This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on October 4th, 2020. The text is John 11.22-34. Sermons are meant to be heard: listen along here!
I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.
Intro riff: Michael and I have been going back and forth about getting this giant Home Depot skeleton. We found out it’s $300. We haven’t sunk the money into it yet, but… it’s dangerously tempting, because we know we could make some solid content with it.
Death is bigger than ever this year, literally. We have to laugh at it. Because if we don’t laugh at it, it overwhelms us, stunning us into fear, and silence, and grief. Death is one of those Big Mysteries around which it’s impossible to say anything even approaching coherence. But at least humor is honest.
It is one of my core convictions that we, as a society, as a people, whatever, need to re-learn how to encounter death as we would any other force of nature. Not as something to master, but as something sacred, something to reverence. I think that our relationship to it is dangerously out of balance, as evidenced by the way we treat end of life care, embalming, burial, and other facets of mystery as something unpleasant to out-source to professionals.
It’s more critical than ever to encounter death and to come back into relationship with it because, when it comes down to it, Death is the one thing that every single human being in history has in common with each other.
Since that’s the case, Death, as well as how we relate to it through our experiences of grief and our connection with those who have died and live on, can be fertile ground for beginning to enter into a posture of compassion toward those special humans we love to hate. Hang onto this.
Death is perhaps the one topic in all of theology with which I’ve engaged the most. It fascinates me. But I’m afraid to talk about it. I’m afraid to preach this series. One reason I’m antsy is that this topic is so emotionally fraught. But the bigger reason is the sense I have of pressure to say something definite about which any information can only be taken in faith, at least from this vantage point. That pressure comes from my upbringing, from the ways we were socialized in church, from the ghosts of evangelicalism past that continue to haunt me. So it’s a strange place to speak from, and very uncomfortable.
The fact is that there is nothing about death as it was talked about to me by my upbringing that I verify with actual experience. Nearly all of it has to be taken on faith. But I do have actual experience with death, and with the Dead, but the things I do have experience of are generally not within the “acceptable range of experiences,” as delineated by my Christian upbringing, or from polite materialist neo-liberal culture. Both my own experiences, and the experiences of those who have undergone near-death experiences, are legitimate.
Some of those experiences are so strange, so uncanny, so outside-the-lines that they make me reconsider my own sanity, and they’ve required me to look outside the containers of our various orthodoxies to find language to describe them.
So I will do my best to speak from what I know, while also doing my best to invite us to interrogate deeply what it is we’ve been taught about death, the afterlife, and so on. At least a little bit. I think the reason that some of these beliefs become calcified is because, well, it’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about them! It’s hard and scary and vulnerable to talk about something so vast, so mysterious, so poignant, so personal as the great mystery of death.
But vulnerability, as Saint Brene Brown tells us, is the sine qua non of real relationship. And relationships are what we need most of all in these difficult times, ripe as they are with occasion for grief, with death seeming to lurk just around the corner, if Twitter and the news are reliable sources.
The traditional view of the afterlife that I was given is this: you get one shot to get it right and accept Jesus as your lord and savior sometime between womb and tomb. Immediately upon your death, you either met Jesus at the gates of heaven for a big bro hug, or you’d meet Jesus at the gates of hell and he would full-on Hulk Hogan bodyslam you into the lake of eternal fire. Or, if you were lucky, you would get raptured before you ever had to taste death.
Lots of people think that’s what Christians have always believed. I’m sure that some of us have at some point believed something like that. I do not believe that any more. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever did.
It’s important to know that that’s not even actually the primary classical Christian teaching about the afterlife. What I’m about to tell you is probably the most important reason that knowing our own tradition as Christians is vitally important.
The classical belief was that after death, you went into some kind of purgative state: if you weren’t turned toward God, you’d kind of get stuck there, hell, and if you were, you were fast tracked through it, purgatory. That purgative power is known not just as fire: that purgative power was known to be nothing other than the experience of the unfiltered love of God. And those of us who have been changed by love in this lifetime know just how powerful of a force love can be in creating lasting change.
