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Many of us in the social justice community got some horrific news last week. One of our own, a man who many of us looked up to, was arrested. Not only was he arrested, but it was on charges that we find abhorrent, and the impact of this kind of evil being not only among us, but right under our very noses and none of us having much inkling at all is disturbing. It brings new meaning to the sense of death and despair that we hear in today’s story.
This story is a precursor, an intro, a harbinger of Easter, coming soon to a theatre near you. And Easter is about resurrection. John is setting his readers up for something, something they already know is coming. It’s like all the remakes we see from Hollywood right now, we already know the stories, so perhaps we get lured in by how the story is told. For John’s gospel, the latest chronologically of the gospels in our canon, it’s how he tells the story that is important…it’s not just resurrection.
It doesn’t do us any good to wonder if Lazarus was really dead, or if this is metaphor or if this ever really happened at all, like if we had a time machine, let’s say built into the frame of a DeLorean, we could set the right date and time and witness this all happening. This is one of those mythic tales – it never happened and it happens all the time. So, my advice to you as your pastor is to stop thinking about this story so that you will have time and space to trust it instead.
What is resurrection after all? This is the question that seems to linger in the gospels. Is it the reanimation of dead tissue, like this Lazarus story seems to say, casting a “Frankenstein-like” aura? It it life forging ahead, like rebirth or regeneration? Is resurrection just the spring, the trustworthy arrival of new buds from the cold ground, though clearly this year not on our timelines?
This is the last of the seven “signs” of Jesus as the Christ in John’s gospel – water into wine, healings, feeding the 5000, walking on the Sea of Galilee and this – the cherry on top of the miracles sundae. Maybe this is just John giving the last of the seven signs of Jesus’ superpowers, saving the best one for last, so we’ll truly believe that he is the messiah, come in a red cape to save the day. Or maybe this story is here so that we might reflect on what it means for God to save. The clues are there for readers of John’s time. We are told that Lazarus has been dead four days and since Jewish belief held that the soul left the body after three days, the message is that Lazarus is really dead. And, he stinks. Jesus stands outside the tomb and prays – thanking God for hearing him, and asking that these people hear, too. Then he cries out, “Lazarus!”, and that is when the dead man comes out, when the shepherd calls his sheep by name.
Before he enters the tomb, we, as readers, are face-to-face with the times we have felt hopeless, when we felt in the grips of the darkness of failed relationships, broken promises, bad luck or deep failure. We are confronted with hopelessness. After all, what are the expectations of even the crowd around Jesus? If you had only come sooner, Rabbi…well, it’s been four days…this is impossible even for him. And after he reaches in and calls Lazarus out there is something else…a resurrected life? A reanimated body? We do not know. All we know is that Jesus says, “Lazarus, come out”, a name which means “God has helped.” All we know is that Jesus says to the crowd, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This morning as we hear this story, some of us struggling to understand what the action of God might even look like, I want to take us a little earlier in the tale. A throwaway line in the sixth verse of the chapter that says, in part, “…after having heard that Lazarus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Two days…AFTER hearing the news. What good is it to have Superman if he flies to the scene of the plane crash two days after it happens? This is so unnerving that Martha brings it immediately to his attention when he does show up – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I hear this as – “Where the hell were you, Jesus?”
It’s a statement so raw with emotion, so potent that John places it three times in the story – a Biblical literary device that says to the reader, PAY ATTENTION! It’s a statement born from deep longing, from the place the psalmist sang of – out of the depths. Couldn’t God, in the form of Jesus, have prevented all of this suffering? Couldn’t we be sheltered from pain and loss and grief? Couldn’t we be spared the harsh and brutal reality of life by a God who really did love us? Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. “I am the resurrection and the life”, He says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Jesus claims to not only be the resurrection, but also the life. And here’s where the words really matter. The word translated from the ancient Greek as “resurrection” is anastasis, and it means literally to rise up, like with a resurrection but also like, in our vernacular, rising up the corporate ladder. An ascension to a higher level, so to speak. But the real twist comes with this word, “life.” The Greek is zoe, and it is a distinct descriptor of life, at least how we think about it. Our bodies, our biological life, is described in Greek with the word bios. The word zoe describes the essence of life, what the Greeks called the spirit or the soul.
Our bios is full of all kinds of limitation – aching joints, twisted psychology, broken ethics, physical blindness, deafness, mental illness, chronic disease. In our zoe, Jesus calls us out of the bios limitations towards something that is larger, maybe we could even think of it as higher. But it doesn’t come to us through our will alone, nor does it come on our timelines or follow our expectations. Does Lazarus’ bios live again? I don’t know. What I do know is that our zoe goes on far beyond our physicality, and that while all wounds may not heal, they all change.
When Jesus comes to show off these superpowers the first and final power he has is the power of reframing. For especially in John’s gospel, Jesus is always talking about something different than the people he is talking to. When Mary and Martha ask of him what they ask of him, they are asking why things have to change? When they talk of death, he talks of life. When they seem to ask him why does death, or suffering, or the shock that seems to always accompany life, have to be so much a part of life, he speaks of a trust that does not deny pain but walks forward in it…straight towards the improbable, even the impossible. When they speak of life born from fear and security, he speaks of life driven by trust and acceptance. I can’t help but think that Jesus sees Good Friday on the horizon and he knows that the disciples will need these new eyes.
I have lived through many times when hope has not come for me on the first day, or the second day, and has seemed absolutely impossible by the third day. And in the dark of failed relationships, failed plans for happiness, failed dreams of beauty and perfect endings…in the entombed hopeless reality of life’s darkness, I have always heard an untimely voice. A voice that called my name. A voice that never came on my timeline, nor did it deliver itself the way I would have liked.
As a pastor I do not have magic solutions for how to contend with the appearance of evil in our midst, which is often complicated and far more nuanced than we wish it would be. I do not know how to begin to forgive someone guilty of things I find repulsive, or to separate “good” actions from “bad” actions”, especially when they live in the same person. I do not know how the things that can seem dead – trust, sincerity, authenticity, integrity – I don’t know how they can live again, or if they will live again. Grace seems an impossibility – as impossible as life even mentioned around a person who has been dead for four days.
I don’t know how. But I do trust still. I trust in one thing that I can’t see being able to do a thing about any of this. I trust in one thing that seems too late to have any impact. I trust in one thing that right now seems to weep with me but has nothing for me but the nice gesture of reaching into a tomb to touch a dead man. I still have a trust that the writer of John’s gospel placed in these words, not for the sake of dogma but for the sake of resistance to a broken world…for the sake of a mantra that does not deny the darkness but walks in it, seeking the light – “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.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.