Jesus came to "unbind" us, like he does Lazarus, in that Jesus came to release us into believing by faith the Christian promise that life really does come from death. Life comes from death - we remember today those who have gone before us, this All Saints Day: those exemplary and remembered by many. Life comes from death – we remember tomorrow All Souls Day, those more ordinary and remembered by perhaps just you and I.
All Saints and All Souls - we are never to be in denial that death is the only certainty of life but we are also to know that Christ has made possible our triumph over death. Jesus came to lead us into God's culture, a culture based on life.
Halloween seems to be an unhealthy, maybe harmless, preoccupation of contemporary culture. We have had that this weekend too. The world over, there are many customs and traditions which help people to explore death. Halloween was originally, of course, that hallowed eve before the remembering of the lives of those who have died. This once Christian festival has been captured sometimes in macabre and dark ways about which we shouldn't be naïve but mostly by young children intent on collecting as many sweets as they can, quite unaware of its deeper themes.
It would seem that this All Saints, All Souls, this hallowed weekend, we are to learn from Jesus how we are to do both life and death.
We have two interesting scriptures for this hallowed day – one from Revelation that “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” and the other from John's Gospel to show us that when death comes, there is a right response: the weeping that we see is Christ's at the loss of his dear friend and another right response that is Christ's – a supreme confidence that death is not the end. A Christian confidence is a confidence in eternal life. This is hope indeed.
In the days of Jesus' culture in first century Palestine, there would have been a ceremonial wailing in public displays of grief that we see today in news broadcasts as people take to the streets and wail and beat their chests mourning their loss. There are cultural expectations that accompany death – the world over - but the word for ritual wailing (klaio) is not the one used in John's Gospel for Jesus as he weeps. This word is dakryo, the only occurrence in the NT- a word for weeping quietly, for crying in silence. Jesus' compassion is genuine, between him and God and the sisters of Lazarus: Martha and Mary.
Jesus responds with authenticity in his grief but he faces death too with that ultimate confidence in God's power of life. And so models in this a right response to death. His being greatly disturbed in his Spirit is better rendered angry because death, for the Christian never has the final word. A reply comes with a another word and that word is life. In the raising of Lazarus Jesus makes visible Christian reality of life triumphing always over death – Lazarus is bodily raised and really brought back to bodily life and will of course die again but never really again because his is eternal life. Death is forever undone through the work of Christ.
It is people's ever doubting this that also causes Jesus' anger. Freedom in life comes more easily when we do not live afraid of death.
The Christian story only makes sense if we trust Jesus that life doesn't end with death for those who are in Christ. Before our reading from John today the story was already beginning to be told: Jesus tells Martha as he arrives at the scene, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.' Jesus has Lazarus be a literal object-lesson of this teaching. In our creed every Sunday we say: “We look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” We can be confident as we say these words because of this reality proclaimed today – that as we meet to concentrate on souls and saints – souls are secure in Christ for those who believe in Him and the saints whom we mourn the loss of, whether well-known or not, share company with us with the Father – Paul's letter to the Ephesians teaches us that all Christians are saints waiting for the final victory promised in Revelation that one day this very place where we stand and sit even right now will be a place that knows no death or mourning or pain for the old order of things will have passed away and Christ will have finally and completely made all things new. This is our hope that we celebrate today so that as we commit this day to those who have died we can be assured and filled with peace.
The Saints today are those of Christian history, Spencer Perceval of passionate evangelical faith and those dear to us who have died in the reality of Christ. They know a life already to which we are all headed. Those souls which we will remember this afternoon are at rest but if we believe the doctrines of the church, they will one day be raised, given resurrection bodies and the New Jerusalem will come. This is the faith of the church that we profess. So let's today revisit this faith – for it is a faith based on life after life after death (read Tom Wright if you want to know more about that) – yes there is heaven – a place of rest with Christ but there is also one day that which we profess in our creed – the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come – this is that world described in the book of Revelation – God sets the bounds for eternal life – and we read of his plans here – in this Holy Book – fifteen copies of which we will soon have in our church!
Let's be confident as Christians in the Christian Hope of eternal life. With the Saints gone before us, we will one day be reunited – yes. As Richard Baxter wrote, that Puritan divine:
Before thy throne we daily meet
As joint-petitioners to thee;
In spirit each the other greet,
And shall again each other see.
There are a few I long to meet – St Paul, my favourite apostle and Spencer Perceval, my relatives again, my friends. And so today with you I am reminded of the core truth of my faith – as Lazarus leaves the tomb, the people must unbind him, there's an unwrapping, a revealing, an uncovering to come, to reveal the life within and the people must join in.
My prayer for us all is that this weekend so hallowed, when we celebrate the lives of those gone before us and in seven days will do so again on Remembrance Sunday is that between now and then we appropriate again and with more fervency our belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Our Christian Hope for all saints, all souls, all bodies. Amen.