Death and Life

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John 11:17-44

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.
(John 11:43-44)

I miss Harry O’Dell. Harry played trumpet for the St. Louis Cardinals band. He knew Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick, and Stan “The Man” Musial.

I miss Bob Doty. He used to do my taxes without making fun of me for desperately needing someone to do my taxes.

I miss Loyd Turner. Baylor’s football team is winning, and Loyd’s not here to see it.

I miss Bob Hammond. So does my son. Graham went to Bob’s once a month to play chicken foot dominoes.

I miss J. P. Allen. When he was a pastor, he helped the church where I became the pastor start caring for the poor when few Baptist churches even thought about caring for the poor.

I miss Kay Plume. It was a joy to see her with Hank. Hank loves to say, “We went on a honeymoon in 1948 and never came back.”

I miss Gene Thompson. I used to call Gene to ask about people I could not place. Gene never forgot a face or a name.

I miss Ed Schmeltekopf. Lots of us lived under the umbrella of Ed’s kindness.

I miss Bill Hendricks. Bill said things like, “Brett, I was surprised that you would preach on John 11 without referencing Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed. The play premiered on April 9, 1928, and closed less than a week later, but I think you might find it helpful.” Neither Bill nor I were surprised that I do not know an obscure Eugene O’Neill play, but it would be kind of Bill to say it that way.

We lose so many good people.

When Jesus finally arrives at his friends’ home, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Martha wants to hold back her criticism, but she cannot: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. You should’ve been here.”

No sooner are those words out of her mouth than they are followed by words that defy the facts. “Even yet,” she says with desperate hope, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus replies, “Your brother will live again.”

Martha answers that she believes that there is something beyond the grave.

Jesus speaks for eternity: “You don’t have to wait for the end. I am, right now, resurrection and life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.”

Mary runs up and falls at Jesus’ feet, weeping passionately. When Jesus sees her sobbing, he says, “Where did you put him?”

Jesus breaks down and cries for this family he loves. He orders them to roll away the stone, and he cries into the cave, “Lazarus, come out.”

The cadaver comes out wrapped from head to toe with a sheet over his face. Jesus says, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”

What would a scientist have seen if one had been there? What would a poet have seen? The truth of the story is clear to the writer of the fourth Gospel—God brings life in Christ.

Lazarus Laughed was one of Eugene O’Neill’s least popular plays. The play begins where the story in John leaves off. As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is stumbling out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After the grave clothes are taken off, he begins to laugh. He hugs Jesus. He hugs his sisters. He hugs everyone he can get to. He looks as if he is seeing the world for the first time. He looks up at the sky, the trees, and the neighbors as if he has never seen them before.

The first words he utters are, “Yes, yes, yes.”

He makes his way back to his house, and the whole village of Bethany is amazed. Someone gets the courage to ask what is on everyone’s mind. “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. What’s on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?”

Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely.

There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy. Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting life. The one that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the one who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous one wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear. The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. There is nothing to fear. Our great agenda is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are put here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death. (Eugene O’Neill, Complete Plays 1920-1931, New York: Library of America, 1988, 537-628)

The communion of saints is made up of those who have learned that there is nothing to fear, those who have learned to trust, and those who have learned to love more fully. They have gone before us in the relay race of faith. This marathon of hope includes the great cloud of witnesses who have moved to the grandstands but are still there to cheer us on as we run our race. They challenge us to be more than we are and become more like the good that was in them. They tell us how far we have to go.

We need to chase after Christ with reckless abandon, even when he leads us to minister in lousy places that good sense tells us not to visit. We follow because Christ is where death ends and life begins. God brings life on both sides of the grave.

Resurrection happens when we overcome our bad habits by the grace of God. Resurrection happens when a church allows itself to be moved by the Spirit into daring ministries. Resurrection happens when a nation is stirred to work toward justice for all its citizens, to see that the hungry are fed and the poor are treated with compassion. Resurrection happens when we die to our old selves and are born once more to the selves God means for us to be.

When we share Communion, we recognize that Christ’s followers are with us. The saints challenge us to live with joy. Be delighted when anyone besides the Yankees wins the World Series. Do not worry about not being able to do your own taxes. Cheer for your team even if they are lousy. Play chicken foot dominoes as though it matters. Care for the poor. Love the people with whom you live. Put names and faces together. Be an umbrella of kindness for someone. Tell a friend about a play they would enjoy. Remember someone you miss.

The Communion table is bigger than it looks. The table goes on forever, back centuries and across continents. We take our place with sisters and brothers who shared the journey of faith and whose lives still inspire, encourage, and challenge us. We pass the bread and cup as part of the family that includes everyone who has found life in Christ. In the supper, God invites us from our tombs of caution into a world of freedom.

time_for_supper_cvrThis post originally appeared in Time for Supper: Invitations to Christ’s Table by Brett Younger.

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