Sermon – April 23, 2017

God Does Not Leave Us Alone
Jeremy Funk
April 23, 2017
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
Baltimore, MD
John 20:19–31

Around this time last year my dad was diagnosed with myeloma, a smoldering but incurable blood cancer. The same disease took his father thirty years ago. When he found out, Grandpa Funk had already begun to experience pain from the cancer, and he lived just a year and a half after the diagnosis. By contrast, when Dad got the news he felt no symptoms. As shocking as last year’s determination was for our family, we’re grateful to know that the diagnosis came early and that current treatments may allow the cancer to be more or less managed, potentially for years, with targeted radiation and chemotherapy. Last month, though, Dad felt his first symptom: back pain. So he went in for radiation and is scheduled to begin chemo this summer.

I have listened to Easter sermons all my life. Growing up in evangelical churches, I heard preaching aimed to persuade me that the stories of the empty tomb are eyewitness accounts and that the details of the resurrection stories happened exactly, factually, as our gospels tell them. Yet as I’ve moved into midlife and away from self-identifying as evangelical, I’ve also heard Easter preaching downplay the uniqueness of the resurrection and link it more or less with the cycles of death and rebirth that happen as seasons change.

Last week Helen and I visited family in New York City and worshiped at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church (St. Bart’s for short). A brass ensemble, an organist, two separate adult choirs, a children’s choir, and the congregation offered joyful music in the grand and cheery space. After listening to the Scripture lessons, I settled in for another Easter sermon. We heard a good message, no doubt helpful to many, and I later came to realize that I didn’t hear the Easter news I needed that morning. And because the news I heard wasn’t the news I needed, during the sermon I felt alone in the festive community.

The preacher began by acknowledging how impossible it is for many of us to believe the Easter Day stories as history. His overarching message was an assurance that despite grim political, economic, and environmental realities today, there is a hope. Along the way he suggested that the good news of Easter is not about overcoming death but about overcoming fear, and that resurrection may not be so strange after all—because life teaches us that in time bad things can often lead to good things.

Right after the service I began to reflect on my time at St. Bart’s. I was not at all surprised that I loved singing Easter hymns in a space like a cathedral, or that I relished listening to brass and choral music there. I was surprised though at my negative reaction to the proclamation I heard, and in these past days I’ve tried to tease out the reasons for that reaction.

Of course proclaiming the Easter gospel is not easy. What specifically makes the Easter news good? Is Easter news good mostly because Jesus’s bodily resurrection was a historical event that foreshadows our own future bodily resurrections? Or is Easter news good mostly because we know from Easter that the God of hope is active in the world here and now? Is the good news of Easter about overcoming death or overcoming fear? Maybe the best news of all is that Easter news is good for so many reasons.

At St. Bart’s last week I didn’t need to hear about only a vague, nameless hope during hopeless times. I needed a reminder that the source of hope is God, who raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit, a Spirit living among us. I didn’t need to hear that Easter news is not about overcoming death. I needed a reminder that even in death, God does not leave us alone: God has given us Jesus. In Jesus, God has given us a human being like ourselves, who has died and risen, and who lives today as one with God. By raising him to life, God has made Jesus Lord over death, and our Lord Jesus will accompany us whenever we must cross the valley of death’s shadow, and whenever a loved one must make that journey and leave us behind. God never leaves us alone. That’s the Easter news I needed last week. It’s the Easter news I need today.

I don’t know about your experience, but mine has taught me that life often feels worse late at night. Anxiety is a bird that tries to nest in my brain right around bedtime. First it flits from branch to branch, chirping gloom about my health or about the state of my loved ones or about the state the world. Once I pause to recognize it’s there, the little bird finally begins to fly away.

According to today’s gospel, Jesus’s friends aren’t much different. Of course they’re processing awful events: Jesus’s death and the demise of his movement. And night brings real fear that Jesus’s enemies will come after them. So the doors are locked. But our Easter news today is that God does not leave us alone, and suddenly here is Jesus, newly alive, and forgiving old friends who had abandoned him hours before his death. Here is Jesus, breathing new life into their weary bodies and dead-tired selves. Here is Jesus, granting peace, peace, peace.

