Two mothers mourn their dead children, two dead children are made alive again, and St. Paul contemplates the fact that God offers grace and redemption even to a sinner like him, a man actively persecuting and killing Christians.
On the surface, the Old Testament and Gospel readings put us face to face with grief and loss, as well as the miraculous reversal of fates. A deeper look, especially with the help of St. Paul, reveals God in the midst of calamity and death. God enters into the hurt of the world and redeems his people from death.
But this message can be the reverse of life-giving for those of us who have experienced loss and grief first hand. Even for the realists among us, these passages can seem like fantasy and wishful thinking.
I think this is why Paul begins his letter to the Galatians trying to dispel any idea that what he is about to tell them is his message. Rather, he’s a messenger.
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed to me is not of human origin.” In these words, Paul, formerly Saul, reminds the Galatians and us that he was not saved by the testimony of one of the Disciples, but by Jesus himself. On his way to round-up more Christians, Paul was waylaid by the resurrected Christ, blinded, and in the process stripped not only of his beliefs, but his vocation, community, and name. This direct revelation gave Paul a new community, new name, and new mission. Paul was a man interrupted. He died to his former self, and received new life.
Paul doesn’t do this to make light of the manner in which others have been saved. Nor does he recall this divine revelation to support his own profile in the community, as if the manner of his conversion says something impressive about him. Paul was a vicious persecutor of the Church. Christians were shocked, he recalls, to see their former enemy become a follower of Christ: ”The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy,” they said. The one who previously brought death now shares in their lives. What strange joy that is.
However, their surprise over Paul’s conversion is nothing compared to Paul’s ongoing amazement with Christ’s ability to bring life where there had been death. A new name, a new community, a new life.
Sometimes, it’s very easy to compartmentalize life and death. We enjoy life while we have it, but have resigned ourselves to the naturalness of death. “It’s part of life,” we say, imagining some great, glorious circle of life that demands death as it continues to churn out new and “better” life. That’s the evolutionary process.
Perhaps that’s (secretly) how we read the stories about these two mothers, mourning the deaths of their two sons. We share in the grief of these mothers. Perhaps we have ourselves experienced the tears shed by the widow in Luke 7. But at the same time, down deep, we’ve come to terms with the bare fact of life that death is inevitable. It is, isn’t it?
Jesus refuses to concede the omnipotence of death. As he enters the town of Nain and comes upon the funeral procession, he doesn’t just share in t
he woman’s grief over her lost son. He has compassion for her, a widow who has lost her only son. In his compassion, he restores her son’s life, and in the process restores her life too.
Jesus’ life giving ministry may seem great for him, but what about us?
What about those of us who have lost loved ones and know that we too will die?
Does Jesus expect us to raise the dead to new life?
What about us?
The answer to these questions lies in Paul’s challenges the Galatians. He tells them that his salvation came directly from Jesus in order to remind them that our Lord is not dead, but alive, and that he continues to bring new life where there had been death. Indeed, Jesus brings new life even where we bring death.
Even though we are on this side of Easter, reading the stories of the widow and the mistress of Zarephath can be hard. We can easily forget that the power of the resurrection is not just something we hope to experience someday, way off in the distant future, but that it’s something that offers transformation now. The resurrection of Christ reaches into our messed up world, as it did into Paul’s, and offers new life, not just life after death.
For, the actual message of the resurrection is that death is not the ultimate power, that Jesus is the Lord of Life, and life is not something the must inevitably be swallowed up by death. Someday Death will not be the end of the order of things. Moreover, the reflection of that someday shines into our today.
In the meantime, although we weep, we also know with Paul that the risen Lord has compassion for us in our darkness because he too has experienced that darkness. And we know that he has already brought light into that darkness.
He offers you and I that light now, and he invites us to share that light with the world.
Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2016
St. David’s Episcopal Church