Fifth Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 6 April 2014 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Lent – High Mass Sunday 6 April 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

Readings: Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; john 11.1-45

Last week Fr. Michael and I were helping with a conference for Ordinands at Keble College in Oxford.  As well as serious lectures on priestly life, there was a pub quiz in the bar one evening.  I demonstrated my knowledge of the more disreputable aspects of church history by knowing that the title Rodrigo Borgia took when he had bribed his way to the papacy was Alexander VI.  

In the section on the Bible, one question was “What is the shortest verse in the Bible?” 

The answer is those words from today’s very long gospel: “Jesus wept.”  (John 11.35) in the King James version.

Real anoraks will know that in the Greek text there is a shorter verse – Pantote chairete – “Rejoice always”  (1Thess. 5. 16) – but it is part of a longer sentence, rather than a complete one.

This is all very well, but the gospel was not written to provide material for quizmasters but that we “might believe;” to answer ultimate questions about life and death and about the identity of Jesus.

“Jesus wept” has been reduced in common parlance to an expression of annoyance or exasperation – drained of any theological meaning.  But John includes it in a passage which is profoundly theological. 

The raising of Lazarus is the seventh and last of the “Signs,” in John’s Gospel; those acts of divine power, which reveal who Jesus is: the Word who has been with God since eternity; the one whose life and works are an epiphany or manifestation of God.

The other verse from this passage which many of us encounter is Jesus’ response to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  We hear it read or sung at funerals. Since we are Christians, it will probably be used at our own.   

John was writing a gospel, not composing a liturgy, but the liturgical use in the burial of the dead, is not so far removed from the evangelist’s original concern. He wrote for a Christian community which had to face the reality of disease and death without the actual presence of Jesus.

How was it possible for death to occur in a community which had been promised eternal life?  The question which faced John’s community still faces us. There is no escaping it.  It may be posed very sharply: as when a young person dies – for example the teenage pupil at the school at which my my daughter works murdered a few days ago. But any death, even a peaceful one after a long life, poses the question: What happens next? Is there a next?

So let’s go back to the beginning, which is a puzzling one.  The two sisters of Lazarus send word to their friend Jesus, asking him to come to Bethany to heal their brother: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”   Yet, in spite of his close relationship with them, Jesus deliberately delays setting out for two days.  Let’s be honest, this seems very odd.  But the point John is making is that it is Jesus who is in charge, who sets the agenda and timetable; not human beings. Jesus explains the purpose of the delay to his disciples:

“This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”

As the story develops, the characters will be dominated by death. Jesus’ words introduce the faith perspective of God’s glory in contrast to death. Even in the face of anguish and grief, those who hear it must keep this perspective of faith in sight. 

Jesus’ delay means that he is not only too late to heal Lazarus, but that he even misses the funeral.  So the scene is set for the conflict between God’s glory and death.

When he does finally arrive, he first meets Martha.  She professes her faith in Jesus’ ability to heal: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.”  She takes this to mean that he will rise at the general resurrection at the end of time – “I know that he will rise again on the last day” – a belief of the Pharisees, but one rejected by the more theologically conservative Sadducees.

Jesus responds, not with some comforting words of agreement, but by directing her attention away from that final resurrection, to the resurrection as a present reality in his own person: “I am the resurrection and the life.” 

“I am” in John echoes the divine Name in the Old Testament.

Jesus spells things out, speaking about believers who have died and those who are still alive.

“Whoever believes in me, even though they should die, will live.”  He refutes the common Jewish idea that death is a going into some shadowy non-life in the underworld, while waiting for the final resurrection.  Lazarus, though dead, lives on, as the miracle will soon demonstrate.  Lazarus can be called back to this earthly life prior to the final resurrection.  He has not passed though death into non-existence.

“Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  John has consistently likened belief in Jesus to eternal life, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” (10.28). For the believer, life is not simply existence, it is a different quality of life given by Jesus.  As a gift of God, as communion with God, it will not perish.   This quality of life is a present reality made possible by faith in Jesus, who is, in his own person, the creative power of God. 

Mary then repeats Martha’s words. She shares her sister’s faith in Jesus’ ability to heal.  This repetition indicates no significant development or change in the faith of the two women. Mary’s falling at the feet of Jesus is not an act of worship, as some have suggested, but one of grief. Mary’s act of faith at the feet of Jesus comes later with her anointing of him at Bethany. 

Even when Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and orders, “Take away the stone,” the sisters remain within their previous conceptions of life after death and hesitate: “Lord, by now there will be a stench, for it is the fourth day” (v.39).

The fact that Lazarus had been in the tomb four days is significant.  By this time physical decay would have become obvious.  In Jewish tradition this was when the soul has left the body.  “Lazarus is dead” (v.14), but as a friend of Jesus and a believer, “even if he should die, he will live.”

Jesus calls Lazarus by name, and commands him to come out.  He speaks to Lazarus as whole person, not just a disembodied soul. He is still able to hear the voice of Jesus and to respond as Jesus leads him out of apparent death to life.  The tomb of Lazarus, his “death,” has not meant non-existence as an impersonal “shade” in Sheol. 

Jesus’ words challenge Martha and Mary to move on from their limited understanding of life restored at the end of time, to believe in his promise of life beyond the grave even prior to this final resurrection.  With Jesus’ presence the end has entered history, with implications for those who have died and those who are still alive:

  • Those who have died: “whoever believes in me, even if they die will live”  (v.25)
  • Those still alive:  and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”  (v.26)

Jesus brings traditional hopes and expectations for the future into the present.  The dead are promised life beyond death. For those who are alive and will experience physical death, this death will not be death forever.  In John distinctions of time blur, as in the reference to Mary as the one “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” – an action that will happen in the following chapter. The future impinges on the present.

