1. Lent 5.17 “This Changes Everything” John 11:17-27, 38-53

This changes everything. You hear it said of things that aren’t really that important—like presidential elections, Supreme Court nominations, job changes, basketball tournaments (OK, those can be pretty important 🙂 But this, this really does change everything. Or at least, it should, for everyone, but it doesn’t really seem to change much at all, for most people. Actually, fewer and fewer folks even contemplate the change it portends, I would observe. It is truly Frost’s “Road Less Traveled By”: yet, it seems even less traveled by than Frost’s little country, leaf strewn path made famous by his poem…

I’m speaking of our Gospel reading, and in a massively long reading (I took the shortcut offered by the lectionary this morning; you’re welcome!) there are just two verses I’m concerned with. I could have just read those and cut right to the chase: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And he who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” That changes everything, for everybody!

Just think of it. Knowing that death has no power over you—that we who live and believe in Jesus can just regard death as a minor trifle, a short interruption of service, a little clearing up of the view we’ve had through the dark and smudged mirror, a transition to the bright, face-to-face beholding of the Glory we have longed for all our lives (though often repressing this deep longing, even from ourselves). Knowing death is nothing but a thing, a thing made powerless by Jesus; why, if you knew that, believed that, you would be functionally immortal! You’d be better than Batman. You’d be Superman, Superwoman! You wouldn’t even have to actually leap the tall buildings in a single bound. You could just get a bird to fly over (if you had one) show a workaround, or maybe phase through the building like my hero—Quantum Man! And even if the building fell on you and crushed you, you’d bounce right back, better, faster, stronger. And how awesome is that? Wouldn’t that change everything for you? Your annual performance review, your qualifying exams, or that job interview you’re dreading would be a walk in the park, a delightful lark, because no matter how it goes, you have eternal life(!), impervious to death, guaranteed for you by Jesus. You’ve got a Kingdom beyond imagination in its glory and splendor. You’ve got a place, an excellent place, a never-ending mansion, prepared for you by Jesus, and everything that happens to you here, even the bad stuff and tough stuff, is just a way to get you there more splendidly—little hills you casually phase through

Imagine the courage, the insouciance (pardon my French there!) with which you would face trials and dangers, illness and disease, poverty and crisis! The End of the World wouldn’t scare you, now would it? “No, it would not.” You would look up and lift up your head, even as the sky is falling and the stars exploding and everyone is freaking out, and go: “Quite the fireworks show, huh? I love a good fireworks display, don’t you?” Cool as the proverbial cucumber. I mean, you wouldn’t be heartless. The death of loved ones would still be distressing. You wouldn’t be deliriously happy to learn Nero is chopping your head off tomorrow. But you wouldn’t be terribly troubled either. Because it’s just another thing that is happening, that Jesus will work towards some unimaginably cool and glorious End. It’s an adventure! And you like adventures, because you have eternal life, guaranteed; you know death is nothing but a thing…

Most of our lives are a struggle to maintain a lie, as Ernest Becker says in his much neglected but interesting little book “The Denial of Death”. It is the lie that we are immortal, in and of ourselves, the fantasy that death is not something that will happen to us. But deep down, we know it’s a lie, because we see everything dying around us: loved ones, friends, even the planet appears to be trying to croak sometimes, and we kind of know it will happen to us. But we bury ourselves in culturally accepted coping mechanisms like politics, career advancement, family, sports, drugs, booze, or pastry. But the pressure gets to all of us; because sooner or later, those skies all fall, and the little suits of armor we built turn out to be made of paper and smoke and lies we tell ourselves to keep the boogie man at bay.

Someone asked me a great question about these two verses: “So, do we die or not die? Which is it?” “…even though he may die, he shall live and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” And Martha goes, “Uh, which one: that we die or don’t die?” Well, unsurprisingly, only the New, True King gets the translation right. It’s an aorist subjunctive in the Greek: αποθανη which is not “though he die” but though he may die” or as the old King has it “though he were dead” which isn’t terrible. Subjunctive means it’s a definite maybe. It might happen. Or not. You may die; it’s entirely possible—likely, even (unless you’re Elijah with that fiery chariot to whisk you straight to heaven, or one of those semi-unfortunates who has to live through the last days, gets to see the whole universe fall apart). But even if you experience death (as Jesus Himself and most of His disciples have) you will not die! Because Jesus has conquered death by His dying and will share that victory with you by raising you from the dead, if you do happen to die, as you most likely will…

Jesus is precise. There’s going to be a handful of people who don’t experience physical death, but St. Paul says even they will be changed at the last trumpet, in the twinkling of an eye, because flesh and blood as they are now cannot inherit immortality. So He says “even though he may die” he shall live. Because whoever lives and believes in Jesus never dies, not really, not for long at least.

“Do you believe this?” And here’s the rub. I would like to, Jesus. I really, really would. I’m with Martha: I believe You are the Christ, the Son of God, and I believe we’ll all rise in some sense at the Last Day. But right now, death looks like it’s got my brother, and looks like it’s gunning hard for me, so I’m not entirely sure how to answer You; ‘cause see, I’m still hung up on whether You’re saying I’m going to die or not die; and I hate it when You answer questions like that with a simple “Yes!” and a smile…”

Can I go with “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”? This might just be the road less traveled by, right here! If Jesus says that I’m going to die but not die, I’m going to say, “I believe and I disbelieve; so, I need some help with that. I’ve fallen and can’t get up. How about a hand, Jesus?”

Or, go the other way around: what impression do you have of Jesus, from hearing the Gospel Story of Him? Is this Someone untrustworthy? Someone who would lie to you? My impression is that He is not/would not. If He says “I will raise you up, and you will not die but live in Me,” I’m going to go out on a limb and say I can’t really see this Guy not keeping His Word. Everything He says has the ring of Truth about it, to my ear. Sure, I have doubts sometimes. I’m not Superman, yet (though no one has seen me and Batman in a room together :-). This changes everything; so, why not let it? What’s the worst that could happen? Peace surpassing understanding guards heart and mind in Christ Our Savior. Amen.