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A sermon on John 11.44.

Invocation: May I be helped to speak in the name of the living God. Amen.

It’s important that funerals go well.Families, before a funeral, sometimes express anxiety about the service: ‘Will what we’ve chosen for the service be all right?’ they ask the minister.‘Will it work?’And the minister can reassure them that it’ll be fine, that it will all work beautifully.And it’s part of the minister’s job to make sure that the service does work well.Sometimes a family will get in touch after a funeral to say that it indeed went well, and was helpful, which is great feedback to receive.

I once took a funeral at a church where the lych-gate was on a busy road with people walking past.The hearse drew up, the family got out of the car, I was there to greet them and lead the coffin in, and as the undertakers were lifting the coffin out of the hearse, a passer-by, a member of the public who was sadly suffering from dementia, went up to the chief mourner, pointed at the coffin and said, ‘Who’s that?’It’s my husband, said the widow of the man who had died.‘Will he get better?’ the person asked.Fortunately, the widow, recognising that the passer-by wasn’t well, responded graciously and kindly.

Jesus had a habit of interrupting funerals.Luke’s gospel, chapter 7, tells how he stopped a funeral procession as it was coming out of a city, and told the young man who had died to get up-and the man did.On another occasion, he told all the mourners that the little girl who had died was only sleeping; when they laughed at him, he turfed them all out of the house, and the little girl was raised.In today’s gospel reading, he reaches the mourners rather later-by this time, his friend Lazarus, who has died, has been buried.Jesus insists that they open up the tomb, despite their protestations.And the dead man comes out, bound in strips of cloth.It’s an incredibly dramatic story.

Well might you be wondering what this story has to do with All Saints’ day.There’s a common theme running through the readings for this day, the theme of tears: the prophet Isaiah says that God will wipe away tears from all faces; the author of the book of Revelation says the same, declaring that God will make all things new.And we see that worked out in practice in the gospel reading, where Mary weeps and Jesus weeps, until Lazarus is raised.Jesus is the first-fruits of the resurrection, by himself being raised from the dead-but those first-fruits are anticipated as it were, hinted at, by a small number of people in the gospels raised by Jesus from the dead.The saints-a term which the New Testament uses for all Christian people-you and I are saints-the saints are that great company of people whom God will raise from the dead, in that great renewal of all creation in which God will wipe away all tears.

I can’t hear this gospel reading without being touched by the extraordinary words with which it finishes, when Jesus, confronted with Lazarus raised from the dead, still bound in strips of cloth, says to the bystanders, ‘Unbind him and let him go.’It’s almost as if being raised from the dead isn’t quite enough-there’s a second stage necessary, a stage of removing from Lazarus all that keeps him bound.So, too, there is stuff that binds us, which we need to let go, from which we need to released and freed.Saints, Christian people, are those who have been unbound and let go by Jesus Christ, and our job is, in Christ’s name, to release and free others from all that binds them-from the past, from our own deficiencies, from the oppression of others.As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, we are called to freedom.There is, at the end of this gospel story, the most amazing and dramatic throwing off of the shroud of death, of all that would confine us and hold us back from following Jesus for ever.

In one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales, there’s a boy who’s been turned into a dragon, and he becomes a boy again when the lion Aslan, representing Jesus, peals off the layers of dragon skin with his great lion claws- it’s searingly painful, but it’s necessary, in order to restore the pure flesh that lies underneath.At this All Saints’ tide, let me leave you saints with a couple of questions:

  • from what has Christ unbound you and let you go?
  • who or what around you is bound, and how can you help to set them free?