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November 5, 2006 (All Saints Sunday)
Interim Pastor Steven Jensen
Kennon Callahan, in his Dynamic Worship: Mission, Grace, Praise, and Power, makes the following observation about attending an All Saints Sunday service:
I once attended a Sunday morning worship that included a memorial service in which the congregation, once a year, remembered all those who had died during the previous year. At one point in the service the pastor thoughtfully read the name of each person who had died. As the names were read, the organ played softly in the background, and outside, the church bell tolled slowly. The service climaxed with a prayer of thanksgiving for those lives and a hymn of victory.
Afterward, when the pastor asked me what I thought of the service, I told him, “It was excellent, most helpful, and most meaningful.” Then I asked him, “When do you do the same for each new baby born this past year, for each person who has discovered Christ during this past year, and for those who have significantly advanced God’s mission during this past year?”
“Oh,” he replied. “Well, when a baby is born, we place a rose on the altar.”
I said, “Yes. One rose, one service. And when a person dies, you often have flowers on the altar from the funeral service, and people take food over to help the family in the midst of their grief. You offer prayer for the person and the family during the illness; then you offer prayer for them on the Sunday following the funeral service. You do all these things for those experiencing grief at the end of a life. And you do this excellent memorial service once a year. You are celebrating the past. Celebrate the future as well.”
I must confess that I had never thought of All Saints Day in such a way. Most Lutheran and Episcopal churches I am aware of celebrate All Saints Sunday as a day when we remember those who have gone before us and joined the “Church Triumphant.” I have also always appreciated the opportunity the day affords to reflect on the contributions those I have loved and lost made to my life.
But perhaps as the “Communion of Saints,” and in the light of our Gospel for today, it is appropriate for us to celebrate past, present, and future saints.
In John we see that Jesus responded to the news that his friend Lazarus was dying in a way far different than we would expect. Instead of rushing to his side, to offer aid to him and his family, as we might for someone close, Jesus replies that Lazarus is not going to die, but rather “his illness is for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified by means of it”—and stays put for two long days.
I expect his response was puzzling not only to Mary and Martha, but also to his disciples, who knew of his love for this family.
And yet when Jesus announces that it is time to go to Bethany, the disciples are concerned for Jesus’ safety—and probably their own. After all, the Jews were ready to stone him for blasphemy. Again a puzzling announcement from Jesus: “Our friend Lazarus has gone to sleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” What is he thinking? If Lazarus is only sleeping, it’s not worth risking one’s life to go there. So Jesus bluntly tells the disciples, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
By the time they arrive, Lazarus has already been in his tomb for four days, and the mourners are in the midst of their grief. Imagine the scene as Mary refuses to come meet Jesus as he approaches, but Martha greets him with, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that what you ask from God, God will give you.”
How many times have we prayed that a loved one would be spared from death despite the extent of their illness, only to have them taken from us? How did their deaths rock our faith? Were our pious words of the love of God and eternal life heartfelt, or something less? Theologians debate whether Jesus kept anyone from dying; there are other instances, however, when Jesus and his disciples raised others from the dead. But that does not stop us from wanting to keep our loved ones with us and asking for God’s miraculous action to keep them alive.
We’re not so different from the crowd in asking, “Couldn’t this one, who opened the eyes of the blind, do something so that this one would not have died?”
The promise that the “Communion of Saints” actually proclaims is not that Jesus will keep people from dying or even suffering, but that Jesus will raise up the dead—neither death nor suffering will ever separate believers from God.
It is in response to Jesus’ word that Lazarus finds life. It is also in response to Jesus’ word that Lazarus is freed from his restrictive bindings by other people. Not all of God’s works take place supernaturally. Sometimes they require a lot of work on our part.
Perhaps that is an allegory of discipleship—answering the call to come and follow Jesus, leaving the old, dead life behind.
Lazarus is dead in the grave. Lazarus can do nothing for himself. All he can do is receive the power of God to give him new life. The call to faith is the call to die to ourselves, so that God’s power might be manifested in giving us life. Theologically, we died in baptism and we die daily in repentance, and God raises us to new life beyond our sins. However, sometimes after we have been given new life by God, we still want to keep ourselves wrapped up and bound in our grave clothes—signs of the old life. We can keep ourselves bound up by holding onto those sins from which Jesus has freed us and has forgiven us—or even holding onto our goodness and obedience to the Law, which Paul says is worthless.
I have often wondered how life was different for Lazarus after his death and resurrection. Were his priorities the same afterwards as before? Did he work less and spend more time with family and friends? Did he fear death and dying, or was he freed to live his new life with a special trust and confidence in God? Could we imagine what his new life was like and then apply it to our own lives as resurrected people through our births from baptism?
In The New Interpreter’s Bible, O’Day notes:
The church preaches about death and resurrection at the time of death, but shies away from such topics in the midst of life. Yet it is in the everyday rhythms of life that the church most needs to talk about Jesus’ power as the resurrection and the life, so that death can indeed lose its sting. To proclaim the power of resurrection at the time of death is both to impoverish the proclamation and to weaken the power of its witness in the face of death.
... In the moment of crisis, at the funeral of a loved one, the immediate need is for pastoral care and assurance about the power of the resurrection. Indeed, funerals do provide Gospel witness to the power of God in Jesus. But a funeral is not the moment for believers to reassess their lives in the light of the new eschatological reality in which the incarnation enables the church to live, because the power of grief and loss is so palpable.
... Jesus’powerful announcement to Martha suggests that the church needs to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not only at times of death, but also in the daily moments of human lives, because these moments, too, whether one names them so or not, are also lived in the face of death. John asks the church to reflect that Jesus is the resurrection and the life not just for the crisis moment of death, but for all moments in life. Jesus announcement is that the world is now definitely under God’s care and power. John thus offers a promise about how those who believe in Jesus will live their lives, not just about how they will end them.
Our sainthood, then, does not happen after our deaths, but it is part of our lives in the present time. We are connected with the holy God now.
If saints are those, as a child described, through whom the light shines, then there are saints among us today, and saints in the making.
I do not believe that Lazarus could possibly be the same after he responded to Jesus word to come forward and was helped by others to be released from his bonds. That is a powerful image for this “Communion of Saints.”
No matter what makes you feel dead inside, hear the call of Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Follow his voice and live.
Being a saint comes as a gift from God. We are saints because the Holy God has come in contact with us. We are saints because Jesus Christ paid the price for our sin and made it possible for us to be in the presence of God. Let the saints, the people of God, the priesthood of all believers, hear his call to take away the stone that entombs people and to unbind them. Let the light of the Risen Christ so shine through us that others are drawn to the light and hear the life-giving voice of Christ.
Copyright © 2006 Steven Jensen
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org