Preached by the Revd. Canon Leonard Doolan for the Swedish congregation
Jesus is in his home territory. He is in the region of Galilee, an area where many signs and wonders occurred in the ministry of Jesus. Largely speaking it is an area of great faith.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus has just been in Capernaum, right on the Sea of Galilee, and there he had healed the slave of a centurion. Capernaum is the home of some of the disciples, not least St. Peter. If you visit Capernaum now there is a very good excavation of this fishing village, showing just how ‘miniature’ life must have been in those far off days. The streets are narrow, the buildings close to each other and the rooms of houses small. In one such room Jesus healed the mother in law of St. Peter. Public spaces are not like the lovely open piazzas and plateias that we might be accustomed to nowadays.
As I say, the excavation work here is excellent, and if any of you are interested in travelling with me to the Holy Land next year, it is one of the places we will visit. Sadly the Catholic Franciscans, who own the site, have built a rather monstrous ‘spider like’ church over the top of the village.
From Capernaum Jesus has travelled, not a long distance away, to another Galilean town, called Nain. Everyday life surrounds the journeys of Jesus, and as he enters Nain a funeral is taking place. A mother had lost her only son. This untimely death of her son, for no mother ever expects to bury one of her children, is a double blow. She is also a widow. This means that she has lost the only two people that ensured her place in society; her ‘man’, that is her husband, and her eldest, in this case only, son. These 2 males in her life were her guarantee of stability, social status, and her future livelihood. Such is this culture, and in some cultures today this procedure will still persist. It seems archaic to us, but still a reality for millions of women world- wide.
Inevitably a crowd is following the funeral bier. A funeral, like a wedding, was not a family matter, but a community event. We could assume that the whole village had stopped its normal activity and were on their way to the cemetery, which for public health reasons would have been set apart from where people lived and worked. Besides we are not told the illness for which the man had died.
Not far from Nain was another town. It was called Shunem. This had some historic and religious significance – and maybe this is why St. Luke is relating to us this story set in Nain. Hundreds of years before the time of Our Lord, there had lived the prophet Elisha, a highly significant character in the history of the Hebrew speaking people, and in 2 Kings 4, 8-37, we are told of the death of the son of a Shunemmite woman. The prophet Elisha raises the boy from the dead.
This region, therefore is no stranger to the phenomenon of resurrection from the dead, and St. Luke is no stranger as a gospel writer to what we call parallelism – namely taking events from the the past history of the Jewish people and representing them in the life and ministry of Our Lord. It is part of the authentification process, that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfils all the historic law and the prophets.
So Jesus performs a miracle – of the sort that few, if any of us will ever witness. Someone who is dead rises again at the command of Jesus. Perhaps the best known example of this in the miraculous ministry of Jesus is the raising of Lazarus.
There is nothing rational about the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. To some extent there is no point in trying to rationalize it. It is part of the account of the life of Jesus, told in 4 gospels, including St. Luke’s, that such phenomena happened. We are told in the 2nd book that St. Luke wrote, namely the Acts of the Apostles, that both St. Peter and St. Paul raised dead people back to life. One example from the life of St. Paul is worth mentioning. (Acts 20, 7ff) Paul is preaching in Troas in an upstairs room and a young man called Tychicus is listening while he sits perched on a window ledge.
We are told that Paul preaches until gone midnight, and the young man falls asleep, falls from the window ledge to the ground below and dies. St. Paul brings him back to life again, thanks be to God, but it is a good warning to all preachers not to go on for too long!
Returning to life from death is an experience that can be described by a number of people who have what is referred to as ‘near death experiences’. Pathologically such people have indeed died, in that all organs have completely ceased. It is their experience then of some divine encounter – often described in the language of peace or light, welcome or reassurance. For no known reason they return to life. I suppose it is for the reasons of rationality that this is called ‘near death’ experience, rather than being described as a dead person coming back to life with no explanation for how that works! Science does not like to talk so easily about mystery, or any spiritual phenomena. I was speaking to a Greek chap just the other week for whom this experience was as real as him sitting there telling me about it.
This, however, by no means explains the miracles of Jesus, or for that matter Peter or Paul raising dead people to life ‘at their command’. I have no explanation either, nor do I wish as a man of faith and as a priest, to try and explain it way. It is a challenge of faith.
These stories of resurrection from the dead must not be confused with the only resurrection that truly matters to all of us. Those other resurrection stories may be important to varying degrees as a witness, as evidence, of the power of Jesus, but they are not of the same’ type’ as the resurrection that God brought about in his crucified Messiah. It is faith in this resurrection that is the touchstone of our faith, and the foundation for our hope. It is through cross and empty tomb that we find redemption, meaning and purpose, and which forms our view of life together with the saints this side and the other side of the grave. It is into this living and endless mystery that we are baptised. It is in the sharing of the death and resurrection meal that we can proclaim, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
This mystery is not a miracle in the sense of the specific raising of the son of the widow of Nain, for he would have had a natural death again in his later life. The mystery of our resurrection to new life is firmly to be found in the authentic experience of entering into the way of the cross.
One thing we can share with that crowd in Nain, which St. Luke tells us, “Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God…”