Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Jesus Wept - Thoughts in Preparation for All Saints Day, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

The two words that form the title of this article also comprise the shortest verse in the entire Bible (John 11:35). Jesus wept.

It is not my purpose today to get into the deeper theological conundrums of the incarnation, the idea that in Jesus the divine and the human come together finally and forever. It is, however, worth pausing over these two words: Jesus wept. In this moment is Jesus being more human or more divine? Are the tears those of a grieving friend or those of a Creator who cries at the death of anything God has made? I believe that the only conceivable answer to that question is Yes.

I suspect that this picture is what the compilers of our lectionary had in mind when they chose John 11:32-44 as the Gospel reading for All Saints Day in Year B of the cycle. As we gather on November 1 to remember saints great and insignificant as well as “all those who have gone before” we are reminded that grief is both human and holy.

If you are wondering how God can grieve, read on.

St. Paul uses the word wrath a number of times in his letters to describe God’s reaction to sin and evil. For Paul, sin is “missing the mark,” trying to do what is right (usually) and being incapable of hitting the mark, the bullseye, with any consistency. For Paul, that is what it means to be human: to be imperfect no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. So, when we miss the mark the result in the divine realms is cosmic wrath.

That is a terrible thought, especially so if you believe in divine retribution for all that you have done wrong—the consequences of all the marks you have missed. In contemporary English we use the word wrath as a synonym for righteous, unrestrained anger, fury, rage…wrath. Paul, on the other hand, having experienced the boundlessness of God’s love in Christ does not conjure up that kind of divine response. For Paul, the reaction of God to sin and evil is best described as the cosmic, reactive scream of pain and anguish of the God who loves us. It is as if for Paul God’s response to the encounter with sin is grief. God weeps.

In saying these things I do not mean to anthropomorphize God. Rather, I am using poetic language to speak to a deep theological reality. God cares. God cares for the universe. God cares for individuals. Incomprehensible, yes, but a core belief of Christians. This is why we so often turn to the image of the Good Shepherd to attempt to get at how God cares for us. Jesus himself said that the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and calls them each by name.

Lazarus. Come out. There it is. Jesus, Messiah, the Good Shepherd, calls his friend Lazarus by name.

In part, at least, our celebration of the feast of All Saints witnesses to our belief in a loving, caring, accessible God, who became human that we might get a better idea of what it means to live a Godly life. On All Saints Day we pray that God would empower us to follow the “blessed saints in all virtuous and Godly living.” To the extent that those in the faith who have gone before us can provide us that kind of example, as human as they were, then we might follow their example.

So, when Jesus wept before the tomb of his friend Lazarus was he being more human or more divine? Yes.


The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

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