Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
Writing to you from Big Barns (our house up in Dunrobin Woods), rather than preparing a sermon to offer in one of our beautiful church buildings this coming Sunday, seems so very at odds with our regular pattern of meeting together to worship Our Lord. Social distancing is so very important in halting the spread of the Coronavirus, but is proving difficult for those of us who are ‘social animals’.
Many people are extremely worried about family, friends and their own state of mind – and this is to be expected. It has been really good to see and hear about the many ways in which people are helping each other to ‘keep their spirits up’ – from calls on the telephone, letters through the post and hi jinks using online social media. All of this is really important and is to be applauded, but whilst this is happening we must remember also, the seriousness of the situation. We must take time each day to stop and think about those families who are in deep distress and mourning and to pray for those who have died.
At the beginning of Lent, many of us traditionally pray that Our Lord would protect us from “dying suddenly and unprepared”. Yet, as we are all acutely aware right now, death can happen so suddenly and when we are not expecting it. The last words of the famous, even the unknown, remind us of the intrusive character of death. In every spy film, there’s the woman in the villain’s lair who asks, “And what does this button do?” Or the many who said, “Oh, let me do it! I saw that on television!” Or the man who said, “The odds of that happening to me are one in a million!” In his last minutes of this life, Oscar Wilde, very ill, in a cheap Paris hotel room said, “Either this awful wallpaper goes, or I do!” Death is often seen as an uninvited intruder. But Francis of Assisi called it “Sister Death” and that’s a different approach altogether.
Death has a kind of push and pull about it — we are pulled to trust the words of faith, but our fears can push down our rising hopes. Death is like a doorway through which at some point we all must pass.
Whether welcomed or avoided, death comes—to men and women, young and old, rich and poor—it comes to all, without exception. Many of us believe deep down that we’re going to be that one exceptional person who is actually immortal in the flesh. It’s like the comedian Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” So, we tiptoe around death describing it as “expiring,” like death arrived as a sell by date on a tin of beans, or we hear someone say a loved one ‘passed’.
But Christ shows us a different way. St Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thes. 4.13)…“we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” That’s why the Church proclaims, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
The passage today from John’s gospel about the raising of Lazarus tells how Jesus’ friend, Lazarus died. And how Jesus came with his holy and powerful presence up against death, with his friends Martha and Mary. But they could only say to him, “If you had been here our brother would not have died.” And others asked, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the man born blind have prevented Lazarus’ death?” And Jesus saw his friends from Bethany weeping, and heard the wailing of the mourners and Jesus himself shed tears as the scripture said, “he was deeply moved” and “troubled in himself”.
Here with his friends, we stare at the strong door of death, and yearn for the ones who have passed beyond our reach. But I sometimes wonder if Jesus’ tears were tears of grief, or frustration, or anger, or incredulity at those who didn’t believe? Hadn’t they seen, heard, or comprehended the message from God through Christ to a hurting, grieving world?
Jesus speaks the power of God, a message of consolation and encouragement, but they and we sometimes find it very difficult to hear this message. We crouch outside death’s door waiting in fear to be called ourselves at our own time. When we get wrapped up in fear and loss, we can lose the Godly vision of our life and our death and how the gospel speaks to us about them. The power of God is now and always has been the power to raise us from the dead. And that is not about us. It is about God. I realise that may sound like hyperbole, but that’s how I think we must view death, we must see it through the eyes of the one who created us.
Probably the greatest student of death and dying ever was the medical doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. She said we humans stand at the top of an evolutionary chain that spans seven million years and humans have lived and died every day during that long, long time. We have put a man on the moon, but we have studied death so little that our understanding of it is negligible. So, after a lifetime of study, she made several simple observations about what her patients had taught her about death. She said that, first, death is a part of life just as birth is a part of life, and the lesson in that is just as you came into this life and found an existence, so in dying we are making an important transition. She saw the most fretful and anxious persons…even very angry persons, find in dying a peaceful calm as they reached out and touched the other side of this life.
In the same way, Jesus in the gospel is trying to teach us that lesson. Firstly, Lazarus’ resuscitation brings the realisation that God rules over the gateway between life and death and whether we are pushing or pulling to get into or out of that door, it is God who oversees our going out and our coming in from this time forth forevermore. Death is a part of life and God leads us through faith into new life.
Secondly, this body in which we live is a vessel for the unique spirit that God has placed in us. There’s only one of each of us…we are all unique. We are not going to be folded into the great ocean of death and be lost. But rather, the one who put us into this body will be the first to welcome us on the other side. In the transition, death brings a complete healing…to the deaf, the lame, the blind, the addict…what is lost, is found.
And finally, we don’t do this alone. Just as we were welcomed into this world, God’s love gets us through that door to be welcomed and received with great joy on the other side. That love cannot be defeated, deflated, nor deflected. My friends, be confident that Heaven is indeed real and the God who pulled our bones together will keep us together even when our bones are not.
Faith tells us that, whilst it might be frightening and distressing for those around us, it’s going to be OK passing through that door, because the one who called us all into existence, is the same one who stood outside Lazarus’ tomb and called out, “Come forth”.
God is calling us into a new life in Him BECAUSE as we know, “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again” to each and every one of us. Amen.