Life before Death | Life before Death

Sermon, Sunday November 4, 2012

Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44

 When I was asked this summer where I was going on my holidays and I gave the reply “Poland, for two weeks” I got some very odd looks.  I can only assume that in the minds of many people it’s still a grim Eastern bloc country with little to delight the spirit.  Fortunately I knew better as I was sent there by the BBC Money Programme for a month in 1989 just after the Communists lost power in that extraordinary autumn that culminated in the fall of the Berlin wall. I developed a real love then for the place then.  It is a country of beautiful cities, glorious mountains in the south, great culture and not a little history.  We had a wonderful time which included catching up with some old friends.  But there was one day that we didn’t enjoy and that was the day that we visited Auschwitz-Bireknau.

Now, you may think such a visit an odd thing to do on a holiday but we reasoned that it was a simply necessity.  It would have seemed wrong somehow to enjoy the renaissance and baroque glories of Cracow and not make the 70km trip to this most infamous of places.  I am still surprised by the impact it had on me.  I say this because I have read a great deal and thought a lot about the holocaust ever since I found out about it as a teenager but nothing could prepare me for going to Auschwitz.  It wasn’t so much the scale of the place, it was more the realisation of the meticulous planning that went into mass murder – from the architects who designed the gas chambers and crematoria to the bureaucrats who organised the transport of millions of Jews from all parts of Europe.  The SS were great record keepers and they took many photographs. This means that you can stand on the exact spot on which the SS Doctor stood when “greeting” arrivals. It was with a flick of his wrist that he would indicate the old, the very young and the feeble to go left to their immediate deaths and the fit to go to the work camp. It’s a chilling experience.

On gloomy reflection, I decided that had I been one of those unfortunate Jews I would have preferred to go straight to my death than endure the death in life of a camp inmate.  To be an inmate was to be stripped of your humanity, to be reduced to a number tattooed on your forearm and forced to make the whole death machine work, doing the most disgusting jobs until, starved, beaten and frozen you too succumbed to death.

One of the things that surprised me most was that my dominant emotion that day wasn’t shock or pity but anger.  I felt furious that this glorious world has been besmirched by so heinous a crime carried out not just at Auschwitz of course but many other concentration and death camps as well.   I reflect on this often and this experience came readily to mind when I read today’s gospel reading about the raising of Lazarus.

The gospel account tells us that in reaction to news of his friends death Jesus was “greatly disturbed”.  These words do not do justice to the very unusual Greek word used in the gospel which is much more suggestive of a physical reaction – something like a flaring of the nostrils or a snorting in grief and anger at the powers of evil that destroy and spoil life.

The raising of Lazarus raises all sorts of problems and questions for us.  It is a unique story in the gospels – it appears nowhere else, which is strange given what a dramatic story it is.  While there are other stories of individuals being raised from the dead by Jesus these all happened immediately after the supposed death had occurred.  In other words, death could have been a misdiagnosis put right by Jesus and apparently this was quite possible in first century Palestine such was the haste with which the dead were buried.  But in Lazarus’ case there is little doubt about his death.  He’s been in his tomb four days and putrefaction is setting in.  Finally, when he is raised from the dead he is resuscitated.  In other words, he is not resurrected like Jesus. The gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus’ resurrection – however it was understood and experienced – was not a resuscitation but a raising of Jesus to a new mode of being.

Well, however we read it and however much factual weight we put on the story, the key to understanding it lies in the strength of Jesus’ reaction to his friend’s death and in his firm conviction that the powers of death will be vanquished, a conviction rooted in his faith in the God who is life.

Jesus was, of course, unique in referring to God as “Abba”, the Aramaic word for Daddy, such was his closeness to God.  But it is vital to remember that the God of both the Old and New Testament is transcendent as well as immanent.  Whatever closeness we may feel to God,  he is not another being like you and I are.  He is, as Paul puts it in Acts, quoting a Greek poet, the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” As such he has nothing to do with death.  As Jesus says in Mark’s gospel when arguing with those who say there is no life after death “ours is the God of the living, not the dead”.

