Sermon: I believe in the resurrection of the dead
Preached on 10th April 2011
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Some of you might have heard Giles Fraser’s ‘Thought for the Day’ on the radio on Ash Wednesday. I didn’t but was interested to read about it a couple of weeks later in his column in Church Times. It is easiest simply to quote what he wrote:
“Does it really have to be Easter every day of the Christian year? It was Ash Wednesday, the day we get marked with ash and reminded of our mortality. I did something similar as a Thought for the Day on the Today programme on Radio 4, insisting that Christians really do believe in death — and that death means death.
Howls of condemnation poured in from outraged Christians and non-Christians, all aghast at this trendy new-fangled theology, and leaping to the conclusion that I was denying the resurrection. In fact, what I said wasn’t at all new or trendy. The immortality of the soul is no real part of the authentic biblical witness. Christians believe in the resurrection — which is a wholly different sort of thing, where death is defeated rather than denied.
This is not the time for an extensive discussion of the resurrection; for that comes at Easter. Suffice to say that Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead. This means that we first believe in death — not going to sleep; not some disembodied soul floating up in the metaphysical ether. We die.
Death is the raw material of the resurrection”
So, at the risk of being misunderstood, I being this sermon by saying that I believe in death. I’ve been bereaved myself and have wept beside coffins of those I have loved. I have also tried to contain my emotions while taking difficult funerals, and I’ve sat with dying people and bereaved relatives beside the body of one they have loved. I have also seen people die peacefully, bringing life to completion in a way that can be described as being ‘full of years’. In the light of that experience, I believe it is possible to have what we call a good death, but that does not negate its terribleness nor the loneliness of those who mourn. I will never forget the screams of a young girl who was taken by her family into a room in a hospital to see her father who had just died from a horrible cancer – for those of us who had seen his suffering in the days before his death, death came as a relief but, for her in her loss, a scream of anguish was the only appropriate response.
As Giles Fraser knew, Ash Wednesday, indeed all of Lent, is a time to be reminded of our mortality. So here’s a practical suggestion arising from this reminder of our mortality: If you do not have a will, can I suggest that a good Lenten discipline would be to write one now: we never know who will missing in this church next Sunday because of a sudden accident and if you do not have a will your family will be left with additional responsibilities at a time of grief, and your estate may not go to the beneficiaries you intend. I hope that everyone has planned some giving to charity into their will, as a thanksgiving for the good gifts we have received in life. You might also use Lent as a time to plan your funeral service – which hymns and readings sum up your life?
I’ve said that I believe in death. So did Jesus. In today’s reading it appears he went to extraordinary lengths to make this clear. He began by not responding when he got a message that his friend Lazarus was ill. Two days later, perhaps after receiving a message that Lazarus had died, he suddenly told his disciples that they were going to walk into the danger zone of Judea where not so long ago people attempted to stone him and Thomas, unfairly known as doubting Thomas, shows profoundly loyal friendship by saying ‘Let’s go with him so that we can die with him.’
Then Jesus spelled it out to the disciples, ‘Lazarus is dead’. And he added very starkly, ‘And for your sake I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you may believe.’ Jesus wanted everyone to be absolutely sure that Lazarus was dead, and indeed by the time they got there he had been buried for four days. Both Martha and Mary said to Jesus, ‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died’ and Martha was in no doubt that his body would stink. Jesus, Martha and Mary believed in death because Lazarus was dead and buried. Whatever Jesus was going to do now, it was not going to be the resuscitation of a person who was anything other than dead.
Jesus’ response to Martha and Mary was different. He had a theological conversation with Martha about rising from the dead which led to her statement that Lazarus would rise in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus responded with one of the seven ‘I am’ statements in John’s gospel. These embody the Hebrew name for God which is essentially ‘I am’ – think of Moses at the burning bush when God identifies himself as ‘I am who I am’. By using this name Jesus was identifying himself with God which enraged the Jewish authorities and led them to seek to silence him. So, to bereaved Martha, he said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live’ and in the midst of her grief she responded with an affirmation of the faith she had come to through previous encounters with Jesus , ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ So she had a profound theological discussion with Jesus, but it still left her brother dead.
Next Jesus met Mary who said the same thing to Jesus, ‘Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died’ but his response was totally different. Instead of a theological discussion, Jesus wept with her, leading the people gathered round to comment on how much Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus knew the pain of death and loss. God has made us for friendship and love – Genesis tells us that God recognised that it was not good for the man to be alone, he needed someone to love and relate to – and when that friendship is severed by death or separation grief is a natural response. It is not a sign of lack of trust in God to grieve when someone dies, and our bereavement does not cut us off from God but can be a situation where we meet God most profoundly because Jesus, the Son of God, knew the intensity of human loss. Nothing we experience is alien to God, even in our loneliest and most forlorn places, we are not beyond God’s reach of compassion.
So, I believe in death. Jesus believed in death.
But, I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and this is what marks out Christianity from all other religions and philosophies.
So Jesus made this rather dramatic scene at the tomb, calling first for the stone to be rolled from the door of the tomb and then for Lazarus to come in an unforgettable moment when a figure bound from head to toe in strips of cloth like bandages hopped out of the tomb, not being able to see where he was going. I imagine there was a stunned silence and everyone was paralysed into inaction until Jesus told them to unbind him and let him go. Lazarus was raised from the dead, he was not merely revived.
There can be no resurrection of the dead without death being real. It is not part of the Christian gospel to diminish death and say – as we sometimes hear in sub-Christian poems at funerals, ‘death is nothing at all’ or ‘I’ve not really left you, I’ve just gone out of sight.’ They may be attempts to offer comfort by softening the blow, but the fact is that death is death, we cannot deny it. If we do, we deny the power of the resurrection. Only Christianity proclaims the resurrection of the dead. The story we heard today anticipates that truth although it is not definitive of Christian belief because Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again. Not long after this episode, Jesus himself died a cruel death and was buried for three days. Then God raised Jesus Christ from death never to die again. Theologically, it is crucial that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, because when he was raised from death and ascended to God’s right hand in glory he took his humanity with him into heaven, opening the way for all humanity. When we are baptised we are baptised into Christ, and when we die we are raised in Christ. An analogy that might help is to think of a baby in its mother’s womb – where she goes, it goes. If we are in Christ, where he goes, we go. That is where our resurrection hope lies.
What can we take with us from this story, which for the author of this gospel is so crucial to the events that will follow, into our observance of Passiontide? Today is Passion Sunday when we narrow our gaze from the intentional discipleship of Lent to focus yet more intently on the passion of our Lord. Next week we will hear and rehear the stories of what happened during those last terrible days. I encourage you to engage with them, come to the Cathedral for the services, read the passion narratives yourself at home, pray the hymns of the passion. Do not rush the next two weeks and dash from the ‘All glory, laud and honour’ of Palm Sunday to the resurrection joy of Easter Day bypassing the fact that Jesus died. Instead, take Good Friday seriously and give yourself time to be affected by it, as by any other bereavements you face at the moment. Without death there is no resurrection. Face your mortality but do not fear it: death is real but in Christ death is conquered, not sidelined. Our hope as Christians lies in the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. Paul dares to ask, in mocking triumph, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ before going on to celebrate, ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
Jesus believed in death. I believe in death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I believe in the resurrection of the dead. Thanks be to God.
Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45, Psalm 130