By: Canon Georgette Forney, Anglicans For Life, President
AFL’s ministry is all about life and death, but over the years I have found that people much prefer to talk about life rather than death! But as we celebrated Lent this year, I was reminded that you can’t have a resurrection without first experiencing death, and this truth is really beautifully illustrated by the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John.
The story starts with Lazarus being ill. We don’t know what kind of illness it is, but it must be critical, as his sisters are very worried, and they send word to Jesus that Lazarus, the one whom He loves, is ill. Obviously, the sisters are hoping Jesus will come quickly and heal him. But, as is often the case, Jesus doesn’t respond to situations the way people expect or want Him to!
His response reveals His omniscience; He knows everything that must happen for the sake of God’s will being done. He tries to explain this to His disciples when He says that Lazarus has just fallen asleep, but He is going to wake him up. The disciples start trying to advise Him that sleep will help Lazarus recover, because they don’t understand what He means. So, Jesus states Lazarus’ condition more directly – in verse 14 He declares that Lazarus has died.
Jesus doesn’t try and soften the reality of their friend’s death. In fact, He discusses death very differently than many of us do today. My dad recently died, and as is custom, I received a number of lovely condolence cards, which was a real blessing. But while I appreciated the messages conveyed through them, I noticed that all of them used phrases like “time of sorrow”, “prayers for your loss”, “during this difficult time”, “saying goodbye to someone you love”. Not one card used the word death, dead, or died! In my experience, most people directly avoid using words such as “death” or “died” and instead say that someone “has passed.” Why do we do this? Why do so many of us struggle to discuss death—our deaths or the deaths of loved ones?
In 2012, I decided to write a curriculum called Embrace the Journey, which addresses issues concerning aging and dying. I did it for two reasons. First, assisted suicide was being legalized in various states, and it seemed like a topic the Church should be addressing. Second, my parents were aging and, in all honesty, while I was comfortable with addressing dying in general terms, I recognized there was a lot about it that felt mysterious and unknown and, therefore, a little scary when it came to acknowledging that they would someday die.
I finished the program on April 1, and my mother died six weeks later. I was so grateful that I had done all the work, research, and interviews to become familiar with all the realities I had to think about when someone dies. In all honesty, as I look back on that season of my life, I can say with certainty that, had I not been prepared through writing the curriculum, I would never have survived my mother’s death. We were incredibly close, and my grief was overwhelming for the first three years after she died.
I now say that I was the first student of Embrace the Journey, and it was extremely helpful in preparing me for my mom’s death. The death of someone you are really close to, someone you love, is one of the hardest experiences to go through and, yes, talk about.
But we as God’s people need to start thinking and talking about death— because our culture, as usual, has developed a skewed response to it. On a personal level, death seems like something to be avoided, ignored, or denied. Yet death is a common and prevalent theme in entertainment. We often see people die in movies, and television dramas regularly show murder victims on stainless steel tables in the morgue. Even costume dramas like Downtown Abbey feature several deaths. We watch people die on screen regularly.
Yet, contrarily, there are endless supplements, beauty products, plastic surgeries, and medical procedures that are designed to keep us young and healthy—all to stave off aging and dying. And how many of us have heard someone say or said it ourselves – please keep them alive at all costs – I’m not ready for him or her to pass!
I think our culture struggles to discuss or acknowledge death, because we can’t control it; death is the great unknown, and it is permanent and inevitable. Death reminds us we are not immortal, that we are not gods. So, when we say that someone has “passed”, does it feel less final, more like they passed to the next level of being or hit a new frequent flyer status? What do we pass to? And why is it all so hard to talk about?
I don’t know where I read this line, but I agree with the point—We can’t get life right until we understand death. So, let’s bring our attention back to the story of Lazarus and see what God’s Word shows us about responding to death.
Let’s start with Lazarus. Verse five says, “Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, (which is Mary) and Lazarus.” Clearly this indicates there was a close relationship between the four of them and, as such, when they send word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick, the siblings are expecting Jesus to come back to Bethany immediately. Can’t you imagine Lazarus lying there, sick, anticipating Jesus coming through the door at any moment? But as Lazarus gets worse, his energy and hope start to wane. Maybe he begins to doubt Jesus’ teachings and promises. Did he wonder why Jesus would heal others but not him? Then, his body, his spirit, succumbs to death.
