The scriptures we heard today tell sad and remarkably similar stories – of a widow losing her son to death; and of the prophet Elijah, and later, Jesus restoring these two sons back to life.
To Biblical scholars, this is seen as one of many attempts to depict Jesus as a fulfillment of ancient scriptural prophecies – as the ‘new Elijah’ or the Messiah, foretold in the ancient Torah.
For New Testament scholars, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain takes its place with the two other stories of Jesus restoring life to those taken by death. In Matthew 9:18-26, Jesus returned Jairus’ daughter to the living. A president of the local Galilean synagogue, Jairus probably felt threatened by teachings and works of Jesus, but nevertheless, faced by Jesus’ powerful presence, asked his daughter be restored to life. Jesus felt compassion for this father and immediately went to his house and restored the life of the little girl. In an even more famous story told in John 11:1-44, Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha and Jesus beloved friend, was raised from the dead by Jesus before a large and awestruck crowd.
There are many levels upon which we can learn from these stories: theologically, culturally, and individually. One could expound for hours on their implications – indeed, countless books have been written that do so– but, today, let me examine a few.
The woman of Nain is referred to as a ‘widow’. Not only was this poor woman mourning the death of her only son, but she now was all alone in a society that did not have provisions for the care of widows. There was no one left to care for her in her old age; no welfare or assistance available for widows like her. It was up to a woman’s children, especially her sons, to see that she was cared for. But, she has no one left! She is all alone, helpless and caught in a desperate situation. She has nothing to look forward to except poverty and despair. She is at the mercy of others people’s kindness. She has nowhere to go and nowhere to turn. She finds herself trapped in a helpless condition. Widows were the lowliest of the lowly.
As Jesus looked upon this woman, He saw that all her hope was gone, a woman who not only was having to grieve without family at the death of her son, but also being judged by her own society and people. Jesus told her not to weep because He was about to turn her tears into celebration at the return of her son.
In each of these stories, Jesus speaks to the person – He speaks and life emerges where there was death. This is just one of the examples of His works and teachings that turned the world upside down, countering everything that man thought they knew and believed; that, in fact, the least can be the greatest, the lowliest are indeed powerful, the sick and suffering can find wellness and healing, the poor and outcast can find hope and acceptance.
Conversely, Jesus taught us that many of the things for which we strive: power, wealth, possessions, knowledge, titles and accolades are fleeting, finite, and mutable.
These stories also teach us that Jesus and His ‘way’, the thinking and life values that He taught and represented, also turn the world upside down. That our deep and paralyzing fear of death, drives us to hurtful behaviors that generate greed, arrogance, vengeance, pride, envy and judgment.
Yes, in reality and on a daily basis, we are afraid. Motivated by our fear of death, we strive to make our mark on our earthly life, because we fear ‘that this is all there is’. We fear one of the harsh truths of life:
death is still death.
One day, you will die.
YOU will die. I will die.
Our friends and our family, our neighbors – everybody you know will die.
They are all going to die. Sooner or later.
It doesn’t matter how clever we are,
It doesn’t matter how wealthy we are,
It doesn’t matter how many important people we know… everybody dies.
Death is a painful reality of life.
But Jesus assures us
“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)
He also lovingly scolds us:
“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2)
These are the promise God gives every human being, and God proved that promise in the life, death and resurrection of his Son, our brother, Jesus Christ.
Paul reminds us
“don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” (Romans 6:3-5)
This is the life-transforming and world-changing message of these biblical stories we have heard today, and of the life of Jesus. That in following in His way, His values, and living by His examples, we will grow to understand and truly believe, to the core of our being, that
DEATH IS NOT THE END!
That Jesus is indeed, ‘God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God’;
- if we follow His way, embrace the values of love, inclusion, forgiveness, and service that He taught;
- if we live our lives on earth with humility, compassion, mercy and hope,
we will gain the reassuring understanding that death is only a door to new life.
Because He lived as we have lived,
and died as we must,
that we shall live again as He does.
Whether the end of our lives is by crucifixion, torture, war, cancer, body-crippling diseases, accidents, or old age
DEATH IS NOT THE END!
This is the life-giving hope, this is why we can be joyful and fear no more.
We are free.
This is the good news that we must tell to everyone.
Delivered at Saint John’s Worthington Episcopal Church, Worthington, OH; 5 June 2016