Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2023 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45
(Part Four of Sermon Series on John 3:16 – Part One – Part Two – Part Three)
Today we finish up our sermon series on John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Three weeks ago, we talked about God loving every nook and cranny of creation. Two weeks ago, we said that God gave the gift of God’s only son to show us how to enter into the story God is telling. Last week, we looked at the concept of belief as “abiding in relationship” with Jesus. And that brings us to the final phrase of John 3:16 – “may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Sermon for Sunday, April 6, 2014 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-44
The prayers have all been prayed. The farewells to the deceased have all been said. The dirt has been cast on the shining, glossy coffin. The low murmur of voices mingles with the whisper of the wind through the long, cemetery grass. The new widow rises from the velvet-covered folding chair, the triangle of the blue field and white stars of the American flag peeking out from under her arm. A line of black-clad people forms, and they begin to file past her. You watch her receive with grace each well-meant, but well-worn sentiment. You join the line, and soon it’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come.
I’m sure each of us has been in this position. Some of us have also been on the other side of it. Sometimes words tumble out before we have a chance to catch them, to measure them, to reflect on how they will be heard. Other times, we have no words, and we trust that the fervent squeeze of the hand or an embrace will communicate what we want to say. Most times, the language of embrace is more potent and effective than the language of words.
In today’s Gospel reading, we have the opportunity to listen in as Jesus and Martha converse near the grave of her brother Lazarus. They’ve both lost someone: Martha, a brother; Jesus, a friend. Indeed, the Gospel doesn’t describe too many individuals specifically as ones Jesus loved, but Lazarus is among the honored few.
Martha speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We could interpret Martha’s first words as an accusation or as a statement of faith. More than likely, they are (as is so often the case) a combination of the two. Since her sister Mary echoes these same words a few verses later, we can assume Martha and Mary had spoken them to each other in the four days since Lazarus died. “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus would still be alive,” they might have whispered to each other. And then I imagine, “Why didn’t he come?” And then, “I heard he’s on his way,” followed shortly by, “What took him so long!”
In any case, Martha says these words to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Such a statement had probably reached the status of well-worn platitude in that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ statement in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But here’s where Jesus changes the rules of the standard funereal conversation. He stretches out his hand, places it on Martha’s cheek, gently raises her head so their eyes meet. “I AM the resurrection and the life,” he says. And for those few words his voice rings like a well-struck bell, and the truth of them resounds deep within Martha’s soul. I AM the resurrection and the life.
You may recall last week, we discussed how frequently Jesus employs this sentence structure in the Gospel According to John. When he states I AM, he reaches back to the conversation between Moses and God at the burning bush. Moses asks God for God’s name, and God replies, “I AM WHO I AM.” When Jesus echoes these words in the Gospel, he reveals a piece of his own divine identity.
“I AM the resurrection.” By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death occurs. But death is not final. Yes, life ends. But new life – life in some superlative form – emerges because of the power of the promise of Christ’s resurrection. I do not know what this new life looks. I cannot describe it to you. But because Jesus says, “I AM the resurrection,” I believe he will be there, continuing to call us into full and complete relationship with him. Only then, in the power of the resurrection, we will truly be able to reciprocate and join him in that full and complete relationship.
Martha understands the truth of the promise of this relationship. Notice how she answers Jesus’ next question. He asks: “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?”
Here Martha replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming in the world.” By saying she believes in him, Martha affirms her relationship with Jesus. And Jesus, unwilling to let such a relationship ever end, offers her the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
So the promise of resurrection, which Jesus builds into his very identity, is the promise of eternal relationship with God. And that sounds like a pretty good definition of heaven. In their conversation near the grave of Lazarus, Martha and Jesus reaffirm their desire to be together. Their words are a verbal embrace that points to the eternal embrace promised by the power of the resurrection.
And so we return to the windswept cemetery, to the widow holding the crisply folded American flag, to the receiving line filing past. It’s your turn. You grasp her hand in both of yours and wait for the words to come. And you remember Jesus’ conversation with Martha. You remember Jesus’ promise to remain in life-giving relationships with all who desire them. You remember his resurrection proclaims this triumphant promise.
And you realize that Christ is already calling you into such a life-giving relationship. You don’t have to wait for your own death for such a relationship to begin. You can practice it everyday in your interactions with other people as you speak words of life and grace and blessing to them, as you discover the presence of Christ in them, as you seek to deepen your relationships with them.
You open your mouth to speak to the widow, but no words come. And so you resort to the language of embrace to communicate this desire to demonstrate how important your relationship with the widow is to you. You put your arms around her, and now your mouth is by her ear. Now something prompts you to speak. “I love you,” you whisper. That’s all you need say, if you say anything at all.
Practicality often gets in the way of noticing the glory of God. Don’t misunderstand, there is nothing wrong with being “down to earth”; indeed, a healthy dose of practicality is downright necessary. If my practical side didn’t assert itself, I don’t think I’d ever remember to buy groceries. But a life governed by “the practical” misses the better portion of what makes life worth living—that is, rejoicing in the glory of God that perpetually surrounds me. This Sunday is All Saints’ Day, and I’m really excited that I get to preach because the Gospel text comes from perhaps my favorite chapter of the Bible. I talked about the first half of the chapter a few weeks ago on Episcopalcafe.com. Go read the second part of John 11 before continuing this post.
Jesus commands the onlookers to remove the stone, but before they can start rolling, Martha jumps in. Notice that the narrator, with odd redundancy, reminds the reader that Martha is the sister of the dead man. The oddity of this reminder makes it stand out. Martha, who had just made one of the strongest statements of Jesus’ divinity in the entire Gospel, once again has her mind on the practicalities of death. And this is made clear in her comment, which the NRSV makes slightly more sanitary than it is. The NRSV translation sounds rather like a member of the British House of Lords: Already there is a stench. Another reading gives this statement the earthier quality of, say, a West Texas ranch hand: It’s been four days; he stinks! With unpolished directness, her practical side asserts itself and comments on the absurdity of the scene that’s taking place.
