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Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014

My mother died of breast cancer when I was 17, and I did not shed a tear, not for many months. Part of it was because I stood at the top of the stairs one day and saw my father at the door crying on a friend’s shoulder. I took it upon myself to be the “strong” one. Part of it was that I was afraid if I started crying, the dam would break and I would never stop.

I was raised in a Christian home, and I believed in the resurrection of the dead at some time in the distant future, but what I was concerned about was what death was doing now. It was breaking my relationship with my mother. It was making me wonder why she was not healed after all that praying for her. It was making me ask where God was in all this unhappiness. 

What about the last time you lost a loved one, especially to an untimely death? How did you react? Did you cry buckets of tears or were you the one who took it upon yourself to be the doer, the organizer who did not have time to cry. Were you angry? Did you shake your fist at God for this betrayal? Did you wonder, as my younger brother did, “Why me? Why did God have to take this person away from me?”

In spite of our faith in the resurrection, it is too far away. We want our loved one back now. We want the relationship to continue. We don’t want to feel like part of our hearts have been ripped out. death is certain, and the pain it brings is real.

Lazarus’ death is real too. It caused real trauma in the lives of Mary and Martha and their community. It brought weeping and wailing and grief. It even brought anger that Jesus did not come when he was asked. Healing could have been done through him, just like healing can be done through prayer now, but it did not come. Why, shouted Mary and Martha in their hearts. Why didn’t he come? He knew about it. We sent messengers. He was not too far away. We do not understand at all.

But Jesus did. Jesus understood from his heavenly Father that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. In the climactic sign of John’s gospel, he was going to demonstrate God’s ultimate power over death. “I am the resurrection and the life”, he says to Martha. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”. That is the heart of the gospel message for John. What it says about Jesus is what the author is longing for us to believe. It is the good news of God’s love for everyone – powerful and endless. It is our very life.

The author of John’s Gospel wants to get four things across. First, he wants us to believe that Jesus and God are one. He has already put this out in the prologue, and belief in Jesus as the word of God is what defines salvation for him. Lazarus is allowed to die so that his raising may promote belief. Jesus tells the disciples he is glad he was not there so they might believe. He asks Martha if she believes, and she does. And he accomplishes his purpose. As a result of his raising of Lazarus, many people believe.

John wants to convince his readers that the new life Jesus gives starts now. Eternal relationship with God begins with that personal relationship with Jesus that we, as believers, have. We can rest in the knowledge that God’s love for us is already working in our lives to make us new men and women, to transform us into the loving, giving people God wants us to be. We have an abundant life, full of joy and freedom from the anxious fears and worries of the world as our trust in Jesus increases.

Jesus is not just the life giver now, but the living breathing evidence of the resurrection for each of us. Because Jesus is one with God, the power of life is in him and through him. God gives life even after death. In Ezekiel, God does not just raise a corpse from the dead; God raises dry bones from the dead. God has Ezekiel prophesy to the bones and they come together. Sinews and flesh and skin cover them, but they are bodies without breath. Ezekiel prophesies again, and the breath comes into them. God has raised the whole house of Israel, whose hope is lost. God will not just bring them to life, God will bring them together as a community, will mend broken relationships with God and neighbor, and will return Israel to the land, which means life and health and wholeness for them. God is the resurrection, again and again, for the people of Israel.

The last concept that John wants to get across is that paradoxically, for Jesus, giving life to others means his death. This gospel is mostly about death; the miracle takes only two verses. Jesus says that what he does is for God’s glory, so that he may be glorified through it. For Jesus to be glorified in John means his crucifixion, his resurrection and his ascension. The disciples do not want to go back to Judea because Jesus was almost stoned to death by people saying he claimed to be God and was not. Thomas finally says that the disciples should go and die with him. So Judea is a place of death for Jesus, and he knows it. The raising of Lazarus is a reminder of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is the watching and waiting and weeping of the women. There is the tomb with the stone rolled across it. There are the grave clothes Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb wearing.

The theological meanings of the sign of the raising of Lazarus are important because they show Jesus’ divinity, but equally important is Jesus’ humanity. He is angry and upset when he sees Mary and the women with her dissolve into tears at the awfulness of death. He hates that even for four days they have to be bereft, grief-stricken and powerless in the face of that implacable force. Even though he knows he will raise Lazarus, he is so moved by their weeping that he weeps as well for his friend who has died. He may also be weeping and upset about the quick approach of his death, which is going to be precipitated by his actions.

Though Scripture tells us some things about resurrection, and authors have imagined what might happen, no one has ever undergone the experience publically but Jesus. So we do not know what to think about it. What difference will this gospel make to us on Tuesday?

We can respond to this gospel by doing what Jesus tells the community gathered to do for Lazarus, “Unbind him and let him go”. We can participate in Jesus’ creation of new life by helping unbind those that are living in pain, in need, under oppression. An article in the Washington Post tells about Leatrice Burphy’s efforts to help girls work through their grief at the death of a loved one. Her non-profit group, A Legacy Left Behind, is designed to teach girls who have lost a parent or a sibling basic life skills from middle school through college or the working world. For these girls, there is the unbinding of healing. There is resurrection.

Catholic bishops distributed Communion to hands stretched through the fence on the Mexican border as part of a two-day event to push for immigration reform that highlighted issues including the 400 bodies found near the border last year and the 25,000 children that arrived last year unaccompanied by an adult. People are working for those in need and those who are oppressed.

Jesus emerged from the grave without any grave clothes about him, but we are an integral part of unbinding those, like Lazarus, who have “died” in many ways. We are responsible for supporting them as they come to new life.

Death is still part of ordinary human life. We weep and get angry and wonder where God is in it. God is weeping with us, holding us in God’s arms and assuring us of the resurrection to come, where we continue our relationships with our loved ones and know the inestimable joy of seeing God face to face.


     - The Rev. Ann Barker