Sermon for Trinity 2 Luke 7:11-17
For any newcomers or visitors, my name is Mike Peatman, and I’m the Rector here at Morecambe Parish Church. It’s been quite a long time since I preached here at MPC on a Sunday morning, as my wife, Debbie, died a few weeks ago, and only now am I starting to get back to things.
I’ve been torn between two options this morning – whether to just prepare a sermon as Anne, Sue or David would, or whether to address more directly how I understand faith relating to Debbie’s illness and her dying.
Well, before I had seen the readings, we had selected today as the date I would try preaching, as part of my way back into things. One look at the Gospel reading and the decision was taken for me. Jesus restores to life the son of the widow of Nain. A story of bereavement and loss, and of healing and restoration.
Let’s just get the scene clear in our minds before we start. This story only appears in Luke’s gospel – it’s a piece of the Jesus story that only he chose to include, and probably only he was aware of. Nain would only have been a very small place – no more than a small English village, and even now it’s a small community, located near Mount Tabor in the north east of modern-day Israel.
Jesus enters Nain with a crowd following him, and they meet a very different kind of procession – a funeral – carrying the body of a young man out of the village for burial. His mother was a widow. She’s already suffered one loss – the loss of her husband. Now she has lost her only son.
Following Debbie’s death, I’m slowly getting used to describing myself as a widower. Along the way I’ve discovered all sort of things. For example, I am deemed to have a child who is a dependant. As a result, I receive an ongoing allowance from the DWP, which I was surprised still existed. It has certainly helped, but it wasn’t essential to save me from destitution. I would have had a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and the light would have stayed on. However, back then, women depended on men to work for an income. With her husband dead, her son would have been looking after her. Now he had also died and she was not only facing the pain of a terrible bereavement, but also poverty and dependency on the generosity of others. She might have to turn to begging, and she would have known that some women resorted to prostitution as the only way they could generate an income. Her grief was multiplied.
Then the two processions meet, and Jesus stops the cortege, and restores the young man to life and gives him back to his mother. It’s a happy ending – who could possibly have a problem with such a lovely story, or begrudge such happiness to the woman?
Well, many of us here will have experienced bereavement at some point in our lives. In some cases, they may have felt a very natural end to a good and long life. For example, my own mother died a few years ago at the age of 80. It’s not the kind of situation where we would have been looking to Jesus to do anything like this. In other cases – and Debbie is an example – it feels very different. We may well be asking the Jesus in this story as to why he didn’t do anything in our case. Why do something here, but not there? Any of us who have seen loved ones suffer would give anything for a miracle like this
Then we find ourselves with a pretty stark choice. We either have a lot of frustration and even anger to resolve with God for not selecting us or our loved ones for a miracle, or we end up saying that we don’t believe any of this. There is, at least, some cold comfort in choosing to believe that no miracles ever happen – at least everyone gets the same deal. This is not a new problem. Wiser people than I have written many thousands of words trying to come to terms with the same dilemma.
So are those two choices the only ones available? Get angry or be an atheist?
Let’s go back to this story, and see if we can identify why something happened here, and why this might not be the template for our expectations of Jesus today.
Firstly, there seem to be overriding compassionate grounds for Jesus to intervene here. As I have already said, this widow had been through a great amount of suffering and probably feared for her future. Luke specifically records that Jesus had compassion for her. In the original language, it’s the same word that he uses in the parable of the Good Samaritan to describe how the Samaritan felt when he saw the man who had been robbed and beaten. It’s also the word used for how the father felt when he ran down the drive to greet the Prodigal Son when he returns home. There’s a very specific depth of feeling here.
Jesus would also know the story of Elijah in the Old Testament – it was the other reading we could have used today. He also revived the son of a widow he was staying with who died, and the connection between the scene Jesus had in front of him, and the great prophet from the history of Israel, may well have come together to mean that Jesus knew he had to intervene here.
And, of course, there were lots of people Jesus didn’t heal or restore to life. He came with the limitations of a human body in a particular place at a particular time, and he ministered to the people he met. His mission was not to cure everyone, everywhere, but to preach God’s message.
Another clue is in the next bit of Luke’s Gospel. It’s a limitation of having a service sheet that I can’t point you to other passages. We finish at verse 17, but in verse 20 John the Baptist’s followers come and ask Jesus if he is “the one who was to come”. Are you the real deal?
Jesus says this:
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight [Luke 7:21], the lame walk [5:17-26], the lepers are cleansed [5:12-16], the deaf hear, the dead are raised [this passage], the poor have good news brought to them [6:20].”
We have to wait until chapter 11 for a deaf man to be healed [the man who was 'mute' is often assumed to have been deaf also], but you get the idea. We can find ourselves thinking of miracles arbitrary things, where Jesus was caught in a good mood, so he delivers the goods. But actually, this is very different. It may well be that the specific tragic circumstances meant Jesus chose this funeral and this moment to do this miracle. However, we shouldn’t think that he was wandering round looking for miracles to dispense to worthy candidates, or to people who said or did the right things. This is part of a pattern of revelation of who he is.
And as we’ve already noticed, it places him as the successor to the great prophets of old who risked all to speak God’s message in their own day.
Resuscitation vs Resurrection
Finally, (and this may sound strange) this is a resuscitation, not a resurrection. This young man will die again, and we don’t know when that was to be. Jesus has not taken away his mortality by restoring him; he has extended his biological life. Dying is an inevitable part of being human, and this miracle doesn’t do away with that. In a very real sense, this miracle merely postpones what for all of us is an acute and profound issue – that of our own mortality.
Instead of taking away that mortality, what Jesus did come to bring us was something else – the message of resurrection. I quoted Debbie during my address at her funeral when she observed that Jesus didn’t die to stop us having to. Denying the reality of death is to deny our humanity. However, what Jesus brings through his life, death and resurrection is the possibility of having the fear of death lifted from us. The raising of the young man is not what opens up that possibility; it is what Jesus goes through himself.
There is something unique here in the Christian faith. We believe in a God who came in a specific contained human form, experienced all of the limitations that brings, knew hunger, thirst, love, grief and pain from a human point of view, and then went through suffering and death and out the other side. He doesn’t come to take our humanity away, with all its complexities, but to transform our experience of being human, knowing we are loved to eternity.
That doesn’t answer all the questions. It doesn’t stop me having moments of frustration that Jesus didn’t turn up at the Hospice and say “Debbie get up”. It doesn’t stop me sometimes feeling it’s not fair. But it does help me not to throw everything away, and encourages me to hold on to the hope that in Jesus we don’t have a temperamental wonder-worker who sometimes delivers the goods, but that in him we have something truer and deeper. A hope that in the love that he revealed, our fears can be calmed, we can know we are loved, and we can trust ourselves and our loved ones for eternity.