By John Sundara
Death is disruptive, isn’t it? It disrupts our lives. It disrupts our emotions. It disrupts time. It disrupts space. When someone in our life dies, life seemingly goes on for everyone else, but not for us; everything around us seems to stand still.
Death also disrupts time in another way. A memorial, a tombstone, a columbarium — something marks that time now stands still for the person who has died. But that’s not what time is supposed to do, is it?
Death also disrupts space. Relationships end. fellowship ends. Laughter ends. Embrace ends. And all that there is … is a void … an empty space that once held someone who used to be friends with us, laugh with us, embrace us.
And it’s not just that space is momentarily disrupted in an abstract way. We know it’s deeper than that because bodies, which once took up space in our homes, on our beds, in our cars, at our dining tables, in our lives, return to the ground, or turn to dust or ashes.
Death is disruptive.
But it’s in this disruption that we need to hear the words of Christ: “Truly, truly, I saw to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
But to truly marvel at these words, crown jewels that they are, we need to first marvel at the crown in which these jewels are set. And that crown is the event that prompts Jesus to utter these words in the first place.
Now there was in Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha. That name Bethzatha meant both “house of shame” or “house of mercy.” But why would this pool have a name that simultaneously meant two opposite things — shame and mercy? Because, around this pool, gathered people whose lives had been disrupted: lives disrupted by sickness, by blindness, by paralysis, left there to die. Many a time, there is shame in knowing that you are dying.
But every once in a while, these lives were disrupted by mercy. An angel would appear and stir up — disrupt, if you will — the waters in this pool. And any one of these sick and dying folk who managed to immerse themselves in this pool when the waters were disrupted would miraculously be healed and made whole. The shamed would experience mercy!
Now there was one such fellow, waiting by this pool for 38 long years. And on one Sabbath, Jesus arrives at this pool and heals this man, and says to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And that’s what the man does.
The religious authorities, however, see him walking around with his pallet, disrupting the sanctity of the Sabbath, and they say to him, “It is not lawful for you to carry your pallet on the Sabbath!”
Finding out that Jesus was the one who commanded him to do so, they take up their argument with Jesus— “It is not lawful for you to heal that man on the Sabbath!” they say to him.
This sounds like a legitimate argument. Should someone work on the Sabbath when God himself rested on the Sabbath? Remember, in Genesis, God created everything in six days, and saw that it was good. And so on the seventh day, God rested, and it was called the Sabbath. So if God rested on the Sabbath, why would it be okay for Jesus, the Son of God, to heal on the Sabbath?
Because the Sabbath was disrupted, you see! The serpent deceived Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and the Sabbath was disrupted by sin and death. And ever since then, death has been constantly disrupting our lives. Death is the grand disrupter of all things good. Death seeks to be the crown on every person’s life. And what an awful, grievous, and sorrowful crown it is!
But today is not about the crown of death. Today is about the crown of life, because in this story, Jesus heals on the Sabbath.
And in doing so, he begins his campaign to disrupt death, that grand disrupter. And a few chapters later in John’s gospel, Jesus completely disrupts death by dying on the Sabbath. And he rises on the first day of the week to inaugurate a new Sabbath, in which death is finally disrupted and destroyed by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And all who are in Christ live in this new Sabbath today, a Sabbath when death, that grand disrupter, has finally been disrupted. A Sabbath when death got what was coming. A Sabbath when death’s crown has been stomped on, and crushed to dust and ashes by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Death has been disrupted by life. Death has been swallowed up by life, and now it deserves to be mocked: “Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”
Aunty Bapsy was a devout Anglican whose husband died while she was quite young. She had to raise three children between the ages of 12 and 5 all by herself, which she did. When she was in her late 50s, she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer, and she had a very short time to live.
While family gathered around her in her last moments, it was obvious to everyone around her that this was no normal death. She had a smile and was filled with a quiet confidence and joy, and she often said, “Don’t cry for me! I am ready to meet my maker!”
Now, what sort of confidence would someone have that their death is not about to disrupt them, but that their death has been disrupted by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that they can laugh, smile and be joyful in the face of their own death?
“Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” The dead have heard the voice of the Son of God. And those who hear will live. And even though our lives have been disrupted by the death of the ones we love, the deaths of our loved ones have been disrupted by the life of Jesus Christ.
Because for all those who die in him, he has taken away the awful, grievous, and sorrowful crown of death. And instead he has given them his beautiful and precious crown of eternal life. Oh death, where is your victory? Oh death, where is your sting?
The Rev. John Sundara is assistant rector for Christian formation at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.