Last revised: November 10, 2018
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ALL SAINTS SUNDAY — YEAR B
RCL: Isaiah 25:6-9 or Wis. 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
If we were to point to a 21st Century parallel to the First Century biblical genre of apocalyptic, as represented by the Book of Revelation, what might you suggest? Conservative Christians might quickly suggest something like the Left Behind series, but this would be a grave mistake for at least two reasons: (1) it treats it as prediction instead of prophecy, taking the metaphors too literally as pointing to historical moments; and (2) it assumes a second coming of Jesus that converts him from the Lamb Slaughtered revealed in the first coming into a violent warrior Messiah. Such readings of Revelation are like prophesying a second coming of Gandhi as a kick-ass warrior.
I propose J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series as an excellent translation of a Christian version of apocalyptic. She makes wonderfully imaginative use of fantastical creatures and metaphors to faithfully tell the Christian story of the power of love. Lord Voldemort is a symbol of the formidable forces of deadly tribalism. Harry Potter has become even more timely ten years later as forces of authoritarian tribalism are on the rise. Rowling has given us a gold standard of literature that parallels the Book of Revelation both in the seriousness of the evil and a faithfulness to its only true remedy: self-sacrificing Love. (For more see last year’s All Saints page on Harry Potter and Revelation.)
I feature Harry Potter on All Saints Day not only because of the connection to the apocalyptic genre but because J.K. Rowling’s most heartfelt scene (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ch. 34, “In the Forest Again”) — the only one she says she cried through as she wrote it — is for me a quintessential All Saints scene. Harry is walking to his own death. He must let himself be killed by Voldemort in order to enable his defeat. And he turns one of the Deathly Hallows over in his hand, the Resurrection Stone, and immediately experiences the presence of four saints in his life who have been killed by Voldemort in trying to save his life. Their presence gives him the strength and courage he needs to carry out his nonviolent stand against evil. (For more see this page with an excerpt of the All Saints Day Scene in Harry Potter.)
In 2018, this followed a week of several similar All Saints moment for me. One was attending an education event on Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the same afternoon as the tragic mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. I found comfort and courage in facing such deadly anti-Semitism in living with Bonhoeffer’s presence that week, spending hours reading his witness. And then Oprah Winfrey gave a speech supporting Stacey Abrams for Governor in Georgia, invoking the many saints who had fought for, and even given their lives, for the right to vote. She quoted Maya Angelou with a wonderful All Saints statement, “I enter the poll as one and stand as ten thousand.”
1. James Alison, Raising Abel. Quoted on p. 80, of which he concludes:
That is to say, the Church is the collective living out of the opening of heaven, as something which is coming down from God, made possible by the risen victim. (p. 81)
Alison references this passage once again at the end of the section featuring the Cornelius/Peter story (p. 107), for which the central conclusion is:
And this is the great secret of catholicity: while every local culture tends to build its frontiers by means of victims, it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim that we can build a culture which has no frontiers, because we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person, but the excluded one himself gives the identity by allowing us to share in the gratuity of his self-giving. (p. 108)
1. klaio is the Greek word used for “weep” in verses 11:31, 33(twice); this word often indicates a ritual wailing and might be translated as “wail.” Jesus is said to weep in 11:35 with the Greek word dakryo, the only occurrence of this verb in the NT.
2. embrimaomai in Jn. 11:33, 38 is translated as “greatly disturbed” (NRSV). In the other three occurrences of this verb in the NT (Matt. 9:30, Mk. 1:43, Mk. 14:5) it has the connotations of being angry and scolding or warning someone.
3. Keep in mind that immediately following this story of the raising of Lazarus comes the plotting against Jesus life by the Sanhedrin (John 11:45-53), with the quintessential scapegoating formula uttered by Caiaphas: (NRSV John 11:50) “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
1. The primary resource that I would like to share this week is from tape 8 of Gil Bailie‘s lecture series on the Gospel of John. Link to my notes and transcriptions from that tape on John 9 & 11.