We learn from our gospel reading today that Thomas is missing when the risen Jesus meets his friends Easter evening. We don’t know why Thomas is absent this night, but we do know that from the start Thomas had thrown in his lot with Jesus. The first time John’s gospel gives him words to speak, Thomas knows that Jesus almost got killed in Judea when last there. Still Thomas follows his teacher back to the region so that Jesus can be with Mary and Martha while they mourn the death of their brother Lazarus. When the decision to return to Judea had been made, John’s gospel says, “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” If that’s not throwing in your lot, I don’t know what is.

When Thomas talks next in John’s gospel, it’s to interrupt Jesus’s last major block of teaching before he is taken away to die. Jesus is explaining to his friends his connection to God the Father and his imminent glorification and union with God through crucifixion and resurrection. Says Jesus, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas says, no we don’t: “‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’”

So if one thing is certain, it’s that Thomas is an all-or-nothing kind of guy, someone who calls things as he sees them, who takes the good with the bad, who seldom grins but always bears it. Maybe he plays hooky on Easter because to his mind the most clear-eyed way to handle these difficult days is to let go his hopes and desires about Jesus and the movement.

God never leaves us alone; this is our Easter news. But sometimes God meets us even—maybe especially—when we feel alone within our community. Alone in a festive community is how I felt listening to a sermon in New York City last week. And alone in his community is probably how Thomas felt during the week after Easter. For days he hears from his friends that they have seen the Lord as if with new eyes, heard him as if with new ears, and felt his energizing Spirit surge within them.

One commentator on the Gospel of John has said that in this gospel the state of belief or believing signals that a disciple is in relationship with Jesus. A believing disciple is a follower who is abiding with Jesus. After he hears what he missed Easter night, Thomas does not want to be left out. He wants only what his friends have experienced—an encounter with the risen Christ, a new start for a changed but still-significant relationship: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And Jesus does not leave Thomas alone. In vivid language Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds: “Put your finger here and see my hands,” he says. “Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Says Jesus, don’t stand outside the circle of relationship anymore. Enter again, stay in relationship with me.

Thomas’s response is to offer a full-throated confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!” Thomas realizes that in the risen Jesus, the human and the divine have been forever knit together. Never, whether in life or in death, does God leave us alone. God has given us Jesus, a human being who lives one with God, scars and all.

My father is living with cancer, and I live with physical disability. So I am heartened by the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to Thomas and to us. Wherever he meets us—in community, alone, or alone in community—Jesus comes to us as the Lord who knows human embodiment. We are not told whether Thomas does in fact reach out and touch his Lord’s hands and side. But we trust that Christ’s Spirit enlivens our bodies. So each week when we gather here, I have an opportunity—you have the opportunity—by the power of the Holy Spirit to receive hugs and handshakes of peace from the body of Christ, just as his first disciples did that Easter evening.

At the high point of our service, the Eucharist, we give thanks for the physicality of Jesus’s invitation to us as we share his body and blood. The bread and wine make concrete the truth that in Jesus God has not left us alone. Those around us may feel strangers to us. No one here may understand the gloom or the joy we have recently been through. Yet we take this meal together in the confidence that we are not alone. God in Christ is here, and in the power of Christ’s Spirit, we join together in God’s love, a love stronger than death. Amen.

Sermon – April 13, 2017 (Maundy Thursday)

Maundy Thursday (April 13, 2017)
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
John Kiess

Readings: Ex. 12:1-14; Ps. 116:1, 10-17; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17; 31b-35

On Maundy Thursday, we gather together to remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and tonight it is appropriate that we celebrate this supper as the early church did, in the context of a broader agape meal. For the earliest Christians, the Lord’s Supper was not a ritual separate and distinct from the act of eating and drinking for sustenance; it was a proper supper, and the bread and wine would have been consumed alongside a range of other foods. This practice reflected the fact that, according to the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper took place on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and was part of the Jewish Passover meal. From the beginning, the lines dividing sacred and profane, ritual from ordinary routine, were blurred. Paul underscores the point when, in his re-telling of the institution in 1 Corinthians, he notes that it was “after supper” that Jesus took the cup of wine, implying that he and the disciples had a full meal before they drank from it.

