Wednesday, April 02, 2014

I Am the Resurrection -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5A


John 11:1-45



11 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 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, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”    [Continue reading at Bible Gateway]

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            One of the most memorable film portrayals of the raising of Lazarus – for me – is that found in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  What sticks in my mind is the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus.  As soon as Lazarus comes forth from the tomb, witnesses head to Jerusalem proclaiming the good news with Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus in accompaniment.  A man was dead, but now lives – can we not sing praises to God?
 
This is a lengthy story that appears only in John.  There is a character named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no relationship between this character in parable, and the man whose death and “resurrection,” is the focus of this story.  This Lazarus does have two sisters who appear in the Synoptic Gospels without him.  That a great crowd has gathered to mourn him suggests that this Lazarus, unlike the one in Luke, is a man of wealth and importance.  The sisters have sent word, hoping Jesus could come and restore their beloved brother to health.  But for some reason, Jesus delays his decision to travel to Bethany.  By the time he decides to go, he seems to know that Lazarus is “asleep.”  That is, he’s dead.  What follows is Jesus greatest miracle -- or sign.  

The scene and context are laid out wonderfully by James Martin, a Jesuit priest and journalist, in his new book Jesus: A Pilgrimage (pp. 312-323).  It is important to note here, something Martin points out, is that Lazarus and his sisters are friends.  Not only that, but Lazarus is one whom Jesus loves (hon phileis).  It is, likely, for this reason that when Jesus approaches the tomb of Lazarus, he weeps.  So we are left wondering why the delay.    

            Upon his arrival in Bethany, Jesus first is confronted by Martha and then by Mary.  Both sisters are upset that Jesus failed to come earlier.  When your beloved brother lies dead, it’s not better late than never.  They knew he could have gotten there much earlier, had he desired to do so.  The conversation with the sisters raises the issue of resurrection.  They affirm an apocalyptic vision of resurrection – at the end of the age the dead will rise.  They can affirm that idea.  But that doesn’t help them here, because Lazarus has been lying in the tomb for at least four days.  There is a conversation here about resurrection that I want to come back to at the end.

After his conversations with the two sisters, Jesus asks that they take him to the tomb, and then he requests that they open the tomb.  Martha reminds Jesus that the body has had time to decay, and therefore, to use the King James, “he stinketh.”  Why would Jesus want to open the tomb?  Would purpose would it serve?  But remember Jesus has come to wake Lazarus up from his sleep.  So once the stone has been rolled away, Jesus issues a command:   “Lazarus, come out!”  To our surprise (if we don’t know the story already), this corpse emerges from the tomb – with hands and feet bound and face wrapped in a cloth.  Unbind him, commands Jesus, and the formerly dead body is unwrapped – Lazarus, though he was dead is now alive. 

 Now in our modern age we might question such a miracle – but it’s not like people left the tomb all that often back then either.  This sign leads to affirmations of belief among those in the crowd – including “the Jews.”  It’s always good to flag uses of this word in John.  We must remember that all the characters in this story, including Jesus and Lazarus, are Jews.  The point then here is that those who witnessed this sign believed.  They saw and they believed.  It’s good to remember that phrase, because Thomas, a disciple who appears earlier in the story, will later demand proof that Jesus has risen before he will believe (John 20:24-29).  But blessed, Jesus tells Thomas after the resurrection, are those who do not see and yet believe. 

            That’s a key element in this story – will the people see and believe?  Remember how Jesus frames his sense of purpose in verse four of John 11:   “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.”  It’s like the man born blind – in the wisdom of God, this is a necessary sign that is designed to show forth the presence of God in the life of Jesus.  It also gives John and opportunity to define eternal life.   

            To return to the conversation that Jesus has with Martha, we see in it revealed the heart of the story.  Lazarus’ death and restoration to life will serve to illustrate what will happen to Jesus.  He too will die and find himself lying in a tomb – with feet and hands bound, and face wrapped in cloth.  So, when Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again, she interprets this in an apocalyptic manner – yes at the end of the age he will be restored to life with God. Now, in this case Jesus intends to wake Lazarus up and restore him to life.  But he wants to use this moment to reveal to Martha the true meaning of resurrection.         
  
Jesus tells Martha:   “I am the resurrection and the life.” It’s not – I will experience or I will be – I am the Resurrection.  Right now, in this place, resurrection life is present.  Resurrection is the heart of the Gospel, but it’s not just a future singular event.  As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it:  “For John, life (zōē) is not simply continuing physical operation but existence animated by the Spirit in which one knows such things as love, light, truth, grace, and one-ness of community” [Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 34].  Resurrection is already underway.  All one has to do is embrace this message – believe in Jesus – and one can begin experiencing the blessings of resurrection.  You don’t have to wait for the grave.

            The raising of Lazarus needs to be understood in the context of Jesus’ own resurrection.  In its own context, Lazarus’ resurrection is temporary.  He might have more earthly life to experience, but physical death will eventually come to him.  It is the resurrection to which this sign points that John wants us to take hold of.  In time, Jesus will face death, but death will give way to the glory of resurrection.  Life will reign victorious.  Death will have lost its sting.  Good Friday will come and have its say -- but Easter has the last word.  Those who see now believe, but as Jesus tells Thomas after his resurrection – blessed are those who don’t see this and yet believe (John 20:24-29).   It’s not something we can take hold of scientifically or historically.  There were no cameras present.  We must take in by faith the witness that in Jesus we can know resurrection.  As Paul declares -- with out the resurrection our faith is in vain! (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).  With that said, now it is time to queue up the Hallelujah Chorus!

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