A Matter of Life and Death

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on April 10, 2011, at St Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

A few years ago, I read the autobiography of Henry Knox Sherrill who was the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Toward the end of the autobiography, written when he was younger than I am now, he said, “As I anticipate the inevitability of death, it is not without some personal questions.”

Yes.  I have some too.  Maybe you do.  The readings today turn our thoughts in that direction. What, I wonder, did Lazarus make of his experience? What did he and his sisters talk about over dinner that night?  What was it like for him to be dead? Was he glad to be back or not?  Don’t you wish the Bible told us? But it doesn’t.  I think there’s a reason for that. It seems to me to be completely consistent with the focus of the whole Bible which is on life, not death.  Why would you want to know about death? It’s life that matters.

The story of Lazarus, the story of the dry bones, is about life, not death.  So let’s start there and ask what might seem to be an obvious question: what is life?  Well, it’s not that obvious. There’s a debate going on right now in the political arena.  When does life begin? Is it at conception, or three months, or six months, or birth?  When did you begin to live? Have you yet?  And when does life end? They have to make decisions about that daily in hospitals all over the country.  What is it we are preserving with feeding tubes and the whole panoply of modern medicine? Is it life, or is it only some of the functions of life?

We talk about “brain death” but we normally only check that when someone is prostrate in a hospital bed.  What if we checked more widely? I’m sure that would be an illegal invasion of privacy, but we might learn something from it.  Who is brain dead and who is not?  What is life? How do we tell it from death?  Maybe you’ve seen someone sitting staring into space in a doctor’s waiting room and wondered whether they were really alive.  But I wonder whether you’ve ever visited a monastery or convent and stepped into the chapel and observed a nun or monk kneeling quietly, eyes closed.  Brain wave studies have been made of people in meditation and it’s a whole different pattern of brain waves from sleep, for example, or some quiet activity.  Those who meditate regularly will tell you it enriches their lives and scientists will tell you that people who meditate regularly live longer.

Life is not measured by frenzy. I think it would be possible to watch a good deal of what’s offered on television without using the brain at all.  There are people who work hard for forty years, no time for prayer or church, no time to read a book or call on a shut-in in order to retire and move to Florida and play golf. Is that life?  What would the brain waves indicate?

Now, these are important questions for a society that wants to know what death is and what life is.  These are important questions for us if we are curious at all about the meaning of the gospel.  Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” We’ve been reading the Gospel of John this Lent and it’s full of references to life, the life that Jesus brings.  He talked to the woman at the well about life. We heard that story two weeks ago.  He said today to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Notice that: “I AM . . .Life.”  There’s a working definition: Jesus IS life. Defined not by brain waves, not by brain activity or physical activity not by possessions or charm or parties attended or television programs watched or gourmet food consumed or any of the standards our world uses to describe “really living.” None of that.  And for sure, none of those standard measures does sustain life.  It may make you feel good for an hour or two, but not much beyond that.  You can’t watch your favorite program eight hours a day, seven days a week.  You can’t enjoy an eight hour meal. You can’t live in Disney World.

With many of the things that we think give us life, we soon run out of energy or interest or both.  There’s no lasting life to be found there. It drains you.  It doesn’t rejuvenate you.  And before someone else says it, let me say it, you probably don’t want to spend the whole day in church either.  But there’s a difference. What happens here is life-giving.  What happens here is something you can draw on all week.  What we receive at the altar is a source of energy, of renewed life.  But it’s not so much the service or the sermon or even the sacrament, not those, but what they convey, which is Jesus.  He is our life.

Life is a relationship with the living God in Jesus Christ.  And death is separation from the living God. And that’s why the story of Lazarus shows no interest in what he could report about life hereafter because what the Gospel is interested in is life here – life here because of Jesus, because of a relationship with Jesus.  Jesus, you remember, said, “I am the resurrection and I am life.” He said on other occasions “whoever believes has eternal life.”  Not “whoever dies” has eternal life but “whoever believes.”  It’s whoever enters into a living relationship with Jesus Christ now.  That’s life: life here, and life forever.

Have you ever noticed that the words of absolution after the General Confession ask God to “keep you in eternal life?”  Not “bring you to eternal life” but keep you there.  And then think about the words of the baptismal service. We pray these words:  “Grant, O Lord, that all who are baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection . . .” When?  Now.  Not someday, but now.  We are baptized into Christ’s death in order to live in the power of his resurrection – now.  Not tomorrow or after we die, Now.  Now is life, and that life is to be lived daily, now, in relationship with Jesus Christ, in service to others, in thankfulness and praise. It’s something shared; not something grasped. Something given away in order to have it.  It doesn’t come with a better job or a bigger income or only on week ends or in Florida.  It’s now.  Here. And if we have understood that and begun to live it, death becomes not an end but a transition.

Life is not simply a matter of brain waves or anything of the sort.  If you could measure it somehow, it would probably be graphed as a steadily rising line not cut off at death but continuing on through death into a realm where that same life could continue to grow, where that relationship with Christ could come to maturity and fulfillment.  That’s why it’s not terribly useful to talk about death.  If we know what life is, we know all we need to know about death.  Death is the absence of life, and it can occur – it does occur – even in youth and middle age while the brain waves are still being produced.  It can occur long before the three score years and ten and your friends may not even notice.  At a point, of course, it becomes noticeable and certifiable, but it may already have taken place years before.

Think again about the dry bones in the Old Testament reading. What Ezekiel saw there was his own people and the bones were connected and the flesh covered the bones, a vast multitude – but they were still lifeless.  They were all connected but lifeless just the same.  And the question Ezekiel was asked was this: Can these bones live?  It’s a question we might ask when we look in the mirror: Can this body live?  Am I really alive?  And it may be that the answer is not found in frantic activity or collapsing in a comfortable chair in front of the television set but a quiet half hour with the Bible, a moment of prayer while standing in the check-out line, pondering a Bible verse while driving to work.  Coming back again and again to the source of life, to that same Jesus who called Lazarus out of the tomb and who can call us also out of death to life – if we have ears to hear.

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