March 13, 2016—Nancy Bancroft
The Jesus whom we meet in John’s Gospel often seems to be an intimidating sort. He strides through the pages saying things like, “I am Living Water,” “I am the Bread of the Life,” “I am the light of the world,” and, in today’s Gospel, the dramatic proclamation, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
All of that is true enough, but we have to admit that it is not your everyday mode of conversation, and people who go around saying things like that are not easy to get close to. John’s Gospel shows Jesus going around doing things in a big way and then saying a lot of complicated things about them. Starting out at the beginning of the Gospel by turning water into wine, Jesus’ miracles get increasingly grander, and by today’s Gospel, he is turning death into life! Awesome! Obviously, we are going to respect someone who does that sort of thing. But the usual portrayal of Jesus in John’s gospel is someone who is easier to admire from a distance.
In contrast, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, present Jesus as the King of the Jews who proclaims the reign of God. They portray Jesus as a historical figure. They reveal his humanness. In the synoptic gospels Jesus is a superb story-teller. We can warm to someone who says, “Let the little children come to me.”
John, on the other hand, focuses on the divinity of Christ. Of the four gospels, John’s gospel presents Jesus as God most forcefully. He starts his gospel by explicitly declaring Jesus to be God who brought all things into existence. John’s gospel confirms that Jesus is YHVH, for whom the Jews had been waiting, had been preparing. In order to convince his audience that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, John crafted his gospel with seven pre-resurrection miracles. Seven in Scripture is the number of completion or perfection.
If the miracles weren’t enough to convince his readers of the divinity of Christ, John inserts seven “I Ams.” You may remember the conversation of Moses at the burning bush. I love this one. Yahweh sends Moses to Pharaoh to demand that he free the Israelites, and Moses first asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” And God responds “I shall be with you.” Now Moses has to be wondering to himself, “Who is this?” but he wimps out. Instead of owning his own curiosity he puts it on those ignorant Israelites and says, “I am to go, then, to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ But if they ask me what his name is, what am I to tell them?” God graciously ignores Moses’ ploy and answers directly, “I am who I am.” I doubt that this was a satisfactory answer for poor Moses. But this name, “I am” or YHWH, has come down through the ages as the name of the one true God of the chosen people. So in the gospel of John the writer has Jesus identify and describe himself seven times with a phrase beginning with “I am”: I am the Bread, I am the Light, I am the Door, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, I am the True Vine, and today we hear, I am the Resurrection and the Life. There’s to be no doubt that Jesus is Almighty God.
But what I find so appealing in the account of the raising of Lazarus is that this story marries the reassurance that Jesus is God with the approachability of him as fully human; truly like us! We can really identify with Jesus’ struggles in this story. Let’s reflect on it together.
Jesus was on the lam. He had recently been in Jerusalem, in fact in the Temple when he was pressed to say plainly whether indeed he was the Christ, the anointed one. So, Jesus answers, “The Father and I are one”. The Jews who heard this considered it blasphemy and some fetched stones to stone him while others wanted to have him arrested. So Jesus and his disciples skip town and travel to the far side of the Jordan, where they hope to be safe. That’s where they are when Jesus gets a message from his close friends Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus is ill. Now Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived in Bethany, only two miles outside of Jerusalem. It had been a place where Jesus frequented, but right now was not a great time to go there.
So Jesus doesn’t go to Mary and Martha and Lazarus right away. Is he afraid? – Is he in denial? First he tells the disciples that the sickness that Lazarus has will not end in death. After two days it seems he changes his mind. Has he grown in courage? Has reality set in?
All of this feels so familiar doesn’t it? Haven’t we ever wanted to ignore facing the truth about something painful? Or tried to avoid an unpleasant or frightening situation? Jesus seems so human here as he struggles for two days to do the right thing. Finally he decides, “Okay, we’re going.” But when his disciples try to convince him that this is not a very wise move, he gives his reason by using an ambiguous word, which can mean either sleep or death. The Greek word is kekoimetai, from which we get our English word “cemetery.” The disciples understand the first definition which bolsters their argument that there is no reason to go and put themselves in danger; Lazarus is only sleeping in order to get better. Then Jesus is forced to accept the cold hard truth, and so uses another word about which there can be no ambiguity. “Lazarus is dead.”
Was the delay in leaving a matter of Jesus wrestling within Himself, needing time to pray: “Father, is this the time for me to act? Is this your will for my life—that I go to Bethany, just a stone’s throw away from my enemies, and perform a deed which will seal my own fate?”
The story reports twice that Jesus was “greatly disturbed”. No doubt he is sad and upset about the death of his close friend and the suffering that he sees in Mary and Martha. Still, something deeper seems to be going on here. Some scripture scholars even suggest that this is John’s version of Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, since that event is not recorded in John’s Gospel. Jesus, the man who was one with God, was not a fortune teller. He, like us, had a developing faith, a growing awareness of his call to ministry and an evolving understanding about his mission. In this situation Jesus might have been moved not only by the event of Lazarus’ death, but also by the deeper reality of what is taking place. Jesus likely recognizes now that to take Lazarus out of the tomb is in effect to put Himself into it!! He has to be afraid.
