Second Sunday after Trinity
The first funeral I ever took was that of a teenage boy. His mum was a widow too, just like in our OT and our Gospel stories today – his dad had died of cancer a few years previously. The young man had developed epilepsy following the shock of his father’s death, and he had suffocated in his room at college during an epileptic episode. There were well over 300 people at the Funeral Service, many of them young. I didn’t know how to explain the concept of eternal life in language they would understand, so I told the story of the dragon fly. If you don’t know it, ask me afterwards!
As at Nain, the coffin was carried to where it was to rest. But our sad cortege wasn’t met by another procession coming the other way. We didn’t meet the incarnate Christ on the way from Ormesby church to the churchyard, and Oliver wasn’t returned alive and in good health, to his mother. Miracles are always signs, not just for the person healed or raised to life, but for the world, and our lectionary, which sets our readings for today, is at great pains to make all the connections.
Luke’s story echoes our OT reading. In the Book of Kings, the scene is Zarephath, which is actually not that far from Nain, where our Gospel story is set. At Zarephath, the land is suffering a drought, which is blamed on God in the usual way. Elijah the prophet is lodging with a widow and her son. One miracle has already happened. The widow’s jar of meal and jug of oil remain full, however much is taken from them. But now the son has died. Elijah prays. In earlier translations of the OT, it’s clear that he blames God for the boy’s death. Modern translations are a bit more timid, but if we read the Book of Job it’s clear that he doesn’t view his suffering as morally neutral. It is worse than tragic, more than calamitous, and the prophetic conclusion, both of Job and of Elijah, is that the buck stops with God.
Our modern view, in the light of the NT, may not be quite the same as the prophets, but we need to remind ourselves that God is all powerful. He is not impotent, and even if He didn’t cause or will the suffering and tragedy that we and others experience, He can act. He does care and He can help us, even if His action is not always what we asked for or expected.
Elijah’s prayer, which Luke expects us to recall, provides the theological background, the God explanation if you like, for the story of what happened at Nain. To be sure, the widow’s plight, with no one left to support her, is truly desperate. When Jesus saw her ‘his heart went out to her’. Yet the scene that confronts Jesus and His disciples as they approach the town is an even more deeply affecting human tragedy. Death has conquered life. The death of the only son of the widow of Nain is a triumph of evil, as was the death of Oliver whose funeral was the first I ever took.
But Jesus addresses the widow of Nain’s son with a word that belongs to the NT’s resurrection vocabulary, ‘Be risen!’ is the literal, if clumsy, translation. Death’s triumph proves short-lived. Here is ‘Christus Victor’. Death has met its match. Of course, the boy isn’t raised immortal, any more than Lazarus or Jairus’s daughter. Sooner or later, hopefully at the end of a long, joyful, fulfilled and good life, he will die again and his dust will return to the earth. But that’s not the point. The point is that the incarnate Christ has proved Himself the conqueror of death, so that it will never have the last word again. He has promised eternal life of the Spirit. He has given us hope and new life.
Meanwhile, every day mothers lose their children in tragic circumstances – a cruel disease, poverty and starvation, AIDS or Ebola, the bombing of a refugee camp or a hospital, an act of terrorism. Jesus is not there, in person, to raise all those children from death and to return them, alive and in good health, to their mothers, as He was for the widow of Nain. But we note the response of those who witnessed that event. ‘A great prophet has arisen’, they shouted. Again Luke sends us back to the OT and the instruction of Moses. ‘Listen to what he says’ Moses says of God in Deuteronomy 18.15. We cannot return a dead child alive to his or her mother, nor a dead mother to an orphaned child, but we can stop talking and listen. And if we do, we shall not be kept long in the dark about what God has promised and what we should do about it.
Christ has conquered death and given us eternal life; that’s a life of the Spirit with Him in eternal joy, a joy that lasts for ever. In the meantime, the responsibility is ours to make life rather than death a reality for those whose lives would otherwise be cut short. We can do that through prayer, and also through generous giving, both when tragedy strikes and to prevent it striking; through finding joy in sharing, with each other and with the wider world; and by a generosity of spirit that helps us to empathise with those who find themselves in difficult and challenging circumstances, and gives us a desire and a willingness to share their sorrow and to offer material help.
And when God does give us a miraculous sign now of how He has made life victorious over death, then we should rejoice with thanksgiving at His healing and gentle touch and see the Church’s healing ministry (of which we are part) as an expression of the holistic touch of Jesus upon the lives of all His people, making them whole.
We serve a God who has power to heal and to bring life out of death, both through the skills, talents and vocations He has given to His people, and by His direct intervention. To over-analyse or critique the gracious activity of God would be to miss the point.