A sermon offered on All Saints Day, Sunday, November 1, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.
(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; and John 11:32-44. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)
For some reason, although I know that the Lectionary is a three-year cycle and thus that the lessons are not the same every year, when All Saints Sunday rolls around I’m surprised when the lessons do not include John the Divine’s vision of the multitude in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven (Rev 7:9-17) or Jesus preaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). Those were the lessons, the only lessons provided for this feast in prior editions of the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve preached the “new” Lectionary for thirty years, so you’d think I’d be used to it . . . but each time the raising of Lazarus pops up as the Gospel lesson I think, “Well, what’s up with that?” You may have had that thought this morning, as well: “It’s All Saints Day. We’re doing a baptism. What’s up with this Lazarus story?”
So I want to delve briefly into a couple details of the story.
First of all, let’s remember who this family is, Mary, Martha, and their deceased brother Lazarus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. These people seem to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. Earlier in this story, Lazarus is described to Jesus as “he whom you love” when Jesus is told of his illness. (John 11:3) These people are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.
Secondly, we’re told that the family is accompanied by “Jews.” That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.
Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (vv. 21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”
In the portion we read, we’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The word rendered “disturbed” – embrimesato – very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” – etaradzen – means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotionalism. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.
Angry and physically ill, Jesus wept. Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest we consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.
In a few moments, we will baptize two young men, Aiden and his brother Carson, and together with them we will affirm the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”
I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.
Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine our Lord experience something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.
We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As the Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 1979, p 306). As he called Lazarus from to rise from his funeral wrappings, through Holy Baptism Jesus calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with “those who have clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)
The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.
When John the Divine witnessed his Revelation, he saw that multitude of human beings in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven. He was told who they were – those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) – and why they were there, and nowhere in that description did the Elder who spoke to him say anything about the saints having agreed to a doctrine. When the voice spoke from the throne and said, “See, the home of God is among [human beings]. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3), not a word was said about assent to a creedal formula. Nonetheless, when we baptized someone, we ask them (and ourselves) some questions that sound a lot like doctrine; we ask questions which are taken directly from the creedal formulation we call “the Apostle’s Creed,” to which I referred earlier.
Recently, a commission of Anglican theologians representing you and me and all Anglicans everywhere agreed with a similar group of theologians representing Orthodox Christians that three words could be removed from the Nicene Creed, three words that theologians and liturgists call “the filioque clause.” Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and the Son.” It refers to that place in the Creed where we say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those three words (or that single Latin word) were added to the Nicene Creed by the Third Council of Toledo in 589 CE, a council in which no Eastern bishops took part; that additional phrase, which the East rejected, was one of the causes of the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. The theologians’ agreement is part of the on-going work to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity.
As you might imagine, that agreement has excited no little amount of discussion amongst us clergy. In one of our conversations, another priest said this about the Creed which I think applies equally these doctrinal statements we require of baptismal candidates:
For the past couple of years, I have introduced the creed with, “Using the words of the Nicene Creed, we proclaim our faith and trust in the God . . . .” Last Sunday . . . I asked people to substitute “We trust in” for each “We believe in” as we said the Creed, since the original Greek word . . . could have been translated either way. I wonder if the Body of Christ would be far less chopped up, if we had used “trust”. There might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here”, and another denomination is created. Also, there is that “in” . . . we are doing a whole lot more than expressing belief. We are expressing a deep community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe you don’t believe exactly the same things I believe, but we both believe/trust in the same God.
In that same discussion, another of our colleagues objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.'” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.
This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with them, and through them with the full community of human beings whom God loves, with whom God will live, from whose eyes God will wipe every tear, and for whom God will spread that glorious and eternal feast described by the Prophet Isaiah.
That relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us. It is into that promise that we baptize Carson and Aiden today. And that is what’s up with the Lazarus story!
In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these boys grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.
May God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.