St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252


Sermon for All Saints Day (November 1, 2015)

Liturgical Color: White

Reverend Doctor Lyle E. McKee


Authentic Life

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It may seem an odd time to be telling stories of resurrection in the church. Easter is long past and we are nearing the beginning of a new church year.

But of course this story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead was chosen because this is All Saints Day. We're asked to think about the nature of life in Christ as we remember both that we are saints and that we have been encouraged and blessed by the saints of the church who have preceded us in death.

There may still be some among you who are shocked to hear that you are saints, so let me provide a brief reminder about that. For Lutherans, the word "saint" refers not to the praise-worthiness of the way we live our lives. We are saints because of what Christ has done for us. We know that even though we are one with Christ, sin remains a stain and a struggle; but we rejoice to know that Christ lives in us and has by his life, death, and resurrection completely forgiven our sins. Christ lives in us, and the good that we do is wrought alone through Christ. We are saints because we are forgiven sinners and co-workers in the reign of God.

Now, back to the matter at hand—reflection on the nature of life in Christ. Jesus raises Lazarus. Jesus gives his friend life again, new life, restored life. What are we to make of this? And what does it tell us about life that is authentic, life that is worthy of being lived by us who are saints?

Consider a resurrection story I found entitled "Oldest living organism found, revived."

About 250 million years ago, before the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, back when all the continents were stuck together in a single landmass we now call Pangea, a little creature lived in a salty sea covering what is now New Mexico. As the briny water evaporated, crystals of salt formed, trapping the microscopic organism in a bubble of fluid inside. The organism wrapped itself in a thick hard shell and sat there until (several) years ago, when scientists found it and brought it back to life.

That in brief is the biography of the oldest living thing ever found on Earth—(a) salt-loving bacterium. Bacteria have been around for almost 4 billion years, but never before has one this ancient been revived.

"It's incredible that there is a God who would care for something as small as this and would protect it," said Russell Vreeland, a biologist at West Chester, Pa., who reported the discovery in—the scientific journal Nature. (Indianapolis Star)

I also read of a 2000-year-old Judean date palm seed planted in 2005 that sprouted. They have named it Methuselah, and it's a variety that had been extinct for some 1800 years. The tree is now planted in the soil of southern Israel and is about 10 feet tall.

These are modern stories of resurrection. And isn't it fun to hear a testimony to God by a biologist. These are amazing stories.

But what is it about these kinds of life or life in general that is of value? And I don't mean simply scientific. Yes, they tell us something of the tenacity and adaptations of a couple of species. But what determines their value?

Let's get back to the text. The verbal banter between Jesus and his friends shows several levels of "death" being set over against "life." Lazarus is a stand-in for all of us, while the others in the story (the disciples, Martha, Mary, the crowd, the Jews) evoke common emotions when presented with the reality of death (grief, anger, denial, pleading).

The story begins with a very real death, which Jesus actions are designed to establish beyond any doubt. To everyone's surprise, Jesus waits more than three days before going to Lazarus, past the time in popular belief that one's spirit hovers about the grave before passing on, irretrievably, to "the dead." After the third day, revival was no longer possible. Plainly put, "Lazarus is dead." (v.14)

But there are worse things than dying. Jesus states plainly in verse 15 that the story is told "so that you may believe." Jesus is willing to let his friend die. We may conclude that not believing is worse than being dead.

The death that is constituted by separation from God is far worse than physical death. Unbelief and living apart from God are the conditions that Jesus wants us to avoid. They are the opposite of authentic life.

The truth is that there is more for us even than resurrection; there is faith—authentic life. From the perspective of those in today's story, it's only later, when Jesus is raised from the dead, that faith in Jesus is understood as eternal or authentic life over which death has no power. And yet, even in this eleventh chapter of John, Jesus offers this promise: "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." (vv. 25-26).

Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead to demonstrate that faith in Jesus is the beginning of authentic life. But it is Jesus, not Lazarus, who shows us the way to this true life. What matters isn't physical life or death. What matters is the life that can only be grasped in the context of faith—what I am calling authentic life.

As Jesus puts it elsewhere in John's gospel, "God so loved the world that God gave God's only Son" (3:16 ), that we might really live—that we might have authentic life, or as John puts it, abundant life—living in such a way that God is glorified, living for the sake of others and for the life of the world.

And now we may return to my earlier question about the value of life. The truth is that life is not the ultimate value. Life has authenticity and true value only to the extent that it is lived to the glory of God and in service of others and creation. And this is the kind of life that we lift up on All Saints Day. Saints are regular folks who have been transformed by faith in the one who has overcome death and who live authentic lives of service that glorify God.

Since we speak on All Saints Day of the "communion of saints" with somewhat more vigor, let me close with one more related insight into authentic life. It is this: Life as authentically lived cannot easily take place outside of community. We need one another.

An article makes the point with reference to the isolating effects of modern culture:

It's no coincidence that as Internet usage soars, church attendance continues to plummet.

Granted: You don't have to be a church-goer to be a Christian. You don't have to be accountable to a body of believers to be a Christian. You won't get extra diamonds on your crown for lugging one of those southern Baptist Sunday School perfect attendance add-on pins to heaven.

But you'll have made it awfully, awfully, unnecessarily hard on yourself. Why? Because we were created to need other people. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto and Silver.

People confuse "independence" with "being alone." They are two radically different concepts.

The Internet, the hours spent in chat rooms with strangers, the hours spent pretending to be somebody you're not, panders to that rebellious, ego-centric nature in our hearts.

You were hot-wired to need the company of others. "The smallest unit in society is two," Harvey Cox writes, "and the relationship between two people never remains just the same. God meets us there, too. (God) meets us...in a client, a customer, a patient, a co-worker (,another creature)."

I would add, "...and in a fellow believer."

Sure, community is difficult. Churches are filled with flawed people. Hypocrites. Liars. Egotists. [Dennis Hastert and Bill Cosby. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.] You and me.

But here's what [a culture critic]...has to say about that: "I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether." (Neil Postman)

If it's easy, it ain't church...

And where does the Lone Christian get the fuel to be the light of the world? That refueling, that refreshing, comes from the company of believers earnestly seeking to follow the Cross. And when it's good, it's far, far better than anything you can find on your own..."Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds IS LIKE TO THAT ABOVE." (adapted from "The Door," Sept/Oct, 2000, p. 46)

Noah ben Shea writes:

"Fear" said Jacob, turning back to the woman, "fear makes us not only less than we might be but less than we think we are. Faith reminds us we should doubt our fears." Jacob motioned to the path ahead of them. "Perhaps we can lean on each other for a while."

The woman laughed out loud. "How can I be a support to you?"

"Ah, that is not so difficult," said Jacob. "You see, the difference between a Tower of Babel and a tower of strength is the difference between those who live to make themselves more and those who know the way to heaven is in making others more."

On this All Saints Day, we celebrate those who have tried to live authentic lives and who helped to make us more so that we might do the same for others. Amen.

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.

 

 

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