Then he does what we likely have done a number of times, he talks things out with a close friend and gets both clarity and strength from the conversation and the support of the relationship. Martha at first chides Jesus, “If you had been here none of this would have happened.” Jesus now shows his strength of character by not making excuses but rather by reassuring Martha, “Your brother will rise again”. Belief in life after death, in the resurrection was not very widespread at the time. Maybe Jesus was getting used to the idea. It could be that his faith was developing into the belief of the resurrection of the body and life after death. Once again we can identify with the very human Jesus. The mystery of the resurrection is far beyond our understanding. Having hesitation or doubt about eternal life is only natural. Martha’s reassuring message, “I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day,” identifies her as one who follows the teachings of the Pharisees rather than the teaching of the Sadducees, for while the Pharisees believed in a final resurrection, the Sadducees did not. If Jesus needed it, Martha’s faith bolsters him, because he then proclaims, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Jesus is not here talking about some far off divine event. He is talking about the present. One of the primary teachings in John’s gospel is that Eternal Life is not just something which God gives us In the future, after death. Eternal Life has its beginnings now.
Can’t you just feel the strength in Jesus growing after his conversation with Martha? But then, she goes and gets Mary. Martha is the logical one, the practical one, the head. Mary is the heart, and the dramatic one. Like Martha, Mary confronts Jesus with his delayed visit but she does it by throwing herself at his feet and sobbing. Now Jesus is also moved to tears. No doubt feeling compassion for his dear friend, but also again, confronted with the reality that faces him.
No doubt feeling afraid, and maybe still questioning himself, Jesus goes to the tomb with Mary and Martha. He thanks God for the opportunity to show God’s majesty and calls out to Lazarus, “Come out!” If he had any doubt, he was definitely exhibiting courage to put himself out there, submerging any hesitancy and then acting on the burgeoning faith that he had.
It’s important I think to notice that Jesus gave two commands in accomplishing this miracle. First he hollers, “Lazarus, come out!” Lazarus obeys but he’s still fettered, wrapped in his burial cloth. Jesus instructs the mourners, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Some commentators interpret this segment of the story as:
- God does not do for us what we can do for ourselves.
- We are called to help free each other.
Like after Jesus’ other miracles, the raising of Lazarus led many more people to believe in him. But the raising of Lazarus was also the first step in making the opposing religious groups in Israel angry at Jesus. Jesus didn’t intentionally set out to make them turn against him. That occurred over time through his teaching and his challenges to the culture and system. As long as he was preaching in Galilee, and had few followers he wasn’t too much of a threat to the establishment. But that last week he sort of invaded their territory and when he did, he became a threat. John says that some of the people who had mourned the death of Lazarus stopped their weeping and wailing and went off to report to the Pharisees what Jesus had done. The authorities evidently took the raising of Lazarus very seriously: Caiaphas and the high priest met in emergency session with their advisors to deal with this severe challenge to their authority.
Jesus couldn’t have done anything more provocative to the Sadducees who didn’t believe in a resurrection than to raise Lazarus from the dead. So the individuals and groups who up until now opposed each other, put their differences aside, joined forces and for the sake of a common enemy, struck a deal to get rid of this upstart, life changing, revolutionary. And the straw that pushed them over the edge was the raising of Lazarus.
So what’s the implication for us?
Therapists who use dream interpretation as a healing technique guide their clients to see everything in the dream as aspects of themselves. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, we are Jesus. God continues to invite us to evolve in our faith and respond to a growing awareness of our call to ministry regardless of the cost. Like Jesus we may be tempted to ignore the messages. We will likely experience self-doubt and fear.
In the story of the raising of Lazarus, we are the mourners. At the tomb many people kept their distance, anticipating the four-day old stench of a body as more than they wanted to deal with. But Jesus gets them involved. “Unwrap him!” He calls the community to leave the safety of distance and get their hands dirty. As members of a faith community we are invited to provide strength and comfort to each other, to help unbind each other through loving support and kindness.
In the story of the raising of Lazarus, we are Lazarus. We are being offered eternal life that begins now. Here is John’s unique message: Eternal Life begins wherever and whenever anyone becomes linked up with the Eternal God through the living Christ in the here and now. For John, the divide between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, is erased. Holiness is everywhere. What does the command, “Come out!” mean for us? What is dead or dying in us? To remain fully alive we need to do our part to live fully, physically, mentally and spiritually. Life is hard. But if we put our trust in God, then no matter what it is that entombs us, there is new life available. The story of the raising of Lazarus teaches us that Christ is almighty and powerful and at the same time Christ is easily approachable and meets us in our needs. He is the Resurrection and the Life as much for us as for Lazarus.