Too often All Saints Sunday feels like a funeral. That’s unfortunate, but in large part, it’s understandable. This day is one when we remember those loved ones, friends and family, who have gone before us in the faith and now rest securely in God’s love. We might debate whether those who have died in Christ are now living or if when we die we await his return to raise the dead to new life—but we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those who have gone before us are wholly in the loving care of God. There is no question that God’s love that is stronger than death now is their whole reality—and that’s a good thing.
All Saints Sunday is a time for us to cling to the promise of resurrection, and to the promise of God’s love for us and for all who have put on Christ in the waters of baptism. So just as we mourn the loss of those we loved, we can rejoice at God’s promise to love them so completely that the darkness of the grave is not their darkness. We can rejoice, should, and do rejoice that God raises us to new life again through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On this day, even as we rightly remember those who’ve gone before us with painful longing to hold them again, let us also not forget that God’s promise is that life is stronger than death, that love is stronger than hate, and that light is stronger than darkness—and that promise has been proofed in Christ’s own victory over the grave, the same victory that is ours because God claims us as his own just as he claimed Jesus his son.
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Person. Earthling. Individual. Mortal. Man, woman, child. Human. Homo sapiens.
All different ways that we people, we human beings, refer to ourselves, as creatures, as animals, if you will. In the beginning, when God created the heavens and he earth, and everything that is in them, the last thing that God created, according Genesis 1, is humankind. “God created humankind in his image,” we are told, “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” For countless millennia, theologians have debated what these words mean, but let there be no doubt about it—these words reflect our understanding, as people, that we are somehow different than other animals. We are special. In some ways, we are set apart, we are sacred. God has created us in his image, and that lends a certain distinctiveness to who each and every one of us is. “What are human beings?” King David asks the Lord in his psalms, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” Humanity is somehow special, but what makes us so?
Scientists have tackled this question too—in particular anthropologists, scientists who deal in the study of people throughout history. Some suggest what makes people different than other species is that we use tools. But that can’t be it because look at chimpanzees. Scientists have observed countless chimps make probes for gathering food out of sticks. The chimps insert these probes—made of slender, flexible plant stems—into a nest of ants and gathered the insects that marched up the tool. Sea otters use tools too. They use stones to hammer shells off the rocks and crack the hard shells of open to get food. Elephants have also been observed to intentionally modify branches to swat at flies that are bothering them. So toolmaking isn’t what makes us human.
Some anthropologists have suggested that language, the ability to convey thoughts through symbolic images and sounds, is the marked, defining characteristic of human beings. But that can’t be it because look at parrots. There’s a reason we say someone is parroting you when they’re repeating you. Parrots talk. And it’s not just that parrots parrot—no. They can respond to input, if even rudimentarily. Whales use language to communicate with each other too, over hundreds of miles underwater even. And of course, again, chimpanzees. They seem to have developed some form of spoken language, and some scientists think they’ve developed even more rudimentary forms of written communication. Yes—it’s basic, but it’s still there. So communicating using language can’t be what makes us human either.
Then what makes us human? What distinguishes us from other species? What do we do that other animals don’t do? Did you know that human beings are the only animals, so far as we know, that cry? Not produce tears, but cry. Crying is what happens when we shed tears, especially when we’re going through emotional distress or pain. Other animals do create tears. We need tears to lubricate our eyes, but human beings are the only animals that cry when they experience strong emotions.
In today’s gospel, Jesus cries. The verse is John 11:35—“Jesus wept.” It’s two words, both in English and Greek. The shortest verse in the Bible. And what’s fascinating about this verse is that it’s in the middle of John’s gospel. John’s gospel that starts with the lofty language of the preexistent Word of God who is God. John’s gospel that spends chapter after chapter making the theological case for the divinity of Jesus, and yet here, in the middle of the gospel, almost at the very heart of it, we have this simple, simple verse—“Jesus wept.” It seems almost out of place. Yet is it?