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 228-233. He makes the same point as in his taped lecture series on John in his book, the sections entitled “The Empty Tomb” and “The Resurrection.”
3. Bailie, in the lecture shared above, makes the link between John 11 and a Q saying (Matt. 8:21-22; Lk. 9:59-60): “Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.'” James Alison makes an apropos comment regarding this passage in Raising Abel, p. 87:
Let’s try and imagine how thrown that disciple would have been with this answer, and indeed, what a shocking answer it is, against all piety. It is evident that Jesus is not referring to really dead people, for these can bury no one, busy as they are about their own decomposition. Rather he is saying: this piety of burying the dead is proper to a culture based on death, and has nothing to do with the piety of those who are building the kingdom which knows not death. Get out of the culture of death, leave it behind, and build with me the culture which is coming into existence.
Reflections and Questions
1. Compare John 9 and 11. In 9 the physical miracle comes at the outset, and all that follows is a spinning out on the meaning of blindness. In John 11, the lesson involving the real power of life over death comes as a long prelude to the physical miracle. John uses two differing narrative approaches to show us the real meaning behind these miracles. In the first Jesus begins by healing a man born blind and then the rest of the story, primarily through the Pharisees and scribes, shows us the blindness of humanity since we were born, i.e., our blindness to the expulsion mechanism on which our human community is based. The healing of the man born blind is a “sign” of the deeper healing of blindness which Jesus came to bring us. By contrast in John 11, the physical miracle climaxes the narrative, with its most vivid sign coming in Jesus’ final words: “Unbind him, and let him go.” That is a ‘sign’ for what Jesus has been trying to do for all his followers in all that has led up to this moment. Jesus has been trying to unbind us from death’s hold on our lives.
2. What kind of hold does death have on our lives? The answer, at least in part, follows after this story in the plot against Jesus by the Jewish Council. Only five verses after the conclusion of the Lazarus story, we have the infamous Caiaphas principle which so poignantly expresses the Girardian thesis about scapegoating: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” This is the kind of death which underlies all our other experiences of death because we are thoroughly cultural beings. It is Paul’s saying to us so matter-of-factly, “though the body is dead because of sin.” He can be so matter-of-fact about death because the assurance of life in the Spirit is also so real. It is precisely what Jesus came to offer us; it is that to which the “signs” of John 9 and 11 point, namely, that our earthly existence is dead to sin and that we are blind to it but that Jesus came to heal both.
3. John 11 is also the Gospel text for Lent 5A. Link here for a sermon on these themes, using a monologue form of a character in the story, from Lent 5A entitled “A Lesson in Facing Death.” There is a caution, however, to preaching on this Girardian insight into John 11: the context of a day to memorialize the dearly departed, as this day often is, is quite different than the week before Passion Sunday. John 11 as a whole fits the latter much better since it itself is situated in John’s Gospel just before the Passion — and, in fact, is used by John to be the last straw that prompts the Jewish Council’s plot to kill Jesus. Jesus’ need to teach his followers about how to respond to death is somewhat different in this context.
But it is not wholly different. Lazarus died of natural causes; he was not martyred on the cross. But Jesus still uses this ‘natural’ death to teach his followers how to respond to death. From a Girardian perspective, death is never quite ‘natural.’ Even when the person dies of ‘natural causes,’ our experience of death is cultural. For most of human history, there wasn’t really a notion of ‘natural causes’ because causation was not interpreted ‘naturally.’ The cultural interpretation of death has always, until this age of science, included some sort of supernatural, ‘spiritual’ interpretation of death, one bound up with religion of the Sacred. The reality of our cultural foundations is that they are based on death and so keep us focused in death. Martin Heidegger and Ernest Becker are two modern thinkers who have seen this and thematized it. John 11 is about how Jesus came to reveal to us those cultural foundations and to “unbind” us from them. He came to lead us into God’s culture, which is decidedly a culture based on life, since Jesus also came to reveal to us that the Living God has nothing to do with death.
