“There’s something different about you.” We’ve probably all heard or said that at one time or another. Somebody notices a change in you but can’t quite put their finger on it. You’ve gotten a new hair cut, you’ve gone from glasses to contacts, you shaved your beard or grown one, you’ve lost some weight.
It’s generally said as a compliment. You might translate it to read, “There’s a new you, and I like it!”
I wonder if Lazarus heard that a lot after Jesus brought him him back from the dead. “Hey, Lazarus! There’s something different about you. I can’t quite tell what it is. A kind of lightness in your step. You’re smiling more, listening more, talking less. You been working out?”
Lazarus, you see, is a new creation-in-the making. He has been brought back from the dead. He has not yet undergone resurrection. There’s a difference, and it’s a difference that bears directly on the baptisms and confirmations we’re all participating in this morning. Here’s what I mean.
Jesus restored Lazarus to life like the the people we hear about all the time. Heart attack sufferers, accident victims, surgery patients, drowning victims, to name just a few traumatic events. Some who have near-death experiences report glimpses of the afterlife. The most recent buzz about such things seems to be around fellow Episcopalian and physician Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven.
Almost invariably, these accounts talk about going to a place, a place that Christians often call heaven. Even though the Bible teaches us something very different, many Christians believe that when we die we leave this world behind to dwell forever in a paradise. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus promises us eternal life. But he never teaches us that our soul will depart the body and that we will fly away. He says, “ I am the resurrection and the life.”
Let me put the contrast this way. The fly away soul model of the afterlife focuses on a hassle-free zone. Once you leave this life behind, you know only contentment and pleasure. If you really think about it, this model suggests that heaven is all about your own eternal comfort. I cannot count the number of funeral sermons and eulogies that I have heard that mention playing golf or tennis or fishing for trout without ever mentioning standing in perpetual relationship with God in Christ.
Jesus promises eternal, unmitigated joy, but he is very clear that the source of that joy is our seamless relationship with the Father through him. And here’s the kicker. While the fly away soul model leaves you with the impression that heaven is all about a change of location, Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection explains that life after this life is first and foremost about a change in us.
So you see, if you want to understand Lazarus’ story, you have to get clear that it is not a near-death narrative. Lazarus did not come back from heaven to tell us about our final destination. Instead, Jesus brought him into the first stages of an entirely different kind of life. Eternal life. A life that starts, albeit partially and dimly, right now and reaches its fulfillment after we pass through death once and for all.
Lazarus lives the same life you and I are living right now. He will suffer and mourn, be disappointed, get sick, and even one day die (in his case, again). But Jesus has already started something new in Lazarus. In Christ, Lazarus is a new creation-in-the making.
There’s something different about him. He will face all of life’s ups and downs as milestones in his growth in, not toward, eternal life. The triumphs and sorrows of his existence are like the marks we put on the doorframe to measure our children’s increasing height.
It’s not that he is earning points to get into heaven or even going farther down a road toward some distant goal. Instead, the eternal life already pulsing in Lazarus is growing in strength. He is becoming more Lazarus. There’s something different about him.
We’re baptizing and confirming today. The baptismal candidates are about to be marked as Christ’s own forever. That means eternal life is getting started in them. It will be a long process. It will keep on going even after they pass from this life to the next. And they will need all our help as their primary community to make this new life their own.
Our confirmands have been maturing for a while, and they mark today a very special place on their eternal life growth chart. They’re saying, “I’m taking responsibility for my life in Christ. I’m going to keep doing the work to make my relationship with him the center point for everything. Being an active member of this congregation is key to that. I’m going to suit up and show, no matter how I happen to feel about it today. I’m going to exercise a ministry. I’m going to welcome the stranger. Guarding the dignity of everybody and remembering that justice begins with me are non-negotiables for me.”
There’s going to be something different about you today. And how appropriate that is on the day that we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’. You’re maturing as one of God’s saints. That’s right. I called you saints, and I meant it.
We are the saints of God. Our sainthood derives neither from our moral perfection nor from our perfect holiness. On the contrary, we are slightly shabby, consignment-store sorts of saints. We routinely have to ask forgiveness for our failings, resist our tendency to forget heavenly things for earthly things, and in general struggle to get over ourselves. We are saints because Christ himself has marked us as his own forever. But then again, that’s what saints have been since Jesus called the Twelve.
In Revelation, John gives us a glimpse of what we will be like as saints beyond the veil of this life and the next. There will be a new heaven and new earth. A new you. A new me. A new everybody. God will dwell in our midst. His work of seeding the whole creation with eternal life will be complete. We won’t be going anywhere. He’s coming to dwell with us, and he has prepared us and his whole creation as a fitting dwelling place for the thrilling joy of his perpetual presence with us.
And now here’s a little kicker about this whole sainthood and eternal life thing. We are destined to be with God. And with each other. Forever.
Let me put it this way. There are a number of challenges to growing in eternal life. We have to get used to the idea that God is changing us.
Along with that comes the news that God is changing how the whole creation works. That’s his justice agenda. In other words, who we are and how we fit into everything else is in for a major transformation. The first will be last and the last will be first. Our way of parsing the world into winners and losers, insiders and outsiders is done for. We are all the infinitely beloved.
And that brings us to what might be our biggest challenge of all as we mature in eternal life: learning to delight in the prospect that we will dwell for all of eternity with others that we did not choose. That’s right. The morally suspect, the unbearably dull, the routinely inappropriate, the smarty pants, the dim bulb, the heartbreaker, the ex-whatever, and the just plain irritating. They are all likely to show up. Right next door.
Getting our hearts and minds and souls around this is called hospitality. It starts right here in our imperfect Christian communities. Part of being the new creation-in-the-making is to recognize that everyone who walks through our doors is one too.
Our first response to the stranger–the one who is genuinely not like us–is to think without saying, “There’s something different about you.” What we mean is this: “I’m keeping you at arms length. I’m not so sure I like what I see.”
As we grow in eternal life, as we become more fully that new creation, we learn to say to the stranger, “There’s something different about you. I like what I see. Welcome home.”
This sermon was preached at St. James, Shreveport, on November 4, 2012.