A Meditation for All Saints’ Sunday
TEXT: John 11:32-44
Then Jesus … came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:38-44, NRSV)
Picture the scene described in chapter 11 of John’s gospel:
- there is a crowd standing outside a grave;
- there are the sisters of the deceased, grieving their dead brother;
- there are neighbours and townspeople, huddled together to see what might happen next; and
- behind a huge boulder that seals the entrance to his tomb lies the corpse of Lazarus, now four days dead.
Then Jesus arrives—grieving and agitated himself, aware of the crowd, seeing his dear friends mourning the one they loved. Yet … he is confident in his prayer, and able to change this scene from one of sorrow to one of joy.
In artistic representations of this story, the resurrected Lazarus stands at the entrance to his tomb, still wrapped up in burial linen. He looks like someone wearing a Hallowe’en mummy costume. Barely able to move—bound up as he is by those bands of cloth—he cannot fully celebrate his renewed existence. He cannot rush to embrace his loved ones and neighbours, who stand and watch. And so, Jesus completes the miracle with a final command: “Unbind him, and let him go.”
“Unbind him!” Powerful words—spoken not just to Lazarus, but to the whole crowd that is so eager to see what will happen next. And spoken not just for them, but for all of us, as well. See, this gospel passage—this miracle story—is not just about a single event that happened long ago. No.
Today, as yesterday, Jesus’ entire ministry is focused on bringing life to individuals, and to all humankind.
I think that—if we look closer at this scene—we find that Lazarus is not the only one bound up in grave cloths. It seems to me that the grave cloths are draped around everybody watching this scene, as well. And perhaps, when we look in the mirror, we can see that we are wrapped up pretty tightly ourselves. We, too, are bound—not with linen burial wrappings, to be sure—but bound, just the same.
We are bound by those things that keep us from living the way we were meant to live. Perhaps we are bound by our fears. Maybe we’re afraid of looking foolish. Maybe we’re afraid of being found out—and discovered to be less accomplished, less noble, less competent, than our reputations would indicate. Maybe we’re afraid of letting go of something we cherish, or someone we love. Or maybe we have a secret sin, or a shady past … and we worry about what people would think of us … if only they knew.
Our fears bind us; they cripple us; they keep us from trying new things, from letting something new happen in our lives. Maybe we’re wrapped up in our bitterness, unable to let go of a hurt we’ve suffered. Maybe we remain bound by the pain that someone inflicted upon us long ago. Maybe we’re unwilling to forgive—and therefore unable to move on with our lives, and with our healing. Maybe we’re caught up in shame—so convinced we’re unworthy of life—unworthy of forgiveness, unworthy of wholeness—that we never allow others to see who we truly are. We never allow ourselves to fully live.
Or perhaps we are constrained by our prejudices. Perhaps we stereotype people by the kind of clothes they wear, or their hair style, or their age, or the colour of their skin.
Perhaps we look down on others because of the kind of job they have, or the sort of people they hang out with, or their political viewpoint.
Or is it, perhaps, our grief that enshrouds us? Are we so heartbroken about those whom we have lost … that we can no longer face life? Are we so tightly wrapped up in memories, and in “what could have been,” that we cannot acknowledge what’s good and hopeful about the here and now?
“Well, perhaps we are,” you may say. “Perhaps we are. But, preacher—are you going to tell us you have something better to offer? You come to us with a far-fetched tale about a dead man coming back to life, and you expect us to believe that makes some difference to what’s happening with us?
“C’mon, preacher, get a grip! Get real!”
Truth to tell, I couldn’t blame you for saying that. Truth to tell, I don’t know what your individual lives are like—what sorrows you bear, what crosses you carry, what memories and fears torment you. But if I were to say to you that I did not believe in resurrection, I would be lying to you.
The story of Lazarus rings true for me. I have no difficulty believing it. I believe in resurrection. And maybe you smile and say, “Well, of course he believes it; he’s a preacher—he has to believe it.”
But I want to tell you why I believe it. I don’t believe it just because it’s in the Bible. I don’t believe it just because I call myself an evangelical, and I think it’s the “party line.” No. I believe this gospel story—and I believe in resurrection—because I have experienced it as real in my own life.
Some of you know that my son—who’s all grown up now, and healthy, and a pastor himself … and the father of two children, with one more on the way …
Samuel was born with a serious heart defect. When he was a newborn, many people—including some of his doctors, and even me—did not expect him to live. And in fact, he almost did not survive. When he was 24 days old, he had his first open-heart surgery—what would be the first of many—and he came very close to death.
But, of course, he surprised us. He not only survived, but he thrived! Against all odds, my boy made it. And I believe—and my wife believes—that God gave us our son back; back from the brink of death, back from the grave.
Yeah. God gave us our son back … from the grave.
And when, today, I look into Samuel’s eyes—or into the eyes of his children—do you know what I see?
I see resurrection!
I see the promise of eternal life made real and tangible—standing before me, just as surely as Lazarus stood before Jesus on that long-ago day in Bethany. That is why I’m convinced this story is true. It has become true for me—and I cannot deny it … not ever.
And that’s why I urge you, today—look for resurrection!
Look for resurrection. Look for it in your own life, because it is real. Regardless of whatever binds us—whatever it is that constrains us—Jesus is coming to set us free!
Jesus is removing the grave cloths that we have wrapped around ourselves, so that we might live as we were meant to live. What Jesus did for Lazarus, he wants to do for all of us—to unbind us from whatever it is that holds us back.
Jesus wants to set us free!
The Christian festival of All Saints is about is remembering those who have died before us, and who now live in closer communion with God. Unlike Mary and Martha, we don’t actually get to see our loved ones rise from the dead. Not yet, anyway. Sometimes we wish that were the case. But listen …
It is not our departed loved ones who are called to wake up today. It’s us! We are the ones who are being called to wake up and claim our place with the rest of the saints. Jesus wants us to see ourselves as being alive, and unbound, and liberated. As we honour the saints, we see ourselves living amongst all of God’s people from every place and time. As we remember those who have gone ahead of us, we join them at the River of Life. We embrace them in the New Jerusalem.
It’s not just Lazarus who hears his name being shouted from outside the tomb this morning. Each one of us can hear Jesus’ voice, as well: “Child of God, lift up your head and live!”
Live! Not just someday—not just tomorrow in heaven—but right here, right now, today!
Why? Because God is here. Because Jesus is here, and his loud, clear voice is calling this morning, proclaiming to all of us: “See! The dwelling-place of God is now among mortals! You are set free—free to be alive and whole and well. You don’t have to be under the shroud of death anymore. Live, children of God! Live!”
Today, my friends, we are loved and embraced. Today, we are counted among the living. We no longer have to live as if death had dominion over us. We have been set free to go onward: to take the risks that faith demands of us; to let go of whatever has hurt us; to reach beyond ourselves in compassion for others.
Today we have been freed to join the communion of saints. No longer isolated, we are free to celebrate our connections—not only with those saints already in heaven, but also with all of those living here around us now. Today we have been freed to live in the truth of resurrection. No longer are we bound up in shame and grief and sadness. God has come among us:
- come to wipe away every tear from our eyes;
- come to unbind us from death’s icy grip;
- come to restore us to the land of the living.
On this day, God comes to us, with unbounded grace. On this day, we are unbound. Today, let us become the people God created us to be. Today, let’s start living like we believe in the promise of eternal life!