Life After Life After Death
In this post you can watch the video and/or read the sermon notes for the sermon titled: “Life After Life After Death” preached at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church. This is a part of the “Lenten Intentions” sermon series.
Text: John 11:1-45 (NIV)
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Theologian and biblical scholar N. T. Wright reference to two aspects of resurrection in one of his books.
He references first the idea of “life after death.” That’s important for obvious reasons. Not long ago, I sat in the chair behind the pulpit as we were gathered to sing and pray during worship. I looked out and realized that everyone present that morning had been recently intimately touched by death. One had lost a sibling, an uncle, an aunt. Others had buried a parent, spouse, or life-long friend. Everyone gathered was dealing with grief. And that grief was compounded by the corporate nature of our sorrow. Each one of us was grieving for each other while we all carried the burdens of our own personal loss.
We gathered in worship wanting words of comfort and hope. We wanted assurance about life beyond death.
N.T. Wright speaks about our need for those comforting words of assurance about “life after death.” But as Wright points out, there is something more we need. He speaks of life after life after death. You see the Gospel is about more than what happens after the grave. It’s about being gifted with LIFE and our expressing the faith intention to live that gift to its fullest.
It’s this second aspect of the gospel – the notion of life after life after death – that is the central point of the story of the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. Throughout its history the church has read the story of Lazarus as a reminder that Jesus Christ brings life out of death so that we might LIVE.
Really LIVING is the challenge, isn’t it?
Charles Shultz, author of the Peanuts Comic Strip, was a genius and understanding the human predicament. In one strip, Charlie Brown is complaining to Lucy, saying…
“Everywhere I go trouble follows me! No matter what I do, someone is always bringing problems to me. Sometimes I feel like I just can’t handle all the burdens and problems of life.”
After listening to all of this, Lucy finally replies, “What you need, Charlie Brown, is an unlisted life.”
At one level, the Bible certainly seems to ascribe to the hopelessness of our circumstance. We’ve heard the words:
“All have sinned.”
“All have fallen short of the glory of God!”
“The wages of sin is death.”
BUT what if this could be short-circuited? What if there was something more than “you live, you die, and you are buried?” What if there is something more than then just the promise of “pearly gates and streets of gold?” What if the grave could be robbed of its power to steal our joy, abundance, passion, and purpose?
Mary and Martha live in Bethany are among of Jesus’ closest friends and greatest supporters. They send word to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was desperately ill.
“Come quickly. Touch him. Heal him. Hurry, he’s sinking fast.”
By the time Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus has been dead and buried in the grave for four days. When Jesus arrives he is greeted by the sisters.
First Martha: “If only you’d come sooner.”
Then Mary: “If you had arrived earlier maybe you could have done something. But now it is too late. We’ve lost him! It’s over!”
Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
The family and friends are gathered in sorrow. It is not just personal grief. It is also mortal fear. You cannot stand near a casket for a few days without thinking about the reality of your own mortality. We know whenever we look in the graveyard that one day it’s going to be us in that place.
Jesus’ heart goes out to them. He weeps with them. Then Jesus does something that makes no sense whatsoever. He marches right up to the Lazarus tomb and commands: “Roll away the stone!”
Martha protests: “Lord, he has been dead for four days. By now there will be a terrible odor.”
Jesus said, “Believe and see the power of God.”
Martha nods at the onlookers that they should obey Jesus instructions. The stench is strong. People step back in disgust. Then, after a brief prayer, Jesus cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!”
Then it happens. Lazarus is resurrected!
After this miracle, Jesus returned to the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. They threw a big party and Jesus was the guest of honor. Everyone wanted to see Jesus. Everyone wanted to see Lazarus.
What I want you to think about is the reaction of Lazarus to what had happened. I want you to remember our main question. What would it be like if a person could lose his or her fear of death?
We discover in the narrative that the religious leaders wanted to kill Lazarus all over again. So you’d think that Lazarus might be hidden in some wilderness cave. Yet where we find him is at home, throwing a huge dinner party, with Jesus as the guest of honor.
“What’s to fear about death?” Lazarus might say! “Been there! Done that! No sweat!”
But it was more than just being brought back from the grave. What gave Lazarus so much courage was the one who stood before him. His old friend Jesus is now more than just a good buddy. He is the Savior. He is the Messiah. He is the Lord. He does not just bring resurrection. He is the resurrection. He does not simply give life. He is the life. Trusting him means that death no longer needs to be feared.
The life that comes after life after death is not for the streets of gold in the great by and by. It is LIFE for the here and now, because JESUS IS WITH US IN THIS MOMENT.
With Jesus in the picture, there is no cause for hopelessness and futility. There is no reason to feel somber, stoic, fearful, or bitter. These are primal fears. These are the fears that come because we think that the grave holds the final word.
But when the grave is defeated AND LIFE IS GIVEN, all that other stuff loses its power. So we do not need to keep giving ourselves over to it anymore. We can instead choose life and LIVE.
That’s our Lenten intention for the day. Choose, determine, decide, declare loudly and proudly that you are going to life—fully, abundantly, exuberantly, and confidently.
For Lazarus, possessions did not mean as much as they once did. There was no reason to hoard them, as if by possessing more, your life became more important or valuable than the next. There was no reason to waste possession in a vain attempt to cover your weakness with every sort of pleasure imaginable. Instead, Lazarus was freed to give himself away for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
Lazarus was also freed from the need to control and manipulate life to satisfy his wants and whims. The text says that the risen Lazarus became a threat to the control the Pharisee had over the people. They set out to both him and Jesus.
