There is a story, an Irish tale that was made into a song called ‘Finnegan’s Wake.’ The story goes that a well-loved man named Finnegan died and the entire village was attending his wake. As it is told, Irish whiskey was always prominently served at wakes, and this one was no exception, particularly since the dear departed Finnegan was a great fan of Irish whiskey. As people would approach the body that was displayed in the family home, they would tell tales of Finnegan’s life and remember the good times. During one such tale, a man was so animated with the telling of the story that he spilled his Irish whiskey on the body of Mr. Finnegan. As the story goes, since Irish whiskey is known as the water of life, dear Finnegan arose from the table to the cheers and surprise of everyone there. Naturally, they toasted his return from the dead!
I have to confess that I have a difficult time preaching at funerals. None of us likes to think of funerals. Yet I have heard many pastors say they would much prefer to preach at a funeral than a wedding. I have to disagree with that one. At a funeral, while we do celebrate the life of the one who has passed on, there is an ache in our hearts for the loss we feel at not having that person with us any longer. But notice something about our scripture lesson for today – Jesus never preached a funeral. In fact, the three times listed when Jesus approached someone who had died, he completely disrupted the proceedings and brought those persons back to life.
Today we look at Jesus’ I am statement, “I am the resurrection and the life…” as we encounter Jesus and some of his closest friends – siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Throughout this story we get to see more than one side of some of the main characters, particularly those who have been given a bad rap – those who have be type-cast, per se. We have Jesus’ declaration as a part of another miracle, similar to some of his others. And we have a bit of the kingdom of heaven right here on earth, on which we can place our hope and trust for life beyond the grave.
There are a few familiar characters in this story that are worth mentioning. First, we have Mary and Martha. These sisters have appeared in other stories in the scriptures. We may remember Mary as the one who sat at the feet of Jesus, listening and taking in his message of hope and peace, even to one considered to be a second-class citizen. Women were in essence considered property and had very few options to learn from a Rabbi, particularly in the presence of men. Women were to be the hosts within the household, making sure all details were taken care of for their guests. Yet Mary sat at the feet of the Teacher, soaking in his radical message of love. Later, Mary was the one who placed herself in danger by entering the home where Jesus was eating, and anointing him in preparation for his death.
We find Martha also in this story. The home where they were staying was said to be Martha’s home, therefore she was the ultimate host. You may recall Martha welcoming Jesus and his disciples on a previous trip only to be so distracted with all the household chores and preparations, she was ignoring Jesus’s teachings. She could not understand that Jesus was including her as a follower. Martha even became angry when Mary had chosen to sit and listen, leaving all the work to Martha. Jesus had to remind Martha of what was important in life.
At times we need reminding as well. Our busyness can definitely get the better of us, when we get swamped in the details and miss the opportunities for fellowship. I remember when our children were involved in sports, we wanted to be the supportive parents. We helped out with the teams, brought and coordinated snacks for ½ time, and worked behind the scenes while juggling 3 children between 2 parents. But what was more important was spending time with our children. What they most remembered was the time we spent on the sidelines cheering them on, even when theirs was the worst team in the league. So Jesus sent a reminder to Martha to which she took hold – “Mary has chosen what is right, and it will not be taken from her.”
We also encounter the disciple Thomas in this story of Lazarus’ resurrection. You remember Thomas – everyone seems to. He’s the one who would not believe Jesus was resurrected until he saw it with his own eyes. We have nicknamed him ‘Doubting Thomas.’ Similar to the guy who glided down the ski slope only to fall off at the end of the ramp who was forever known as ‘the agony of defeat,’ Thomas was always known as the one who doubted and questioned the unlikelihood of Jesus being raised from the dead, only to encounter Jesus face-to-face and have all doubt removed.
Yet for these three characters – Mary, Martha, and Thomas – we see a different side of each of them in this story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, the faithful Mary is not the one to go out and greet him. Mary stays in the house, steeped in her grief, until her sister comes and retrieves her. It is Martha who drops everything and goes out to greet Jesus on his way into town. It is Martha who states, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Finally, we find Thomas who supports Jesus when he states he is returning to Judea. Peter and the other disciples were afraid for Jesus’ life, and so attempt to keep Jesus from making the journey, but Thomas is the one who states, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Somehow, each of these persons found a measure of faith in the midst of great sorrow surrounding Lazarus’ death.
The “I am…” statement Jesus makes is another explanatory comment that is related to a miracle story. You may recall that when Jesus stated, “I am the bread of life,” it was in the context of feeding the 5,000. When he stated, “I am the light of the world,” he was in the midst of healing a man who was born blind. Today we find Jesus stating “I am the resurrection and the life,” while preparing to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus was putting his words into action. While providing the bread of life to feed the spiritual souls of the masses, he was providing bread and fish for their physical hunger. While standing as the light of the world steeped in spiritual darkness, he was releasing a man from his physical darkness by healing him of his blindness, a condition he harbored since birth. While presenting a glimpse of eternal life as the resurrection and the life, Jesus restores physical life to his friend Lazarus.
When we attend funerals for friends and family members, we are often faced with our own mortality. All of us at some point in time will die. We are finite beings and eventually our bodies will give out and cease to function. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, but no one was made to live forever. Even Lazarus, although raised from the dead by Jesus, eventually faced death again.
We can face this mortality with fear and dread, or we can cling to the hope in Jesus Christ, the provider of eternal life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and life. Those who believe in me even though they die, yet shall they live.” That is the ultimate message of hope in Jesus Christ. That is the ultimate message of the Christian Church – we may cry through the night, but joy comes in the morning.
Many have their own views of the hereafter. Many believe there is nothing after this life – we simply die and that’s it. Many believe in reincarnation – we simply come back to this world as something else which is determined by how well we lived this life. Some picture eternal rest. Others try to put the subject out of mind completely. I choose to picture a hereafter that includes no more suffering, no more tears, no more heartache, no more death. I envision Jesus as our giver of life welcoming us into a fold of beauty and peace. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live.” Amen.