Death by natural causes is a fairly recent interpretation, and many, perhaps most, people are still prone to read something supernatural into ‘natural’ deaths. ‘It was God’s will,’ they will be heard to say. The fact that we can even begin to have a notion of death by natural causes is, I think, a sign of the Gospel’s working in this world to free us from our cultures based in death. But we haven’t been completely freed yet, have we? Can any of us have a ‘natural’ experience of death that is completely free of our human cultural experiences of death?
James Alison has been the one to most persistently challenge me on these issues of death. I resisted his viewpoint at the outset, but have since found myself convinced that this is one of the most important areas in which we need our minds changed about God. God has nothing to do with our cultural experience of death. And, remember, Girardian theory postulates that culture even begins with a certain kind of death, a collective murder. Jesus came to reveal to us a God who is effervescently about life and who has absolutely nothing to do with our human experience of death. Alison’s view is boldly argued in several places, such as a section in Raising Abel about “Jesus’ Perception of God.” But let me conclude this with a remarkable passage from The Joy of Being Wrong:
Let me try and unpack this difficult notion a little. If God can raise someone from the dead in the middle of human history, the very fact reveals that death, which up till this point had marked human history as simply something inevitable, part of what it is to be a human being, is not inevitable. That is, that death is itself not a simply biological reality, but a human cultural reality marking all perception, and a human cultural reality that is capable of being altered. This it seems to me is the decisive point at which any pre-Christian notion of sin and the Christian understanding must differ. The drastic nature of sin is revealed as something which has so inflected human culture that death is a human, and not simply a biological reality, one which decisively marks all human culture. This nature of sin as related to death is simultaneously revealed as something which need not be. It is not that God can, of course, forgive all our sins, but then there is also death which is just there. It becomes clear that God is not only capable of forgiving us for such things as we might have done, but the shape of his forgiveness stretches further than that, into what we are: we are humans tied into the human reality of death. We need no longer be.This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the lynchpin of any understanding of Original Sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of Original Sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine of the in-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.
We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to Original Sin: that the doctrine of Original Sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding. (pp. 118-119)
4. But how might the preacher sensitively proclaim this good news about Jesus modeling the facing of death in this All Saints Day context? At our church we specifically invite family members who lost a loved one in the past year. Many of them are still severely hurting. How can we proclaim Jesus’ anger against our usual bumbling mourning as Good News? I wouldn’t emphasize the anger aspect of it. Rather, I would emphasize Jesus positively modeling for us a faithful way of facing death that has ultimate confidence in God’s power of life.
There is a modeling that’s done by subsequent saints, too. We have other examples of people who have touched us who have faced their own deaths with great courage and faith. The role of faith itself can be part of the proclamation. How often have we heard from someone who is mourning something like, ‘I don’t know how anyone could face this without faith.’ They are testifying to the role of faith in helping us to face death with confidence in life. This can be a sermon that sensitively recognizes that not everyone is in the same place with their grieving, while positively lifting examples of those saints who we might model and look up to when it comes to facing death with a sure confidence in God’s power of life.
5. In 2006 my effort to tie many of these themes together resulted in the sermon “The God of the Living.” It adds in the a similar story just before the Passion from the Synoptic Gospels, the controversy with the Sadducees, to which Jesus responds:
“Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage…. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.” (Mark 12:24-27)
The crucial insight comes also from highlighting the importance of what immediately follows the Lazarus story, namely, the Jewish leaders plotting Jesus’ death. Caiaphas says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50). Jesus in the Lazarus story is trying to teach us not to fear death, which so often results in efforts to manipulate someone else’s death. In fact, we live in cultures based on fear of death that leads to collective violence. Jesus will offer us entrance into God’s culture based wholly and completely on life.