Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” –John 11:40
That is a big “if.” Although this is the case for many conditionals, as linguists call them, in this case Jesus’s “if” statement is huge: “If you believed.” How would you know that you had seen the glory of God? And is that the only way you will know that you have believed?
This line comes from the Gospel reading for All Saints Day, November 1st, which we will celebrate the following Sunday, November 4th. In this story, Jesus is talking to Martha, sister of Mary Magdalene, sisters of Lazarus, who died to prove a point about the glory of God. Indeed, Jesus comes along through this story, found only in the Gospel of John, sounding glib and self-assured.
“This illness does not lead to death, but is to show God’s glory,” Jesus said, before staying an extra two days after receiving the distress signal from Mary and Martha. Jesus seems to know just what will happen, even if nobody else can see it.
But Mary’s words pierce Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died.” This time, her tears open the heart of Jesus to their pain. In Greek, it is three words, “ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς, “Jesus began to weep,” in the new NRSV version, or simply and directly in the King James, “Jesus wept.” But according to the Greek, Jesus literally bursts into tears.
What began as a means of showing the ability of God to raise a human being from the dead ended up as one of the most profound human experiences for Jesus. He could not hide behind “the glory of God” when told that he was responsible for the death of this precious man through his arrogance, negligence, and foot-dragging. Nobody wants to disappoint his friends like that, not even the Son of God.
Meeting people has that effect on a person. They are abstract in conversation; in person, they are truly real. In conversation, “the glory of God” sounds like a great and wonderful thing. In real life, showing the glory of God in this case led to scenes of wailing in the agony of loss. This is the reality of seeing the people as they really are: flawed, mortal, easily here one day and gone the next. Because these are real people, with a real loss of real life.
As I’m thinking ahead to this day of remembrance, and thinking of this passage, I wonder if there aren’t some resonances for Trinity Lutheran Church in this story? Churches look to pastors at times to be those miracle workers whose presence will “bring people in” and make the church young again. But that does not happen anymore.
There are times that I honestly wish we could magically generate a renaissance at Trinity to show how wonderfully glorious God is. But that’s not how Jesus works. He might not get there until four days after the beloved one dies.
The prospect of death no doubt scared and saddened Martha and Mary, and probably Lazarus as well. No doubt he didn’t want to die and his sisters didn’t want to lose him. Their community must have known him and the sisters as well, because people turned out in droves to comfort them in the wake of his loss.
But a death in Christ is always different. It may not lead to the rolling away of a stone as it did for Lazarus, and later for Jesus, but it will definitely always lead to change, and to a new birth. When we are baptized into Christ’s body, we are baptized into his death. That is reality for us as Christians, not a theological concept. We don’t see the change; we embody it.
Some of us may fear the death of our congregation. I have heard some voice that fear. To face mortality is a challenging experience; it is also freeing. We will not live forever as people or as a congregation. We may not have long life ahead of us; we may have more years than any of us can see now. But we can claim whatever years we have as abundant life, because that is what Jesus promises us. Even if we, including myself, have trouble believing it sometimes. If only it were easy to believe.
Our ministry at Trinity is still needed in Park Forest. Park Forest has changed dramatically, yet this village may have another act ahead of it. As I mentioned at our last Council meeting, neither Park Forest’s Plaza nor Trinity’s “plaza” as such will likely ever come back. But God awakens new possibilities each day. The possibilities really click when human lives and experiences behind them click together with their needs meeting the needs, and the gladness to serve, of the other.
We need a mission. Park Forest needs stable churches that care for its citizens. We need to re-envision what that will look like. But that project, which we will experience as discerning our future-focused, outward-focused mission, can and will be exciting, freeing, and ultimately healing for us at Trinity and for the Village.
We can take this journey together, however or wherever God is calling us in Christ. Because when Jesus calls, we will follow. It is what we do.
May God bless you every day!