01 November 2015

When Jesus Wept

John 11: 32-44 & 
Revelation 21:1-6a

All Saints’ Day - 1st November 2015 - Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper

And so we find ourselves in between, caught, as it were, between two tearful texts. 

In John 11, we find Jesus summoned to the home of Mary and Martha.  Their brother Lazarus was sick and died and was already in the tomb four days by the time Jesus arrived.  Jesus entered a house full of tears.  Mary was weeping.  Their friends who came to pay their respects were also weeping.  Jesus discovered a place flooded with grief and sadness.  We’re told, as the NRSV renders it, that Jesus “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”  It’s actually stronger in the Greek.  “Greatly disturbed in spirit” is really more like anger.  The Greek verb here describes someone who is furious—even verbally expressing disgust or violent displeasure at something.  Groaning, grunting at something.  “Deeply moved” is deep emotion, emotion that causes one to shake, to shudder.  Shaking and angry, Jesus asked, “Where have you laid him?”  “Here come and see,” they said. “Jesus wept.” ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς . John 11:35, the shortest verse in the King James Version, should be read this way: “Jesus burst into tears.”

In the apocalypse, that is, the revelation given to John the Divine (not the writer of the Gospel, a different John), we find in chapter 21 a glimpse of the vision he saw and an echo of the voice he heard speaking to him.  Seeing deep into the mind of God, seeing deep into the future, seeing deep into the end or purpose of history itself, John tells us what he saw, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…and I heard a voice from the throne of the Lamb, “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:1-4).

The vision is stunning, staggering in its implications: heaven to earth; earth renewed, not destroyed; God, formerly perceived as distant and aloof will come “down” and in and dwell among us, as God did in Jesus, and will live near us, as close to us as our breath.  And God’s near-presence will change our lives and remove all that separates us from God and from one another and ourselves.  God will wipe every tear from their eyes; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  It’s a beautiful sentiment, full of hope.  But we must not be sentimental with this text, nor with the reading from John 11.  Yes, tears will be wiped dry—completely—which, then, means an end to tears, which, then, means the complete removal of everything that causes us to tear, everything that causes us to mourn and cry, even death itself must be removed.[1]  Life-giving water will wash away our tears.  For God’s presence makes all things new.

And so we find ourselves caught in this in-between time, held, as it were, by these two tearful texts.  Jesus bursts out in tears over the death of his friend Lazarus and the promise of a time when tears will cease.  But what about us?  How do we, then, live in the meantime?  How do we live until that day when every tear will be removed from our eyes?  Let’s go back to John’s gospel.

Why was Jesus so angry?  What bore the brunt of his anger?  Death.  

Biblically, theologically speaking death isn’t simply a natural process, a question of biology.  We know that it is a natural process, of course, but biblically, theologically speaking it’s also something else.  And resurrection in the New Testament doesn’t necessarily mean the end of biological death, that is, something that happens only after we physically die.  Death is a force working against what God intends for us.  Death is a force that is at odds with God’s intention for creation and creatures alike, and what God intends for us is life. As I’ve tried to stress over the years, Koine Greek has two different words for our one English word life: bios and zoe.  Bios is natural life; think of the word biology.  Zoe, on the other hand, is fulfilled life, pregnant with possibility. It’s zoe, life-giving life, full-life, meaningful life that Jesus offers us, not biology, not simply existing, but being and becoming fully alive! When Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), he’s talking about zoe, not bios.  John’s gospel calls this zoe-life “eternal life,” but this doesn’t mean life ever after, or life after this life.  Instead, “eternal life” in John’s gospel (as in John 17:3) is a here-and-now experience; it’s really “life touched by eternity,” life touched by the divine presence,  the life of the everlasting one, namely God; that’s everlasting life.

How do we know this?  It’s all over John’s gospel, but just focus here on John 11.  Jesus raises Lazarus from death.  But, think about it.  This action didn’t stop Lazarus from dying, right?  He eventually died.  But after his resurrection (that is, the first one) he never lived on earth the same way again—how could he?  How can you live life, perceive life the same after you’ve been brought to true life from out of death?  The poet G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) reflects this radical change of perspective in his poem The Convert: 

After one moment when I bowed my head
And the whole world turned over and came upright
And I came out where the old road shone white,
I walked the ways, and heard what all men said…
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free:
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.[2]

The point is this: the everlasting life that Jesus gives is basically the same on both sides of the grave![3]  Jesus gives life on both sides of the grave!  This means that we don’t have to die in order to know something of Christ’s resurrection life.  With Jesus, “Life is changed, not taken away.”[4]  This also means that until that day—when “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” as the English mystic Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) loved to say—until that day we can be confident that the life of Jesus meets us in our places of pain and torment and suffering, that Jesus’ anger rages against all the things, all the forces of death that cause us to weep; he weeps for us, he weeps with us, and his life-giving presence fills all those places of grief and absence that we know about all too well in our lives.  Our tears mix with his tears.  Our tears, when mixed with his tears, flowing together, can actually become the place we encounter the Lord of Life!  This means we are people—saints!—that witness God’s new life in the midst of this dying world; God’s resurrection life bring us to life, even in this life marked by tears and pain and sorrow—this is the work of God making all things new! (Rev. 21:5).

At the end of J. R. R. Tolkien’s (1892-1973) epic journey The Lord of the Rings, in a scene that echoes John’s vision in Revelation 21 (Tolkien was a devout Christian, a Roman Catholic), we find the terrible Ring destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom and the world finally free from the evil of Sauron. Now, maybe you love Tolkien; maybe you don’t.  Maybe you’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; maybe you haven’t.  May you’ve watched all three movies, including the extended version of each (as I have); maybe you haven’t.  Nevertheless, the way Tolkien brings his story to a close is amazing.

All those who engaged in the many battles required to free Middle-earth, those that survived, having faced this ordeal of suffering, pain, loss, and death—an ordeal that reflects Tolkien’s own experience in the First World War[5]—gather in the woods to honor the Hobbits. Frodo and Sam, the heroes, are placed on a throne and everyone bows to them in gratitude.  The crowd cheers.  A minstrel of Gondor asks to sing a song in praise of “Frodo and…the Ring of Doom.”  With tears and laughter they listened.  Here’s how Tolkien describes what happens next,  “And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the [tongue of Elves], now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords”—that is, pierced by joy—“and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”[6]

The place “where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.” 

That place is not unlike this place, the Table of the Lord, where all our tears of pain and delight flow together with the tears of Christ and become for us the very wine of blessedness. 

O blest Communion.

The title is borrow from the hymn text written by William Billings (1746-1800), "When Jesus wept, the falling tear in mercy flowed beyond all bound" (1770).

Image: Gustave Doré (1832-1883), Saintly Throng, a rendering of Dante Alighieri's (1265- 1321), Paradiso (Canto 31), 1885.

[1]Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 380.
[2]G. K. Chesterton, “The Convert,” The Collected Poems of G. K. Chesterton (1927).
[3] Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 150-151.
[4] Sloyan, 151.
[5] See John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003).
[6] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings:  Vol. III – The Return of the King, originally published in London by George Allen & Utwin, 1955.