Sermon for Sunday 26 March 2023
John 11.14. Jesus told them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
Jesus lived the life of a dying man. Life and death, night and day, darkness and light, that is our world too. In this great sign that Jesus did, the raising of Lazarus, life and death go together. In more than one way, because the irony of the story is that the raising to life of his friend Lazarus brings the end of Jesus’s life closer. “… from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death”. Let us go to that point at the end of the story when Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus, a cave with a stone upon it. “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” But it’s more than being moved, upset, disturbed. The rare word John uses conveys anger, anger at the death of his friend. Jesus experiences all the emotions surrounding death, which you and I know, or shall know, including love, blame, grief and anger, fear, uncertainty, aloneness. The dark unknown and that surrender of control are fearsome and fearful. Death brings us to crisis. But that is reality. That is where we shall find God, because outside reality, in the fantasy worlds where we try to find some comfort, God is silent. As Wilde wrote, “How else but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in?” Today is Passion Sunday, the beginning of Our Lord’s Passion, or suffering, and it never works, or so I find, to approach this sacred time dispassionately, at a distance. We have to go the distance too, and that begins today with Jesus’s broken heart at the tomb of Lazarus. This can be a God-filled time for us. “God did not come to do away with suffering; he did not even come to explain it. He came to fill it with his presence” [Paul Claudel]
The reason we can not stand back is that we are Lazarus. Here is our necessary death, prefigured in our baptism. Jesus waits those four long days for our death, the death of our separate self, sometimes called the false self. Lazarus represents the human condition which Jesus came to heal, our motivations, our behaviour, our own defensive programmes for happiness, all that limits our capacity to love God and our neighbour, the injuries we inflict on ourselves and on others, our painful drawing back from mystery and the unknown, the hide and seek we play with God, all that can end. Lazarus is called out by name. And then: Unbind him and let him go. To those with ears to hear, That is Lazarus as Isaac, bound by Abraham for sacrifice, spared by God who provides the sacrifice of a lamb. Unbind him and let him go. Here is the end of our captivity, always a strong Biblical theme. We are to enjoy the life of the new creation, the life of God. It follows that the basic pattern of the Christian life, the life we are called to lead day by day, is to move from death to life, life after death. So the raising of Lazarus is the acted parable of our Christian conversion. When we know that, our readings become clearer. Our readings today describe that movement from death to life. Ezekiel: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. St Paul: you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit. In our Gospel, And if you are wondering why for three Sundays our deacons, and the sub deacons who have to carry a very heavy brass Book of the Gospels, have had to labour through three extra long Gospels, it is because in the early Church these were the readings used in the preparation of candidates for Baptism at Easter, reborn as sons and daughters of God.
Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb by name. The shepherd who calls his sheep,and who will lay down his life for them, calls each of us by name. This is the glory of God, the resurrection, a love which is willing to die so that we might live with God’s life. The story reads more like a resuscitation than a resurrection. Lazarus emerges from his tomb with his hands and feet bound, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Even with decades of Christian practice behind us, we still have our scars, our histories, our troubles, our addictions, whatever prevents a full and free life. Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind. We are divided against ourselves. Unbind him and let him go, is also an instruction to all of us, to release others. Love in action. Unbind. Set free.
Where does this take us as we prepare for Holy Week, for our Lord’s death and resurrection? Maybe we should stay with reality and confront our own fears of death, our own deaths and and the deaths of those whom we love. What can be helpful, I think, is the truth that life and death are not to be separated. Meeting is the beginning of parting. Life is the beginning of death in the Book of Nature. Death is that which gives life its meaning. We shall find peace only when we accept what we experience. All our experience is one. Our failure and success; loss and gain; night and day, death and life. Everything is sacred, filled with God’s life. Christ calls each of us, by name, to die to separation and to be one with God, to die without regret, how wonderful that would be. “Even the weariest river winds somewhere safe to sea.” [Swinburne] The Raising of Lazarus raises each of us into the bright beam of God’s mercy and forgiveness, as we emerge into Easter light. Christians are crucified into a demanding way of living and loving, which costs not less than everything. But we are God’s glory, the evidence of Resurrection. And Lazarus? We next hear of Lazarus at a supper party for Jesus in that house in Bethany, and instead of the stench of death, we have the house filled with the costly ointment poured by Mary on Jesus, the Anointed One. There is an early celebration of the new life to which Jesus raises us, which we celebrate now at Mass, a life which is joyful and free, lived with God’s life, even as the reality, the veiled reality of betrayal, crucifixion and physical death draws closer. In union with Christ in His life and in His death. So, in God’s mercy, may it be with us this Passiontide.
Fr. Julian Browning