Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“I Am the Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:21-27)
April 2, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was in sixth grade I took some money I had made mowing our next door neighbor’s lawn and bought a pet lizard.  I named him Fred—I don’t remember why.  He lived in a fish tank on my dresser, complete with rocks and sticks and water.  Each day after school I fed Fred a cricket, and every night I would talk to him about whatever was going in my middle school life.

This lasted for over a year and a half, until the spring of seventh grade, when one day I went to feed Fred his cricket after school and found that he was dead.  I made a cross out of Popsicle sticks, placed Fred in a bracelet box from my mom, and buried him beneath the crabapple tree in our front yard.  His remains are still there.  It was my first encounter with death.

What was your first encounter with death?  Like me, was it with a pet?  Was it with a parent or grandparent or sibling or friend?  Each of you has your own story.  You remember who it was, what the weather was like, how you felt.

Like many of you, I have had many encounters with death as grandparents and other relatives have died, as friends and parishioners have died.  I have had the privilege of making many deathbed visits and presiding over many funerals.  These funerals have ranged from large elaborate funerals with hundreds in attendance and military honors to intimate graveside funerals with just a handful present—from upbeat memorials replete with gratitude and happy memories of the deceased to tense affairs replete with family dysfunction and insufficiently repressed anger.

As you know, the reality is that each one of us will die—no exceptions.  You cannot outsmart or outwit death.  You cannot overcome it with good looks or lots of money or plastic surgery or a low-carb diet or even a “can do attitude.”  Death still happens when it happens.  Sometimes we see it coming, as with a terminal illness; other times we do not, as with an accident or sudden unexpected tragedy.  Each of you has probably encountered both.

And although we talk about living on in the hearts of others, or living on through our legacy or our children or our achievements, many of us may still relate to Woody Allen, the legendary film writer and producer, who quipped, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.  I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

I am going to juxtapose two illustrations, both of which involve the death of a husband after forty years of marriage.  First…in her song “Long Ride Home” Grammy award winning singer-songwriter Patti Griffin sings from the perspective of a widow riding home from the funeral of her husband of forty years:

Long black limousine
Shiniest car I’ve ever seen
The back seat is nice and clean
She rides as quiet as a dream
Someone dug a hole six long feet in the ground
I said goodbye to you and I threw my roses down
Ain’t nothing left at all in the end of being proud
With me riding in this car and you flying through the clouds…

One day I took your tiny hand
Put your finger in the wedding band
Your daddy gave a piece of land
We laid ourselves the best of plans
Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead?
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

I’ve had some time to think about you
And watch the sun sink like a stone
I’ve had some time to think about you
On the long ride home
(from her 2002 album 1,000 Kisses)

Second illustration…in her poignant 2005 memoir entitled The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion recounts the year after her husband died while their daughter was in an ICU.  On Tuesday, December 30, 2003 Joan’s husband of forty years, John Gregory Dunne, had a massive heart attack while she was finishing preparing dinner in their New York apartment.  She opens the book this way: “Life changes fast.  Life changes in an instant.  You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends…Life changes in the instant.  The ordinary instant” (3).

Later in her book she accurately describes the grief we experience after the death of a loved one:

Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.  It was not what I felt when my parents died: my father died a few days short of his eighty-fifth birthday and my mother a month short of her ninety-first, both after some years of increasing debility.  What I felt in each instance was sadness, loneliness (the loneliness of the abandoned child of whatever age), regret for time gone by, for things unsaid, for my inability to share or even in any real way to acknowledge, at the end, the pain and helplessness and physical humiliation they each endured….Grief has no distance.  Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life (26-27).

Perhaps some of you relate to that.  I can.  We need hope; we need the gospel.

Although Easter is still a couple weeks away, the gospel lesson for today is all about resurrection.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke all structure their accounts of the gospel from a relatively chronological standpoint, John’s account is more episodic, and structured around seven different “signs” or miracles Jesus did, each of which revealed his identity as the Son of God and the Savior of the World.  The seventh and climactic of these signs is Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead.

Moreover, several of these signs in John’s account of the gospel are linked to one of Jesus’ “I am” sayings.  After the miracle of the feeding of the multitude Jesus identified himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:35), just prior to healing a man blind from birth Jesus identified himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and in today’s gospel lesson, before raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus identified himself as “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

As Jesus is making his way to Bethany, Lazarus’ sister Martha meets Jesus on the road.  Lazarus had already died.  Perhaps Martha, as Patty Griffin sang, had wished she’d said “said some kinder words instead” to Lazarus, or perhaps, as Joan Didion described, Martha had begun experiencing the “sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.”  Either way, Martha meets Jesus on the road, and there they have the following brief conversation:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Jesus said to her, “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.  Do you believe this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:21-27).

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells Martha.  These are not only Jesus’ words to Martha; they are Jesus’ words to you.  In fact, in the service for “The Burial of the Dead” in The Book of Common Prayer the opening anthem is directly from today’s gospel passage:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die forever (491).

“I am the resurrection and the life”—this is high octane hope, high octane gospel.

Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead was the seventh and climactic sign that Jesus was exactly who he said he was, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the Resurrection and the Life.  Shortly afterwards, Jesus departed Bethany for Jerusalem, where he would die on the cross and be buried…without a funeral.

But on the third day the One who raised Lazarus from the grave was himself raised from the grave by his Heavenly Father and the power of the Holy Spirit.  And in today’s lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans scripture assures us that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

Not only that, listen to what Jesus said in an often overlooked passage earlier in John’s account of the gospel:

Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live…Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out (John 5:25, 28-29).

That is exactly what happened with Lazarus.  Jesus called him by name, “Lazarus, come out!”—and as John put it, “the dead man came out.”  And this means that one day this same Jesus will call your loved ones by name to come out of their graves—and yes, one day this same Jesus will call you by name to come out of your grave.

Joan Didion is right, “Grief has no distance”—but there is something else that also has no distance…the love of God, a love that is stronger than death—very good news for the “long ride home.”

Yes, “Life changes fast…Life changes in an instant”—but not too fast for the unchanging love of God in Jesus Christ, who remains the Resurrection and the Life.