Good news is that God has defeated death. In other words, because we have faith in Jesus, Jesus makes the difference in how we approach this. And so, we live to live again. That is what we believe. So, death in a matter of speaking is a is a sad inconvenience for us. Another way to say that is death is a passageway, a doorway to where we will live eternally.
Easton: This is For people with Bishop Rob Wright.
Melissa: Well, hello, everyone. I’m Melissa Rau, and this is For People. Throughout this 2023 Lenten season, Bishop Wright and I are having brief conversations based on his five-part video series and study guides he shared with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. You can get access to the video series by visiting www.EpiscopalAtlanta.org.
Rob: We’re having brief conversations about the longest story that we use in the church.
Melissa: Seriously, I was like getting tired during the Gospel reading this past week. This is number five out of five. And you get into difference between life and death based on the story of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in the Gospel of John Chapter 11 Verses 1:45.
So, it’s lent now, which is starkly juxtaposed by Easter, much like Death and life are. So, I mean, yeah, you said it’s a longish story, packed with a lot of good stuff. And I’m wondering if you can summarize what you mean by Jesus making all the difference between life and death?
Rob: Well, we always have too. People like me, who have to talk, have to be tethered to something. It’s not just sort of my vagrant thoughts about things. It is this notion that Jesus makes a difference between life and death, starts in a Bible story. And then we look for those principles in our own lives and in the world around us.
So, this is a story about Jesus’s friend, Lazarus, who died. And it took Jesus four days to get to the village where Lazarus was. This was a family that he knew, and he loved. He had befriended and they had befriended him, Mary and Martha. There’s disappointment in God in this story. There’s a good solid teaching in this story. There’s a twist, I mean, it’s a good Netflix series. It has a great twist in towards the end. And we’re left with an image of Jesus that I think, you know, transfers vitality from an old story into our own lives now.
Melissa: Well, you know, a number of people would say, I think, agree, that Jesus is indeed the difference between life and death. And yet, there are still many people who say, “No, it’s not so much Jesus that’s the difference. It’s our belief in Jesus that makes the difference.” Do you have any thoughts on that?
Rob: No, I mean, you know, tomato, tomato, right? I mean, you know, believing in Jesus and Jesus making the difference. I mean, I agree, you know, amen. Let’s do that. That’s to me is too small of a point to make. We are saying that there is something about this Jesus who comes among us and opens us up, allows us to face life and death with our eyes wide open and does not require of us any sort of euphemism or oblique talk. Is God enough for the most difficult things will ever face? And so yeah, Jesus makes the difference. Faith in Jesus makes the difference. Yes, agreed.
Melissa: Nice. Okay. Great. Way to dodge that bullet, Bishop.
Bishop, you alluded to the fact that this story can clarify some things for us. And I’m paraphrasing, you say, one, our faith in Jesus doesn’t mean we’re exempt from dying. Two, even when we’re sick, dying and even dead, that we aren’t abandoned by God. Three, death and resurrection aren’t in competitions. And four, that death isn’t useless to God.
So, first of all, thank you for that. And can you say more about specifically numbers three and four. I’ve never really regarded death and resurrection as being in competition and yet, perhaps you think that maybe some others do. And I’m just curious if you can unpack that?
Rob: Yeah, well, I mean, even as I was writing this, and I was talking it over with Easton, and my wife who does a lot of the editing, you know, they were saying that, “Hey, you know, you use the first person in this meditation. We haven’t seen you do that before.” And that because I can’t really talk about death and resurrection, Jesus making the difference, without bringing 26, 27 years of experience as a Pastor into play. It is because I have seen people who had faith in Jesus, at critical intersections in their life buying a spouse, buying children. The grief of all of that, the sense of abandonment of all that, the questioning of faith of all that. And to see people move out from underneath that and find meaning and find acceptance of their circumstances and find a new horizon in their life.
I wanted to use the first person, you know, in this because I wanted to just share some of the good news that I didn’t make up in my own mind or the mind of someone who writes, but the good news of what I’ve seen in people’s lives, the dying, and then the coming back to life again.
Obviously, it’s different than Lazarus. The Scripture says that Lazarus literally came back to life. But I think nevertheless, I mean, it puts the church in the position of paying attention and proclaiming when resurrection happens among us, right? And so, you know, when we get to three and four, I guess what we’re talking about is that some people live their life, like death, and the possibility of resurrection or coequal. In some ways the way that people think of the God and the Devil. It’s just two big elephants wrestling and who knows which one will win. That’s not the Christian story or the good news. The good news is that God has defeated death. That’s what St. Paul says, right? “Death, where is your sting?”
In other words, because we have faith in Jesus, Jesus makes the difference in how we approach this. And so, we live to live again. That is what we believe. So, what death in a matter of speaking is a sad inconvenience for us. Another way to say that is death is a passageway, a doorway, to where we will live eternally, and where we will be reunited with loved ones, etc. Where we will be actually in the closer and dear presence of God. That is what the Christian faith and the hope is. But sometimes we live as if these two things, these two things are co-equal. And we have a certain uncertainty in our living.
I think I’ve mentioned this before in the podcast, you know, to meet people who are certain about God is real, and that God is able, good, and generous, and that God will hold their hand as their eyes close on this side and we’ll be waiting with them with arms outstretched on the other side. To meet those people is a true gift. I hope everybody has met those people. And I pray to God that some of us, all of us are those people. I’ve met those people in my life and I’m telling you, death is just an inconvenience for them. They know where they’re going, they know to whom they are going. And so, it’s not co-equal at all.
