Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God’s Love is Stronger than Death” (John 11:32-44)
November 4, 2018
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I love All Saints Sunday, when every year we are reminded that as Christians we are not alone, but part of the ever growing church, the ever growing communion of saints, both saints on earth and saints in heaven.
We remember saints like Peter and John, who were eye witnesses of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, who saw Jesus walk on water and heal lepers and raise the dead, who heard Jesus preach the Sermon on the Mount and tell parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, who touched the hands of the One whose hands would be outstretched on the cross on Good Friday to touch the world with the unconditional love of God. Peter and John were eyewitnesses; they did not make any of it up.
We remember saints like Paul, who encountered the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus and whose whole life changed direction in that moment, as he turned from a violent persecutor of Christians to a powerful preacher of the gospel, as well as the writer of thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
We remember saints from our rich church history like Saint Augustine, the bishop and theologian from the late fourth and early fifth centuries who wrote this to God in his classic autobiographical book Confessions, “You stir us to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Oxford World’s Classics edition 3)—and Saint Francis, the early thirteenth century preacher who abandoned the vast wealth of his family and embraced a life of poverty and unconditional love for all of God’s creation, who wrote one of the most beautiful prayers ever written, “Lord, make us instruments of your peace”—a prayer that particularly resonates in this age of angry political polarization and one tragic mass shooting after another.
We remember saints in the Church of England who sacrificed their lives for Christ—like the sixteenth century Oxford Martyrs, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer—all bishops, all burned at the stake.
We remember saints like one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., the anointed champion of Civil Rights who shared his dream with this nation about being judged not by the color of your skin but by the content of your character, who was assassinated when he was only thirty-nine years old. A few summers ago I spent a couple days touring Civil Rights sites in Alabama, including Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, where Dr. King served as a pastor in the 1950’s. When I arrived there a very kind lady who was locking up the church graciously unlocked it and showed me the sanctuary, and even let me stand for a moment in the same pulpit in which Dr. King preached, a very moving moment for me.
And every year as All Saints Sunday rolls around I remember ordinary saints who personally impacted my life with the extraordinary love of God, saints who may not have written the scriptures or been world-class theologians or martyrs or Nobel Peace Prize winners, but whose lives left an indelible print on my life. I’ll briefly share about two of these saints.
The first is a teenager named Devin Harvin, who was active in a youth ministry I led many years ago in South Carolina. Devin was one of the more popular kids in the youth group. He was bright, funny, athletic, and treated everyone with kindness and respect. You wanted to be in Devin’s club, until you realized that with him there was no club at all; he was friends with everyone.
Unfortunately Devin was stricken with cancer, which appeared to be in remission but later returned with a vengeance and slowly sapped his life when he was only seventeen. During his last few months I visited him frequently, taking him the peanut butter cookies my wife Steph had baked for him. We drank milkshakes, watched ridiculous Adam Sandler movies, talked about life, and yes, talked about death.
Devin died late on a stormy night in May 2001. His mom called about 1:45AM, and I drove to their home. How do you describe what it was like to walk into a room in the middle of the night, thunder rolling outside, and a grieving mom next to her deceased son inside? And how do you describe what it was like to have the mom smile at you and say, “It’s okay. We felt God’s love and presence with us all night, and I still feel it”? And yes, I felt God’s presence too, and realized I was standing on holy ground.
After Devin’s funeral his mom came to my office and handed me a note, “Devin asked me to give this to you after the funeral.” It was a thank-you note, written in the wobbly cursive handwriting of a seventeen year old who could no longer firmly hold a pen, a beautiful, grace-filled, joyful thank-you note. While he was dying, Devin was writing thank-you notes. I’ve never forgotten that. Devin is one of many saints who have impacted my life with the love of God.
The second saint is Merry Thomasson, who was (and is) one of my favorite parishioners at Christ Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the wedding coordinator there, and she and I tag-teamed many weddings. It is fitting that she is their wedding coordinator because Merry showed what it looks like to love your spouse until, as it says in The Book of Common Prayer, “we are parted by death.”
When they were in their early fifties, Merry’s husband Frank was diagnosed with Pick’s Disease, a degenerative disease that causes irreversible dementia and is ultimately terminal. During the last several years of Frank’s life Merry was always there, caring for him night and day, always referring to him as “my boyfriend.” A few days before Frank’s death, Merry asked me to come and pray with her and Frank and their three grown sons. As we stood around Frank’s bed their sons took turns telling him what a great dad he had been for them. Then Merry smiled and said, “Frank, you made all my dreams come true. Thanks for being such a wonderful husband. I love you so much.” And we all cried and we all prayed the Lord’s Prayer. And yes, we could all feel God’s presence and I found myself once again standing on holy ground.
Devin and Merry are only two among all the saints who have impacted my life with the love of God. There are of course many others, including many of you.
You may wonder why I would share two examples involving love and death. It’s not because I am trying to make you tear up, but because love and death ultimately are what our lives come down to. The great late nineteenth century writer George MacDonald, who heavily influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, put it this way, “Love and death are the two marvels, yea, the two terrors—but the one goal of our history” (in What’s Mine’s, Mine, Volume 2, 363). You know this. Think about it—the most moving films, books, songs, poems often include love and death—and love and death are both present in today’s gospel passage.
John structured his account of the gospel around seven different “signs” or miracles of Jesus, each of which demonstrated in a unique way Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, and his unconditional love. The seventh and climactic of these signs is Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus was already on his way to Bethany and Lazarus’ sister Mary met him on the road and articulated what many people feel in the presence of death, the absence of love: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus arrives at Lazarus’ grave, he began to weep, and some of them observing said, “See how he loved him!” while others asked, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Jesus then arrives at the tomb and gives a command no one expected: “Take away the stone.” After Lazarus’ other sister Martha objects because of the certain stench, Jesus proclaims, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So as John tells us, “they took away the stone” (John 11:32-41). Here’s what happened next:
Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:41-44).
There is love and death in this episode—the love of Jesus for dead Lazarus. Death does not have the last word; the last word belongs to love. Love wins. A few verses prior to today’s passage Jesus had reassured Lazarus’ sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25). When I was in the presence of Devin who was dead, and Frank who was dying, even though you would think the absence of God’s love would have been most acute, it was not; instead, the presence of God’s love was most tangible. God’s love is stronger than death.
Love and death came together ultimately on Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross out of love for all the saints, including Peter and John and Paul, Saint Augustine and Saint Francis, the Oxford Martyrs and Martin Luther King, Jr., Devin Harvin and Frank and Merry Thomasson…and you.
Scripture tells us that nothing, not even death, especially not death, “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). And the same John who wrote today’s account of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the grave was present at the foot of the cross and watched love and death meet—and the same John who, and on Easter evening saw the Risen Jesus, whose love is stronger than death. As many years later as an old man, this same John wrote, “We know love by this, that (Jesus) laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16). Love and death meet in Jesus Christ, and God’s love is stronger than death.
God’s love not only stronger than death, but also assures us everlasting life in heaven. In today’s beautiful passage from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, we get a glimpse of the eternal victory of God’s love over death, as the same John who wrote today’s gospel passage wrote:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:1, 3-5).
On this All Saints Sunday each of you could tell stories about ordinary saints of God who impacted your life with the extraordinary love of God.
And those saints who have died, who come to your mind at this very moment, remain part of the communion of saints, saints whom you will one day see in heaven, where God will personally wipe away the tears from your eyes and make all things new.
The good news of the gospel is that God’s love is stronger than death.