A Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, October 5, 2019
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 3:13-21 – The Gospel, St. Luke 7:11-17
- The gospel and the two processions
Today’s gospel from St. Luke describes two processions that take place near the city of Nain. The first procession consists of Jesus and his followers. St. Luke writes, “[Jesus] went into a city called Nain; and many of His disciples went with Him, and a large crowd” (Lk. 7:11).
The other procession is a funeral. St. Luke says that as Jesus his followers “came near the gate of the city, behold, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother; and she was a widow. And a large crowd from the city was with her” (Lk. 7:12). There would have more than the usual amount of grief because the departed was a young man, and likely his mother’s main source of support.
The funeral procession was a procession of death. It symbolizes the natural path of human life apart from God. We are all marching toward the grave—despite the fervent efforts of the world to avoid or deny it. The procession following Jesus is a procession of life. Jesus is “the Bread of Life” (John 6:48-50), “The Resurrection and the Life” (John 11:25), and “The Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6). As Jesus said in John 5:24, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” At the gate of the city of Nain, the procession of death met the procession of life, and death was conquered by Life.
- Jesus authority over death as a sign of our Resurrection hope
This miracle or sign shows that Jesus has power over the greatest human enemy, which is death. It provides a visual image of our resurrection hope. The authority over death that Jesus exercised by his command in the gospel points to the authority Jesus will exercise over death by his command on the Day of Resurrection. As Jesus says in John 5:28-29, “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” It also provides an image of our baptism, in which Jesus gave us the gift of eternal life.
III. Our baptismal resurrection is a greater than the raising of the widow’s son
It is easy to miss the point of this resurrection story. We might be tempted to ask why Jesus doesn’t do this for all people who have died—especially young children. The answer is that the biblical healings, exorcisms, and resurrections are limited miracles. They restored people to health at a point in time, but they did not solve the problem of the human condition. Everyone Jesus raised from the dead got sick again and died again.
This calls to mind a story we were told in Scotland. A woman known as “half-hanged Maggie Dickson” was sentenced to death by hanging for some crime. Because she was so small, the rope did not succeed in killing her. It merely made her pass out. However, everyone thought she died and she was carted off to the grave. When the wagon stopped for a break, Maggie opened the coffin cover and sat up. She lived for another forty years or so. Though Maggie’s “resurrection” was not a miracle in the same sense as the raising of the widow’s son, its net effect was the same, for the widow’s son also died again.
The Son of God did not become man just to make our temporal lives longer or even happier. He came to conquer, evil, sin and death. Thus the biblical miracles that give a temporary benefit pale in comparison with the two main New Testament miracles. These are, first, the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, which conquered sin and death; and, second, his gift to us of eternal life through baptism and faith—his sharing with us of the fruits of his Cross and Resurrection. If Jesus answers a prayer and solves a problem, we have a seasonal benefit—one for which we may indeed be very grateful. But through baptism and faith we have eternal life—life that will never end—and we should give thanks for this above all things.
It is, in fact, a temptation to focus so much on the desire for God to give us things in this world that we lose sight of the greater miracle, the gift of eternal life. The gift of eternal life is within us through the Holy Spirit. It is growing and producing in us things that we will never lose. Most often, it is our sharing in the cross of Jesus, our struggling in faith through temporal things we wish were different, that most contributes to the growth of eternal things in us. As 2 Corinthians says,
Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17-18).
- How we experience a greater miracle than the gospel miracle
Thus, the raising of the widow’s son is a sign of the greater miracle that we have already experienced and continue to experience in Christ. We were in the world’s procession of death, separated from God and headed to the grave without hope like everyone else. But Jesus intervened in our lives. He touched us through the water of baptism and the gift of faith. He said to us, “Arise.” And we began to live new lives in him. Ephesians describes the miracle of baptismal resurrection in this way:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:1-6).
We experience this miracle of resurrection every time we come to the altar of God. We need to experience this miracle of resurrection again because life in the world distracts us from the eternal things and drags us back into the world’s procession of sin and death. We take on the world’s guilt, anxiety, fear, and despair and lose sight of the grace of forgiveness and the faith, hope, and love that Christ has planted in our hearts. Thus, at the altar of God, the procession of life once again stops the funeral procession. Jesus touches us again and commands us, again, to “rise and live.”
It will help us to sustain our prayer if we realize that the main purpose of prayer is not to ask God’s help for our needs or to fulfill a religious duty. The main purpose of our prayer is to raise us from the dead—again. Life in Christ, Resurrection life, is a different kind of life. Life in Christ does not begin at birth and end at death. Rather, life in Christ begins with baptism and faith, it is sustained through the prayer and the Bread of Life, and it will come to its completion in the Resurrection and the life of the world to come.
There are three great miracles we celebrate when we gather around the altar. First, the cross and resurrection of Jesus; second, our dying and rising with Christ through baptism and faith; and third, our sure and certain hope, our eager anticipation, that Jesus will come again to finish his work in us and complete his New Creation. As Philippians says,
Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself (Phil. 3:20-21).