In response to Jesus’ command, Lazarus emerges from the tomb wearing the trappings of death. They have no power to bind him. 

The extreme nature of the miracle and the obvious relationship between Jesus and the members of the Bethany household, who, however, lack full faith in him, may explain why the miracle is elaborated on with longer dialogues and greater insights into Jesus’ motives and reactions.

In response to the weeping of Mary and “the Jews” with her, Jesus “groaned in his spirit and was troubled,” (v.33). This expression, “groaning in the spirit,” is used again to describe his response to the Jews in v. 38. 

Mary’s words and those of the Jews have more than a hint of an accusation:

  • “Lord, of you had been here my brother would not have died” (v.32).
  • “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  (v.37)

Jesus’ emotions here are not those of grief.  Mary, as friend and believer, knows that he is a source of life.  The Jews, who knew about the man born blind, should also know that he has come to give abundant life (10.10), but neither has yet really understood what Jesus means by “life.”  They think only in terms of this life: expecting that Jesus will prevent this life from ending.  This is not what Jesus means.  Believers will die.  They will experience death as surely as Jesus will.  But physical death does not put an end to the life that Jesus offers. 

As so often in John, there is a second level of meaning to his offer of “life”, just as there have been deeper levels of meaning in the “rebirth” of which he spoke to Nicodemus, the “living water” which he offered to the Samaritan Woman, in the gospels we have heard this Lent.  Jesus groans, his troubled spirit indicates his distress and frustration that even now, as his ministry draws to a close, his friends fail to understand him.  Jesus is angered and deeply disturbed by the lack of faith.

When Jesus is invited to see the tomb of Lazarus, another emotion is described. “Jesus wept” (v.35). This is different: his tears a response to the loss of a loved one.  “See how he loved him.” (v.36). At the tomb of his friend and surrounded by the grief of others, Jesus experiences the normal human response to such loss. The reality of Christian resurrection does not take away the pain of death and loss for those still in life.

His tears are a sharing in Mary’s grief and perhaps her anger at death, the enemy of all life.  This episode roots Christians in the realism of human experience.  Christian faith is neither one of those world denying religions which pretend that only the spiritual and not material life matters –  or a Stoicism which offers only impassive perseverance. Death is real and so is the suffering it causes.  Faith is not compatible with despair, but it is no stranger to tears.

Jesus weeping shows us something beautiful, not just of his humanity, but of his divinity. It reveals something of God’s compassion for his creatures.

There is a prayer in the Scottish Prayer Book funeral service which takes this thought for our comfort. It has now made its way into Common Worship thanks to the later Bishop Kenneth Stevenson who was raised a Scottish Episcopalian, and whose own ministry was cut short by leukaemia.

“O heavenly Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ did weep at the grave of Lazarus his friend: Look, we beseech thee, with compassion upon those who are now in sorrow and affliction; comfort them, O Lord, with thy gracious consolations; make them to know that all things work together for good to them that love thee; and grant them evermore sure trust and confidence in thy fatherly care; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen”

John’s vision draws together the life of Jesus and the life of the community.  Jesus in this gospel is the incarnation of the pre-existent divine logos. The narrative never loses sight of his true origin and identity.  Jesus is also presented from the perspective of post-Easter faith. The glorified Christ speaks in the pre-Easter Jesus. There is continuity between the pre-existent logos, the incarnation, the death and the glorification of Jesus the Christ. 

In the raising of Lazarus, this post- Easter perspective becomes clearer: both in the subject matter, a resurrection; and in the title “Lord”, used from now on as the preferred title for Jesus.  It is his Easter title.   Thomas will make its full meaning clear when he says to the risen Christ: “My Lord and my God.” (20.28) 

Martha and Mary want Jesus to come to Bethany because only his presence can guarantee life.  The miracle speaks to the post-Easter Christian community that no longer has the physical presence of Jesus. The heart-rending cry of the sisters of Bethany echoes the cry of many disciples across the centuries: “Lord, if you had been here.”  Our sense of his absence poses a threat to our faith. In the face of this anguish the miracle affirms the central message of the earlier chapters of the gospel: that the word of Jesus can be trusted by believers. There is no need to see signs and wonders, no need even of his physical presence; the word given by Jesus is sufficient.

The power of Jesus’s word was experienced in earlier signs, but in these the person, however ill or handicapped, was alive. The situation now presents the believing community’s concern when faced with actual death.  The death of Lazarus presents the supreme test of who Jesus is, and of the disciples’ faith in him. 

Martha and Mary’s faith is that if Jesus were present there would be life, but can they, and the later community they represent, believe that Jesus is present even when there is death?  Is death a boundary even Jesus cannot cross? 

The story of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, representing the life of the Church, will continue with Jesus lodging there during the last days of his life. At a supper for Jesus, Mary anoints Jesus. When Judas objects, Jesus says, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial.” There is both worship and the acceptance of death.

As the church, we continue to prepare a supper for the Lord. In the power of the Spirit, we worship, we listen to his word, we profess our faith in the “communion of saints… and the resurrection of the dead.”  (The dead are alive to us because they live in Christ.)  We bring to him our concerns in our prayers for the living and the dead, “Lord, the one you love is ill;” we receive the bread of heaven, in which we share that eternal life, that life in relationship with God, that communion, which even, the “last enemy” death cannot sunder. When our loved ones die, even though we mourn their loss, we bury them in that faith. When we die, they will bury us in the same trust and hope.

“If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”  Romans 8.11