Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
So here’s something that might sound creepy, but it’s true: I like funerals. I don’t think that implies a morbid fascination with death (at least I like to tell myself that). Instead, I think it implies a hopeful fascination with resurrection. That’s a handy thing to have, in my line of work.
Here’s why I like funerals: Like the sacraments, they give us a rare opportunity to look beyond the stress and pain of day-to-day life and see a reality that is, at once, both much more mysterious and much more real. It’s a chance to see divine love and divine glory up close and personal – a chance to pull up the window shade and glimpse the face of God.
But once we’ve commended someone to God’s care, proclaiming that his or her life is “changed, not ended” (BCP 382), then what? As we come to the end of this Lenten sermon series on Five Questions We Ask in the Dark, I get to explore the darkest question of them all: What’s next after death? All three of our readings this morning take us there – each of them opening a window onto this deep mystery.
The first is Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. We may get distracted by the holy ghost story here because it’s one of the most vivid, stirring accounts in all of Scripture – the prophet witnessing bones rattling and coming together, sinew and flesh stretching over them, lifeless bodies rising from the dust, and the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, blowing into them and standing them up on their feet, “a vast multitude” (37:10). But while we’re reveling in the Hollywood scene, we may miss God’s point. By restoring the people from exile to their Promised Land, God’s actually making a point about … God. “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live … then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.” (37:13-14) As the old spiritual says, “Hear the word of the Lord,” you dry bones. Don’t just rise. Listen.
I think it’s also easy to miss the point in today’s Gospel – another in our Lenten hit parade of incredibly long readings from the Gospel of John. It’s easy to focus on what’s happening with Lazarus because that would seem to be the story’s point. It’s what the disciples focus on – whether the sick man is sleeping or really dead; and, by the way, whether death awaits them if they follow Jesus into hostile territory. The death of Lazarus is what the mourners focus on, too, one of them even having the bad manners to ask out loud, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37). The question isn’t lost on Jesus. Being fully human, he enters fully into the grief of the people around him, weeping and hurting right alongside them. But the point is greater than whether Lazarus lives or dies. Jesus names it at the beginning of the story: This illness “is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4). And Martha, the dead man’s sister, gets a glimpse of glory, too, even before this holy ghost story reaches its climax. Martha says to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died – but even now, God will give you whatever you ask” (11:21-22). She knows about Jesus’ other signs – water being turned into wine, five loaves becoming bread from heaven, a man born blind receiving his sight. Nothing’s too much to ask – even coming back from the dead. But Jesus manages to give Martha a glimpse beyond the miraculous. Just resuscitating a dead, stinking body isn’t enough, Jesus says. Even the general resurrection of the dead “on the last day” isn’t enough, Jesus says (11:24). “I am the resurrection and the life” right now, Jesus says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). Don’t bother trying to work the equation or diagram that sentence; you won’t find human logic there. Jesus is raising the blinds on the kingdom of heaven. And when he finally completes this holy ghost story and brings the dead man out of the tomb, trailing strips of cloth like The Mummy from Hollywood – even then Jesus points the crowd away from the miracle and toward the miracle’s source instead: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40).
So – now that we’ve been blessed to glimpse God’s glory … now what?
I think there are two answers to that question – the answer now and the answer later. When we glimpse the glory of God now, I think what comes next is a choice. There’s a reason why this story of Lazarus ends with a beginning. Lazarus rises from the dead, and the story comes to a screeching halt. We never get to hear Lazarus speak. Don’t you wish the Gospel writer had finished his assignment and done his interview with Lazarus? What a scoop that would have been. What was it like to be dead, Lazarus? What did you see? Did you go to sheol, to the Jewish realm of the dead? Did you have a conversation with Adam and Eve? Did they have any hope of getting out? Or, were you in heaven, Lazarus? And how freaky must it have been to be summoned back from wherever you were, back to the land of the living? We’ll never get to read that interview, and here’s why: Because Lazarus’ death isn’t the point of this holy ghost story. The point is Lazarus’ choice as he stands there, resuscitated, bound in strips of cloth. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands. Unbind him, and let him choose. Jesus hasn’t just resuscitated a dead body. Jesus has given everyone standing there, and everyone sitting here, the opportunity to glimpse eternity and make his or her own choice. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says (11:25). Present tense. Yes, the outcome is cast in terms of the future, but the question is for the here and now: “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:26). The real question isn’t whether Lazarus was raised from the dead. The real question is, what will Lazarus do once they unbind him and let him go?
And what will we do, because we’re given the same choice. As the apostle Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. … If the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also” (8:6,11). Where you set your mind determines what you will see. To set the mind on that divine Spirit means life and peace here in this first chapter of eternal life. But God loves us too much to force anything on us, even eternity. Love can’t be given by force. We have to stumble out of the grave, with Lazarus unbound, and take it.
And if we say yes … if we choose to join Lazarus at the table with Jesus, where John’s Gospel story picks up six days later; if we, too, choose to join Jesus at the table knowing that sacrifice and death are just a week away; if we choose the rich and rocky path of discipleship, following Jesus’ way of eternal life in the here and now – then what? What’s next after death, for death will surely come to us, the ultimate opportunity for God’s glory to be revealed? What’s next for us after death?
I’d be lying if I told you I knew. But I will tell you what I believe.
I have no idea where we go when we die, though I have a hunch it’s much more familiar than we think. After all, paradise initially looked like a garden, and I have a pretty good sense of what a garden’s like. By the same token, I believe “heaven” ultimately is life much like we presently know it, only freed and redeemed from all that corrupts and holds it back – life that’s something like what we know now in our most blessed moments, when Christ comes among us, and within us, and shows us God’s love. The book of Revelation, in its very best scene, tells of the end, when heaven and earth are reunited, the goodness and love that God intended for creation finally restored, with heaven and earth rejoined; when the “home of God [will be] among mortals … [and] God will dwell with them … and wipe every tear from their eyes” (21:3-4). I believe that’s what we have waiting for us, eventually – embodied life as embodied life was meant to be, living in relationship with God as relationship is meant to be, living among the company of saints across time and space, with absolutely never a moment of despair.
But does that happen immediately when we die? If we look at our tradition, we find the answer is, probably not. The Anglican theologian and bishop N.T. Wright describes life after death as being a matter of a couple of stages. Scripture’s images of heaven sometimes take the shape of heavenly rest and peaceful refreshment – the kind of imagery we see in that amazing angel window over here in the columbarium. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” the angel in that window says. Sounds pretty heavenly to me. But Scripture’s images of heaven also include what we attest every time we say the Apostles’ Creed – “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” – like that beautiful description of the new heaven and new earth from Revelation. So, N.T. Wright would say, we’re actually looking forward in hope not just to life after death, but to “life after life after death.”1 The first phase of that heavenly life is the window in the columbarium – as Jesus promised to the thief who repented, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But that paradise of rest is a waystation, N.T. Wright would say – the life we know while we wait for Christ to come again, restoring the unity of heaven and earth and bringing us “life after life after death.” Despite all the language we use about “going to heaven,” that final stage, Chapter Three of eternal life, is not about us going to heaven. It’s about heaven coming to us – God’s purposes fully realized in a renewed earth filled with renewed, embodied children of God – where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things [will] have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
That’s resurrection – when the God “who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). Resurrection is also the choice we get to make, along with Lazarus, as we stand at the doors of our day-to-day tombs and hear Jesus calling, “Unbind him, and let him go. Unbind her, and let her go.” Unwrap our eyes and our hands and our feet, Lord, that we might see your glory, and take your hand, and stumble our way into eternal life.
1. Wright, N.T. Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, 2008. 151.