J. D. Ousley


All Saints/Commitment Sunday

Rev. 21/Jn 11



In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.


A new book was recently published by a neurosurgeon who claimed to have had an experience of Heaven.

Dr. Ebon Alexander was in a coma for a week with a severe brain infection; he wasn’t expected to live. But he did survive—and when he regained consciousness, he told his family that he had had a vision of Heaven.

The usual questions were asked: Could the doctor have been mistaken? Was his experience really just a dream? Was the vision caused by a lack of blood flow to his brain? Maybe it was the result of the physical illness that had brought him near to death in the first place?

But the doctor insists that he actually made a journey into the next world. One PIECE OF EVIDENCE he offers is a meeting he had during the journey with a young woman whom he had never met.

The woman was beautiful and friendly. She claimed to be his younger biological sister whom he had never known and who had died years before. After the doctor regained consciousness, he did some research and found out that he did indeed have a previously unknown deceased sister and she looked like the woman in his vision.

Whatever you make of that report, you have to admit it’s interesting. Even those who aren’t religious wonder about life after death. What is it like? If we could have a trial visit to the afterlife, would that visit make a difference in how we live this life?

Such questions might have been asked of one of the most famous friends of Jesus. We heard part of his story in today’s Gospel.

The friend was named Lazarus and in the previous passage in John’s Gospel, he had become sick and he died before Jesus could come and heal him.

So Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus to find Lazarus’s sister, Mary weeping. The text says that Jesus himself was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

But then, despite the skepticism of Lazarus’s other sister, Martha, Christ orders the stone that seals the entrance to the tomb to be moved. According to the text, when Jesus had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus then emerged from the tomb alive-his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a shroud.

This account of the Raising of Lazarus is a kind of preview of the Resurrection of Jesus himself. The text also anticipates that the Life of the risen Christ will be shared by all the people of God.

But after the drama of the actual miracle, the conclusion of the story seems anti-climactic. Lazarus himself says nothing about his experience, nor does anyone ask him any questions.

Lazarus has been wrapped in burial cloths—the ancient equivalent of a coffin. Now that he is again alive, he obviously has no need for his shroud, so the story ends with Jesus telling his disciples, to “unbind” Lazarus and “let him go.”

While we may wish that Lazarus had shared his reflections of what it was like to come back from the grave, we might profit more from meditation on the last sentence of the text: “Unbind him and let him go.”

For as Lazarus extricates himself from his burial cloths, he also extricates himself from a higher form of bondage. He has survived death. He now knows in his own experience that God can overcome the worst possible threat, death itself.

Lazarus is now free—the first human being to have been delivered by the power of Christ. God’s grace has been made manifest in Lazarus; as he throws away his burial clothing, he casts away the old understanding of himself. He realizes that he isn’t chained forever to his body. One day, he’ll be completely free from the physical when he dies for good and inherits eternal life.

But we might wonder why the story of the Raising of Lazarus is read on All Saints Day. For Lazarus himself isn’t a prominent example of sainthood. He seems to have done nothing in particular that we Christians should imitate; his major claim to fame was his friendship with Jesus.

But the final words of the text suggest a broader view of sainthood than we normally hold. A usual view of saints might be: Christians who were able to follow the rules of Christianity. They were unselfish, they gave their lives in service to the Church or to the poor. They never got into trouble with relationships—indeed, many saints seem to have dispensed with romance altogether!

Such figures—monks and nuns, holy priests and bishops,—are so “saintly” that their role models are hard for us to follow in real life, day-in and day-out.

For us ordinary folks, Lazarus is a more valuable example of sainthood. However far we fall short of Christian standards, we can still hope to be “unbound.”

We can see our faith not as oppressive rules—as chains of duty that keep us from enjoying ourselves. As the Prayer Book observes, service to God is “perfect freedom.” God promises us a faith that frees us.

We at Incarnation now have an opportunity to put this promise to the test. Next Sunday will be our Commitment Sunday, when we consider the ways we can contribute as individuals to the ministry and witness of our church.

Many of us have already made pledges of money for 2013; many have also thought about how they can put their time and talents to work for the church in the next year.

In this process of deciding what we can give, we might take the story of Lazarus to heart. We might try to think of how our personal commitment could be liberating.

I remember once hearing a talk on Stewardship by the Bishop of Alabama. He felt that, for him, setting a percentage goal of the amount of his income that he gave away freed him from having to worry about how he was using his money.

The bishop made one decision every year about how much he would donate. Then for the rest of the year he didn’t worry any more about stewardship—and he enjoyed the money that he didn’t choose to give to the church.

As it happens, the doctor I mentioned earlier who had the vision of Heaven was also led to freedom was a Christmas and Easter Episcopalian. Before he fell into the coma, he wasn’t religious. But afterwards, his faith was as strong as it could be. He knew there was a life after death. His faith freed him from doubt and gave him a vision of heaven that enriched his experience of this life.

The doctor felt that he was delivered from what the baptismal service calls the “bondage of sin.” He could experience the new Life of Christ today.

And that is an example we can follow.



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