When my niece Sarah was born, I was amazed at how quickly I fell in love with her. Just as soon as my brother placed her in my arms, I was consumed with a love so great that I thought my heart would burst. But as great as that love was, as the weeks and months passed and that love grew deeper and deeper. When Sarah was about 11 months old, my best friend gave birth to a daughter and when she placed her child in my arms for the first time, I fell deeply in love with darling little Rebekah. Fortunately, Sarah and Rebekah lived quite a distance away from one another and I was able to carve out enough time to spoil each of them separately and in their own unique ways. In fact, these darling little girls who were the apples of my eye never actually met until one Easter weekend, when Sarah was about 3 years old and Rebekah was almost 2. It was absolutely the worst Easter egg hunt I have ever attended. It was horrible. Every time a paid even the slightest bit of attention to one of those darling girls the other one would fly into a jealous snit. They vied in the most undignified way for my attention all afternoon. If I even so much as smiled at one of them the other one would feel the need to do something, anything to get my attention firmly focused back on them. If I picked one of them up, the other one would begin to moan and complain about something until I put the other one down and picked up the complainer. If one of them found an Easter egg the other would cry until the focus was returned to their quest for an egg. If one of them crawled up on my lap, the other one would try to physically remove that one so that they could crawl up in their place. The parents in attendance just laughed at my predicament and left me to the task of trying to assure my darling little girls that just because I loved one of them didn’t mean that I didn’t love the other.
Over the years, I’ve come to believe that the jealousy that I bore witness to on that long ago Easter weekend was born of a fear that lives inside each of us. For who among us has not worried about whether or not there’s going to be enough love for us. That fear lies at the very heart of who we are. Child psychologists describe the phenomenon of fear in children as coming in three basic forms: the fear of falling or failing, the fear of loud noises or catastrophe, and the fear of abandonment. They suggest that at the bottom of all these fears is the fear of death. We human’s are a strange lot, driven by our fears to commit the most outrageous acts. So many of us live lives controlled by our fears, and we wrap ourselves up in the fear that there just won’t be enough love for us; or enough success, or enough money, or enough time. So we become jealous of others, and we grab all the success and all the money we can before time runs out. We allow our fears to drive our emotions and so jealousy, greed and eventually hatred drive our actions and poverty, violence and war come to dominate our world. The fear of death is the primal terror that what awaits us at the end of our journey here is nothing but chaos or even judgement or punishment.
The ancient poet Homer, writing centuries before the birth of Christ, put it quite succinctly, Homer said, “Death is that thing that destroys what we call life and who can remove the terror of it.”
What would it be like, do you suppose, if we could lose our fear of death? What if the dark end of the tunnel that awaits every one of us ceased to be something that we dread and avoid? What if we look upon our death as a portal, the beginning of a new adventure? How would loosing the fear of death impact the way we live?
In a sermon years ago, the great Southern preacher, John Claypool talked about a little known play by Eugene O’Neill entitled, “Lazarus Laughed.” In this play, O’Neill gives us a glimpse of the power of life without fear. The play begins, where the Biblical story of Lazarus leaves off presuming that the audience is very familiar with the biblical story. “Lazarus was dead and buried for four whole days when Jesus came to the village of Bethany, had the stone rolled back from the tomb, and gave Lazarus back the gift of life.
As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is seen stumbling out of the dark, blinking into the sunlight. After the grave clothes are taken off of him, Lazarus begins to laugh a gentle, soft laugh; nothing bitter, nothing derisive, an embracing, astonishing, welcoming sound. The very first thing Lazarus does is to embrace Jesus with gratitude. Then Lazarus begins to embrace his sisters Martha and Mary and then the other people who are gathered about in astonishment. Lazarus has a very clear look in his eye, nothing far away. It’s as if he’s seeing the world about him for the very first time. He reaches over and pats the earth very affectionately. He looks up at the sky, at the trees, at the neighbours as if he had never seen them before, as if he is overwhelmed by the incredible all rightness of the way everything is. The very first words Lazarus utters are the words, “Yes, yes, yes,” as if to embrace reality as it is being discovered all over again.
In the play, Lazarus makes his way back to his house and the whole village of Bethany is awash with wonder. Finally somebody gets the courage to ask what was on everybody’s mind. “Lazarus, tell us what it’s like to die. What lies on the other side of this boundary that none of us have crossed?” At that point, Lazarus begins to laugh even more intensely and then he says, “There is no death, really. There is only life. There is only God. There is only incredible joy.” “Death is not the way it appears from this side. Death is not an abyss into which we go into chaos. “Death is a portal through which we move into everlasting growth and everlasting life.”
