speaks to us today, just as he spoke to the bereaved crowds gathered in Bethany in his time. His prayer is that we may believe, and until we achieve resurrection, Jesus knows that the love that bound us with those we have lost is not dead.
So today, we are encouraged ‘to carry our grief in a different way, as Mary Oliver puts it.
As we reread the story of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection of his friend Lazarus out in Bethany, we can see the miracle that can happen in our lives.
In the same way that Jesus prayed that something good might happen that the crowd may know of the love of God, we are caught up in this prayer in which we share, and despite the pain, the loss and our certainties or lack of them, we are participants in the miraculous in our lives.
The miracle of love continuing to be poured out but differently, that those who have died may be brought back fully alive in the legacy they leave behind, through their families, their friends, and the organisations they cared for.
The miracle of new seeds of love planted in memory that grow into fully fledged and continuing outpourings of the love of God in the world.
Doubtless we know of many examples of organisations founded in memory of someone’s death. Not everyone has the power to do this, but we all have power in our lives to keep memory alive and continue the kindness and love we have received.
Jesus said: ‘Take away the stone’
Today, with the church around the world, we pray for all souls, the faithful departed that we know and those whom we will never know. We trust in God’s promise of resurrection, and so as we lift the stone of grief which weighs us down, we give thanks for the privilege of having known and loved all those that we mourn, and pray for God’s inspiration as we seek to keep their memory alive in the world today.