Lam 3: 19-33
Matt 20: 17-end
May I Speak in the name of the Son, to the glory of the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen
As Easter draws ever closer it is hard not to become fixated with the thought of death. As the anniversary of that dreadful day, when we were parted from Jesus approaches, it is a reminder to all of us, old and young, of our own mortality. Standing as we do on this side of the crucifixion it is hard to see beyond it, we are blinded by the suffering and the pain, and that terrible moment of separation as death claimed Jesus on the cross.
Those of us who have been recently bereaved by the loss of a loved one often feel as though a great darkness has closed over them. It often seems as though their grief will never go away. Yet we are told the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Of course you will never forget the loved one who has died; you would not want to. The pain of loss continues, but we have to have faith in what Jesus taught us, that death is but a temporary separation and that we will all one day be reunited on the other side of death. We may then even be able to accept that those who have died would want us to pick up the pieces and rebuild our shattered lives, if not for us then for them, so that they can rest in peach until we are reunited.
This can apply to all experiences of sadness and loss, great or small. We have to learn to bear them bravely and patiently, to accept them as a hard lesson we must learn. If we do, we discover again that night always comes to an end sometime. ‘Rosy-fingered dawn’ is bound to come eventually. God promises that if we pray, he will either heal our pain, or at least give us the strength to bear it.
Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for the inevitable grief that was about to overtake them at his crucifixion.
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised’.
He promised them resurrection. But how could they believe it? Some Jews, at the time, took the promise of resurrection literally. The Pharisees, but not the Sadducees, believed that, at the end of the age, the Messiah would come. He would drive out the Romans, and there would be a resurrection of the dead Jews to live again in the Promised Land. St Paul was a Pharisee, and this is what he originally thought and believed. But gradually he changed his ideas, and developed a more spiritual understanding of life after death: ‘Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God’, he wrote to the Corinthians.
Yet Jesus had himself already contradicted the Pharisee’s notions. Lazarus and his family were probably Pharisees. When Jesus said to Martha, ‘Your brother will rise again’, she answered, ‘I know that he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day’ – but what help is that to me now? Jesus answered, ‘I am the Resurrection, and the Life’. You don’t have to wait, you can experience new life now. To convince them he raised Lazarus from the dead, with a physical body. When Jesus himself rose from the dead, his resurrection body was partly physical, and partly spiritual. So far as we know, nobody else has returned physically to earth. Why not? Because Jesus has something better in store, those were demonstrations. He wanted us to understand that we can begin to experience heaven here and now, if we have faith.
That surely, gives the dread face of death a different complexion. If death is the way to paradise and eternal life, it becomes a sign of joy, not a cause for endless grief. The death of Jesus opened for us the gate of heaven. Our own death is the way to resurrection. The experience of suffering bravely borne is the school in which we learn to trust God’s love. The death of those we love is a temporary separation, leading to togetherness in eternity. What, then, is death? Nothing but the gateway to eternal life.
Imagine, if you can, a royal palace, and you are standing outside in the dark, hungry, alone and freezing cold. Inside, you can glimpse light and warmth, you can smell food and hear the distant sound of laughter. You have a good look round and find that there is only one entrance. It looks pretty forbidding: large oak doors, iron bars. But it is the only way in. But you have been given a key, your heart is in your mouth, but wouldn’t you brave it none the less? If it is the only entrance, you would brave the dark passageway for the sake of the light at the end of it. Heaven is the name of that palace and Jesus gave you the key on Calvary. There is only one entrance, and that is the gate of death. The other side of this gateway, Jesus is waiting to welcome us. Until he is ready for us, we must wait patiently in the dark and cold, and put up with any pain he calls us to bear for his sake, so that when at last we enter through that dread doorway, he will be able to say, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant, come in and share your master’s joy’.