This practice of coming together to share a communal meal was one of the distinctive marks of the early Jesus movement. In a second century letter to the Emperor Trajan, the Roman governor Pliny the Younger reports:

they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it has been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to eat a meal together, of an ordinary harmless kind.[1]

The practice of meeting in houses and taking meals together caught the attention of the Romans because it flouted the social conventions of the time. Rich and poor, benefactors and patrons, were accustomed to eating in separate areas of the house, the elite in an area called the triclinium and the rest of the people in the atrium; but in the Christian house churches, everyone ate together.[2] Each was encouraged to bring what food and drink they could and share with others. It was one of their most powerful ways of showing how they were different from the surrounding culture.

Now the practice was not without abuse. The reason Paul recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper in tonight’s reading from 1 Corinthians is because their common meals had gone horribly wrong. “When you come together,” Paul chastises them, “it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of your goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (11:20-21). It turns out the rich hoarded their food for themselves, leaving none for the others. Paul says, “Whoever… eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Strikingly, Paul’s point is that Eucharistic piety and basic standards of fairness go together; no Communion without justice. Appropriately, his major recommendation is not merely liturgical, but ethical: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation” (11:33-34).

There are hints of abuse and betrayal in John’s telling of the Last Supper as well. As is often the case, John’s depiction of this scene is different from the Synoptic gospels. Here the Last Supper takes place before the festival of the Passover, rather than during it, and there is no mention of any institution of the Lord’s Supper. Instead, John’s Jesus institutes another practice, footwashing.

Footwashing before a meal was nothing radical or new; it was customary for slaves to wash the feet of masters and guests. Traveling everywhere by foot, guests would have gotten their sandaled feet dirty. But a leader washing the feet of his disciples: that was new, and subversive again of the social conventions of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus offers this practice as an example, saying, “you also should do as I have done to you.” Later in the chapter he will frame this as a new commandment: “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love another” (34). This commandment contains echoes of the Golden Rule from the Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus fleshes out the teaching through the prism of footwashing: not merely, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but do unto others as I have done unto you. What’s new is not the loving of one’s neighbor as oneself, but the more subversive love that manifests itself in the social convention-flouting practice of footwashing: leaders love your servants, servants love your leaders, rich love the poor, poor love the rich. The synoptic gospels focus on the love embodied in the meal; John focuses on the love that motivates the footwashing before the meal. Together, they enjoin the same thing: radical friendship beyond the divisions of the wider society. In instituting footwashing and the common meal together, Jesus is asking his disciples to make a habit of meeting under one roof, to befriend one another, to be with one another. In these ways they will demonstrate their knowledge of what He has taught them, and by this others will know they are his disciples.

Easier said than done. In between the verses about footwashing (13:3-20) and giving of the new commandment (31-35), Jesus foretells that one of his disciples will betray him. When asked who, Jesus dips a piece of bread into a dish and gives it to Judas, who is then told in cryptic words, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (13:27). If bread in the other Gospels symbolizes Christ’s body, here it is a symbol of betrayal. This is paralleled in Corinth, when Paul warns the Christians there not to eat and drink without discerning the body, lest they “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:29). It is a testament to the realism of the gospels that in the course of instituting the central practice of the Church and in giving the new command to love one another, we are reminded of our habit of doing the exact opposite, and how easily we can slide into betrayal and denial, even as we affirm our intention to follow the path to love.

Between the longing to love and temptation to turn away: that is where we find ourselves on Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday, we don’t try to avoid our contradictions or minimize our shortcomings. We do not pretend we are something other than we are. The word “maundy” derives from the Latin mandatum, which means mandate or command. On Maundy Thursday, we hear that command renewed: love one another, as I have loved you. We have come this far in Holy Week to hear it. Now, on the night when he was betrayed, Jesus invites us a step further. To love as he has loved will shortly require that we walk with him from the upper room to Gethsemane, and from Gethsemane to the Sanhedrin, and from the Sanhedrin to Golgotha, and from Golgotha to the tomb. To love as he has loved will soon require entering more deeply into the mystery of His suffering, and coming to know more intimately those places in our world where He suffers today. It will require facing our fears and hoping against hope. But for the moment, that journey requires nothing more than what God has already given us: the gift of our being together, the gift of one another’s love, and the gift of this meal. Amen.

