All Saints’ Day
Today’s Gospel is not my favorite to preach about on All Saints’ Sunday. I much prefer the Year A lectionary when on this day we hear the Beatitudes – Jesus’ beautiful list of the different conditions of human experience in which we are “blessed.” Today, though, we’re given the raising of Lazarus – a story that is familiar and uplifting, if not a little awkward.
In the raising of Lazarus, we enter just in time to witness Jesus’ tears and anguish, some graphic words about how the body would smell bad, an odd little prayer, and—almost as an afterthought—the calling forth of Lazarus from his tomb, still bound in a shroud, shuffling awkwardly before the astonished mourners. No ringing words about Jesus as the resurrection and the life; just a, shall we say, former corpse blinking newly-restored eyes against the light of an ordinary earthly day.
But that is, actually, the point: in this story, Lazarus has been raised, but he is not resurrected. He’s been given a new lease on his old life; but he has not been ushered into the life of God’s kingdom. What happened to Lazarus when Jesus called him from the grave is marvelous, but it is at best only a foretaste or symbol of the rich, endless life that Jesus promises with God. Lazarus is raised, but with another death still in his future, and with the life of heaven still a promise that is just hoped for.
It makes me want to flip quickly back to the ringing promises of Isaiah in our first reading: “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples … he will swallow up death forever”. Now THAT’s more like it! Get rid of the shroud! Destroy death forever! That’s what we should be hearing on All Saints’ Day: a celebration of the Resurrection Life. On All Saints’ Day I want to hear that our loved ones’ shrouds have been replaced with festal robes and mantles of joy. I want to visualize glorified saints, not resuscitated corpses?
It’s not that we wouldn’t like to have our loved ones restored to us, here on earth. Of course we would. We all long for that kind of reunion. Unfinished business could be concluded. Milestones could be reached and celebrated: an anniversary, the birth of a first grandchild, a graduation from college. We could say “I love you” one more time. I’m sure Mary and Martha were just as overjoyed to welcome Lazarus back for all these reasons. But also, just like Mary and Martha surely knew about Lazarus, in the back of our minds we know that those loved ones would some day die again. More things would go unsaid, more business would go unfinished, more milestones would not be reached, more “if onlys” would be worried over. However wonderful the miracle of resuscitation might be, in the end, it just postpones the inevitable experience of death.
So today’s Gospel reading has a bittersweet tang to it. It’s a story of new life, but not eternal life. How much more comforting might it be today to turn to other words that move us past death. How much less painful to leave behind all the talk of the smell of death and the business of unwinding a burial sheet. How much better to talk about saints at rest in the peace of God forever!
I’m not sure when it finally hit me. But at some point, I realized that this story isn’t just about the revival of Lazarus or what happens when one of God’s saints dies. It’s about what happens when God forms us into saints. It’s about our own death and rising. It is about our Baptism. What Lazarus didn’t know; what Martha heard but only partly understood—and what we strive to believe, teach, confess, and experience is this: in Baptism, we are joined to the suffering and death of Jesus and so we are also joined to him in a resurrection life. So, maybe this story is appropriate for All Saints’ Day after all. Because in Lazarus’ death, we see a preview of Jesus’ own death and tomb. And that makes this much more than just a story about a miraculous resuscitation. It makes it much more than a bittersweet reflection on a loved one’s death. It even makes Lazarus’ raising more than a mere restoration to ordinary, earthly life, with death still ahead of him and the life of heaven still only a promise.
On All Saints’ Day, the story of Lazarus’ raising can point us to the other tomb, the other shroud, the other death that we know is coming and that we know will end in resurrection.
On All Saints’ Day we celebrate that the same Jesus who called Lazarus from death into life, the One who healed sick bodies and brought new life to hopeless individuals, this same Jesus shared our death. And on the third day, his grave was opened, his burial shroud was laid aside, once and for all, and he emerged not merely resuscitated, but resurrected. On All Saints Day we celebrate that in his resurrection, Jesus was raised to the rich, endless life the Son of God had known from all eternity and shared with the God who created us and all that is. And we celebrate that this Jesus who shared in our death invites us to share in that life too.
Lazarus was returned to his family and friends, to the ordinary mortal life of his everyday world. But his fortunes were now forever joined to the One who commanded him to come out of the tomb. Even though in this story we know that one day Lazarus will grow old and die, in the most important way of all, death now stood behind him. Whatever Lazarus did or didn’t know about what lay ahead of him in his life was irrelevant. Because Lazarus now knew that because of Jesus, death would never, ever have the last word over him. He had heard Jesus’ Last Word pronounced over him, and that word was, “Come Out! And Live!”
And those are Jesus’ words for us on All Saints’ Day! In our baptisms, when our lives were forever linked with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we are reborn. Not to escape from, but to proclaim life in the face of a world of doubts, disease, and death. In this life we will always struggle with unspoken words, unfinished business, unmet milestones, and countless “what ifs.” We do so, though, with Jesus’ promises filling and strengthening us. Like Lazarus, we live with the worst part of death behind us. We cannot eliminate death from our earthly experience. But we can know and proclaim that death will never have the last word.
Ultimately, that’s what “being a saint” is all about—not a perfect, sinless, existences, but lives that are bound to the life of Jesus and lived in the messy, sometimes smelly realities of a broken, imperfect world. When God goes about making us saints, God doesn’t make us immune from grief or pain. Instead, God binds us to the risen Christ and makes us people who grieve but who have hope — a hope that cannot be shaken. When God makes a person a “saint”, life doesn’t become problem-free. Instead, God gives the rest of us saints Jesus’ command to Lazarus’ friends: “You unbind him, and let him go”. Because through our baptism into the Body of Christ, God gives us the grace and strength to unbind others from the shackles of hopelessness and despair!
On All Saints Day, we need to hear the words of Isaiah about the fullness of eternal life that God’s saints will enjoy. But it’s also good to be reminded that our struggle with death and our entrance into sainthood has already taken place—because Jesus has already gone down that road for us. The only one whose words have final power and authority over us is one who speaks words of promise and hope: “Lazarus, come out. People of this place, come out.” Come out, and live in the strength of God’s promise and a life with God’s abundance, until all shrouds are destroyed and death is swallowed up forever.