Jesus wept because his friend Lazarus had died. Jesus wept. He cried. He was deeply moved to shed tears over something unpleasant—because, we can safely assume, he was going through emotional distress of pain. We’re told those who were around when he started crying remarked, “See how he loved him,” meaning Lazarus. Jesus was mourning the loss of his beloved friend. He was going through the human pain of loss.
But why are we surprised by this? Yes—John insists that Jesus is God, and all throughout his gospel we are reminded of just that fact. But the fact that Jesus is God is only half of the message. Jesus as the eternal Son of the eternal Father who comes down from heaven is only half the story.
Now for the rest of the story—and he became human. The preexistent Word of God who is God came down from heaven and became human. He was born a helpless baby to poor parents. Just like babies, he pooped his diaper and his mom had to change it. Just like other people, he grew up. He had friends. He laughed. He got angry. He had his moments of happiness and his moments of sadness. Jesus was truly a human being, and today—in the heart of John’s gospel—we have Jesus crying over the death of his friend Lazarus. And what more human thing is there than to cry when someone you love dies—be their friend or family? Here in the heart of John’s gospel, the gospel that emphasizes that Jesus is truly God, we have an incontrovertible, an indisputable proof that Jesus is human. Jesus wept.
But what’s so remarkable about Jesus is that his weeping is not simply his own. It’s our weeping as well. He weeps with us. Jesus enters life with us, as God with us, not merely to identify with us but as one of us. He takes on our lives as his own—all the way to the places of deepest, most troubling emotion. When we cry over a diagnosis, our own or a friend or family member’s, Jesus cries with us. When we cry because we feel forgotten and lonely, Jesus cries with us. When we cry because our mother or father, our sister or brother, our son or daughter has died, Jesus cries with us.
Amid whatever it is that brings us to the point of tears, Jesus doesn’t abandon us—we need not say, “Jesus, if only you had been here…” Jesus is there, Jesus is here, with us, right in the midst of everything—the good, the bad, and the tearful—everything that makes us human. Jesus knows himself what it means to live life like we do—even losing his beloved friend to the selfish clutches of death.
And yet—we know that tears aren’t only shed because we’re sad. Unlike other creatures of God’s creation, we cry when we’re overcome with emotion, good or bad. And just as Jesus cries with us when we go through the troubles of life, so he cries with us when we are blessed with life’s joys. When we shed tears of joy, Jesus cries with us in that joy. When we cry at our son or daughter’s marriage, Jesus cries with us in that joy. When we cry because someone reaches out to us with unexpected love to tell us how much they appreciate a small kindness we’ve shown then, Jesus cries with us in that joy. When we cry upon getting the news that our cancer has gone into remission, or that a friend or family member’s cancer has gone into remission, Jesus cries with us in that joy. Just as Jesus shares the wholeness of our darkest human emotions with us, so too does he share the fullness our happiest human emotions with us.
And what’s more, we can rest assured, Jesus wept tears of joy as our loved ones—the same ones we mourned when they died—we can rest assured Jesus wept tears of joy as they joined with him and all the blessed in joyful communion with one another and God around the throne of God, where mourning and pain are no more. And we can rest assured that Jesus will shed those same tears of joy when we too join with all the saints who have gone before us—those we’re blessed to know and look forward to reuniting with, and those we never knew and yet will love as fully as Jesus himself in the city of God where light shines eternally and darkness is no more.
What does it mean to be human? What distinguishes us from the rest of God’s creatures? We are special—so special that God chose to become one of us and live with us, even to the point of dying like us. And just like each and everyone of us, God cries when we cry—both in sadness and joy. Jesus wept—and Jesus still weeps with us. And Jesus will weep with tears of great joy in glory when at last we join him forever, where all God’s saints sing eternally in songs of praise that have no end. We are God’s beloved. See how he loves us—raising us, each and every one of us he calls his beloved friends, from death to life again to live with him in a world without end.
n the name of the Father of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.