  1. Robert Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1984), 22.
  2. Bruce W. Longenecker, The Lost Letters of Pergamum (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 112.

Sermon – Easter, April 16, 2017

Easter
April 16,2017
Preacher: Rev. John M. Hayes
Here are the questions of the morning:

Does truth defeat the lie? If it does, when?
Does love defeat cruelty and tyranny? If so, will it be soon?
Does beauty eclipse all that is ugly, mean and tawdry?
Will the day come when justice reigns in the place that violence,
exploitation and shameful thievery drain all goodness from life?
And the big one: Will the good triumph over evil?

I don’t mean once in a while. I mean ultimately! We all know the good guys sometimes win sometimes. I mean ultimately! What does your heart answer?

There’s a lot at stake when we try to answer the real question: is history going anywhere? Is it taking us somewhere?

The ancients could take comfort in the eternal round of seasons and fortunes. The comfort of knowing that spring always comes forth from winter, literally and metaphorically. That doesn’t work for us anymore. It cannot work for us.

We have no sure comfort in the round of season and myths of eternal return.

We have every good reason to dread that history is delivering us to the dumpster – to nuclear winter – to ecological disaster – or as the events of the past weeks would intimate to the catastrophic horrors that would be a World War III.

Yes the hour is late, conditions are dire, and we all know selfish fools and worse are at the helm. The prospects for humanity are bleak indeed this Easter morning? Who does not have some fear about the world their children inherit.

What can we hope for and what can we base that hope on?

Where is God? What of God’s promises? Where is God this 1,984th Easter morning in Baltimore?

The media will tell us that most young people don’t believe in God and I don’t blame them. To clarify I don’t believe in the God that they don’t believe in. Neither did Jesus from all accounts.

Probably the word of God has gotten saturated and polluted with so many centuries of human projection, it probably needs to be retired for a few hundred years. Say “God” and most people think we are talking either about an imaginary friend in the sky who resembles either Santa Claus or Genghis Khan: the cosmic bellhop or some hoary thunderer who must be appeased or else or the indifferent watchmaker who from a distance observes our mess with ironic amusement . Your choice.

God is none of those beings. Indeed God is not a being, but being itself, and truth, beauty, goodness and love. God is that a powerful mystery at the core of reality that transcends all that we are and can do, that is beyond our capacities to know and understand, that is palpably moving through history and bringing humanity to a better end than we can ever imagine or hope for, restoring humanity and bringing humanity to completion.

Jesus came to proclaim the breaking in of the kingdom of God into the ordinary business of the world: the cynical, dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right, go-along-to-get-along, winner-takes-all world. He told the truth. He turned things upside down.

Jesus broke all the boundaries and all the rules that do not serve Love. He ate with the sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes. He healed people on the Sabbath. He had no time for religious hypocrisy. Jesus repeated the message of the prophets: God stands with the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, the hungry and the abused.

Jesus spoke of God, not as some mighty potentate, some super-Ceasar in the skies, ready to strike you down if he didn’t like what you were doing, if you didn’t follow the rules, but as Abba, Father, Daddy. Jesus said that God is like the father of the prodigal son, who forgives readily and who goes out with joy to meet us when we make one step towards him.

Jesus came to proclaim the need for repentance: not with threats and fire and brimstone haranguing about punishment and hell. Jesus told us to repent – to think again about what’s real and important– to open our minds, see reality from God’s perspective, and open our hearts, and change our lives by living more deeply in God’s love and love of God’s children.

And for this Jesus was executed as a shameful criminal. The authorities sent Jesus to a terrible death and they thought they had finally gotten Jesus out of the way and consigned him to convenient oblivion, so they could get on with business as usual.

God did not let that stand. In a manner mysterious and unknown Jesus was raised from death. And his disciples, weak and cowardly and afraid as we would be, came to know Jesus in his new reality as powerfully alive, and came to know the breaking in of God’s kingdom.

