Text: John 11.32-44.
Here’s a little conundrum…what is John’s story of the raising of Lazurus doing as our Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday? All Saints is an opportunity to think about, and celebrate, the promise of eternal life for all those who trust in God, and who receive his freely-offered gift of life. It’s a Sunday when we are reminded of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ in the heavenly places with the risen and ascended Lord. Orthodox believers would remind us that it’s an opportunity to remember that while we celebrate this Eucharist on earth, Jesus eternally celebrates it in heaven with ‘all the Saints who from their labours rest’.
So with all that heavenly imagery, why does the Lectionary invite us to consider the story of the raising of Lazurus? There are, after all, many other passages which might have been chosen, with a much more heavenly-focus. What, for example, about that passage which is read at so many funerals, from John 14, when Jesus says that he is going to make a place for us in his ‘Father’s house of many mansions’. Or what about Jesus’ promise to the repentant thief on the cross that ‘Today you will be with me in paradise?
The raising of Lazurus, by comparison to these eternal mysteries, seems somewhat of a let-down, doesn’t it? After all, Lazurus was not carried off into heaven to be with all the saints. Neither was he resurrected with a new body, as was to happen to Jesus (the first born from the dead). The story of Lazurus is a story of resuscitation. Not resurrection. Lazurus was restored to his previous life. He would still go on to die, just like all of us.
But this is no ordinary resuscitation. And it is on that fact that we are invited to dwell, for a few moments. First of all, Lazurus had been dead for many days, by the time Jesus got there. In fact, Jesus took his own sweet time to get there…not exactly hurrying…precisely to allow enough time to pass. We know this because when he commands the stone to be rolled away, Martha protests: ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days’. (Incidentally, I rather like the Authorised translation of that line: ‘Lord, he stinketh!’).
All this detail is given to us, by John, to make sure that there can be no doubt of the impossibility of what Jesus is about to do. Human beings can be resuscitated after death, as we know only too well in our modern world of defibrillators and first aid training. Quite possibly, even at the time of Jesus, a few people had been revived (after drowning, perhaps). But not after four days! What Jesus is about to accomplish is beyond any human understanding. He has the power to revive a body which ‘stinketh’ – in which the break-down of matter has already begun in earnest. John wants us to see that Jesus can interrupt this process, and even reverse it. He can bring back a man who was terminally sick, and whose body is corrupting, completely back to life!
Jesus himself gives us another clue as to what he is doing. Praying publically to his Father in heaven, he says “have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me”. Jesus wants everyone to see, witness and record his complete mastery of even the normal process of death. More than that, he wants this moment to be a moment that builds faith. He wants everyone to believe that God has sent him.
So that’s why we are asked to contemplate this story on the Festival of All Saints! All the stuff about heaven, and the glorious but incomprehensible pictures of angels and saints in eternal Eucharist is all very nice – but it’s not something we can really relate too. We know, instinctively, that all the metaphors of houses with many mansions, and heavenly Jerusalems coming out of the sky, streets paved with gold and days in paradise are just that: metaphors. They are images which help us to see, poetically, beyond the veil of our physical existence into a dimension that we are not yet equipped to understand at all.
But Jesus raising a stinking corpse from the grave. That we can see, through John’s eyes as our reliable witness. That we can understand. That gives us something solid and tangible to hold onto. As Jesus says in chapter 14 of the same gospel, he is the way, the truth and the life. Our hope of heaven is given real and tangible form through observing the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is on Jesus that we pin our own hopes to join the heavenly feast. It is through Jesus that God offers us the ‘sanctification’ by which we also can become ‘sancti-ficavit’ – which means, ‘made holy’: that is ‘made saints’. And his raising of Lazurus, surrounded by witnesses, recorded for our benefit by John, gives us hope – real and tangible hope – that in Jesus we can trust.
Liberal thinkers among us might well have a question at this point: Is John’s gospel claiming that Jesus is the only way to heaven. What about the teachings of the other great religions? Will heaven only be stocked with Christians? Or will there also be a place for the Sufi mystics and the Buddhist or Hindu devotees of peace and harmony. Who here would consign Ghandi to eternal damnation? What about the Dalai Lama?
The fact is, we cannot know. We cannot penetrate the veil of heaven ourselves. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the God of grace and mercy would consign his children to hell for having been born in the ‘wrong’ place and for faithfully following the religion of their parents.
What we can say, with the witness of John’s gospel, is that Jesus provides a sure and certain path to heaven. He has demonstrated, by the raising of Lazurus, that he has power over life, death, corruption and the grave. To trust in Jesus is to put our faith in someone who has demonstrated his credentials. He is The Reliable Way for us to join with all the Saints in life everlasting. That’s good enough for me.
I rejoice in the fellowship I enjoy with people of other faiths and beliefs. I’ll partner with anyone of good will and a heart which longs for heaven. But it is Jesus that I place my trust: for he has proved himself worthy of our faith and our hope of life which goes on for ever in the presence of God and All the Saints. Amen.