I would argue, as I said, you know, I think Jimmy Carter believes that death and resurrection are not co-equal. I believe the way that Pope Francis died, I’m sorry, not Pope Francis. But Pope John Paul died. His faculties degenerated in front of us. He didn’t hide with shame. He told us and showed us how to die. And that is because when you know where you are going and to whom you are going, you can bold or Jesus makes the difference. That’s what I’m saying.
And the last thing, I guess what I’m saying, is that perhaps you and look into the casket. And perhaps you and I look in the column barium. And we don’t see any resources, any buildable materials there. But God in God’s genius does. And so, funerals are really not for the dead. They are for the living, right? It’s a way that the minister in the congregation can steward the resources of death for the living. And so, a proper funeral sermon, here’s the seminar now, a proper funeral sermon is not simply eulogizing the one who has died. But also saying, this person has died in the short and certain hope of the resurrection. Now, are you on that path? And so, it’s an invitation. God is a genius.
It’s like when leaves fall. I know we just had our first day of Spring here. But it’s like when leaves fall. when the leaves fall off the trees in the fall, they are self-mulching themselves, they are providing, you know, all of the resources to give them a fertile spring. And this is the genius of God, you know. And so, in death, I have seen the death of one person in a congregation, a much beloved person, an exemplary Christian person die. And I have seen how that resurrected many people in the room. How one that this person died, oftentimes, suddenly, and how that shocked people, and that people didn’t sort of go off into some sort of sad, morbid kind of sense of themselves. But they realized that life is fleeting, life is a gift, and so I better get living.
This is why I’m saying about, you know, this wonderful story is that there are these paradigms that we can pull out of them, and support ourselves with so that we can know for ourselves the difference that Jesus makes.
Melissa: Friends, we are going to be right back after a short break.
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Welcome back to For People. Bishop, you talked about funerals just before our break. And one thing that you also kind of highlighted in your devotion, you said God is greater than all the graves we can encounter. Which really jumped out at me because guess what, we don’t just die. I think we do experience a number of deaths throughout life. Whether it be other people dying or even death to our self or death to some things that we love or the sunsetting of certain things. And so, I love that you highlighted in death life is changed, not ended.
Can you speak more about that, about things that we die to, and how resurrection wins or can win, or something about that in death life has changed, not ended?
Rob: Sure. I mean, that lines came from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, and it’s in the funeral service. And if people don’t know that, you ought to read through that. I mean, it helps us to understand life, even though the service, you know, is about conducting a funeral. This is what we believe through the eyes of faith, right? That life is not ended, life has changed. What we believe is that we go home to God. We believe, as I’ve said, in lots of places, like raindrops, you know, returning to an ocean, that’s who we are, right? The energy I wish I was a better scientist than I am. The energy does not sort of evaporate. It is transferred into another form. I believe this. It helps me if I want to fear and the despair, it helps me. It’s not easy. It’s nothing easy about going to an ICU and saying goodbyes or making the difficult decision to suspend support, life support to someone. There is nothing easy there. But who meets us there? I think is worth it all.
You know, I talk about in this story, that there’s an image that we have of Jesus, and the image is that Jesus is walking towards the tomb. Jesus is walking towards Lazarus. He’s walking toward the weeping sisters, Mary and Martha. He himself loves and so he himself weeps. He understands what friendship means. All of this is in the story, and he walks towards us in our most difficult hour. And so, that’s an image of Jesus I want people to really hold on to. You’re not abandoned because you’re sick. You’re not abandoned because you got a bad diagnosis. You’re not abandoned, God is right there with you. That’s what I mean by none of us is spared, you know all the facets of mortality.
We are human, that is what it is. We were born, we will live, and then we will die. But we are also more than just dust. We are dust, that is absolutely true. And ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And then, there’s this other piece of us. This other piece of us that is hard to define and even human beings have been trying to talk about since the beginning of human beings. But we have some sense. And all the great religions know this is true. We have some sense that we are more than that. And I don’t think it’s just us sort of justifying our own uniqueness. I think we are trying to talk about this piece of God, this Imago Dei, this image of God that is in us that doesn’t simply just go down to the grave and cease.
When we know this, it should bolster us. The kids say these days, YOLO, you only live once. But they’re so wrong. They’re so wrong. That is not the Christian argument. No, no, we live to live again. You know, I was a chaplain in an episcopal school a thousand years ago when Jesus was a teenager. And I remember being the chaplain to very young people kindergarten, first grade, second grade. And what they wanted to know was, where does grandma go when grandma dies, right? And I watched parents, you know, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, very sophisticated bunch really struggle with death. In fact, some people kept their children away from the funeral. They never positively located grandma, or the dead pet, or anything like that. The kids were left bewildered and insecure and disoriented.
We did a whole module. We have this great grand column at the Cathedral of St. John and Devine in Upper West Side of Manhattan. We talked about that and confronted that. We positively located our loved ones. And it made absolute sense to young people in that way. That’s another example, Jesus makes all the difference. Because “Oh, grandma’s with my friend, Jesus. And someday I’ll be with her again.” That is what we argued, you know, in Scripture. I understand that that takes a leap of faith for some people. And I understand that some of us struggle with that. And maybe that’s exactly the prayer we need to pray this Lent, which is God helped me to see life and death, the way that you see life. And maybe that’s the way Jesus can make the difference in our own lives right now, if we’re struggling. And the struggle is legitimate, right? But maybe we just reach outside of ourselves for a resource and say, “Lord, help me to understand a little bit more about how you understand life and death so that I might truly live.”
Melissa: Fabulous. That’s my prayer that I see that more clearly, indeed. Bishop, thank you for your wisdom and listeners. We thank you for listening to For People. You can keep up with us on Instagram and Facebook at Bishop Rob Wright. Please subscribe, leave a review and we’ll be back with you next week.