We have reason to fear where history is taking us, but we need not despair, but hope. God is with us. Our faith is that the resurrection of Jesus is not quaint peculiar belief in a strange mythical event from a distant century, but hope in a new beginning for humanity.

In Revelations, John sees this new reality, “the new Jerusalem” and he hears a voice: “ Behold God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people, and God himself will always be with them as their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away… Behold, I make all things new!”

Jesus told us just how he will make everything new: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

The resurrection is not some miracle of long ago but the beginning of God’s promise to humanity. And we are called in our baptism to be resurrection people who will live into life in the thousand concrete ways the way of Jesus. We are to be resurrection people who do not despair but who will be God’s saving presence in this broken wicked world that seem bent on its own destruction. God uses human hands to do his work and to bring God’s healing. All that death represents has been conquered decisively.

Many years ago in the 5th century our father in faith St. John Chrysostom spoke these words in his cathedral on Easter morning:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Are there any who are grateful servants? Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord! Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord! First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with. It was in an uproar because it is mocked. It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed. It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated. It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead. for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Sermon – April 2, 2017

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Rev. Jane Mayrer
April 2, 2017
John 11:1-45

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable to You, O God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

A friend of mine, Tom, died in January from melanoma skin cancer. A couple of years earlier, he had noticed an unusual dark spot on his arm, which he ignored and failed to mention to anyone else, including his wife, Susan. Eventually, Susan saw the area and suggested he consult a doctor. Tom refused. She insisted, he refused. She nagged, he refused. Finally, the area looked so alarming that he could no longer ignore it, and he went to a doctor. The diagnosis was melanoma that had metastasized to other parts of his body, including his brain. Fortunately for Tom, the specialist to whom he was referred was working with an experimental treatment for melanoma that had produced good results in other patients. Tom also responded well, and the cancer seemed to be in remission. However, within a year it had returned, and he died several months later. Susan was distraught throughout the ordeal. And she was angry, although she could not express that anger. If Tom had just gone to the doctor when he first noticed the spot, he would not have died. “If only you had …” were the unspoken words that hung over both of them.

Neither Martha or Mary feels a similar restraint when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany four days after they had first asked him to come because their brother Lazarus was ill. In fact, those are the first words out of their mouths when they first greet Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says when she runs out to meet him on the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Mary says when she, too, goes out to meet Jesus after Martha tells her he has come. We do not know if the sisters’ words were spoken in anger to rebuke or reproach Jesus for his delay, or whether the two – perplexed and confused by his delay – did not know what to say, other than to state the obvious. Jesus could have cured Lazarus while he was still alive. But Jesus arrived too late, and Lazarus was dead. Their friend, who loved them and whom they loved, had let them down. And we can sympathize with Martha and Mary. For we are told that Jesus deliberately waited two days after receiving their message before setting out towards Bethany.

I think that often many of us today feel the way that Martha and Mary felt when someone we love or care about dies. We feel let down by God. If only God had shown up when we asked and intervened in some way, the person we now grieve for would not have died. A man I met while working as a hospital chaplain is an extreme example. My visit to him was routine, to let him know that spiritual care services were available while he was in hospital, and to see if there was anything I could do for him. This man, in his mid-forties, quickly let me know that he wanted nothing to do with God or anyone who represented God. And he went on to tell me why. When he was young, his mother became seriously ill. Desperate, he prayed to God, begging God to heal his mother and not let her die. But she did die. And this man had never forgiven God for not showing up and saving his mother’s life. If only God had been there, his mother would not have died.

And yet – all living things die. Plants die. Animals die. People die. On some level, conscious or not, we know that we cannot, will not, avoid death. Even Lazarus, who emerged from the tomb, went on to die, again, another day. So what we want, I suppose, when death is near, is for God to intervene and postpone death, at least for a while. For death seems so final. The loss of people we love seems so final. Death is an affront to life, an insult. Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death, and wept at the grief it caused to his family and friends – even though Jesus knew what was going to happen next, even though he knew that Lazarus was about to return to life.