Now Lazarus could have taken control of the situation. He could have fought back. He could have tried to manipulate and manage and maintain some sense of power. But instead he just LIVED.
People wanted to kill Lazarus, but that knowledge did not bind him up in fear. He did not hide. He did not capitulate to their threats. The worst thing an enemy can do is take your life. Lazarus had already had that experience. He had been dead. He had been wrapped in grave cloths. He had been laid to rest for four days in a dusty Palestinian tomb. It was no big deal.
When Jesus is our source of life – when He is living through us – it gives us the strength to live fully as Jesus taught us.
“Love your enemies.”
“Bless those who curse you.”
“Do good to those who mistreat you.”
“Forgive those who have sinned against you!”
In a world where death is in charge, these things make so sense. But we do not live in a world where death is in charge.
I read a sermon by famed Baptist and then later Episcopalian preacher John Claypool. In the sermon he introduced his readers to a play by Eugene O’Neill entitled “Lazarus Laughed.” As I read the play, I came to believe O’Neill has put his finger on what it might mean to live without the fear of death.
The play begins, or picks up, where the Biblical story leaves off. Jesus has just finished crying out, “Lazarus, comes forth.” Suddenly, Lazarus is alive again. Wrapped in grave cloths, he props himself up and begins to jump toward the entrance to the cave where he had been buried.
“Unbind him and set him free,” Jesus says.
Set free, Lazars begins to smile. His heart is overwhelmed with joy. Then he begins to laugh a little. The laughter is not overbearing. Then he embraces Jesus with gratitude. Then he hugs his sisters and the others who are standing nearby. Everyone, including Lazarus, is astonished at what has taken place.
Lazarus looks around, as if he is seeing the world for the very first time. He reaches down and pats the earth very affectionately. He looks around. Everything is good. The very first words he utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes!”
He makes his way to his home, taking everything in. Finally, somebody gets the courage to ask what was on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?”
At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely. Then he says,
“There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy.”
He continues, “Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. It is, rather, a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.”
Then he says, “The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm.” With that, his laughter began to fill the whole house in which he was staying.
In the play, Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks, but something different. He is now a non-anxious person. He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life. The house where he lives became known as the “House of Laughter,” and night after night, you would hear singing and dancing. His Spirit and message about life began to influence his neighborhood and community.
Most welcomed Lazarus renewal of life, but not everyone.
The Roman’s did not like is. Neither did the Jewish leaders. They liked to use intimidation to manipulate and control. However, if you have lost your fear of death, you cannot be manipulated or controlled.
In the play, they set out to kill Lazarus, just as the text says. In the play, the Romans arrest him. They threaten him. They abuse him. Yet no matter what they do, he keeps smiling. He keeps laughing. He keeps on treating them with kindness and love.
The play ends as he stands face to face with the Roman emperor. Here is the man who is allegedly the most powerful of all on earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You’ll either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.”
Lazarus continued to laugh.
He says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.”
That is how we can live if we know Jesus as our resurrection and source of life. This is how we can live when that primal fear of death is removed. This is how to live the life that comes after the life after death.
Today, Jesus stands over the suppose mortality of our existence and he calls our name. He is calling us to step forth from death to life. I pray that our intention will be to respond to that call with the same words of Lazarus when he came out of the tomb, “Yes, yes, yes.” Because if we want more life, it is Abba’s good pleasure to give it to us. Amen.
The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion
by: N. T. Wright
publisher: HarperOne, published: 2016-10-11
sales rank: 4535
price: $14.41 (new), $14.94 (used)
The renowned scholar, Anglican bishop, and bestselling author widely considered to be the heir to C. S. Lewis contemplates the central event at the heart of the Christian faith—Jesus’ crucifixion—arguing that the Protestant Reformation did not go far enough in transforming our understanding of its meaning.
In The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright once again challenges commonly held Christian beliefs as he did in his acclaimed Surprised by Hope. Demonstrating the rigorous intellect and breathtaking knowledge that have long defined his work, Wright argues that Jesus’ death on the cross was not only to absolve us of our sins; it was actually the beginning of a revolution commissioning the Christian faithful to a new vocation—a royal priesthood responsible for restoring and reconciling all of God’s creation.
Wright argues that Jesus’ crucifixion must be understood within the much larger story of God’s purposes to bring heaven and earth together. The Day the Revolution Began offers a grand picture of Jesus’ sacrifice and its full significance for the Christian faith, inspiring believers with a renewed sense of mission, purpose, and hope, and reminding them of the crucial role the Christian faith must play in protecting and shaping the future of the world.
The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3)
by: N. T. Wright
publisher: Fortress Press, published: 2003-03-01
sales rank: 21290
price: $31.53 (new), $21.40 (used)
Why did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape it did? To answer this question – which any historian must face – renowned New Testament scholar N.T. Wright focuses on the key points: what precisely happened at Easter? What did the early Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead? What can be said today about his belief?
This book, third is Wright’s series Christian Origins and the Question of God, sketches a map of ancient beliefs about life after death, in both the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds. It then highlights the fact that the early Christians’ belief about the afterlife belonged firmly on the Jewish spectrum, while introducing several new mutations and sharper definitions. This, together with other features of early Christianity, forces the historian to read the Easter narratives in the gospels, not simply as late rationalizations of early Christian spirituality, but as accounts of two actual events: the empty tomb of Jesus and his “appearances.”
How do we explain these phenomena? The early Christians’ answer was that Jesus had indeed been bodily raised from the dead; that was why they hailed him as the messianic “son of God.” No modern historian has come up with a more convincing explanation. Facing this question, we are confronted to this day with the most central issues of the Christian worldview and theology.