Then Lazarus says, “The One that meets us there is the same generosity that gave us our lives in the beginning, the One who gave us our birth. Not because we deserved it but because that generous One wanted us to be and therefore there is nothing to fear in the next realm.”
“The grave is as empty as a doorway is empty. It is a portal through which we move into greater and finer life. Therefore, there is nothing to fear. Our great agenda in this part of life is to learn to accept, to learn to trust. We are here to learn to love more fully. There is only life. There is no death.” And with that Lazarus’ laughter began to fill the whole house in which he was staying. Then, Lazarus goes back to his daily tasks, but there is something different. He is calm and not anxious anymore. He is no longer vulnerable to that fear that diminishes the vitality of life. The house where he lives became known as the “house of laughter” and night after night, you would hear singing and dancing. And the spirit of this one who had come back with this message that there is nothing to fear began to spread throughout the whole little village. The quality of work began to rise all over Bethany. People began to live in harmony and more generously with one another. The conflicts of old died down. Joy settled over this whole little community because someone had come back saying that there was finally nothing to fear.
But, not everyone in Bethany was pleased with this turn of events. The Roman authorities were quick to sense that this one who had lost his fear of death was, in fact, a great threat to the kind of control that they liked to maintain. You realize, of course, that the key to intimidation is always that incipient fear of death. The way a tyrant holds someone down is by always suggesting that if they don’t obey then something terrible, like death, would be used against them. One of the cruelest of all the Roman emperors, a man named Caligula, used to say, “Crosses and corpses are so educational. Let the scum see their blood or the blood of some of their kin and it will so cower them in fear that then we can rule them.”
So the Romans were past masters at intimidation and Lazarus represented a real threat.How do you intimidate someone who is no longer afraid of death? In the play, the Roman authorities move in on Lazarus. They tell him to quit laughing. They tell him his house can no longer be the place for parties and all he does is to laugh all the more. He says clearly, “The truth is, there is nothing you can do to me. There is no death. There is only life.”
The Romans were so frustrated that they arrest him. They take him to Caesarea where he appears before a higher official, but he’s not able to do anything with Lazarus. And so, Lazarus is taken all the way to Rome. The play ends as Lazarus stands face to face with the Roman emperor. Here is the man who is allegedly the most powerful of all on the earth. He says to Lazarus, “You have a choice. You will either stop this infernal laughter right this minute or I’m going to have you put to death.” And Lazarus continues to laugh. He says to the emperor, “Go ahead and do what you will. There is no death. There is only life.”
The play ends with a man who is no longer afraid of death actually being more powerful than the one who ruled all of the Roman empire. (John Claypool, “Easter and the Fear of Death” 1997)
Death is that ancient primal fear that that haunts us and drives us. Death is the mystery that drives us to believe that there’s not enough time, to gather enough love, enough money, or enough power and so we jealously grab all we can so that jealousy, greed, and hatred lead us down the pathway to poverty, violence and war. Death is that thing that destroys life. Who can remove the terror of it?
The good news that the tomb is empty is enough for me. I have no need to see or know a risen corpse. I news that the tomb is empty together with the departure of so many people that I have loved and lost to so many tombs has lead me to believe that life is eternal. And sisters and brothers I do mean eternal in the literal sense; for by definition eternal means that which has no beginning and no end. All to often we forget the no beginning part. Our lives are eternal for we are made of stardust; billions of years old are we. Death will not be the end, but a continuation of the connection we already have with one another and with the Divine. Just as Jesus lived and died in, with, and trough God, so to do we. Jesus died into God and so shall we. Death is not the final word.
Death is a very big word, perhaps one of the biggest, words in our vocabulary, but it is not the most important word; love is. When we live in Love who is God, when we die in Love who is God, death is not the final word; love is. I have no idea what lies beyond death; neither does anyone who has ever lived this side of death. I live in the sure and certain knowledge that the grave is empty. As empty as any grave, or urn, or corpse that I have ever stood by. There is absolutely no point seeking the living among the dead. Anyone who has ever sat beside someone who is dying knows this. For at the very moment of death, the living are gone. The corpse that held them is empty. And yet they live.
They live in our hearts, they live in our minds, and if the love we felt was strong, the actually live in our bodies. The more I learn of science, I am beginning to understand that the live in ways that are beyond my comprehension; for physics teaches us that matter can change its shape and composition and that what was there one minute in one form can change in an instant into another form, in ways that we are scarcely beginning to understand. So, I am confident that the grave is empty.
There’s a parable that I’ve told here before, that I sometimes tell at funerals, but I’ve never told it at Easter and I can’t figure out why. It is a modern parable that captures the notion of eternal life. Like all good parables it bears repeating.
“Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived in the same womb. Seconds and minutes and hours passed by as the two dormant lives developed. The spark of life glowed until it fanned fire with the formation of their embryonic brains. And with their simple brains came feeling and with feeling came perception; a perception of surroundings, of each other, and of self. When they perceived the life of the other and their own life, they knew that life was good. And the fetuses laughed and rejoiced, the one saying: “Lucky are we to have been conceived and to have this world.” And the other fetus chimed in, “Blessed be the mother who gave us life and each other.”
Each budded and grew arms and fingers, lean legs and stubby toes. They stretched their lungs and churned and turned in their newfound world. They explored their new world, and in it found the life cord. They found the life cord that gave them life from the precious mother. And so they sang, “How great is the love of the mother that she shares all she has with us.” And they were pleased and they were satisfied with their lot.
But…weeks passed into months, and with the advent of each new month, they noticed that they were…changing. They noticed that they were…growing older. And each began to see a change in themselves and one said: “We are changing. We are growing. What can this mean?”
“It means,” replied the other, “that we are drawing near to our…to our…birth. We are drawing near to our birth.” And then a chill suddenly crept over the two, and they were both afraid. For they knew that birth meant leaving behind their secure world.
They knew that birth meant going beyond what they knew. Said one to the other, “Were it up to me, I would live here forever. I would stay in this womb forever because I know its safe here.”
“We must be born,” said the other. “It has happened to others who were here before us.” For indeed, there was evidence of life there before, evidence that the mother had born others.
“But might not there be life after birth?” said one to the other.
“Well, how can there be life after birth?” cried the other. Have you ever talked to anyone who has been born? Has anyone ever re-entered the womb after birth? No!!!” He fell into despair and in despair, he moaned, “If the purpose of conception and all growth is that it is to be ended in birth, then truly, this life is pointless.
Resigned to despair, the one stabbed the darkness with his unseeing eyes and he clutched his precious life cord to his chest and said: “If this is so, if I must be born, this life is pointless and there must be no mother after all.”
“But there is a mother,” protested the other. “Who else gave us nourishment in our world?”
“Oh, we get our own nourishment from the womb and our world has always been here, if we look hard enough we will be able to figure out how the womb came to be. Besides if there is a mother, where is she? Have you ever seen her? Does she ever talk to you? No. We just invented the mother because it satisfied a need in us. It made us feel secure and happy.”
Thus, while one raved and despaired, the other resigned himself to birth. He placed his hands in the trust of the mother. Well, hours passed into days and days fell into weeks, and it came time. It came time for them to …be born. And both knew that their…birth was at hand. And both feared what they did not know. And as the one was the first to be conceived, so he was the first to be born. The other followed after. And they cried as they were born out into the light. They coughed up fluid, and they gasped the dry air; and when they were sure that they had been born, they opened up their eyes, and they found themselves cradled in the warm love of the mother. They lay open mouthed, awestruck at the beauty of the mother that they had never seen before.” (Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (Harper: SanFrancisco, 1994), pp. 19-20)
In Christ, God has promised to each of us the gift of eternal life. All of us managed to survive the trip out of the womb. And today, living in God we can be confident that each of us will also survive the trip out of the tomb. Just as Jesus lived in God and died into God and was raised into God, we too shall be raised for life is eternal.
I can believe the miracle that God, who lies at the very heart of reality, transforms caterpillars into butterflies.
I can believe that ugly old bulbs can become beautiful festive flowers.
I can believe that billion-year-old stardust can become human.
I can believe that every grave, every tomb, every corpse is empty.
So, I believe that there is more, so much more, so very much more that I can know or understand. The tomb is empty!
Let the news that Christ is risen calm your fears!
Death has no power over you!
Laugh to your hearts content, let God hear you laugh!
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, …
Be not afraid….yes….yes…yes….yes….
Peace be with you….yes….yes…yes….
Life is eternal…..yes….yes…yes…yes…
In the reign of God…there is enough love, enough joy, enough happiness, enough kindness, enough food, enough riches, enough time….yes…yes…yes…yes..
Christ is Risen….
Christ is Risen indeed…Alleluia!
There is no death.
There is only life.
Be not afraid.
Peace be with you.
Benediction: Christ is Risen….
Christ is Risen indeed…Alleluia!
There is no death is not the end.
There is life.
Be not afraid.
Peace be with you.
Go ahead and laugh!
For life is eternal.
Rejoice and be glad in it.
All together, let us laugh in, with and through our amazing God,
Creator, Christ, and Spirit One. Amen.
I am indebted to John Claypool’s sermon from back in 1997 for the story of Eugene O’Neill’s play “Lazarus Laughs” and to Henri Nouwen’s “Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring” for the “Parable of the Twins”.