From the Gospel of John:
When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
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[Jesus] cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 11:33-36,43-44 – September 14, 2012)
My father-in-law died a week ago; he will be laid to rest later today. His ashes will be interred next to those of my mother-in-law, his first wife, who passed away sixteen years ago. Marge was a Christian and an active church member; Paul was not. I’m not sure he was ever baptized but, if he was, he left that behind long ago. (Yes, I know the theology of baptism – once baptized, always baptized – and that may true from the church’s point of view, perhaps even from God’s perspective, but that was not Paul’s reality.)
There’s an old saw that “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but in our few, brief conversations about religious faith I learned from Paul how wrong that is. A communications specialist with the Air Force in World War II, Paul had seen plenty of death during combat and had been present at the liberation of one of the concentration camps; a personal encounter with the inhumanity of war and oppression had knocked any notion of God completely away. Paul simply didn’t believe. Coming face to face with the issue theologians and philosophers call “theodicy” had made religious faith impossible for him.
But Paul was a good man. Except for a couple of years during high school and those war years in Europe, Paul spent his entire life, all 95+ years of it, in the same small Nevada town. Everyone knew Paul and Paul would have done (and often did do) anything for any of his neighbors. I know that there will be a crowd at the memorial event the family has planned and that many will weep. Some (my wife and I among them) will quietly say prayers for this good man who didn’t believe but who lived his life the way believers are supposed to live theirs.
Despite the insistence of some on the Pauline requirement that salvation requires that one “confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead,” (Rom. 10:9) I cannot believe that my father-in-law is not among the saved. When I read the Gospels, I do not find Jesus laying down such requirements. Rather, I find him focusing on how one lives one’s life. I find him promising eternal life to those who do good, who help their neighbors, who care for those who cannot care for themselves, who provide food to the hungry, who make this world a better place because they have lived in it. By that standard, my father-in-law Paul is one of the saints in light. I’m quite confident that on that last great day, he will hear a voice crying “Paul, come out!” and that Jesus will say to whomever is handling the administrative details of the resurrection, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
May he rest in peace and (surely to his surprise) rise in glory!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.