It’s not an accomplishment; it’s the trade. .
Well over 100 times now I’ve stood in the center of a sanctuary or in the middle of a funeral home chapel or at the head of an open grave on the fake plastic grass under an uneven tent or even a few times in a ‘sitting’ room and in front of all number and manner of mourners I’ve recited verses as inextricably linked with my character as ’…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ belong to the chorus of Henry V.
My lines, if not bald-faced lies or pious candy, signify a great deal more than nothing: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’
Sitting here in my kitchen, staring at the baby blue folder folder whose top sheet is labeled ‘Preparing for Your Surgery,’ with my surgeon’s frank Army countenance (‘We won’t know what we’re facing until after your surgery’) ringing on repeat in my head- and my wife’s, it suddenly occurs to me that in all those 100 plus times I’ve never once stood by the dead and looked out at the living and proffered a follow-up question:
Do you believe this?
Do you believe (any of) this? That Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That those who trust in him (even though they die) yet shall they live? Are these just lines? Do you believe it? Really?
I’ve never thought to ask because, for one practical reason, the United Methodist Book of Worship doesn’t instruct me to ask it. For another very intuitional reason, it would seem boorish.
Funerals, after all, are usually emotionally bare (as in, vulnerable not sparse) ocassions with a higher likliehood of truth-telling breaking out compared to the rest of the working week. And if the Pew Surveys and Gallop Polls are to be reckoned accurate, then the priest or pastor who dares to ask ‘Do you believe this?’ should be ready for roughly half the grieving gathered to answer ‘No.’
No, we don’t.
Believe much of any of this.
Indeed I’d wager that the number of those responding in the negative would increase the closer you crept to the front pews, especially on those ocassions where the caskets are shorter or the left behind’s hair less grey, those ocassions where circumstances still seem to demand the wearing of black or where the shoulders are stooped not from age but grief.
I bet, if I asked, I’d hear more no’s up close near the front. And so I’ve never asked the question because neither my ecclesiastical script nor good manners suggest I do so. Jesus does though, in John 11, after speaking the lines whence this funerary quote gets lifted.
The dead Lazarus’ sister, Martha, gives the Gospel’s best example of tearing Jesus a new asshole: ‘If you’d only come when I called, Jesus, my brother would still be alive.’
Jesus responds with a resurrection rejoinder that ends where I begin whenever death enters in: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
And then Jesus, unlike me, follows up with the question: ‘Do you believe this?’
Maybe, like Jesus, I should ask it too, propriety and piety be damned: ‘Do you believe this?’
Because, obivously, it’s a question meant for the living. Jesus isn’t asking what Lazarus believed. Four days dead, serene and sealed in the tomb, nobody cares anymore what Lazarus believed. Not God. Definitely not Lazarus.
No, Jesus is asking Martha what she believes.
When Jesus tells Martha about the power of the Resurrection, what Martha doesn’t get is that Jesus isn’t talking about a power available to us only after we die. He’s not talking about a one day down the road or even on the last day.
He’s talking about a power available in the present, today, in the here and now.
Because if you believe that Jesus Christ has destroyed Death then Resurrection doesn’t just make heaven possible, it makes a bold life possible too.
Because if you believe that Death is not the last word, then we have the power to live fully and faithfully.
And we don’t have to try to live forever.
Here’s what I’ve learned after those 100 plus ocassions delivering my lines for other people:
When you’re staring at a euphemistically hued folder from your surgeon and when the -c- word has made a grim if hopefully premature intrusion in to your not-yet-graying-life and when wildly melodramatic Lifetime movie-type voices chatter in the back of your head, you don’t much give a damn about forever.
Longer is all you want. Longer will do. Longer with….
And here’s what you notice:
Martha’s ‘Yes, I believe’ doesn’t guarrantee a happy ending for her brother.
The size of Jesus’ tears outside Lazarus’ grave suggest even Jesus was a little shocked the dead guy walked out newly alive, but, even after all the trouble, Lazarus will die again, of old age and natural causes, or post-op infection perhaps or maybe of a broken heart.
Martha says ‘Yes, I believe’ and no doubt she does, but, seen from Jesus’ POV, she doesn’t grasp at all what it means to believe.
She and Jesus are speaking past each other. He’s talking about his very Being; she’s talking about the Last Day. Even our strongest beliefs barely scratch the surface of what’s True.
In case those first two observations strike you as dissatisfying, here’s the last thing you notice staring at a baby blue folder embossed with the caduceus and your name in hasty yellow marker.
A God who works by Resurrection is, by definition, a God of surprises- light from darkness and all that- and a God of surprises is, by definition not a genie in a magic lamp.
The antonym of Resurrection isn’t Death; it’s Predictable.
Perhaps then that’s the best reason not to add to my familiar script and pose that question to mourners: ‘Do you believe this?’
Because even when the answer is in the affirmative, even where the faith is as strong if uncomprehending as Martha’s, ‘Yes’ is still a complicated answer. Now that the
shoe gown is on the other foot body, I regret any of the times in those 100 plus that I might’ve implied anything other.