Saturday, October 31, 2015
November 1, All Dead and All Saints
Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
It’s a mystery to me why the resurrection of Lazarus is not reported in the other gospels, but only in John. It’s the quintessential miracle, and it also sets in motion the arrest and death of Jesus. So, did John make it up? Is it fiction?
I mean it was impossible, from what we know of biology, and from our experience of how the world works. Of course everyone in the story presupposed that too, and the point is that Jesus is that one guy who was able to defy the impossibility and the presuppositions of our experience and call how the world works into question.
We have here the power of life versus the power of death. Death always wins in the end, right? You can hold off death, but only for so long. If only Jesus had gotten there in time. But once death happens, it’s too late, it’s irreversible, there is no coming back. Everybody knows that. The people in the story knew that. Medicare knows that. Hospitals count on it. Life insurance companies literally count on it.
The Bible knows it too. Death is normal in the Bible. Once a Biblical character dies, she’s out of the story. Only twice in the Old Testament, and four times in the New Testament, is anyone dead raised back to life, and none of these are important characters whom we read about again, and they all must die again. Not counting Jesus. For everyone else, death always finally wins.
Most of the universe is dead. I mean that most of the known universe has physics and chemistry but not biology, and is inhospitable to life. There may be other planets where life occurs, but even then the amount of life within this universe is infinitesimally small. And it would seem that for life to survive on such planets, it can’t be just present, but must take the planet over, like on our own. It must occupy the planet and overpower those non-biological forces which prevail on inhospitable planets. Life has changed our planet to suit it, creating soil out of rock, and creating an atmosphere with its weather. Life has layered this planet with an amazing biodiversity of species and a synchronicity of ecosystems and sounds and smells and colors and wonders like spider webs and hummingbirds.
And now suddenly, in this last century, that biodiversity is catastrophically dying off, and in this most recent decade we can feel the weather losing its subtle synchronicity and for the first time we know of, we can feel the power of death increasing on this planet Earth, our island home, and it’s our fault.
We didn’t mean to do it. We were just trying to make life better. We started warming the globe in the last ice age. Our whole human civilization depends on generating fires and flames and sparks and electrical currents and we always meant well but now we’ve reached diminishing returns and it’s out of hand and now death is gaining power on this planet. And we feel it and we’re afraid.
Most of the universe is dead, biologically, but metaphorically it’s stupendously alive, if you think of light as having a life of its own. This universe is full of light. It’s altogether inhospitable to us, but we love it and rejoice in it and all its wonders. And even though you know that you have to die, and that death will finally overpower your life, you find that you can believe that behind this good and terrifying universe is a good God who enters into time and space, and seeks us out in it.
Okay, so you can believe in God, but then why should you believe in eternal life? To believe in God is the classic way to reckon with the mysteries of our experience of the natural universe, but why do we add this intrinsically unnatural belief in life after death? Why should Jesus call it “the glory of God,” that a dead human body, already stinking from decomposition, should be reversed in its natural entropy and brought back to life? Against the very laws of the universe as God created it.
Is this not a sign for us? Does this not give us hope for our planet? Does not the power of the resurrection call us to Christian witness on climate change and Christian action on fossil fuels? I believe so. God has put into our hands some power of life over death, but that power is for the good only if we use it for service and healing against our immediate gain and passing comfort.
Okay, I can believe in new life again, but Lazarus will die again, so why eternal life? There is no mention of it in the Old Testament. The Old Testament is against the notion from other religions that the human soul is naturally immortal. The Lazarus story argues against the immortality of the soul, for if the immortal soul of Lazarus had now reached its goal and entered the bliss of heaven, how could it be a good thing for Jesus to command that soul to enter back into the inevitable suffering of a mortal body? In the New Testament it’s not the immortality of the soul but “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” But still, I can believe in God, but why believe in this?
The “why” is because of the character of the God you believe in. This is a God who knows your name, and knows it forever. This is a God who knows your own personal story and regards it with timeless significance. This is a God who invests in you. This is a God who, well, loves you.
This is the God who created time and space, and who is unbounded by time and space and thus who loves each and every one of you beyond the limits of time and space. This is the God who imagined the universe and called it into being, and this is the God who holds your personalilty in her mind and can call you back into being. Suzy Smith, come out. Albert Luthuli, rise up. Kim Dae-jung, come out.
We do not hold these truths to be self-evident. They are impossible. They are not inconceivable, and they help to make sense of other things, but they do leave questions we can’t answer and open us to greater mysteries. What will we be like? When the City of God comes down on earth, and God will dwell on earth, what will it be like to have a human body that will not die? How like, how different?
Isaiah says that death will be swallowed up forever. What are we going to eat? Tofu? Manna? Isaiah envisioned a feast of well-aged wines and rich food filled with marrow. Bone marrow comes from killing animals. How will this work? We are given only glimpses of the life everlasting.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery.” How should it be otherwise, for God means us to be thoroughly invested in the world as we know it now. And yet at the same time we’re invited to see this world as open-ended, and having a truth beyond us that is the best truth for us. And the best we can know about this greater life is revealed to us and displayed to us in this person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is from him and only from him that you can extrapolate the resurrection of your body and your eternal life. From what happened to him, and from what he said and what he did. Like with Lazarus, not as the final proof, for Lazarus will die again, but from Lazarus as an invitation and a pledge.
So on the basis of that pledge I will repeat the names of some of our own saints from Old First. We remember them. Some of them we remember in our stained glass windows, some we remember on our communion silver, some we remember in our street names and subway stops, and some you can remember personally:
Margrieta Van Varick,
Mary Jane Gaul,
Henry Van Order,
John Montrose Morris,
Ruth Fitch Wallace,
We remember these.
Altogether there’s about 4000 Old First saints, and only God remembers all of them. Well, more than remembers. Holds them in thought. Blesses them through death. Looks upon them in their future. Intends to love them forever, and love them so much as to share God’s own existence with them forever, whatever that existence might mean, and who knows.
But that’s what All Saints Day is about. Not about us. But about the love of God for us, and how vast and expansive and enduring and surpassing and sustaining and reviving is God’s love for you.
Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.