What is stronger, death or life? In the front row is my wife, 32 weeks pregnant, about to give birth to a son not to be met by my mother. For there is the coffin with my mother’s dead body. Life or death?
Now, we can fool ourselves that life is beautiful in how it continues – my mother lives on in her prodigy and our memories (and that’s partially true) – but it’s not enough. We want Susette, not just our memories. We want to hold her, and not just stare at a photo or gravestone.
But isn’t that just wishful-thinking? Aren’t we just hurting ourselves extra by hoping for a reunification? Not to my mother. My parents were married over 34 years – and were looking forward to many more – so my father could accurately summarise her life this week. He said that my mother’s life revolved around two central tenets: (1) love of Jesus; and (2) the resurrection hope, the return of Jesus to earth. Everything else in her life – including her love for Frank, her children, and all of us here this morning – flowed from that. That’s what her life was about.
Paul, in our Epistle, is honest enough to state that if the Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead – if life isn’t stronger than death – then all of faith is pointless: If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:19) Or, just before our passage: If Christ hasn’t been raised, your faith is in vain. (1 Cor. 15:17)
I personally find the beginning of the funeral liturgy the scariest. The coffin with a dead body is brought into church, and I stand in front of it and start saying: I am the Resurrection and the Life. Really!?
Really!? That is pretty much the question Mary asks in the beginning of our Gospel reading. Very nice of you to just have stated that you are the Resurrection and the Life, but Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died (John 11:32). Similar to my mother. Nice she loved Jesus and wonderful she hoped for the resurrection of the dead, but Jesus, if you had been here, Susette would not have died.
And Jesus – does he answer Mary’s or our reproach? Not directly. He notices everyone crying and was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled (John 11:33). Or more specific in Greek: he has immense compassion and/or becomes angry. Angry with Mary, or with your complaints? Certainly not, they are honest and good. But angry and furious with the whole situation: this is not what God intended – death is an enemy of God which needs to be defeated. Life is stronger than death.
Jesus – God himself – came into our midst to do exactly that. Hence the reading of the Gospel this morning from the middle of the Church. God isn’t standing outside our situation and grief this morning, but comes into our midst and feels our pain. He cries, he becomes angry, he has compassion. But much better still: he does something about it.
Lazarus may seem to be fortunate in the Gospel reading. He was dead, but is raised from it. But what the story this morning doesn’t say is that Lazarus died again – a second time. And yet, even though he knows it, Jesus thinks it’s worth the effort of raising Lazarus. Even if Lazarus is to die again. What is more, the price Jesus pays for raising Lazarus again is his own life, for the Gospel according to John will continue with the statement that because of this miracle some start plotting Jesus’ death. Because Lazarus is raised from the dead, a few weeks later Jesus is killed.
The price of raising Lazarus was the highest for Jesus. The price for raising Susette – and you and me – to eternal life again is the highest for Jesus. But it is finished, hence the flowers in the shape of a cross on my mother’s coffin.
For the fruit of the redemption he works for us is much greater than we can even imagine. Now my mother has died – just as her children she never had the chance to hold as they died in the womb. The miscarriages she had and mourned all her life, the grandchildren who died before birth, but are now waiting for the resurrection with their (grand)mother. For soon – according to God’s order (1 Cor. 15:23) – all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22), and death with be defeated as the last enemy (1 Cor. 15:26).
These are the reasons we gather this morning, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. In the Eucharist we don’t just think back on Jesus’ suffering and death, but we also remember his glorious resurrection, ascension, and coming again. This morning we don’t just gather to remember Susette’s death, but also her glorious future. A future which is also available to you if you accept the Gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
Susette heartily believed that life is stronger than death. And now – in the words of Jesus in Luke 20 –she lives before God. And when Jesus returns, we will see her again. We aren’t just left with memories in the past tense of Susette this morning, but what lies ahead in the future is our hope and comfort in these present days.
My mother loved Jesus and hoped to meet him when he returns again. I, for one, long for that same return even more now. Because of that: Marana tha, Come Lord Jesus.