Princeton University Religious Life

The Spirit of Life

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
April 10, 2011
Romans 8:6-11 and John 11:1-45

“The person who dies with the most toys wins.”  I don’t know who coined this phrase, but I hope that he or she meant it tongue-in-cheek. In any event, there are innumerable people around the globe who believe it, because they apparently are dedicating their lives to amassing as many material commodities as possible and, more to the point, would seem to have this really as their life’s goal, or point . Such an approach is only inflamed, I think, by a broader culture that is heavily consumerist, that says “You are what you earn; you are what you own.” We learn from multiple sources to care about brands, about not just the number but the status of our acquisitions, and to consider all of them the true indicators of our worth, our human value, our success in life and as human beings

I have long countered this saying with my own redacted adage: “The person who dies with the most real friends wins.”  My 13-year-old son and I were talking together about this just two days ago, and about how I am blessed with wonderful friends, a network of love, in every region of the world. This didn’t just happen! At the annual Service of Remembrance six weeks ago, I shared a quote from medical doctor Bernadine Healy, former Director of the National Institutes of Health, and it goes, “As a person who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret. People facing death don’t think about what degrees they’ve earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated. At the end, what really matters is who you loved and who loved you. The circle of love is everything, and is a good measure of a past life. It is the gift of greatest worth.” I’ve said that the one who dies with the most real friends wins – and I mean the one who dies with the most love in their life from both family and friends.

But I need to redact my little truism further when I read Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul grounds the meaning of life and death in the Spirit of God. He says, “The Spirit is life.” When we set our mind on the Spirit, we have life and peace. When we set our minds on the flesh – on the material effects of this life, on the toys out there to accumulate – it can only lead to death. The Spirit of God is life, and it is, as Dr. Healy might say, “the gift of greatest worth.” 

And the Spirit of God is, at its heart, LOVE. God is love, as we read in the First Letter of John. My truism isn’t wrong – love is the cornerstone of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – God’s love for Christ and each of us, Christ’s love for God and each of us, our own love of God and Christ, and of those around us. “For God so loved the world…” (3:16). “There is no greater love than this, that a man should give his life for his friends.” (15:13). The Gospel of John has so much to say about the centrality of love in the work of God and Christ, including in his telling of the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

The Bethany family – Mary, Martha, Lazarus – it is these three along with the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved,” who are the only specific individuals that the evangelist John says Jesus loved. These people are particularly special to Christ, particularly beloved. And they are devastated – Mary and Martha had given Jesus plenty of advance notice that their beloved brother was ill. He could have gotten there in time. It was his choice not to. He tells his disciples that Lazarus isn’t bound for death, and decides to linger two days longer at his current location. Then he tells his friends, “Let’s go to Judea again,” and they are stunned because they’d only just gotten out of there with their very skins after a second attempt to stone Jesus to death.  Thomas, who would later doubt that his Lord has risen, is the one with the faith to say: “Let’s go back to Judea with him that we may die with him.”

They get near to Bethany, and learn that Lazarus has been dead four days. Martha reaches him first and she is mad: “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died. And I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Christ tells her that her brother will rise again. She says, “We all believe that the dead will rise on the last day.” Christ tells her that he is the resurrection and the life, an amazing statement as Messiah, and she tells him she believes in him. Meanwhile, her sister Mary has heard that he is near the village and she runs to meet him, and she tells Jesus the same thing: “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.”

The pain, the grief, the heartache that overwhelms all present – Jesus is profoundly moved. He knows that Lazarus will be raised, but he loves those around him, and their hearts are shattered. They can’t stop crying, it is hard to breathe, they don’t know how they are going to live with the hole in their lives left by the death of Lazarus, they are overwhelmed. Jesus, says our text, “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He loves them, so their suffering pierces his heart.

Christ joins in the weeping, while some around him understandably say, “Where was he?”  Still overcome with emotion, he asks that the stone in front of the tomb be moved. Martha reminds him that a body four days’ dead is rotting and stinking. He tells them to move the stone. He calls out to God and commands Lazarus to come out. A bound-up man emerges; people run to undo his face, his shrink-wrapped body, arms, feet. And there stands Lazarus, whole, blinking in the sunlight, the one they loved. The dead man walking is a live man, all to the glory of God.

What Christ will do for those he loved! In two short weeks, it will be Easter morning, and we shall reflect at greater length on Christ’s love and sacrifice for us all, and the new life it opens for us.  We do not have the power to resurrect, as did Christ, but the story of the Bethany family is our prompt to consider what we do for those we love. We make tremendous sacrifices, do we not? (Christ will make the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf.) We make strategic choices so that the ones we love will be lifted up, will flourish. We may deny ourselves many material things, we may give up opportunities that we dearly would have loved to embrace, we reroute our life’s plans to give care or save money or provide loving refuge. We count all deprivations as gain in order to make life in abundance possible for those we love.

Jesus Christ shows us what love does – it gives life. Again, while we cannot raise our beloved from the dead, we can give life to everyone around us. A favorite poster of mine is one put out by the mission and aid program of the Church of England. It says, “We believe in life before death.” We do! We believe that the love of God and Christ effect life after death, but before that… we believe in life before death. And so we work to bring life in abundance to all – we share the Gospel, we share medicine and food, we share life-saving technology so that no family or community, like Bethany, endures the grief of the loss of one who didn’t have to die – one for whom life-saving measures exist even if they’re not accessible because of family or national poverty.

Mahatma Gandhi said that we find God in the midst of humanity. We do – the God who made all people invites us to pour out abundant love upon them all, and so give expression to our deepest love for God. How many people believe that the person who dies with the most toys wins? How many people are possessed by their possessions? We who believe in life before death have a message to share with all people, regardless of their spiritual identify: the life that really is life is the one that considers love to be life’s greatest gift, that knows love as our source and end, and that believes (to quote my former colleague David Tracy), that Jesus Christ is “the icon of the reality of God’s love.” Father Tracy says, “In and through Jesus the Christ, Christians learn to understand who God is and who they are commanded and empowered to become.” 

Commanded and empowered to be like Christ! This is who we are – ambassadors at all times and places of Christ’s love for all people, especially the unloving, especially those possessed by their possessions. We have lifesaving news; we have the key to abundant life in this life and the life beyond life. The message we have to share from Christ is this: The person who lives and dies in the Spirit that is Life wins . Play with the toys you may have – you are lucky to have them. Make your life’s focus the love of God shown in Jesus Christ and radiating through him to all people – even you, especially you. The person who lives and dies in the Spirit that is Life wins .

Amen.

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