Jesus said 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?’
For most people, attending funerals in not likely one of your “favorite things.” Attending funerals falls more into the category of “have to” that in the category of ‘want to.” If you knew that, when you came to church this morning, you were going to attend a funeral, would you have come? Would you have dressed differently? Yet here we are with Jesus at the wake being held in honour of his good friend Lazarus.
In 2016 I presided at twelve funerals. Sometimes my wife, Valerie, will ask me, “How did the funeral go today?” It feels odd to say, “It went well.” On the one hand, I want to say that, logistically speaking, everything worked; things went as planned; family members experienced the blessing of comfort and hope the service is designed to convey. On the other hand, the profound sense of loss in the death of a loved one casts it shadow over everything. Even things that go well can’t make the shadows disappear.
And even though funerals are not gatherings we are knocking down the door to get into, it was at this funeral, this wake for his friend Lazarus, that Jesus spoke, for me, the most profound words of hope. The words of hope spoken here are so profound in their scope they have been repeated at virtually every Christian burial ever since. “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.” Friends, unless you come to the funeral; unless you come to this place where the reality of death exposes our helplessness as humans, the depth of this word of hope will escape us.
1. Our world is ever pushing death to the periphery and so this great word of hope is not seen by many to have immediate implication. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, a member college of the Toronto School of Theology. His recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of Human Life explores the cultural and spiritual transformations wrought by extended life expectancy. Radner published an article in the November 2016 issue of the journal First Things that is, in many respects, a summary of his larger work. His article appropriately titled Whistling Past The Grave.
Radner writes: “When we talk about the key shifts of the twentieth century—those involving politics, trade, consumption, art—we leave out what is surely the most astonishing physical change in all human history, one that has happened mostly during the last century: the doubling of the human life span in much of the world (alas, not all). In North America, this has meant an increase in longevity from forty years to eighty years.” Radner goes on to explore the impact of that shift on many areas of life. For example, only one hundred years ago, for nearly everyone it was unimaginable that women would choose to delay childbirth until their late thirties, even early forties; the same is true of today’s widespread assumption that death at sixty-five is “early.”
Radner points out that “only in the last two generations have forty-year-olds gone to gyms to exercise rather than accepting physical decline as a part of mortality’s never-distant claim upon us.” To illustrate Radner’s point consider the comment of comedian Rita Rudner, who was born in 1953. “The word ‘aerobics” came about when the gym instructors got together and said; If we are going to charge $40 an hour, we can’t call it ‘Jumping up and down.’” Without the longer life-spans the idea of aerobics is unthinkable.
With longer and healthier lives, coupled with low infant mortality rates, we locate death among the elderly. In our thinking we don’t think about death much because it isn’t in our face like it was just a little over three generations ago. We think, further, it’s ok to die when we are old. I think we fool ourselves. The problem in our aging is the frailties that come not the age attained. My colleague Rev. Karl Burden put it this way, “getting old isn’t for beginners.” We don’t find ourselves disliking life because we turned 80 or 90 years of age; what we dislike are death’s errand boys. The frailties and diseases.
Let us not be fooled by the allure of relative longevity. When I was young an automobile seven year old was considered old. With improved technology and treatments my current vehicle is in its thirteenth year and running fine. I still know that one day it is headed for the scrap yard. Hope is not found in a doubled life-span. Hope is found in the One who said, “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.”
2. In recent years when I meet with families to plan a funeral service I am often told that they want to have a “celebration of life” rather than a “funeral.” I think what they mean is that they want the gathering to be positive and uplifting; their perception of the word “funeral” is something morose and dower.
On one hand, I agree that it is important to commemorate the life of the loved one lost to them in death within a funeral; it is our Christian understanding of life that every person is unique and in the image of God and so no clone is ever to be found. On the other hand, it is difficult to strike a note of celebration in the face of the blow we take in the loss of a loved one in death. It is like being punched hard in the stomach and then tying to stand up straight and smile acting as if nothing happened. I note time and again that when family members stand to speak a word of celebration about the life of their loved ones the pangs of grief overwhelm. Hope is not found in the level of celebration mustered.
I note that when Jesus came to Martha and Mary their conversation isn’t about what a great guy Lazarus was; they didn’t speak about the contributions or achievements of Lazarus. They get to the point of the pain. Both Martha and Mary say to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is death they want to confront. Life isn’t the problem, death is. “Your brother will rise again,” said Jesus. In other words, death is not the final word about Lazarus. And in the unfolding of this story we see that Jesus comes to confront death; to expose death’ limitation.
Then as now, we use lots of euphemisms to speak about death—such euphemisms are often attempts to soften what is otherwise harsh sounding. When Jesus first told the disciples his reason for heading to Judea—the disciples thought this ill-advised since on a recent trip there enemies tried to stone Jesus—Jesus used the image of sleep to describe death. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” This euphemism was common in the older testament. When kings died, for example, it was said they “slept with their ancestors.” (1 Kings 14:31) The disciples thought that Jesus meant that that Lazarus was resting so would recover. “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.” There is a time for speaking plainly about death.