Now, there was some disagreement over this, but that disagreement was primarily over whether you could get stuck in that love-fire permanently or if love could eventually, after long enough in the oven, finally sway you. Some believed that some people just got stuck and were too evil to be made whole again. But some believed that ultimately everyone actually ended up on the other side of it. Some believed the most vile person could have their heart opened to love again, through Love’s insistent pursuit.
That was actually what Christians believed: our end is love. Not all of them believed that love could eventually sway someone into healing; it wasn’t a majority opinion. But it’s there, and it’s much more complicated than what I was given growing up.
Why might that simpler view be so prevalent? Well, one, it’s simpler. But moreover I think it’s because of the snare that we all get trapped in: us-versus-them thinking. Self-justification. “We’re the good guys. We’re going to heaven. They’re the bad guys. They’re going to hell.” When an empire takes over the religion as it’s brand, that kind of thing is bound to happen.
And if we watch the way that early Christians began to talk about death, we see this pattern: Even death itself became the bad guy, the enemy, the great “not-us” of religious experience around 2500 to 1700 years ago as the largest empires the world had ever seen roared into existence.
St. Paul writes, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Christianity’s oldest songs of triumph emerged from the height of the Roman Empire’s sprawl. And one of them sings, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life.”
That said, consider too that Christians for those early centuries were marginalized and persecuted, put to death with capricious malevolence. Death was real, present, and potent in their world. But they were people for whom Death became a non-issue: that’s because their view of reality, afterlife included, made them people who could not be controlled by the empire.
When you’ve robbed a tyrant of their last resort, you’ve become very dangerous to tyranny everywhere. And when death itself has lost its sting, no power on Earth could stop you from living life to its fullest, its richest, its most just and thriving, even in the midst of incalculable suffering.
So I want us to consider our beliefs about the afterlife as a tool for liberation. They are not simply fodder for theological speculation by people with too much time on their hands. Because here’s the deal: we have the ability to imagine a world that is based around the idea that even the most vile person can be made whole again through loving, insistent devotion, over the course of a lifetime, or the course of countless lifetimes.
Imagine how that view of people might change the way we think about who we are in society. Imagine how that view of people might completely revolutionize who we understand ourselves to be as a church. Imagine who we might be able to become if we take such a simple but joyous position that erases all arbitrary boundaries of separation.
That when it comes to death, love indeed wins. And when love wins, there is no need to fear death at all, but instead, the presence of death seasons our lives like salt and makes them all the richer, more poignant, more personal, and more eternal than anything else we could imagine.
We need that kind of vision to face the challenges of the coming decade and beyond. That’s something else that the gift of death has to offer: perspective. Because we will not enjoy the fruits of our labor in this lifetime; all we can do is to ease the suffering of whoever is to come after us.
So here’s where I want to land, a common encounter we can all hold together: Jesus facing death through tears. Jesus’ humanity really shines through here. Encountering death and reckoning with it is part of what it means to live a fully human experience.
Here’s something else to rely on: Jesus shows us that grief is good, that tears are a gift. That gift is something that modern society has robbed many of us of, especially men, who from a young age were taught not to cry. Sometimes only death is strong enough a force to break open our armour and sever the seals on our hearts that were beaten into us by the patriarchy. Sometimes only death is strong enough to break us open to love.
And the final thing that we can rely on is that we will die, and knowing that should shape how we live. Lazarus died once, and he died again; yet it is his story that is at the heart of the gospel bearing John’s name. Lazarus, I believe, was the disciple Jesus loved. And, as Lazarus’ witness shows, of all the forces that hold our life and our universe together, only love is stronger than death.
Whether you accept the gospel accounts as reliable or not, the story suggests something that I think deep down, each one of us knows on a soul level, even if every other voice in the world is shouting over it, calling it a lie. Love is stronger than death. And that’s the core of the entire Christian message. Love is stronger than death.
And even then, death is no evil on its own. The Christian story tells us that God redeems every part of the human experience. The story tells us that even such a great terror as Death has been redeemed as the gate into which everything, from stars and planets to plants and animals to you and me, enters into resurrection. When it comes to looking at death, “You will see the glory of God if you believe.” Amen.