November 1 2015

All Saints Sunday

‘A NEW LIFE BEYOND LOSS’

BIBLE READING
John 11:1-7; 17-19; 32-45

REFLECTION

Amanda was only six years old when her mother passed away. When her father came back home alone from the hospital where her mother had been treated, he looked very sad and would not speak. When she asked him, “Where is Mummy?” he started sobbing uncontrollably.

The effect of the loss was even more telling in Amanda. She didn’t understand why her mother would not return and everything was a blur. She had many dreams about abandonment, orphanage, and the like. In her 58th year she could not even recall any memory of her life prior to her mother’s death.[1]

Death brings to our life all kinds of raw reactions. Our passage from John’s Gospel today also displays grief in its rawest nature. There is no boundary preserved in the story; no attempt to make it more pious. The people who grieved showed the emotions that anyone would feel in such event.

For example Martha somehow ‘blamed’ Jesus for Lazarus death. Now Lazarus didn’t die because of Jesus. But she said that if only Jesus had been there, Lazarus would never have died.

In our own grief do we not also often blame others, including God even? “Why God didn’t answer our prayer to heal the person that we loved?” “If only God had listened to us; if only God had been there, our loved one would never have died!”

And there is nothing wrong about that kind of reaction. Blaming is indeed a normal part of grieving and it has a place in our faith. It is only people of faith who struggle with those kinds of questions.

Now Jesus himself felt the pain of losing his friend Lazarus. In verse 33 it is said that Jesus was deeply moved and his heart was touched by the grief around him. One commentator claims that the translation was too weak to express how Jesus felt at the time. She believes that there were also elements of passion and pain and anger in Jesus’ reaction.[2]

Indeed we are told in v. 35 that Jesus wept. John made the comment without further qualification. He simply wrote, “Jesus wept.” He wept as anyone would in that kind of situation. It was a raw emotion and any explanation was not necessary.

So Jesus too experienced the kind of grief that we experience when we lose someone that we love. We are wrong to think that Jesus couldn’t grieve because, after all, he was the Son of God who could bring Lazarus back to life. But his power to bring life out of death did not exclude him from grieving.

That’s why Jesus never rebuked Martha’s for the comment she made. Jesus knew how Martha must have felt and understood why she reacted like that. Jesus did not deny Martha’s humanity and gave her the permission to express her emotion.

Perhaps Jesus was trying to tell us that the road to recovery after a loss is not to deny the loss, but to accept it. Denying that death has taken place will only take us to the endless cycle of unresolved grief, even delusion.

Indeed our passage today displays death in all its rawness. When Jesus ordered the people to open the tomb, Martha warned him that Lazarus’ body would smell badly because he had been dead for days. Yes death smells; it stinks. One thing about the way we experience death through our media today is that it is a sanitised version of death. We may see images of dead people, but we don’t smell them. But for those who are in those places where death occurs, death stinks. Death confronts us as much as it confronted Jesus, Martha, and Mary; and no one can escape its real nature.

But even in the face of such confronting reality, Jesus showed that a new life was possible. Soon after he brought Lazarus back to life. But what intrigues me the most is that, after he came back to life, Lazarus didn’t return to Martha and Mary! Well he did return to live with Mary and Martha in the next chapters (John 12:1-2). But the passage today ends not with the reunion of Lazarus with his sisters, but with Jesus’ order to untie Lazarus and to let him go!

A similar thing happened when Mary Magdalene met with the risen Christ after the resurrection.[3] Mary tried to hold on to Jesus, but he asked her to let him go because he was going to his Father.[4] He had risen from the dead, but he would not return to Mary and the disciples. Things would not be the same as they were. But Mary and the disciples should no longer be debilitated by their grief, fear, and sense of loss. They could now live in the present with a new hope because of the resurrection.

Ryan White was diagnosed with HIV when he was only 13 years old. He had haemophilia and contracted HIV from the blood product that he had to take to treat his illness. The doctors said that he would be lucky to live for another six months.

The news devastated his family, especially his mother, Jeanne. She was a single mother with two children and Ryan was her first born.

The thing with living with HIV is that one has to deal with one infection after another and no one knows whether an infection is serious or mild. A cough or a fever can be the last one. The patient will get sick and then gets better and will get sick again after.

Against the doctors’ prediction, Ryan lived for another six years. But after those years, his body finally could not fight the illness anymore. He was dying in the hospital, lying on bed with life support.

But Jeanne was not giving up. She had promised him that she would do anything to save him, until the last second. Even though Ryan had already been unconscious, she kept talking to him, played his favourite music, and decorated his room with posters and banners. But one day she realised that there was nothing that anyone could do to save his life. So she leaned down and whispered in his ears, “It’s ok son. You can let go now.”

He died soon after. The doctor made the announcement that he died in his sleep, without pain. The sparkle in Jeanne’s life was gone that day.

Seven years later, the sparkle slowly returned. She was now married and her new husband brought fun back into her life. Her daughter had grown into a strong, beautiful, and smart person.

She found therapy in her garden. Her spirit was constantly revived amongst the flowers and fruits and leaves and sunlight and everything that was fresh. She felt that every weed that she pulled out was a grief that she had learnt to put aside, a tear that she had shed so that joy could grow again in his life. In the display of the flowers, she saw the faces of those whom she had lost, especially her son. She found these flowers to be especially beautiful in the morning, opening like smiles and shining like hope.[5]

Friends, life indeed goes on after the death of our loved ones. Things will never be the same any longer, but God can and will lead us into a new life

No we are not to deny death and its reality and the hole it left in our heart. But death is not the end of the story. God can take us beyond death to a new life here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

[1] Amanda Brisbane, My Mother, on Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavements website(http://www.grief.org.au/grief_and_bereavement_support/your_stories/my_mother), retrieved: 29/10/2015

[2] Ginger Barfield, Commentary on John 11:32-44, on Working Preachers website (http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2660), retrieved: 27/10/2015

[3] John 20:11-18

[4] John 20:17

[5] My Son, Ryan by Jeanne White in Chicken Soup for the Mothers Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, HCI: October 1, 1997