Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on All Saints' Day 2021
Jesus wept. It is the shortest sentence in the Bible. Possibly one of the most eloquent.
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Monday, 1st November 2021 at 5.00 PM
I wonder if you can remember the last time you wept? Perhaps you cry at the drop of a hat, or maybe you employ the stiff upper lip. Perhaps you were encouraged to cry as a child, to let your feelings out, with a comforting arm around the shoulder; or perhaps you were told to keep it in, to hide your feelings out of fear of what others might think—so as not to show weakness. I always struggle with the thought that tears are somehow self-indulgent.
I remember a mother being told by a well-meaning nurse—don’t let him see you cry—when she was trying to deal with the news of her son’s life-limiting illness. I remember thinking that her tears were rather appropriate for her and for her son, but there was that underlying fear that her distress might be contagious; unhelpful—better to suppress it, or deal with it somewhere else, probably on her own, as Mothers have probably done since time immemorial.
Jesus wept, we are told. We heard it in today’s gospel. It is the shortest sentence in the Bible. Possibly one of the most eloquent.
John’s gospel is sometimes accused of portraying Jesus as so utterly divine that he cannot be said to be properly human. But if John goes further than the other gospel writers in describing the relationship of Jesus to the Father; introducing him as the all-creating Word made flesh, declaring that He and the Father are One; John is also the gospel-writer who goes further than any other in portraying Jesus as one who feels deeply; who is moved to his core; who weeps.
The only thing we know about the sisters Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, is that they were companions of Jesus—friends whose hospitality and company we think he must have enjoyed. We have a tantalising glimpse into this small nexus of relationships; a family into which Jesus was welcomed. Some have suggested that, because we never hear anything from Lazarus, and because he appears so dependent on his sisters, that Lazarus might have been disabled in some way. Having worked a bit with such families, I’m struck by what a significant relationship that might have been—families with disabled members have to be quite careful who they let in; they are naturally protective. I wonder if Jesus felt, as I have felt, a sense of privilege to be so trusted.
This is speculation, but I think we know enough to feel the particular poignancy of this death, the death of his friend Lazarus, and the grief of his sisters.
Jesus begins to weep. For John, this could not be a more significant pronouncement. Jesus, the incarnate Son of the eternal Father, the one through whom and for whom all things were made, the Word made flesh weeps; he is described repeatedly as ‘greatly disturbed.’
But even at this moment of supreme identification with human grief and loss, John opens up a wider horizon. Jesus challenges Martha 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ Yes, the tears of Jesus are tears of human compassion, he is greatly disturbed as any of us would be at the death of a close friend, but his tears usher in a bigger vision—nothing less than resurrection; the defeat of death; the glory of God. Lazarus, come out! Unbind him!
God will wipe the tears from every eye, so the prophet Isaiah promised, and so St John the Divine confirmed, and he does so as one who himself weeps. But he weeps not just as one who feels what we feel, who has inhabited our helplessness (as a swaddled infant, as a crucified criminal), but as one who sees through the tears, sees beyond them—who makes human tears into a lens, a prism, onto a new heaven and a new earth, where pain is ended, and death is no more.
So, if we want to see the Kingdom of God, then we must not expect to keep our eyes dry, and our tears are certainly no cause for shame or embarrassment. It is through tears that the Kingdom is glimpsed; when we let go, when we acknowledge our helplessness, our sorrow, our sin, when we are opened-up to the pain and loss of others. Our vision needs to be blurred, cleansed, before we can begin to see clearly; before the tears can be wiped away, and we can begin to see the world as Jesus sees it—a world which is only life and love, and friendship and bliss—a world which only Saints can inhabit; Saints who have wept their way out of selfishness; Saints who have carried in Christ and with Christ, their share of the world’s sorrows; Saints who gather with us around the altar of God, joyfully wiping away our tears so that we may see what they see.