You may have noticed that I said, “Death seems so final.” In our experience, death is final. People who die, stay dead. So why do I qualify what we know about the nature of death? We hear this account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead on this, the last Sunday in Lent, as we prepare to celebrate Easter and Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. Resurrection – the core of our Christian faith – challenges what we think we know about death. Resurrection insists that we view our understanding of death through a different lens. The account of Lazarus’ death and return from death helps us begin to see death with new eyes.

To start with, when Jesus first received the message that Lazarus was ill, he knew that this illness would not lead to a final death. Instead, as he told his disciples, it would reveal God’s glory and power as life-giver. And it also would reveal the life-giving glory and power of “the Son of Man,” a phrase Jesus often used to refer to himself, so that his disciples would believe that he was the Messiah, the Son of God.

The conversation Jesus has with Martha expands on what he has told the disciples. Martha expresses her faith that God will give whatever Jesus asks. Jesus then tells her that Lazarus will rise again. Like many Jews at that time, Martha believed there would be a general resurrection at the end of time. She affirms that belief by saying she knows that Lazarus will be included. Then Jesus tells her that he is not only the agent of the final resurrection, but is also the giver of new life now. He says, “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?” Martha replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” But Martha still is uncertain about what this means.

God’s power over death, and that power exercised through the Messiah, the Son of God, is finally demonstrated at Lazarus’ tomb, which is a cave with a stone blocking the entrance. Jesus orders that the stone be moved. Martha objects, since Lazarus has been dead four days and his body has begun to decay. Jesus reminds her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Jesus prays, then calls to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And Lazarus does. In the words of John’s Gospel, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” Jesus tells those standing near to “Unbind him, and let him go.” And many of those who witnessed this amazing event – but not all of them – believed in Jesus, as Jesus had said would happen.

God’s power over death was demonstrated again when Jesus was raised from the dead. That is our Easter story. And again, some who witnessed that event believed and some did not.

And that is the situation in which we find ourselves today. Jesus tells us, and shows us, that the death of our human bodies is not the end. Some of us believe this, and some of us don’t. For we are no longer in the realm of evidence based upon scientific experiment and observation. Nor are we in the realm of knowledge gained through experience. Our experience is that people who die stay dead, or at least their bodies stay dead. I suppose that the only way to find out from personal observation and experience whether life continues after our death – and what that life is like – is to die and see what happens.

So, we are left with the witness of others’ experience. We have the testimony of those who saw Lazarus dead and buried, then saw him emerge from the tomb and go on with his life. John’s Gospel tells us that sometime later, six days before Passover, Jesus had a meal with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, at which Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. When word that Jesus was back in Bethany got around, a crowd showed up, curious not only to see Jesus but to see the again-living Lazarus as well. And we have the testimony of those who saw Jesus dead and buried, then encountered him walking about, talking with them, eating with them. We can choose to believe these witnesses, or not to believe them.

We also have what Jesus himself said: “I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And we have the assurance of Paul, based upon his encounter with the risen Jesus Christ. For Paul, Jesus’ resurrection, and the continuation of life after death, is the foundational event upon which all of Christian faith and practice is based. However, explaining this reality was a challenge. In his letter to the Romans, Paul distinguished between “flesh,” which is hostile to God, and the Spirit that lives within a person who has received it. He referd to this Spirit interchangeably as “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ.” And then he affirmed, “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.”

Again, we can choose to believe this, even if we don’t understand “how it works,” or choose not to believe it. Our difficulty is that we are no longer in the realm of rationality and tangible experience, but rather in the realm of faith and mystery. Ultimately, continued life after death is a mystery – because life itself is a mystery. We can explain the biological formation and growth of the human body. But we cannot explain what we call the soul, the animating life, of that body – although there are some scientists who would reduce all of the complexity of our human life experience to the chemical operation of the brain. And just as we do not know, and cannot explain, how life as we experience it in our physical bodies begins, we do not know what happens to that life when our physical bodies die.

What we do have is the faith that God is our creator and the source of life. We have the faith that God loves us and is always with us, even – or especially – at the time of our bodily death. And we have the resurrection as assurance that our life does not end when our bodies die. Jesus said, “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.”

The question Jesus posed to Martha is the question he asks us: “Do you believe this?”

Amen.