I note, further, that Jesus does not speak with Martha and Mary about gaining closure. To be sure, he is at the wake. Jesus has come to the funeral, so to speak. Just as his presence at the wedding in Cana of Galilee witness to his blessing of the purposes the wedding is designed to convey so too his presence at the funeral tacitly blesses the purposes for which such gathering are designed. And it can be said that one of the purposes of the funeral it to bring things to a point of completion.
My parents died within six months of each other. First my father then my mother; they share a grave at a small country cemetery. A funeral service was held for each of them at the church they attended their entire married life. AS I stood with my brothers the day my mother’s grave was filled in there was a sense of completion—if you must use the word, an act of”closure.” We had done everything we knew to do in caring for my parents in life and now in death. We had completed our tasks in honouring them and caring for their bodies with dignity. We had done all that we know to do in the journey of faith from the church militant (here in this life) and the church triumphant (gathered at the Saviour’s throne). One church.
Yes, commemoration of someone’s life and closure in doing all that we know to do have their place and bring their commensurate blessings. However, commemoration and closure are not where hope is to be found in the face of the death of our loved ones. Jesus points Martha, and us, to where hope is found. “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.”
3. Let’s us be clear about the assertion of the gospel. The hope offered is in the one who said “I am the resurrection and the life.” I have met people who tell me that they believed that when life ended that was it. There was no expectation of a life to come. Others view the resurrection to life as some sort of spiritualized existence. Some believe we return to earth in a different form.
I wonder if we get too caught up in the nature of life to come and think that believing means embracing some set of descriptors. The Christian understanding of life to come is informed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He appeared to his disciples and ate with them. He invited them to touch him and see that he wasn’t a ghost. There is a physicality to the resurrected Jesus, albeit transformed and of a different order.
The Christian understanding is informed by what we call the incarnation; that is that God takes on flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth for our sakes. This act of God tells us that being human is not the problem because the being human is a fit vehicle for God to makes Godself manifest. In the creation story we are told that being human was very good. In coming among us God becomes human in Jesus forever for our sakes that we might have life eternal in him. God does not take on a human body for a while and then go back to being God once the nasty business at Golgotha was completed. God takes on being human and transforms this body of death.
These realities of Jesus come in the flesh and resurrected to life point us in the direction for understanding life to come and are the ground for rich contemplation of the subject. However, hope is not found in fleshing out the details of that life to come (pun intended)—as interesting as that might be. Hope is not found in ticking off a certain number of boxes beside descriptors of the life to come.
Hope is found in the one who said “I am the resurrection and the life.” Hope is found in Jesus. Jesus gives us resurrection and life by giving us himself. He is the life and eternally so. Life isn’t something that exist apart from him and he is somehow the dispenser of it; as the Apostle John said, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. Hope is found clinging to him in faith; knowing that his grip on us is stronger that our grip on him and most certainly stronger than death.
Notice Martha’s answer to Jesus question, Do you believe this? Note that she says nothing about the details of what resurrection and life might look. Martha’s confession is about who Jesus is; “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
I love the way the Apostle John articulates the hope of life to come. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
4. In this assertion that Jesus makes about being the resurrection and the life, the last ten words sum up the entire message of the gospel of John: “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Never die? The bible is quite clear that all die. What does Jesus mean? He means that you are never lost to God. Death will never render you a spiritual casualty. Death looks like the end. Indeed many things end at death—for example you won’t take you money with you. But you are not lost.
We know how this story ends. Jesus goes to the grave of Lazarus and asks for the stone to be taken away. Martha thinks him crazy for making such a request. We are told that Jesus is angry when he comes here. (John 11:33) Here Jesus confronts death—that is why he is angry. In a short time at the cross he will take on death and defeat it forever. Here at Lazarus tomb is a foretaste. Jesus calls Lazarus to come out. The man who was dead for four days emerges. Here we see the truth of Jesus assertion—“everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Lazarus was not lost to God. Lazarus, the person Lazarus, has not been destroyed by death.
Some people find the idea of resurrection to life too fantastic to believe. Let me ask you, when did you become aware that you were alive in the world? Did any of you ask to have life? No, you found yourself alive in the world. Did any of you procure the faculty of cognition so you could think and perceive? No, you found yourself equipped with such things. How did you get this life? I know the story of “the birds and the bees” but how is it that sperm and egg form life? The scripture asserts that all of this is gift, is of grace. And the point I invite you to consider is this—the God who gave you this life with all of its wonders, joys and mysteries is fully capable of giving life again. This is part of what Jesus means when he says “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Take this text of scripture with you today, rejoicing. Jesus said 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.