A reading from the gospel of John, the 11th chapter:
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, from the village of Mary and her sister Martha. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ …So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Although every Bible will title this chapter, “the Raising of Lazarus,” and although I’ve preached about Lazarus a couple of times when this has been the text of the day or when it was the reading for a funeral… this time, it seems to me that Lazarus and his staggering emergence from the tomb is only sort of what it’s about.
Martha and Mary’s grief is palpable. Their lamenting accusation that Jesus’ delay has cost their brother his life clearly has an impact on Jesus. The presence of the crowd of mourners and Pharisee spies barging into the intimacy of his affection for the family – and into the teaching moment he had planned for his disciples – frustrates him. The words translated here as deeply troubled and deeply moved are translated in other places as anger and agitation. Jesus is feeling strong and mixed emotions. But this whole scene seems to draw out another picture of the only real theme of this gospel – God’s love for this world and for all who dwell therein – love spoken as a word who became flesh and dwelt among us.
There are only a few times in the gospel when Jesus is said to love – an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” is referenced toward the end of the gospel. Jesus loves “his own” – followers, disciples, believers, the Son loves the Father, and Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Although it could be a lot of people, still it’s a short list. Martha, Mary and Lazarus seem to be very important people in his life and I got to thinking about that. About what it means to love Jesus, and be loved by him, and about what he said to Martha.
It’s a story about love. But it’s a love story the way John always seems to tell love stories – with a trailing edge of death, like Lazarus walking around trailing his shroud.
“For God so loved the world…” we keep circling back to that, “that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will have abundant life.” “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus says in his farewell discourse, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Love is linked inextricably to death in John, and that is also true in the story of this family. Their intimate relationship with Jesus doesn’t provide immunization from sickness, death, grief, or questions. His love for them doesn’t hurry him along at the first news of illness to prevent Lazarus from dying. But, so that God’s love may be made real, Jesus acts in inexplicable ways. In time, their sorrow and pain turn to wonder, belief, and joy as they participate as extraordinary exemplars in God’s glory.
The danger is in reading this – and also the healing of the man born blind – as though God caused their suffering so that God could show off through Jesus – as an orchestrated occasion for a flash of glory and front page headlines in the Jerusalem Times. Another unhelpful reading is to question the morality of the whole proposition – if God can cure any illness, bring back loved ones from death – then why is there such awful suffering in this beleaguered, beloved world?
It is helpful information to remember that this gospel is beautifully woven theology. It’s not history. It’s not a biography. That doesn’t necessarily mean the characters aren’t real, but that they are players in this divine comedy – an apparent tragedy that turns at the last moment to joy.
And it helps to look carefully at what Jesus said to Martha.
When Jesus says to her, “your brother will rise again,” she hears only the promise of a distant future, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” This was a common belief among first-century Jews. But Jesus seems to correct what she knows in saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
We, too, tend to pair the raising of Lazarus with the resurrection of Jesus – as I’m sure we are meant to do – and to hear in it a promise for us of salvation, of eternal life with God and Jesus one day, in the fullness of time.
But what difference does Jesus’ correction make – and the life? Can we see that in believing in Jesus, we are raised to life, not a future one, but vibrant life right here; transformed as though from death to life right now? Lazarus is raised back to his actual life, goes on with his normal activities – although he has gained a certain notoriety. One day, at some point in the future, Lazarus will die again. But don’t you imagine this in-between life he’s been given will reflect some of the glory of that love borne of death?
In the next chapter, Jesus returns to Bethany and the home of this trio for a dinner at which Martha serves, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair in an act of extravagant love, and Lazarus is alive and well, reclining at the table with Jesus, sharing food and fellowship. New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling. It is here and now, because in the Gospel of John, it is not just the death of Jesus but his life that brings about salvation.
When Martha hears this, she moves beyond what she knows to what she sees before her. She responds with a confession of faith akin to Peter’s confession in the other gospels. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Although some of the bystanders at Lazarus’ tomb believe, others run to report Jesus to the authorities. It is based on this act of love and grace and power, that they decide to put Jesus to death. In the other Gospels, Jesus clearing out the temple is the impetus for the plot to kill him. Here, the chief priests put a price on Lazarus’ head, too, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” The irony of John’s timing is that the way to the cross and Jesus’ own tomb starts here where Jesus calls life out of the tomb proclaiming, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
If we don’t fear death or worry about eternal life, but simply trust, taking Jesus at his word, would the depth of God’s love for the world, for our neighbor, our enemies, ourselves change anything about how you live? Does – or has – that love brought about a transformation in your daily life and interactions? Don’t you think it ought to?
“From his fullness we have all received – grace upon grace.”
Peace – and a bit of discomfort- be with you.