Sermon for Lent V A
Ezekiel 37, Romans 8:6-11
(Followed by We Who Once Were Dead, ELW #495)
Sermon by John Spangler
The raising of Lazarus is a slightly curious story in which Jesus arrives too late for a healing and now must move heaven and earth, push aside all physics and chemistry and bring Mary’s brother back to life. Jesus faces criticism for not preventing the death, and seems to possess an odd gladness he didn’t arrive too early so that the last of the non believers will see it and understand. “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this fellow from dying?’” With sign after sign revealing Jesus as the one, he still suffers from that syndrome, “yea, but what has he done for us lately?”
John painstakingly makes the point that Lazarus hasn’t fallen asleep. Aficionados of Princess Bride know right away that he isn’t in a “mostly dead” state, because we are told that it has been four days since his death, and there is a smell, just in case you wondered about that. This is a perfect example of great writing from a Gospel writer who knew how to paint a word picture. I imagine they gave Lazarus a little room when the stone was rolled away.
But there is an upside to the unfolding of this mildly gruesome encounter too. Jesus finally contends explicitly with death itself and prevails. One who was once dead, was made alive. All the signs leading up to this moment have been suggestive, signals of God breaking into the world with a transformative, all changing word. Jesus becomes the model of the champion in the cosmic struggle against the forces of death and destruction, and provides one more reason that we should believe in him as God’s anointed holy one. Theologically, this is Christus Victor, before the cross.
If we have been paying attention, we have been prepared for this story. Set up, even. And we have been brought intentionally to the point where we can see the overarching dynamics of life and death playing out in the gospel. We can be reborn without reentering our mother’s womb. We can abide in God and remain in the world. John’s Gospel is introducing us to a new vocabulary in order to grasp what God has in mind for us. Jesus gives clues to figure out what kind of water satisfies ones thirst, what kind of bread satisfies a metaphorical hunger, what to look for in this light that illumines all things. There are a lot of abstractions and figures, and stretched metaphors like cairns along a pathway: Jesus is no less, the word, light, spirit, living water, bread, and the resurrection and the life. And now, those once upon a time dead, are now living.
We shouldn’t miss the literary artifice at work here. It is no accident that as Jesus returns to Judea, he returns to territory that is increasingly threatening and dangerous for him. He will irritate the Pharisees, chief priests, and others. And so this is a turn toward death, foreshadowing the passion and crucifixion. Jesus will die so that those given to him shall live. The son of God becomes human so that human beings can be redeemed, restored to the divine intention. The great exchange puts it baldly, in God’s becoming human, we are made divine.
Most importantly, Jesus is the one who comes from God, who has seen God, and who is coming into the world, and who offers this Life writ large. Those who know him have it; those who do not believe, do not have this life. They are the walking dead.
If we were to retell this story, we might consider taking a page from Death Becomes Her, a two decade old dark comedy B-film in which Merrill Streep and Goldie Hawn try to purchase their immortality through a potion that almost does the trick, until she falls down a staircase and body parts end up in the wrong places. It is an all out pursuit of everlasting life, and turns into a nightmare of walking death. The characters always want something they cannot have, they are fearful of every possible loss, unable to appreciate a single blessing bestowed. First they desire to marry a plastic surgeon, and finally they must out of necessity. It is such an apt descriptor of modern life with its walking dead. I would maintain that Lazarus’ event is a comedy.
“Death Becomes Her” channels St. Paul: “to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Our understanding of everlasting life is being redefined in this gospel. Suffering frames the experience of the early Christians, being rejected in the synagogues, and increasingly persecuted and isolated, thinking that they would be rewarded in the end, upon their death, with a life with God. But the Gospel in the hands of John, has an urgent wake- up call embedded.
His portrait of Jesus leads us and all his disciples in a spiral patterned journey to the revelation of God’s rule, God’s full reign in this gospel. The journey culminates in the scene in which Jesus is crucified. But it is less of a death scene than the other gospel accounts; it is the throne from which this reign is even more visible. Following this gospel narrative, we circle the idea that everlasting life isn’t something that begins at the end of our earthly lives. Resurrection is now. Living, with a capital ‘L’ is intended to be abundant, thankful, time-cherishing, soak it in every minute experience, a community breathing in the spirit. And the experience is made possible through knowing God. And the only way to know God is to know the one whom God sent.
Even though the raising of Lazarus is the biggest deal yet, and even though Jesus’ actions will finally set the chief priests teeth on edge, it isn’t the main act. This is so far over the line, beyond the little wedding wine incident, Jesus is meddling with life and death now and the authorities know that something must be done to take care of that.
But the Lazarus episode is the reminder, perhaps a final break through, that God isn’t waiting at the end of our race with a garland. No persecution, suffering, or isolation can prevent God from reaching out to us through Jesus with resurrection now. Hope is not for the end, only. Everlasting life has begun all around us.
My difficulty with this gospel message surrounds the mystical feel of this knowledge of God, and I struggle with that. I wonder how my generation’s parents who struggle with prolonged suffering at the end of their lives, with chemotherapy and other invasive treatments can maintain this sense of resurrection now. I wonder how the long patient suffering of African Americans and all minorities in western culture can find the full power of this life writ large when oppressive remnants of Jim Crow laws crawl back into our society, fifty years after the landmark civil rights act. I wonder how women who are still not treated equitably in many work-place payrolls can grasp a faith that cracks through that head wind. I don’t have answers for it. Knowledge of God isn’t a mystical refuge, but a true incarnation in the world. Jesus’ use of abiding love and abiding in one another points to a community of love, not a mystical check out.
It is a bit counter cultural, this Jesus in bread and wine. This notion that we once were dead and now live more fully. That knowing Jesus is to know God more fully than we thought. That a community can be oriented to the spirit, washing one another’s feet, serving our sisters and brothers, taking on risks and sacrifice for the sake of the community of love. It happens. Resurrection is already here, even if it is not yet overwhelmingly obvious.
I cope with this by acknowledging that I am dependent upon those who see this reality more firmly than I do on my own. Their faith helps me see as John writes it. Their hope in the midst of difficult realities makes me less apt to be bogged down in the forces of the flesh, death and destruction. Their lives become the death defying witness to resurrection -- now.
As for Lazarus? Life became him.
(singing We Who Once Were Dead, Now Live Fully Knowing, ELW #495)