March 9, 2008

Fifth Sunday of Lent

A Near Death Experience

John 11:1-45

There has been a tradition at Carnegie Mellon University for faculty members to be invited to give their last lecture. That is what they would want to say to their students if they knew it was the last time they would address them. Last September, Professor Randy Pausch gave that lecture and for him it was not an academic exercise: it was the real thing. He has pancreatic cancer and had just been give maybe three to six months to live. He’s still living but has just stopped chemo because it really isn’t working any more. Death for him is not an abstraction. It is a reality that has shaped how he is living these days. In his lecture – you can see it on line – he talks about fulfilling his childhood dreams. And he says this: That he is not going to talk about death, but about life and how to live.

It is an amazing lecture – powerful and honest and moving. He is looking his own death squarely in the face, and doing that by living his life to the fullest. And perhaps most amazingly, he does not seem to be afraid.

That is surprising, because it seems that death is the great and secret fear of humankind. It is the one thing in our world that ultimately remains beyond our control. In modern times, we have solved many of the mysteries that baffled our ancient sisters and brothers. We can plot the path of storms; we know how the human body works; we can move mountains. In fact, we can do pretty much whatever we put our minds to. But we cannot avoid death. We can prolong life, yes, but we cannot avoid death. We will take heroic measures to keep it at bay. There are all kinds of medical interventions possible at the end of life these days, and almost all of them are intended to delay, postpone, push back the darkness of death.

I think that is because it is the final great mystery. For all our modern brilliance, we cannot truly understand what happens when someone dies. One of the professors at Yale, a doctor, has written a book titled “How We Die.” In it, he describes the physiological characteristics of death. But even with all his medical knowledge, he has not been able to explain why death comes when it does, what happens during death, or what comes next.

There are others who have written about their own experience with death. You know the stories: someone’s heart stops beating of the operating table, or someone has a terrible accident, or something like that, but they live to tell about it. If you’ve ever read or heard any of these stories, you’ll know that these folks focus more on what happens to them spiritually rather than physically. They often talk about moving in the direction of a great light, about feeling a sense of peace, about wanting to go rather than remain in the land of the living. For many of them, there is no more fear about death once they have had this kind of experience. But they can’t explain what happened to them. The doctors can’t explain it. The scientists can’t explain it. No one can explain it.

Death remains the ultimate mystery, and we do not deal well with mystery. Despite all our knowledge and skill and sophistication, we are no different from primitive peoples. Death makes us feel helpless and afraid. That is one of the reasons that Lent is such a somber season in the church. During Lent, we take an inevitable journey toward death. There is nothing we can do to avoid what is coming, just as there was nothing that Jesus’ disciples could do, although they tried. They did not want him to go to his friends at Bethany because the authorities were trying to do away with him. They wanted him to lie low, not stir up trouble, keep out of sight. And he would not. They were afraid he would be killed. And Thomas, without a doubt, was ready to die with Jesus. “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” And so they went, into a place of danger, a place of death and despair.

When they got there, they found that Lazarus had been buried for four days. Sorrow surrounded them; there was weeping and distress. Even Jesus was overcome with grief. But he called Lazarus forth out of the tomb, out of death, with a power that was beyond any earthly power, and Lazarus obeyed, stepping out into the light of day, the light of life, still bound by his grave cloths, with the smell of his own death filling his nostrils.

I wonder what that was like, but the scripture is silent on that point. Lazarus does not speak, does not tell us what it was like to be dead and buried for four days, to be beyond life and then called back. Lazarus has entered deep into the Mystery, and he has no words to tell of that experience. But if I find that frustrating, the scripture gently chides me. Because this story is not about Lazarus and his experience of being dead. This story is about seeing the glory of God in Jesus Christ and believing. This story is not preparation for understanding our own death. It is preparation for understanding life.

The heart of this story is not what happens at the open grave. It is what happens in the exchange between Jesus and Martha:

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

“I am the resurrection and the life.” How will they remember that in only a few short weeks when he is crucified? How will they remember that when his tomb is open and empty. How will they remember that when he is among them again, the same and yet completely transformed? Will they understand?

No, they will not, because resurrection is an even greater mystery than death. The events that will take place in Jerusalem, in the garden, on the road to Emmaus, will defy understanding. The resurrection is not something they will be able to explain, to figure out. They will want proof, like Thomas. They will want to hang on, like Mary. But none of that will happen. Because the resurrection that Jesus talks about is not something to be analyzed. It is something to be believed. It is not like a question that has an answer or a problem that has a solution. It is a mystery that must be experienced.

When Jesus says: “I am the resurrection,” he is inviting us to enter into that mystery. But unlike what happened to Lazarus, resurrection is not something that happens to Jesus – it is who Jesus is. Jesus is the resurrection. Where there is death and nothingness, Jesus is. Where there is grief and despair, Jesus is. Where we have given up hope, Jesus is.

And in the end, it is not about death at all, but rather about life. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he is inviting us to be resurrection and life also. After all, we are the Body of Christ, aren’t we? And that means that in spite of our brokenness and our woundedness,we are alive.

One of my favorite poems ends with this line: Practice resurrection. It seems to mean that resurrection is not something that happens to us only once, but that it is a continuing state of being. To practice resurrection is to practice Christ, the one who is the resurrection. It is to be always moving in the direction of life, offering life to others, living life abundantly. It is to understand that all of life is a near-death experience, in a way. It is living without fear, with faith.

There is no need, anymore, to fight death. Our Lord has already done that for us. Death has been conquered, once and for all. We will not, of course, escape a physical death. Not even Lazarus was able to do that in the end. But here is the great mystery that unfolds at the tomb: Death is not the end of life. There is a life in us that will not die, because Christ is in us. There is life in us and resurrection, too.

Jesus says: “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.” And then he asks a question – of Martha and of us: “Do you believe this?”

Do you?

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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