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April 17, 2014

MAY: Death vs. life

— When something occurs that is of the utmost importance and urgency, we call it a matter of life and death. We’ve been talking about some of our biggest challenges. It is probably fitting that in the days leading up to Easter, we talk about death versus life.

There is an intriguing story in the Bible that tells of the death of Lazarus, who along with his sisters, had been close friends of Jesus. Lazarus becomes ill and, taking a turn for the worse, passes away. By the time Jesus arrives, the body of Lazarus had already been buried.

His sisters greet Jesus with the same comment, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The statement cries out a loud commitment of faith, but whispers the lingering wonder.

“Where were you, Jesus, when we needed you most? We know if you had been here you could have saved him, but you weren’t. Why not?”

Jesus didn’t condemn their questions. Instead he asked them to wrestle and think. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” That was as potent a question in Jesus’ day as it is now.

The sisters reply the “right answer,” “Oh yes, we know that one day there will be a resurrection.” Jesus says you aren’t getting it exactly. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will never die.” Do you believe in the resurrection?

By the time of Christ, Egyptians had become very skeptical about the truth of their ancient beliefs about the resurrection. While elaborate preparations had been made for the Pharaohs and others who had the wealth to do so, hundreds of years had passed and still no resurrection.

Many Egyptians felt that the Roman oppression would initiate a resurrection of the great Pharaohs and their armies to redeem Egypt and punish Rome. As years passed under Roman occupation, Egyptians were becoming more skeptical that such a day would ever come.

As a whole, Greeks in the first century simply feared death. Their idea of the end was that of the body sailing into the horizon during the dark of night, never to return again. The Greeks were a very philosophical people — storytellers, if you will — who saw stories as a way to keep the person alive in the hearts and minds of men. Greek mythology was an attempt to keep real the stories of heroic men and of the gods and goddesses they believed ruled the important parts of life.

Although the Jews understood some concepts about spiritual things, they did not universally agree about life after death. At the time of Jesus, the two largest religious groups in Judaism differed in their opinions about the resurrection. The Sadducees, the larger of the groups, did not believe that there would be a resurrection. The Pharisees, who claimed to believe, most of the time acted as if they didn’t.

Sounds a lot like today, doesn’t it? Television shows like “Resurrection” point to the idea that death doesn’t end things. “Heaven is For Real,” the movie adapted from a book of the same name, opens this weekend to tell of a boy’s near-death glimpse of heaven. Americans are certainly curious about life after death, but don’t always live like it.

Jesus, along with the family and friends, walk to the tomb, where four days earlier they had buried Lazarus. Through their tears, they ask the same question we do. “Jesus where were you?” The truth is, He has been there from the beginning, watching in a world ruled by death. He has used pain to teach us, asking us to let it turn us to Him. He has promised strength to nourish and sustain us, even if our physical suffering goes on incessantly. He has dignified all of us who suffer by sharing our pain, shedding our tears.

Then Jesus called the name of Lazarus, so that those gathered could see the glory of God and have a visual aid for what was about to take place. In just a few months, Jesus would be the one walking from the tomb.

Centuries later, Jesus still asks, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” Do you understand that the person we mourn is not lying in a casket or buried in the ground? Do you understand that the body in which we live is only a tent — a tent that gets used over the years, a tent that has grown older, had more frailties, endured more pain? Do you see that death really doesn’t have to be the only choice? There is no longer a reason for death to reign over you or for you to wallow in it?

Do you believe in the resurrection? It really is a matter of life and death.

Easter reminds us, Life wins.

— Tom May is the Minister of Discipleship at Eastside Christian Church in Jeffersonville. He is an adjunct instructor in the Communications Department at Indiana University Southeast. Reach him at tgmay001@gmail.com

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