Setting the Table for Grace (5): In Death and in Life
by Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, and among the most eloquent. The morning text is situated around the death of Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha who were also part of his closest circle. We learn that Lazarus is gravely ill and then that he has died. Jesus arrives into a familiar death scene: shocked and grieving family members, neighbors with comforting words and casseroles, and even some expressions of anger about the unfairness of it all. And Jesus weeps, sharing the pain of loss, the awful clarity that his friend was no longer among the living, and tears of gratitude for Lazarus’ good life and their friendship. Jesus wept. Because of what happens next, it’s crucial to remember that this text is immersed in tears, even as it envisions a truth beyond them. A reading from John in the eleventh chapter, at the 38th verse. Listen for God’s word of life. [John 11:28-44]
One of the distinctive features of the gospel of John is a series of statements of who Jesus is, backed up by actions illustrating it:
I am the bread of life. . . . . and the multitudes are fed.
I am the light of the world. . . .and a blind man is given sight.
I am living water. . . . and the thirst of an outcast woman is quenched.
Here a man walks out of his grave alive in response to Jesus claim to his heartbroken sister. . . I am the resurrection and the life.
For the gospel writer, these events are signs meant to reveal the power and purpose of God at work through Jesus. Healing, nourishment, forgiveness, unconditional love. . . . Jesus demonstrated these actions to pull back the curtain on heaven and show us the very heart of God. And with the raising of Lazarus, Jesus lays bare a vulnerable God whose own heart breaks at the death of any of God’s beloved children. A God whose divine impulse is to comfort, to extend grace, to hold us closely in our sorrow. Friends, Divine power is exercised not through perfect, invincible strength, but in tears, when words fail, when the illusion of our self-sufficiency falls away.
For when death comes and cannot be denied, we discover that it is not the end. Weeping is not all Jesus does as he stands with us at the grave. I am the resurrection and the life. True life: the part that involves our beating heart and in-taken breath that does end, AND the part that involves our self unendingly alive with God.
Lazarus, after all, would die again. Whatever happened that day did not grant him immunity from the death we all will die. The life that Jesus gives doesn’t prevent the dying that is our certain destiny. Instead, it prevails over death’s finality. The worst thing that happens is not the last thing.
Which is why the central symbol of Christian faith is a cross. We worship a crucified God, One who did not flinch from embracing the full measure of humanity, including death. That cross is empty: as if to stare death straight in the eye until death blinks. And because its fearsome power has been broken, the grave is empty too. Eternal life begins here and now, a life Jesus called “abundant;” authentic life lived not in denial but in gratitude; lived not in fear, but in trust. This life is not some future reward to be enjoyed in heaven; Jesus’ presence bestows it every single day.
In the heartbreak of this week— the death of the beloved and dearly-desired newborn son of Sarah and BJ— I wondered about the appropriateness of the other baby baptism that had been previously scheduled. But Tom and Teresa and their parents were the ones who reminded me that it is precisely in the collision of death and life that God’s love is experienced most profoundly. When parents present their child for baptism, they literally give him into another’s hands. They let go of their precious little one, symbolically relinquishing control and entrusting their precious child and his whole future (be it long or short) to God. In the celebration (the celebration!) of the Lord’s Supper we feast in joy over broken bread and poured out cup, remembering Christ’s death that brings us life.
We weep. Not all the tears have even yet been shed. And we rejoice. God’s grace carries us through, no matter what. From life’s edge to life’s edge, from this world into the next, we are anchored by the eternal love of God known in Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life.
And on a not-too-distant day, in another garden, after another death, we see an even greater sign that this is true. Here at the tomb of Lazarus, death is denied for a time. There, at the tomb of Jesus, death is overcome for good. [ from commentary by Audrey West, in Feasting on the Word, p. 145]