All Saints. 2018. Yr B. Rev 21: 1 – 6a. Jn 11: 32-44
You will have noted that today we are celebrating “All Saints” and not “All Souls. The reason is that Kenneth thinks it is more important to concentrate on the older and more important celebration of ALL the Saints, known and unknown, and thank God for them. As Saint Paul makes clear, we Christians are all saints. We are the building blocks of the Church, as Charles reminded me at St Michael’s last week. It isn’t that one has to be especially holy, or especially dead. All Saints Day has been kept as a special Christian celebration since at least the 4th Cent. It was originally the Sunday following Pentecost – and it still is the the Eastern Orthodox tradition. It took a bit longer to take firm root in the Western Church; not until the 7th Century in Rome and then it was observed on the 13th May. It moved to 1st November on the order of Pope Gregory III. He died in 741AD.
All SOULS Day / the day for the commemoration of the souls of the faithful departed is always on 2nd November. It only came into universal observance under the influence of the great Benedictine monk and abbott, Odilo of Cluny in 998AD. He commanded its annual celebration at all Benedictine houses of his congregation, and the idea spread. It was the day on which the Mass included the great Christian canticle Dies Irae. Day of wrath. Day of anger.
And here is my “way in” to this sermon. Jesus raises Lazarus in today’s gospel passage from St John. Very appropriate, of course, for All Saints, All Souls. But the rather anodyne translation we are given for the 33rd verse of our gospel passage: When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came also with her weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.]
[Childwick: When Jesus saw her [Mary] weeping and the Jews who came with her weeping he was deeply moved in spirit and greatly troubled.]
From the Greek word used for “deeply moved” the commentators all make the point that he was filled with anger of the “nostrils flared” variety. At the very least the word conveys deep resentment.
But what at? Where was this anger directed? Was it the unbelief of the Jews in the possibility of resurrection? Their belief in the finality of death? Was it Jesus’ anger at the existence of evil that causes sickness / death and grief?
There are nuances in the original Greek that lead me to regret not studying the language. But not sufficient regret at this stage in the proceedings to do anything about it. Sorry Phillip.
We are told that Jesus: cried with a loud voice [v43]. He SHOUTED to Lazarus: Lazarus: Come out. The only other time the same Greek word for shouted is used is for the crowd shouting to Pilate that they wanted Barabbas over Jesus. So here in this gospel of St John the same word is used once to bring Lazarus from death to life, and once to send Jesus from life to his earthly death.
It’s not just that there are nuances in the use of a word the raising of Lazarus itself is a sort of a double symbol. First: it anticipates the resurrection of Jesus. And second / let’s not forget: it anticipates the resurrection of believers. All the saints.
As with Jesus, Lazarus was sealed in a tomb, by a stone, bound with strips of cloth, anointed with oils and spice. Like Jesus, the cloth that wrapped Lazarus’s head is mentioned separately: and his face wrapped in a cloth. [v44b]. But… UNlike Jesus, Lazarus came forth from the tomb still with the cloths that bound his hands and feet.
This was to show that he had risen through the power of another, and would in due course die once more. Contrast that with Jesus that first Easter morning. He left his grave cloths behind, because he rose by his own power and would have no further need of them. As St Paul tells us in his Letter to the Romans: death has no more dominion over him. [Rom 6:9].
The miracle of Lazarus was and is a sign for all believers, all the saints of the hope of their, and our, resurrection on the Last Day. This is made clear at the start of the Lazarus story where Lazarus’s sickness and death are said to be to the glory of God. Verse 4. [Jesus said] this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of Man may be glorified through it. [Childwick: this illness is not unto death / it is for the glory of God…] And that is why Jesus said aloud that strange prayer at the tomb. Not for his own benefit, because he and the Father were one; but for the benefit of those around, so they could hear, and learn.
Lazarus stands for all of us. Jesus gave him life, and will give it to us. As Jesus tells Mary, and us, seven verses before the start of tonight’s reading: 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. [Childwick: I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me / though he die / yet shall he live / and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. ] [Jn 11: 25]. Powerful stuff.
So what does this mean today? Lazarus – and the widow’s son at Nain, like Jairus’s daughter, were resuscitated but would die again. They were not resurrected in the true Christian sense of the word. To be resurrected is no longer to be constrained by death or the limitations of the body.
So whether we see the Lazarus story as historically true – or not, it is still only a pre-figuring of the resurrection that really matters, that of Jesus, – and our own. As St Paul puts it: We shall not all die but we shall be changed. [1Cor 15:51]. Eternal life is a completely different mode of existence. It’s a lot to get one’s head round.
Paul’s conviction of the reality of the resurrection led him to tell the Thessalonians: not to grieve as others do who have no hope. [1Thess 4:13].
But note that he didn’t tell them not to grieve at all. Even when one knows that separation will be temporary, if it is separation from those we love, then it will hurt. And boy, does it! Loss of a spouse: not recommended. Services of remembrance held at this season are therefore all the more important in the life of those who feel that separation most keenly. The compassion shown by Jesus, and his extreme grief and anger at the death of Lazarus show that it is quite appropriate to grieve. It doesn’t demonstrate lack of faith in the Christian message.
When we lose someone who is more dear to us that we can say, or when the time comes for us to look death in the face, there will be more comfort for us in a friend or lover to grieve with us than there will be from one who simply exhorts us to have faith and be brave. My elder son Tom told me he did HIS grieving for his mum while she was dying rather than after she had died. And there is infinitely more comfort in God, our God, who does the same. AMEN.