Can you imagine how annoyed Lazarus must have been when Jesus called him back from the afterlife? He seems to have been a good man who cared about friends and family, especially his sisters Martha and Mary with whom he lived, but having to pass through the agony of mortal illness and death only to be summarily ripped from the paradise of God to return to the travails of earthly life… really? And then there was the why. Lazarus’ resurrection was necessary to counter peoples’ persistent uncertainty about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. It had only been a few weeks since Jesus had had to leave Jerusalem for his own safety after a confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees over the healing of a blind man (on the Sabbath, God forbid!) wherein Jesus told them in no uncertain terms that he was doing the work of his Father and that, in fact, the Father and he were one! About the time folks started picking up rocks to stone him, Jesus “went away” across the Jordan River to the place where John had been baptizing, near the Sea of Galilee, about 50 miles distant, as he crow flies, where people seemed more receptive to his teaching. It was not yet his time (John 10:22-42).
But it was soon to be Lazarus’ time. Lazarus and his sisters lived in Bethany, a village just outside of Jerusalem and Jesus hadn’t seen them for a while. When Jesus received word that Lazarus was sick, sick unto death, he reassured his disciples (as he so often did) that God was up to something, and that everything was happening for a purpose. Lazarus was “asleep,” and Jesus would go and “wake him up.” “Riiiiiight…” said the disciples. And then Jesus clarified that Lazarus was indeed temporally dead, but that they needed to go to him anyway. It was all so confusing! As usual, the diciples didn’t really get it, but they were game to follow wherever Jesus might lead, even if it meant putting themselves in harm’s way. But here’s the thing, despite the urgency of the situation, Jesus inexplicably delayed his return to Bethany for two whole days! By the time Jesus and his disciples arrived on the scene, Lazarus was not only dead, but he had been in the tomb for four days (John 11:1-17). What is the significance of four days, you may ask? I will tell you. In Jewish tradition, the soul of a departed person was thought to linger in the vicinity of the body of the deceased for up to three days after death, just in case it might somehow be reunified with its earthly host. Jesus knew that, in order to achieve God’s purposes, people would have to know that Lazarus’ return to the land of the living wasn’t simply “resuscitation.” It had to be resurrection.
But what of the human toll? Mary and Martha, both distraught from having lost their beloved sibling… their protector… likely their breadwinner… met Jesus on the road and reproached him saying, “If you had been here, he would not have died.” Their suffering was palpable, and tears are contagious. Even though Jesus trusted God’s overarching purpose and was committed to doing his Father’s will, it grieved him beyond measure that the unbelief of God’s people would require such a sacrifice from his friends. And Jesus wept. Not tears of sadness, I think—tears of anger… and resolve. There’s nothing wrong with being sad when people we care about are sad, but it’s quite another thing to actually share empathically in their suffering. That only happens when we have skin in the game and Jesus had skin in this game. He knew these people. He loved this family and he shared the full measure of their pain. But he knew that the only real way to banish the sadness and pain of this temporal world once and for all… was to do whatever was necessary to hasten the coming of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was on a mission: a mission to change people’s understanding about their relationship with God. Other friends of Mary and Martha had come to console them in their loss. Jesus came not to console them, but to strengthen their belief. “I am the resurrection,” Jesus said. If you live in me… if you believe in me, you’ll understand that the life you live here on earth isn’t really life. And the death you die here on earth isn’t really death. It’s kind of like falling asleep (cf. John 11:25-26). And then Jesus showed them exactly what that looked like when he raised Lazarus. And he would show them again, in due course, through his own resurrection.
On All Saints’ Day we celebrate those whose lives have given witness, great or small, to the resurrection of Jesus Messiah. Some of their names are etched on our hearts. We remember in particular those of our own St. James’ family who have departed this life since this time last year: John Ingram Dickinson, Aline Mae Hall Beckham, Gladys Marie Miller, Mary Louise Gray and Suzanne DuPuy Black. So many other names we’ll never know… but God knows. You know, Lazarus is a saint. I doubt he was perfect, but we learned from our Gospel story today that he was faithful. When his Messiah called him from the paradise of God to help enact God’s painful purpose for a people lost in the wilderness of disbelief, St. Lazarus answered the call. And Scripture tells us that, as a result of Lazarus’ faithful witness to the power of Jesus Messiah, many defied the edicts of their chief priests… and believed in Jesus. We’re all called to be saints: to love God and our neighbor, to share in one another’s suffering and, like Lazarus, fulfill the roles God has in store for us as bringers of the Kingdom. We don’t have to be perfect. God may be perfect, but he’s not a perfectionist. All we need do is be faithful. It is enough.
Then Feast of All Saints is also a fitting occasion to remind ourselves that this earthly sojourn is not life… and that the earth is not our home. Christ is our Paschal Lamb… our salvation… our resurrection! And we will find true life… and our true home, in renewed communion with all the saints… when we’re together—at one—with God. That is our final destination.
I’m particularly fond of a reflection on the nature of this togetherness, and God’s majesty, penned by our own Bishop Wright a few years back, titled Forever Together. He writes:
God has majesty! That’s how Jude finishes his chapter about God. Not [a solitary] majesty like Mount Everest, but majesty like the Milky Way, and strands of DNA, and the Great Barrier Reef. Majesty defined as “great togetherness.”
In God’s majesty, there’s room for everything and everyone, the visible and the invisible, for all that was, is and will come. God’s power is in holding things together: life and death, dark and light, hate and love — until time, action and waiting, together, have their perfect work.
This week we remember all the souls and the saints who have died. “People we love, but see no longer.” And while our grief and gratitude for them is real, we must never forget that together with themis what we will always be. [God never wastes anything].
Life changed, not ended. Forever together in the majesty of a vast and great God.
Amen to that, Bishop.