Lazarus, four days in the grave, mysteriously and miraculously restored to life. Serendipitously, several people have engaged me this week about the nature and reality of heaven. We talked about this Wednesday night at Evening Prayer. Is there a heaven, what is it like? Well, I can declare to you today that I have no freaking idea. Not a clue. Amen Y’all!
Surely, no one here thought that my lack of knowledge on any subject would slow me down from talking.
When we speak of life after life, it is language that is only an approximation, simile and metaphor poetry and prose. We are using language to talk about something that we have virtually no experience with.
We all have our own theories, one that I find particularly compelling is the work done by scientists and physicists, especially Einstein with the dimensions of time and space and quantum theory. If I was going to preach on that, we would have to order pizza because we would be in here all day. It needs a larger discussion. And even so, it is still just a theory, an approximation.
Today’s Gospel however is helpful. One of the saddest lines in all of scripture is repeated twice in this reading: “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Can you hear the heartache in that? Despite the platitudes of “he is in a better place” it seems a much more authentic line in the presence of despair.
One sister says, I know you can fix this, another does not but only leaves the statement hanging. Lord if you had only been here. The sisters have different kinds of faith but both instances are places of loss, loneliness, and agony. Who’s to say which is better?
In response to the loss Jesus weeps, it really says sobs and he is physically sickened. Jesus then prays and then demonstrates something so profound, so moving, and so unexpected-he summons Lazarus to life. The people of power get word of it quickly and then decide, ok this is too much, this has to stop! We gotta kill him and the plot is launched to have him crucified.
Lazarus is alive. Funny don’t think that John didn’t interview him afterwards to tell us all what it is about. How was it Lazarus? would be the first question out of my mouth. Instead we are given no explanation or answer, cause or comment, no definition or description.
With the words of Mary and Martha still ringing in our ears, “Lord if you had been here this would not have happened”. Jesus calls Lazarus out to life. Now hold that thought. In John’s Gospel there is always the miraculous sign and then the teaching.
This teaching occurs as the graveside grief gives way to Jerusalem over the next day. The disciples must have had similar questions as the sisters. As the crucifixion nears, Jesus explains eternal life to them: Let not your hearts be troubled. Trust me, In my father’s house there is much room and I will go and take you there so that where I am, you will be. I would not tell you this if it were not true. I will take you with me, Where I am, you will be. You see Mary and Martha were right, “where Jesus is there is life.”
It comes down to this, and a strong, central witness of our faith. When and where Jesus is-there is life.
Heaven is where Jesus is, life eternal is where Jesus is. I will come and I will take so that you may be with me. Where Jesus is there is life. It is this one who touches lepers, Enjoins the Syrophonician woman and engages the violent Roman presence with compassion, it is this Jesus who loves his enemies, who feeds the hungry, casts out demons, procures health and wholeness. Restores the outcast to the community. It is this Jesus who always shows up!
It is this Jesus who engages a foreign woman at the well and discusses her life with her, it is Jesus valuing her worth and her opinion, It is Jesus interceding for a woman to be stoned and elevating woman to the same status as men. It is Jesus welcoming street urchins, children of poverty, orphans.
As the prophet Job said many centuries ago, “I know that my redeemer lives and at the last I shall him, he who is my friend and not and not an enemy.”
My friend and not my enemy. That is heaven. Being with our friend.
This strongly worded promise of John’s Gospel is the promise of our friend. “I will take you with me” It is the whisper in our ears and the promise to our hearts- the one thing we can count on in the afterlife, heaven, the great beyond, Beulah Land, up yonder, glory, nirvana, the promised land is that Jesus is going to be there for us.
I have no idea what heaven is like but We do have a promise that it is in the full and abiding presence of the one who loves us more than any other and that is good news for the brokenhearted and the fearful. God loves you to death, so much and will never abandon you even at the grave. Amen.