by Bill Carroll
Today, since we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day, I’d like to begin with some words from the greatest biblical scholar of the early Church, Origen of Alexandria. Long after his death, Origen was condemned by a Church council, but in his own day, he was considered a pillar of orthodox teaching.
Early in the third century, when he was just eighteen years old, Origen was made head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, one of the major centers of Christian learning at the time. Over the centuries, Origen’s writings have continued to be studied and loved for his many insights into the spiritual life and the deeper meanings of the Word.
Here is what Origen has to say about the story of Lazarus. It’s directly relevant to today’s celebration of all the saints:
Now we ought to be aware that there are some Lazaruses even now, who, after they have become Jesus’ friends, have become sick and died. And as dead persons they have remained in the tomb and the land of the dead with the dead. And later they were made alive by Jesus’ prayer, and were summoned from the tomb to the things outside it by Jesus with his loud voice. He who trusts in Jesus comes forth wearing bonds worthy of death from his former sins, and still bound around his face, so that he can neither see nor walk, nor do anything because of the bonds of death, until Jesus commands those who are able to unbind him and let him go.
In other words, Christianity is about more than just being forgiven. When Jesus raises us from sin and death and makes us his friends, this is only the beginning of our lifelong journey into holiness and freedom.
We come out of our grave—whatever that means for us—with the smell of death still clinging to us. But Jesus meets us there and calls us to new life. He invites us into loving union with himself. And this means freedom and following him in the ways of love. Accepting Jesus into our hearts and confessing him with our lips is only the beginning. Even baptism, awesome and life-changing as it is, is only the beginning. As followers of Jesus, we are on a life-long journey into resurrection.
Unbind him, and let him go, says Jesus. Lazarus must no longer be bound and blinded by the clothes of the grave. By the power of the Spirit, we too need to leave the rags of death behind us and follow Jesus wherever he leads.
It’s important that Jesus commands his disciples to unbind us. For we never, ever follow Jesus alone. The Church as community is central to the Gospel. Although Jesus is our Savior who sets us free from death, it’s our brothers and sisters who must help him remove its rags from us. The communion of saints—living and dead, angels and human beings—these holy ones are the ones who help us grow in grace. They teach us how to love others like Jesus. They strengthen us to follow him. And they lead us to the New Jerusalem, where he lives and reigns as King.
Too often, we think sainthood is reserved for a special few. But, in the New Testament, every Christian is called to be a saint. Each of us is called to reflect the holiness of Jesus in our own way. Each of us is a Gospel written in flesh and blood. Each is a sacrament of Jesus and his love.
And that’s important, because the ways of sin and death cling to us like Lazarus. We have one foot in God’s Kingdom, but the other remains in the grave. The rags we wear could be our greedy, self-centered behavior. They could be the ways we exclude and keep each other down. They could be our pride and desire for status. Or they could be our tendency to accept where others put us—rather than the place of freedom and wholeness God wants for us. They could be the shackles of memory or unhealed wounds. But, whatever they are, the point is this: These rags cling to us and block our vision, even after Jesus has made us his own.
We need saints to guide us in his Way of Love. We need to make their lives our study. We need their friendship, their help, and their prayers.
We need the People of Israel showing us how to confess the one true God and to answer God’s call to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” We need the prophets calling us back, again and again, to the ways of God—and to the least of these. We need John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness—pointing to Jesus and showing us his Way. We need Mary (that unwed, refugee mother), answering the angel’s message with her joyful “Yes” and wholehearted “Let it be.” We need the apostles, dropping their nets, leaving home and family behind to follow Jesus and set the world on fire with his love.
Today—yes, TODAY—we need especially the witnesses of the Civil Rights Movement and other struggles for human freedom—people like Jonathan Daniels and Rosa Parks, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King—people who stood up and demanded justice, and put their bodies on the line for their neighbors. We need the witness all the holy people who’ve gone before us in the Way of Jesus.
They are the ones, however imperfectly, who’ve shed the rags of death and shown us the love and freedom Jesus gives us. They are the ones who’ve answered his call and let him make them holy. They are with us whenever we gather. They are with us, when we feast at God’s Table. And, in Jesus, they are alive and present, HERE and NOW.
Today, we pray for all the saints who’ve shown us Jesus. On their earthly pilgrimage, they were sinners. But Jesus has brought them to his heart and made them his own. With them, we too can lay our burdens down. With them them, we can renounce whatever habits or attitudes hold us back. With them, we can be unbound and set free in Jesus. For we are not just citizens of the Earthly City—with its divisions, hatreds, and violence. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem, chosen and precious—called by God to the wedding of the Lamb.
Behold, says the Lamb, I am making all things new. Behold, says Jesus, I am preparing a feast for you in that City, where death and mourning are no more. Where weeping and sighing are no more. I am preparing a feast for you, where God Almighty reigns, and my love is ALL in ALL.
Unbind them, says Jesus.
Unbind them, and let them go.
The Rev. Canon Bill Carroll serves as Canon for Clergy Transitions and Congregational Life in the Diocese of Oklahoma. He has served as a parish priest in Oklahoma, as a parish priest and college chaplain in Southern Ohio, and as a member of a seminary faculty. In 2005, he earned his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School.
image: Jesus Raises Lazarus From The Dead by Ann Lukesh