All Saints’ Day (B): Love Stronger Than Death
By: Ryan Young
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus is, I think, one of the most difficult pieces of scripture in the context of All Saints’ Sunday. It is the story of Jesus raising one of his friends from the dead, and we are supposed to preach this to a congregation, many of whom are dealing with the recent passing of loved ones who will not be returning any time soon. I will never forget the intense anger at God almost universally voiced by patients with whom I spent sleepless nights as a chaplain at Emory Hospital (to be sure, members of my current congregation experience the same, but it seems that people are more apt to voice those thoughts to a stranger). In the face of that anger, hurt, and confusion I am supposed to offer a story wherein Jesus overcame Lazarus’ death in a way that he did not for their loved ones?
Yes, because this story offers us the identity of Jesus. Just prior to this snippet, in verse 25, Jesus claims, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In raising Lazarus, that identity is fully revealed. It is God alone who holds power over life and death, and by exhibiting that power, Jesus is shown to be God incarnate.
By raising Lazarus, Jesus exhibits his power over death. By being raised himself, he will exhibit his victory over it. These two events cannot be separated in the Fourth Gospel. It is in fact Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that precipitated the final decision to kill Jesus (vv. 45-53). Jesus’ death is an expression of the measure of love that God has for creation, and his resurrection should convince us that the love of God will not be overcome. Moreover, this love leads Jesus to extend power over death to all who choose to accept it, “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.” (vv.24-26) In other words, because of Jesus’ power expressed both in raising Lazarus and in his own resurrection, Christians are able to experience death differently.
Two years ago, I broke down during an Ash Wednesday service. The youth from the church had been sitting together and had all just come forward together to receive the imposition of ashes and to kneel for prayer at the altar. As our senior pastor proclaimed with each child, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” the truth of the service weighed heavily upon me—each of these children would die. My own child, with whom my wife was pregnant at the time, would also die one day. It is a truth that I could not bear then, and if I am honest it is a thought that I still have trouble entertaining for long. I think that is a sign that the Church has failed in one of its tasks. In my experience we do not talk much about death outside of a few special days each year, indeed unless you came to a Good Friday or All Saints’ service you may wonder what, if anything, Christians have to say about dying. In avoiding the subject of death, perhaps the Church has given the perception that the power of death is indeed stronger than God’s love.
Perhaps one of the reasons we are reluctant to talk about death is that we grasp so little about resurrection. Death seems to final and resurrection so ambiguous. Is it a bodily resurrection? Spiritual? Is it an eschatological hope, or might some on odd occasion share in Lazarus’ experience? If I’m being completely honest, I can’t tell you with any certainty. I’ve recently been listening to the audiobook version of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. To be clear, I am not intelligent enough to understand a third of the book, however I have always found Dr. Tyson to be a fascinating and engaging personality—as an added bonus, his voice puts my fussy one-year-old right to sleep. Near the beginning of the book, Tyson says that, “The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you.” This simple pronouncement recalled a truth I have always known. Mystery is baked into the fabric of existence. While not a theist, Tyson’s words served as a reminder that God is under no obligation to make sense to me.
We ought to talk about the raising of Lazarus, and not only on All Saints’ Day, but as often as we can because it points to the truth revealed in Jesus’ own resurrection—that death does not have the final word on human existence, but has been overcome by the love of God. God’s love for creation is so strong, so final, that it is present even in that of which we are most frightened. In Christ we hold to the mysterious promise of resurrection. Maybe it’s a promise that we can’t fully understand or explain, but it is nevertheless a promise to which we can cling.
In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
“How could you believe that the life within the seed
that grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat.
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried.
Could ever die?”
Here come the blue skies Here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high & the tears run dry.
When everything that dies.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.
Love Love Love is stronger than death.
-from the song “Love is Stronger Than Death” written by Matt Johnson
Ryan Young currently serves as the Director of Adult Discipleship and Missions at Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. He earned his BA in Psychology from Clemson University and his Master of Divinity from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Ryan, his wife Rachael, and their dog Zooey, are thrilled to all be adjusting to the birth of their daughter, Iris.