It is thus that hope springs eternal, hope not just for the new heaven and the new earth presaged in today’s reading from Revelation but hope also that within this life even the most traumatic events we experience both individually and collectively can be recovered from.  It’s a hope that we can, like Lazarus, experience a kind of resurrection in this life.  Even at Auschwitz I saw evidence of this as crowds of young Israelis proudly draped in the Star of David flag milled around the place. It was a wonderful, life-affirming sight in the midst of such evil and horror.

The Christian doctrine of the end times – the belief that history will one day end in a mighty act of recreation in which justice and peace will rule the earth and the dead will be resurrected – is, I know, a real problem for some.  I must say that I have a lot of sympathy with them.  But to them I would say this: anything human beings can say about God and his purposes is inevitably severely limited.  As the New Testament scholar Tom Wright puts it, doctrines such as this are no more than “signposts pointing into a mist”. That said, if we are Christians we need to take the signpost seriously as something provided by Jesus himself both in his teaching and in his resurrection.

Equally though, there is a danger in going to the opposite extreme of scepticism and focusing all our hopes and efforts on the life to come. The church has surely been guilty of this down the centuries and it was its abject failure to speak out against injustice in this life that led Karl Marx to coin his famous phrase “religion is the opium of the people. “

For Jesus there was no discontinuity between life now and the life to come: they are all part of God’s eternal life and as such are extraordinarily precious.  This was the key to Jesus’ ministry – and to what we are called to do in his name.

Jesus’ ministry was all about freedom, about liberating men and women from whatever held them in chains.  The chains were often physical – think of the healings of the lame and the blind. But they could also be psychological as with the cures of the demon-possessed whom these days we would surely regard as mentally ill.  And of course there were spiritual chains too.  Just think of the rich young man we looked at a few weeks ago, someone whose attachment to money and possessions was denying him peace in this life.

Jesus’ ministry was all about the here and now, about laying claim to the fullness of life now, in this present life, albeit within the understanding that this is all part of the eternal life of the universe that is God.  Now, if we are so bold as to call ourselves Christians, we have a clear duty to make this fullness of life possible, to bring hope to those in need, to enhance life wherever we can.  Within the church we do this by offering mutual support.  The Faith at Work groups that some have just started are a great example of this – people coming together who face all the stress and pressures of working life and offering each other support, encouragement and advice.  But we also need to look outside our church community as we do with the cold weather shelter for the homeless which begins tomorrow night.  Anyone who has ever volunteered for this will tell you just how important this is to those who join us for an evening to share a meal and sleep in a warm bed.  Be in no doubt as to the hope this brings to men and women who have fallen on hard times.  And in our lives at home and work there will be countless opportunities to strengthen, encourage and support others. Understood within the context of what Jesus calls us to do this is a noble calling.

But while the focus of Christian teaching is often on what we should do for others, we also have a clear duty to ourselves. It’s a duty that can so easily be overlooked as a call to selfishness.  Both personally and professionally I see many people labouring under the burden of unsatisfactory aspects of their lives be it their jobs, their relationships or whatever, and who lack the energy, the time and often the courage to face the problem.

There is so much in life that we don’t have any control over and that’s just when we need the support of others.  But we all of us need to mindful of those occasions in which we hold the keys to being freed from what binds us, with God’s help. Because if Jesus’ message to mankind is about anything at all it’s about liberation from all that destroys, narrows and spoils life. And the extraordinary thing is that in our freedom lies the key to our leading the way of life to which the gospel calls us.  As the Psalmist of Psalm 119 puts it:

“I will run the way of your commandments/When you have set my heart at liberty”

Life is the most precious, glorious, magnificent gift and it is only in appreciating its preciousness that we can begin to do our duty to ourselves and others, otherwise life will pass us by unappreciated and unlived.