SERMON: The Persistence of Love

SERMON: The Persistence of Love

— David Barton’s Sermon for All Saints’ Day —

The story of the Raising of Lazarus is a very powerful one, and well known.   And it contains the best known verse in the bible: “Jesus wept” which everybody knows is also the shortest verse in the whole bible!

It’s always important to remember that this Gospel, the fourth and last of the gospels, is very different in style and approach to the others.   It simply does not intend to be a history of Jesus, setting it all out in order, the result of the author’s tireless sifting through facts.. It is written some fifty five/sixty years after the resurrection.  What the author wants to capture is the impact of the living Jesus, to create an encounter with him.   Above all, he wants us to see the utterly unexpected, unpredictable, improbable quality of the life that Jesus brings.   And to do it he uses story.  Story has the power to capture our imaginations, it can take us quickly into the deeper moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives.  John takes a remembered event in Jesus life – for example, his attendance at a wedding in Cana, the first of the stories round which the gospel is written.  Weddings are about joy and hope.  John pushes that into a story about new life breaking into our lives, with Jesus, changing water into wine; changing the quality of our lives beyond our expectations.

And now, with the last of his stories, John confronts us with the opposite of that: death. Important to remember the context here. A quarter of a century or so before, the Romans had launched a devastating war in Palestine.  For five years they ravaged the land and destroyed Jerusalem.  The stench of death hung around for months, the countryside so defaced that it took decades to recover.  The social fabric of Jewish society was shattered, people were traumatised,. The aim was to wipe out Judaism for ever, though by a miracle it survived.

So in this narrative of the raising of Lazarus – which comes just before the crucifixion and resurrection – all of that comes in.  In the other gospels, Jesus raises people from the dead.  But John’s miracle is quite different from those.  Those people had only recently died.  And at the time it was thought that the soul stayed in the body for three days after death, so a coming to life again was possible – indeed the prophets has similarly called the spirit back to life.  But here the soul has gone.  John makes the decay of the body brutally clear. Lazarus has been dead four days.  He stinks.

And so this story gathers up the whole ghastly experience of the period people have lived through, along with the basic question all of us ask.  Is death the end?  How do we live after the death of someone we deeply love? Isn’t death the grinding end of all of us – one last breath and that is it?  And doesn’t  the terrible devastation of war, the cruelty, the deaths, the refugees, our inhumanity to one another, all point to a human life that is basically without meaning?  No God and certainly not a God of compassion.

When John writes “Jesus weeps”, he does not just mean tears for the loss of Lazarus.   The word here implies tears of anger too.  This is God who weeps in the face of our appalling inhumanity to each other.  The people who say “See how he loved him” misunderstand the profound purpose of Jesus’ mission.  He is here to change all this.

John is shatteringly brutal here.  He rules out all the evasions with which we soften terrible things in that sort of way.  We are asked to face things exactly as they are.  Christianity is not about blindness to reality.  We are to face the horrors of the grave full on.  That is what Jesus means when he says “Roll away the stone!”

And this is the climax of the story.  John juxtaposes the open grave with the persistence of love: the love that is there in the Christ who stands and faces us and calls us out of the darkness and mess.  The Jesus of this gospel is not a human person who somehow at Easter becomes something rather more than that.  From beginning to end this is God, who chooses to be here, embodied in Jesus.   God in Christ stands before the grave of all our hopes and sees us and calls us.   And it’s not Lazarus who comes out: it’s humanity, us, stumbling out from darkness into light, the trappings of death falling away from us as we stumble forward.

That is the persistence of God’s love.  And it is also a wake up call to minds closed to the possibilities that lie in God.  Mark and Luke in their Gospels, more than once remind us that nothing is impossible with God.  John says the same here.

Christian hope and Christian Faith is about the discovery – the impossible discovery – that God loves us, even in the very heart of our human failure and death.   God’s love does not fail, into death, through death and beyond death.  That is how dear we are to God.  Humanity may give itself over into destruction and unimaginable cruelty.   God does not change.  God’s aliveness and creativity brings hope out of despair, and calls life out of the very jaws of death.

But this Lazarus story reaches onwards.  Lazarus may be called from the grave, but he will die.  His story is here is to sharpen our minds to what will happen next – Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion.  John’s first readers would have recognised the reality of that.

And then, a week after the first reports of the resurrection, John gives us an echo of the Lazarus story, but in reverse.  Thomas, the disciple, is in the upper room.  His mind is locked into the memory of the horror of the crucifixion.  In the face of that he cannot believe what he has been told about the resurrection of Jesus.  And then Jesus stands before him and invites him to touch the raw wounds of the nails and the spear. In that wounded figure is love and forgiveness, without reserve.  The rawness of Jesus’ death is the gateway to love and life.

This is a story that we can never forget.  And we should remember it. It points to the ground, the solid foundation of all our believing.  When we face threatening illness, or the debilities of old age, or sit by the sick bed of those we love, or face their death, or look, yet again at the horrors of the refugee crisis: at that moment we need to wake up to the impossible.  Deeper than all of that God is, unchanging in love.  That I believe – not in the lose sense of the word as we so often use it when we say “I believe it will rain later”, which is just another way of saying “I don’t know.”    I believe because I know this deep in my experience: All is well because I and everyone are held in God. It’s a discovery that leads to no miracle, no sudden wiping away of death and its allies.  Just a realisation that we are not alone and we are held.   But from that flow possibilities we had not imagined.

I think they chose this as a reading for All Saints Day for that reason.  We tend to think of saints as the great heroes of the past – encouraged by hymns like For all the Saints.  We are going to sing that later.  But forget all that triumphalism.  The word Saints is used very simply in the New Testament for the congregation of a church – the saints in Corinth, the saints in Rome, and so on. They were ordinary people like us. But what marked them out was that they were aware of the love and power of God holding them, slowly moving them out of darkness into light, their lives changing for the better.

And that is not different from us here – God is at work in our lives too.  So when you stand, as we will in a moment, and say in the creed “I believe in the communion of Saints” don’t think of people in the past. Think of the people around you, and yourself. We are the saints in Iffley, held by God.