Two middle-aged men were having their Saturday morning coffee. After the usual small talk about the weather and the Minnesota Twins, the tone of the conversation turned a bit more serious.
“How have you been feeling lately, Mike,” asked one of the men.
“Oh,” replied the other man, “I’m always weak and sick for a few days after I have my chemotherapy treatments, but then I’m okay again for a couple a weeks.”
“Are the treatments helping?” asked the first man. “Are you going to be all right?”
“Well,” replied Mike slowly and thoughtfully, “the doctor says he can slow the cancer down a bit, but he probably can’t get rid of it. He gives me a year, maybe two if I’m lucky.”
“Oh… Sorry to hear that, Mike,” said the first man. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay so far,” Mike said. “There is one good thing about it, though. I’m not as worried about my retirement pension as I used to be.” There was brief pause, and then Mike started chuckling, and soon, both men were laughing.
What does it mean to be able to laugh in the face of death like that? It might only mean that Mike is putting up a good front. Perhaps he’s not doing very well at all, but he doesn’t want to talk about it, and so he makes light of it. Perhaps he is in denial. Or perhaps Mike has a faith that has made him ready to die, and so he can laugh about not needing his pension anymore. Maybe he believes the Easter story about Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and truly believes in Christ’s promise that we too may rise and live forever.
During his ministry on earth, Jesus raised three people from the dead. One of these was his friend Lazarus. The story is told in John chapter 11 and ends with Lazarus coming out of the tomb. Jesus had commanded that the stone be rolled away. Lazarus’ sister objected, saying “Lord, the body has been in there for four days already, and there is sure to be an odor.” But Jesus insisted and the stone was rolled away. Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.” And instead of the awful smell of a rotting corpse, Mary and Martha got their brother back, alive and well.
In 1925 Eugene O’Neill wrote a play based on this story called Lazarus Laughed. The play starts where the Bible story leaves off. As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is seen stumbling out of the dark tomb, blinking as his eyes adjust to the light. As his friends and neighbors rush over to see him, he begins to laugh a gentle soft laugh. It is a joyful laughter, as he embraces Jesus, and then his sisters, and then several of his other old friends. Everyone is smiling and laughing with Lazarus at this wonderful, incredible miracle. (Using O’Neill’s basic idea, I’ll tell the story in my words.)
Finally, someone gets the courage to ask Lazarus what is on everyone’s mind. “What was it like, Lazarus,” the man asked, “what was it like to be dead?”
“Dead?,” said Lazarus with a thoughtful, puzzled look on his face, “Dead? Oh yeah, I suppose I was dead as far as what all of you saw of it. But that is only how it looks from here. There is no death, really. For my part, it was just life. Life here, and then life there. I remember being sick here, and I suppose I went to sleep, and then died. But all I remember is just waking up there, in that other place, and it was wonderful. And the One who met me there was the one who gave me life here in the first place. Death is only a moment, just a doorway through which we move from here into a greater life. There is nothing to be afraid of, I tell you.”
And so in the play Lazarus goes back to his old life, and yet, now there is something different. He has been dead, and will someday have to die again, but now he knows that there is nothing to fear. Life here, life there, always life– so no longer does he have to be anxious about missing out on something here, or about the time going so fast, or about something bad happening and life ending too soon. And so he’s is cheerful, always cheerful and laughing, and he raises everyone’s spirits. It’s a joy for all to be around him and see how he approaches life, and also, to see how he treats other people. He doesn’t worry about someone getting ahead of him or taking advantage of him. He’s got a much bigger view of life now, an eternal perspective. And his joy and his generosity are infectious. The whole town begins to change for the better.
But not everyone likes the new Lazarus. The local Roman authorities knew that their authority and power was based on intimidation and fear. They could control people who feared death by always keeping that threat over them. That is why crucifixions were public events. Emperor Caligula once said, “Crosses are so educational. Let the scum see their friends and family up on a cross covered with blood and it will so paralyze them in fear that we will rule them with ease.” But Lazarus no longer had such fear, and the authorities sensed that this could mean trouble. In the play Lazarus does not provoke the soldiers, but neither is he intimidated by them anymore. When the soldiers tried to bully Lazarus, he did what he was always doing those days, he laughed at them. The authorities feared what this kind of attitude might do to the people, so they had him arrested. But still he would not be afraid. He said, “There is nothing you can do to me. There is no death, only life.” Lazarus, no longer afraid of death, was no longer afraid of anything.
The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) was already an established writer by the time he was 25 years old. Then he made the mistake of joining a group of political rebels. He was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison. Then, when he was only 27, orders was handed down that he should be executed. He was told that in three weeks he would be shot by a firing squad. The execution day came, and Dostoyevsky was taken from his cell and tied to the post where he was to be shot. He was then blindfolded, and there in his darkness, awaited the sound of the guns and the end of his life. He waited and waited, but the shots were not fired. He could hear some commotion, but had no idea what was going on. Finally, the blindfold was removed, and he was told at the last moment, the camp commander had received different orders. Dostoyevsky was told that he would not be executed, but rather serve a life sentence without parole. In a few years, the orders changed again, and he was freed.
Dostoyevsky often wrote about that event. He said being face to face with death changed him forever, and from that time on he could write profoundly about matters of life and death. I don’t think facing a firing squad would have changed Lazarus. He had already been through death and had already been changed. Lazarus would have laughed.
John 11:25 — Jesus said unto her (the sister of Lazarus), “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
Revelation 1:17-18 — When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Psalm 118:5-6 — I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place. The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?
Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. —Book of Common Prayer