It was my turn to preach in chapel. I was given John 11:1-44 at the beginning of the semester, and since, in God’s providence, it was just two days after my father finally died after a long year of tremendous suffering, we held a memorial service in conjunction with chapel that day. I had long been impressed with Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and commended it to our seminary community, as well as family and friends, gathered for different reasons but each with his or her own challenges in life.
America likes winners, not losers; triumph, not tragedy. Friedrich Nietzsche and Ted Turner have argued that Christianity is for losers, but pop Christianity in America has been trying desperately to convince everybody that this just isn’t the case. Become a Christian and you’ll be unfailingly happy, upbeat, in charge, with health, wealth and happiness; self-esteem, victory over debt and bad marriages and families. Meanwhile, we put our elderly, the terminally ill, those caught in the cycle of poverty, and others who remind us of our mortality where we can’t see them or at least where our lives do not ordinarily intersect when we do not intend them to.
Unlike the old churchyards through which one passed on the way to Sunday services, our churches today are likely to avoid contact with the tragic side of life. We call death “passing away,” we change the name “graveyard” to “cemetery,” with euphemistic names (Forest Home) that also sound, eerily enough, like the names of the convalescent hospitals they were in before they “passed.” They are not the dead among us, awaiting the Resurrection, but those who have “crossed over” and have thereby been good enough not to have done something more disturbing and unpleasant, such as dying. Or at least if they die, they do not hang around.
Often, before we can really feel the force and pain of sin and death, we are told to be happy and look on the bright side. One church-growth guru cheerfully announces that we have gone from having funerals to memorial services to “celebrations,” not realizing that this is a fatal index of our inability to face the music, whether we’re talking about the tragedy of sin itself or the suffering, death, and ultimate condemnation that it brings in its wake.
Why is it that in our churches-in the preaching that avoids sin, suffering, the cross, and death, in the music that is always upbeat and seems so alien to the “blue note” that one finds in the Psalms, in the church growth that always targets the upwardly mobile suburbs, and in the “celebrations” that cannot seem to come to grips with the tragedy of death and the common curse that has invoked it-we seem to follow the world in refusing to face the music?
We aren’t morbid when we take sin, suffering, and death seriously as Christians. Rather, we can face these tough realities head-on because we know that they have been decisively confronted by our captain. They have not lost their power to harm, but they have lost their power to destroy us. This biblical piety is not morbid because it doesn’t end at the cross, but it also doesn’t avoid it. It goes through the cross to the Resurrection. This is why the Christian gospel alone is capable of refuting both denial and despair. The hope of the gospel gives us the freedom to expose the wound of our human condition because it provides the cure. We see this in John’s remarkable retelling of the story of Lazarus’s resurrection.