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Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
26 March 2023
When I was first ordained I presided at more funerals. There were more Lutherans in Winnipeg than in Richmond, the congregation I served at that time had an attendance of about 170 or 180 on a Sunday, and back then people were more likely to ask for a minister to preside at a funeral than they are today.
One thing that always struck me was that people who had very little involvement with the life of the church were always certain that their loved one had gone to heaven. It was not something I would ask them about, because to have asked would have seemed to cast doubt on their belief, and that would not have been my intention. Yet I did wonder.
It wasn’t that I thought that their loved one did not deserve to go to heaven, which often, I think, was the basis for people’s certainty (although we know that God does not not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities). And if it wasn’t that, I certainly would not have questioned their belief in a gracious God, if that is what their certainty was based on, for the God revealed in Jesus is indeed a gracious God.
What I found puzzling was that their certainty of heaven appeared to have little or no bearing on any sort of religious practice, for often they had no church.
Now I am aware that the church as institution has many flaws and has committed many sins. And I am aware that Christian community, like any other community can be cantankerous and unhealthy. And we all know people who at one point or another stayed away, and often people who leave do not return.
This is important to acknowledge, because my observation regarding people’s certainty about a life in heaven and the seeming disconnect with any discernible connection to a faith community and its practices is not a defense of the flaws of the church.
Maybe this is the time to mention something else. I have never felt comfortable with a language that speaks of “the lost.” Such speech is problematic because it assumes a place of judgment that is not ours. It is also problematic because throughout the scriptures we see God as the One who seeks the lost, and we know that we are the lost sheep, and in 1 Timothy we learn that it is God’s intent for everyone to be saved. (2:4) So my observation is neither about a person’s worthiness, nor about judgment.
There is one last thing. It’s about our language about heaven. The way we talk about heaven reveals that it is hard for us to imagine heaven as anything other than a place away from here, though we are promised that God will make all things new, will create a new heaven and a new earth. So when we speak of heaven as a place it implies that we would abandon this place for heaven, sort of like an escape, even though we love this place we call earth and which is our home. It is no wonder then that some Christians think that care for the planet does not matter, for in their minds, we will abandon it for heaven anyway. The speaking of heaven as a place far away can lead to a detachment of the wrong kind. A detachment from the matters of this world is something Christians have often been accused of rightly.
And that brings me back to the beginning, the place where the Gospel and my observations from my early ministry intersect.
I love the story of the raising of Lazarus. It is the last of Jesus’ signs, and it looks ahead to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. I love the honesty of Mary and Martha, and the trust they have in Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” I love what seems like Jesus’ humanity when he weeps, but maybe his humanity here is also sign of his divinity, for God has compassion on his suffering ones. I love that Thomas clearly understands where this mission will lead, when he says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (v.16)
We read this story on the Sunday before Palm Sunday and we remember that after the raising of Lazarus the plot against Jesus thickens. Religious leaders are concerned about the consequences of drawing too much attention from Rome’s occupying force. They are concerned for their institutions and they conclude, that “… it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. (11:51).
In about the middle of the story, Martha, one of the two sisters, hears that Jesus is coming and goes to meet him. As they meet, she says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus answers that her brother will rise again, she answers with what sounds like something she memorized in confirmation class, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
And that brings us back to the beginning, to going to heaven, and heaven as something distant, far away, a place we all want to go to, just not too soon.
The 18th century Anglican bishop E. D. Maurice once said that this exchange between Jesus and Martha depressed him. How sad is it, he observed, that after two thousand years, the church has gotten most Christians only to the point to which Martha got, resurrection only in the future.1
It is worth pointing out that what gives Lazarus life is not the immortality of the soul. There is no word in the Bible on the immortality of the soul. But the Bible tells us that God is from everlasting to everlasting, and that Jesus was in the beginning and that all things came into being through him. That means that the life Jesus offers is not so much heaven, distant as it seems, or that we would get to go to heaven because we too were eternal (which we are not), but Jesus offers life in him, and that life is now, and because Jesus is forever, life with him will be forever.
And so Jesus answers Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (v.25-26)
When Lazarus is raised it is not by some magic or by the immortality of the soul but simply by being in the presence of Jesus.
And so I think back to the people whose belief in heaven (because it was mostly a belief in heaven, not so much Jesus as far as I could tell) puzzled me. Bishop Maurice hit the nail on the head, because why would you want to wait until after you die to be with Jesus, if you can be with Jesus now? Why would we not want to share in his divine life now? The life Jesus promises is not in the future, it is the life in him today. Faith is about life abundant, not just a life insurance.
After Christmas, in the time after the festival of the Epiphany, our readings tell of the calling of the disciples. We hear and read those stories because we understand that Jesus calls us too, and that we too are disciples. And that is now. It is not in the distant future, it is now. As we are empowered to live as disciples, learn to live as disciples, and are forgiven when we fail, we share in the resurrection and the life because Jesus is here now, and in his presence we are raised from death.
1 Referenced by Robert Farrar Capon in The Parables of Judgment, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s 1989, pg. 65-66