The miracle is dramatic enough. But Luke sets the scene in a way that makes it more dramatic still.
Jesus approaches Nain from Capernaum, where he has just healed the centurion’s slave. We heard that story last week. Jesus is travelling with his disciples—that is already thirteen men, counting Jesus. Luke does not tell us how many more people were with Jesus in addition to the disciples, but he calls it “a large crowd.”
As they arrive at the city gate, Jesus and his crowd meet a funeral procession, which Luke also describes as “a large crowd.”
That is two large crowds, heading in opposite directions, coming together at the city gate. We experience something similar every time construction forces traffic coming from two directions to share a single lane. We always have a police officer directing traffic. But of course in ancient Israel, nobody was directing traffic. The crowds had to be self-policing whenever they met at a bottleneck like a city gate.
The courteous thing for Jesus and his crowd to do would be to stand aside. That is what we do when we are driving and a funeral procession comes our way.
But Jesus does not stand aside. Jesus “came forward,” right into the funeral procession. Jesus interrupts the funeral.
Luke does not tell us what the crowd with Jesus did. But I know what I would do, especially if I had just seen Jesus heal the centurion’s slave. I would stay as close to Jesus as I could. So as I picture this scene, Jesus not only interrupts the funeral himself. Jesus leads his entire crowd into the funeral procession. They are all interrupting the funeral.
Our translation says that Jesus touched the funeral bier, but “touched” is not a strong enough word. In the original language, it says something more like Jesus “grabbed” the bier. Jesus forces the pall bearers to stop moving.
Now we know what happens next. Jesus breaks up the whole funeral. Jesus raises the young man from the dead and gives him back to his mother. The funeral is transformed into a party. The people in the funeral procession join the crowd around Jesus. Life and joy replace pain and death. That is what the presence of Jesus does.
But we should pause before we get to the miracle. Think how the people in that funeral procession must have reacted as they watched Jesus and his crowd come forward, as they watched this stranger walk right up to the casket and grab it, as they watched Jesus stopping the entire funeral procession. Jesus’ behavior must have seemed totally outrageous.
And it is outrageous. That is an important part of the lesson in our gospel reading. Jesus interrupts lives. Suddenly and dramatically Jesus changes everything. That was true for them two thousand years ago. That is true for us today.
Apart from Jesus, death has the final word for all of us. It is as if we are all in a procession marching to our own funerals. And here comes Jesus, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, surrounded by angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Jesus and his crowd come crashing into our funeral procession, stopping us in our tracks, grabbing hold of whatever is dead, putting an end to life as we know it. It is a shocking, dramatic interruption to ordinary life, to life that ends in death, to life without Christ.
And in that encounter, Jesus says to each of us, “Rise. Be well. Know the joy, and the freedom, and the life that comes from being a beloved child of God.”
That interruption is what Paul was talking about in last week’s reading from the letter to the Galatians. Paul described Jesus’ interruption of our lives as “setting us free from the present evil age” (1:4).
We are free from the age we live in because Jesus has grabbed us. Jesus has interrupted our procession of sin and death. Jesus has pulled us out of the funeral procession we were in and brought us into his procession of life and love. Freedom in God means that we are not defined by our world. Instead we are defined as children of God. That is really good news.
But, perversely, we sometimes reject the freedom that Christ offers us. We choose the funeral procession of this world over the party with Jesus Christ.
Paul talks about that, too. After reminding the Galatians that they have been set free, Paul immediately added, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ” (1:6). Later in the same letter, Paul accused the Galatians of submitting again to a yoke of slavery (5:1).
Sometimes we do not want to be free. It is as if the young man in our Gospel reading refused the new life that Jesus offered him, as if the young man lay back down in his casket, as if the young man insisted on continuing with his funeral procession despite Jesus.
The life we live seems to move back and forth between gospel freedom and bondage to the world, between Jesus’ procession of joy and peace and a funeral procession of pain and death. It helps to name that reality, to be aware of when we are trapped and when we have been set free.
I experience that trap, that bondage to the world of pain and death, during every presidential election. I read all about poll results, and campaign strategies, and who has a lead in which state. That would be the action of a responsible citizen if I were trying to learn more about the candidates so that I could make a more informed decision about who to support. That is NOT why I read. Politics just has an eerie fascination for me. And, unfortunately, it brings out my ugly side!
Jesus is inviting me to make this election year different.
This campaign season has already been ugly enough, and it is likely to get worse. Both the presumed nominees will probably focus their campaigns on why we should vote against their opponent. As a political strategy, that kind of negative campaigning makes sense. But it takes a toll on the body politic. It cheapens the political process and undermines our collective commitment to the common good. As I experience it personally, the negativity is a form of bondage to the world of sin and death.
This year, with God’s help, I will be free from our age, free from the political negativity. I already know who I am going to vote for, so I will not read any more articles about the election. Presuming I can stick to my resolution, that will be a small experience of grace, a little taste of gospel freedom from the world around me. I invite you to do the same. Do whatever you need to do to choose your candidate. Then ignore the negative ads.
More generally, I invite you to take a few minutes this week to reflect on how you remain bound to the world of sin and death. Then remember that Christ has grabbed you. Reflect on that too. Reflect on what it looks like in your life when Christ interrupts what you are doing, when Christ touches you somehow and gives you a taste of gospel freedom.
I end with thanks to Christ, who interrupts our lives and sets us free. Amen.