Now let’s look at Martha. She must be anxious because, when she hears Jesus is coming, she doesn’t even wait until He gets to their house. Verse 20 says she went out to meet Him and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I can relate to Martha; she is a fixer, gets things done, and seems to graciously reprimand Jesus in her statement. She also adds, “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” She is almost challenging Him to perform a miracle. And then, even when Jesus assures her, “Your brother will rise again”, Martha engages in a theological discussion. She replies to His comment with, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Could she be trying to cover her grief, her anger, her disappointment? I wonder what the tone of her voice was when she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Let’s look at Mary next. Mary’s response to Lazarus’ death is what I would expect from her. She feels deeply, loves ferociously, and is dedicated and loyal to Jesus and her family. So, she is home grieving, surrounded by the many Jews who had come from Jerusalem to console and support Lazarus’ family. The interaction between Mary and Jesus is tender and reflects their mutual respect and devotion to one another: “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.’” (Verse 32) Just like Martha! But I sense she wasn’t angry that Jesus didn’t heal Lazarus; she was just brokenhearted and grieving.
We recognize common responses to death in Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But how does Jesus respond? “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Everyone in this scene is sad and truly struggling with Lazarus’ death. Words like bereft, inconsolable, heartbroken, and grief-stricken seem like appropriate descriptions. And Jesus doesn’t brush aside their pain or say, “Calm down, I’m going to fix this”. No, in their moment of pain, Jesus feels it with them. Jesus weeps with them.
As I have been grieving for my dad, I’ve come to realize some folks don’t understand grief or are uncomfortable seeing it. They say things like, “He was old, and you knew he was going to die.” 11
“Aren’t you glad he is in heaven with your mom?” I appreciate they are trying to offer comfort, but it feels as though they are trying to discourage or downplay the importance of grieving. Instead, I look at our Savior’s comforting example. I am grateful that Jesus is deeply moved by their pain, as it affirms the validity of grieving for myself and everyone who mourns. As God and man, Jesus isn’t afraid to express empathy when we are hurting. While as God He can assure them and us that all will turn out fine. But as He mourns with those who mourn, He doesn’t reach for platitudes or dismiss their feelings. Instead, He joins them and us while we’re hurting. I think this allows us to deepen our trust in Him, because He cares for these grieving friends of Lazarus, as well as us in our times of sorrow and pain.
But He does not leave believers then or now to wallow in grief forever. Instead, He calls out to the dead man with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
Can you imagine how Lazarus felt when the power of the Holy Spirit raised him up? Suddenly his eyes open, his ears hear his name being called. He stands up – his legs work! I wonder if the odor of four days dead lingered, or did it evaporate when the Holy Spirit resurrected his body? And can you imagine what everyone thought and felt when they saw Lazarus walking out of the tomb in his grave clothes? Everyone went from weeping to praising. Mary, Martha, the disciples, and the Jews had just witnessed the resurrection of someone who had been dead for four days!
Still, while the resurrection of Lazarus is remarkable and amazing, the most famous part of this story are Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” But we must take a closer look at this verse, because it’s the next sentence in Jesus’ declaration that matters most for us. Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life, and the one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Jesus knew His crucifixion and death were around the corner. But He also knew His resurrection would follow. In resurrecting Lazarus, Jesus is giving us a peak into the eternal plans of the Father.
At Easter, we shout for joy as we observe the most world-changing moment in history. Jesus’ resurrection opened the door for us, as believers in the 21st century, to also be resurrected and live eternally in heaven! Because we know Jesus is God incarnate, we can acknowledge and accept His Divine Resurrection as God, but in raising Lazarus, we are given an assurance that sinners, broken humans like us, can be resurrected and inherit eternal life, too.
While it is Christ’s resurrection that changed the world, His resurrection brings God’s promise of our resurrection into focus. When we accept Christ as Savior we no longer need to fear death, because we are assured of being resurrected. This is great news for us and our loved ones when we die – they have the assurance of seeing us again in heaven, if they believe as well!
If you have loved ones who don’t believe, discussing death and what happens between heaven and hell can be a great way to share the Gospel. Knowing that my parents are in heaven and I will see them again takes the sting out of their deaths. Even though I grieve, it is with the hope of being reunited eternally in heaven.
The Scriptures echo this hope. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that we can live out the Christian life “knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” His assurance is actually a promise. Paul also goes into great detail about the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15, which declares the victory Christ won for us in His death and resurrection, and why we can trust that we too will be resurrected and spend eternity with Jesus, God, and the Holy Spirit in heaven.
I’ll share one more verse, which I came across a few weeks before my dad died. In the first chapter of Revelation, as John begins describing his prophetic dream, he writes, “When I saw him, (Jesus) I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.’” Jesus is saying He has the keys in His hand, keys that open and lock Death’s and Hell’s doors. He not only has conquered death, but he controls death! None of us will die until Jesus declares it to be so.
This verse truly blessed me, as I knew my dad’s days on earth were coming to an end, but they wouldn’t end until it was God’s will. This declaration can give us all comfort and assurance, trusting that every detail of our lives—including when we die—is ordained by God. We can trust Him with our lives, our deaths, and our resurrections to come.