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All Saints Sunday, 5 November 2006
A Sermon on John 11.32-44 by David Zersen
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When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So, they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always heard me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”


This is one of those lovely Sundays that only in recent years has become a part of the Protestant tradition, although it has been celebrated within the Roman Catholic tradition for centuries. As Protestants have become more comfortable with the concept of saints, especially recognizing that all those redeemed and sanctified by Christ are saints, the celebration has taken on significant value. We do not so much seek to appreciate moral and miraculous lives (heralded by canonization) but to remember that those who have gone before us in the faith are united with those who share the faith in the here and now in one holy communion. There is something quite mystical and powerful in this celebration as we strive to understand the linkage between saints in the church triumphant and in the church militant.

Part of the mystery is that the Bible tells us very little about this linkage and what it is like for those who have gone before us in the faith. We humans would typically like a few more details, and failing to find them in the Scriptures, we all too often become fascinated by descriptions found in poetry, cinema and song. We humans are also so comfortable with death, that we are no sure what to do with a message about life. Today’s text will help us to reflect on these things and be reassured by its answers.

I. When Less is More

Having spent the last few months in Africa, I came to be interested in the way in which African traditional religion has dealt with details about life after death. Typically, there is the belief that when you die, you continue to live in the memory of those who remain in life on earth. This is the status of the living-dead and it calls for the ancestors to continue to remember those who have gone on in special ceremonies as well as in private devotion. When the point in time is reached, however, when there is no one around to remember you, then the living dead pass into a new stage in which they are fully and finally dead. In such traditional religion, there is no concept of eternal life at all. You live on only as long as there are living people to remember you.

Interestingly, a book came out this year that develops this theme in a very creative and popular way. The Recent History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon Books, 2006) is a type of novel which follows the continuity and discontinuity of certain people, presenting the reader with interesting challenges, should this be the concept of life and death a reader might consider. People who die are not in heaven, but in a kind of purgatory in which they are preparing for the next stage. There is hopeful optimism in this stage, sometimes marked by the religious faith people brought with them, sometimes marked by a faith acquired in this stage. People have jobs, go to coffee shops and the cinema, play pool with old friends and live in various housing arrangements. They do not age, however. Sometimes when pandemics break out on earth, vast numbers of people enter this stage. Even more significantly, because the pandemics also eradicate those who remember the ones who have gone ahead, the people in the stage of the living-dead also disappear because no one any longer knows who they are. It’s a fascinating book, and it provides all the details for which we so eagerly long. However, they are provided at a cost.

What we do know from the minimal details found in Scriptures is that life is a greater reality than death, that what eye has not seen and ear has not heard, God has prepared for those who love him, and that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Between those words and beyond them there is the assurance that we, who have been buried with Christ through baptism into death, will also rise to newness of life. Details may be fascinating to us, but they often have little to do with ultimate truth. Truth is sometimes better communicated in brevity, in symbol, and in mystery.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man dies and is restored to life, sisters complain and weep, and the crowd comments, weeps and complains. Front and center, however, is Jesus. From a minimalist perspective, he is all there is. He is the focal point of the story, not Lazarus. He determines what will happen. He says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” So it is with our own understanding of life and death. People weep and commiserate. They wonder what happens next, to them and to the one who has gone ahead. But Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, the way, the truth and the life, is the focal point at the moment of death. He says, “Peace be with you.” He alone will determine what happens next. Jesus is the assurance that less is more. When we have Jesus, we are prepared for anything that follows.

II. When a New Reality Overcomes an Old One

For many people, this is one of the more problematic texts in the New Testament. It is a happy thing for them that it is found only in John, that it doesn’t have to be read too often. After all, people just don’t get up out of tombs and come back into the world of the living. This is a story that challenges too many human and cultural norms.

Why is this? It is our human experience that people die. We even know that we ourselves will die. The reality of death also has theological dimensions for us. Death results from sin, and sin is original and inevitable. Therefore, we have no choice but to die. We can argue this with good reason. However, this very story seeks to challenge the foundations of our human, cultural and theological biases. This story goes beyond the commentary about the love and forgiveness of God. This story throws a challenge into the very heart of our sinful understanding. As Dylan Thomas put it in his great poem, this story says “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”

Awkward and embarrassing as this story may be to some, it must stand as one of the most formidable stories of the New Testament. In it we are challenged to believe that the human and cultural realities which make death self-understood need not stand. Those things we think to be so self-understood are, in God’s own understanding, capable of being rethought, re-framed, reconstructed. A whole new basis for life is presented here. A chink in the curtain of our self-inflicted reality is cracked.

Jesus stands before the people in our text and before us and exudes a positive confidence in God’s power over life. While we may think we know when it is too late because death has come, Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Today is a day when we remember those who have gone before us in the faith. Their titles are not important, although in the church’s history some have come to be called saints. More significantly, we know that all those who believed in Jesus have seen the glory of God and now share a joy in which details are not important, neither to us nor to them.

We thank God for his grace in the lives of these saints, and for the ways in which they have touched and influenced us. We may name them by name in our prayers today. We may be at different places in our grieving for those who have only recently been lost to us, but we know that death has no power over them nor does it have power over us.

Some years ago I had the privilege to go to Bethany and climb down the cut-stone steps to the place regarded as Lazarus’ tomb. On a scale of 1-10, it may not rank high in terms of its being the certain place from which Lazarus once emerged. But as I climbed up out of the narrow passage, I reflected on the fact that no such place would ever hold me because I belong to the new reality—the reality in which death has no dominion. Along with all of you, and all who have gone before us in the faith, we share a oneness, which we celebrate today. We share it in our thoughts and prayers. We share it at the communion table. We share it through our trust in Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. We share it in the belief that neither death nor life shall separate us from the love of God. We share it because we have been emboldened to be more comfortable with life than with death! We share it because we are saints together. We share it because this is our day, when those who fight the good fight and those who hear the distant trumpet sound are one. On this day, all saints are one.

Prof. Dr. Dr. David Zersen, President Emeritus
Concordia University at Austin, Texas