Before coming to the tomb, Martha was ready to believe everything that Jesus said to her. But, now, confronted with the stone covering her brother’s tomb, this belief seems so small and silly compared to the reality of Lazarus’s death. The practical notion that the dead body of Lazarus smells is so much more palpable than the rather dodgy notion that Jesus can possibly bring him back to life. For a moment, she clings to this practicality because the alternative drove past the exit for Impracticality miles back and is stopping at a rest area over the border in Impossibility.
But Jesus turns the car around: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God,” he says to Martha. In other words, don’t focus on reasons why what I’m about to do won’t work. Instead, remember that you believe in me, which gives you the ability to discover the one reason why it will work—because I AM. There are plenty of practical reasons why Lazarus’s stench, rather than Lazarus himself, will come out. But Jesus trumps all these reasons with a helping of delightful divine unreasonableness, which reminds me of some of Paul’s words: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). When Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away, the olfactory practicality of human decomposition is insignificant compared to the divine impracticality of raising someone from the dead.
Belief in God is impractical because (unlike my groceries) it can’t be seen or touched or bought or sold. However, when God integrates belief into my practical life, I notice the incompleteness of a life full of practicalities. The unreasonableness of belief in God becomes my reason to live. And the impracticality of putting my faith in an impalpable being infuses all parts of my practical life. Martha’s probably right in the end: when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, I doubt he smells like one of those little trees you put on your rearview mirror. But he comes out all the same.
The following post appeared Tuesday, October 13th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.
* * *
Over the last few months, I have had the opportunity to serve several people who were grieving over the deaths of loved ones. I’ve been a priest for nearly a year and a half, but it was not until this summer that I officiated at a burial office or spent hours with families, stumbling together through the wilderness of loss. These recent months have again and again brought me to the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to John (which appears more than once in the burial service) and to my own first remembrance of the loss of a love one.
In the months before she passed on, she began having difficulty remembering which of the people in the room were related to her. One time, she thought my father was her biological son, though he had married one of her four daughters thirty years before. The last time I saw my grandmother, she was confined to her bed in the nursing home, a sterile facility a few miles inland from the rock beaches of the northern Massachusetts coastline. In my memory, she was always a small woman, shrunken by age. But during that final visit, I was shocked by her deterioration: the sheets and blankets seemed to double her body mass. Her white hair, once so carefully curled, hung limply from her head. She spoke in a choked whisper, as if her words were too special to share with the rest of the world. And, in a way, they were.
We got the call one summer evening and immediately made plans to fly to New England. When we arrived, we joined the rest of the extended family and pooled our grief with theirs. Cousins and aunts and sisters shared long embraces and reassuring shoulder squeezes and tears. We conversed in muted tones, offering our favorite memories of Esther: the swing set adjacent to her apartment complex; her inability to cook pot roast; her glowing love for her grandchildren and great grandchildren. As we remembered my grandmother, we started repeating certain phrases. “She lived a long life.” “She’s no longer in pain.” “She was ready to go.” “A part of her died twenty years ago with Jack; I’m so glad they are together again.” These sentiments comforted us as we shared them with each other. An outsider listening in on our conversations might have scoffed at such clichéd remarks, but for our family such well-worn comments gave us words to assuage our grief.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha leaves her home and goes out to meet him. Their conversation begins with similar phrases that emerge out of grief. I imagine that Martha and Mary had often said, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died,” in the four days since they had buried their brother. And now Martha addresses Jesus with these words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps, this is an accusation; perhaps, it is a statement of faith. More likely (as is so often the case), it is a combination of the two. She continues, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
At first, Jesus responds with what sounds like an empty, stock answer to a grieving person: “Your brother will rise again.” Indeed, such a statement had probably reached cliché status at that time, considering a large portion of Jewish society believed in a final resurrection. Judging by her next words, Martha certainly takes Jesus’ words in this clichéd manner. I imagine her hanging her head when she says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Martha has not grasped Jesus’ full meaning. Far from offering the usual comforting words to a person in grief, Jesus eliminates the cliché by completely retooling the rules for resurrection. “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.”
The writer of the Gospel throws the full weight of Jesus’ “I am” statements behind these words. By taking resurrection into his very identity, Jesus proclaims to Martha and to us that his business is always remaining in life-giving relationships. Yes, death will occur, he says; after all, resurrection cannot take place without death. But life, in some superlative form, emerges when resurrection denies the finality of death. The first verses of the Gospel link life and light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” Just as darkness did not overcome light, death fails to conquer life because of the power of the resurrection.
Jesus’ words to Martha appear in our burial services to remind us of that power. But these words carry the weight of Jesus’ divine identity, and thus serve as so much more than a simple reminder. Resurrection is not some impersonal thing that may or may not impact our lives and deaths. Resurrection is not something to bring up just to make a grieving person feel better. Jesus is resurrection. Jesus is life. By revealing resurrection as part of his identity, Jesus further divulges the lengths to which he goes to be in relationship with us. Death cannot stop this relationship, because Jesus is resurrection and life.
Martha understands that resurrection assures this continued relationship with Jesus. When he asks her if she believes his words, she replies in the affirmative, but she answers a different question than the one Jesus asked. “Yes, Lord,” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” She answers that she believes in him. Rather than her belief fulfilling a requirement for resurrection, her belief simply affirms her relationship with Jesus. She desires a relationship with him, and Jesus, in his unwillingness to end such a relationship, offers the gift of resurrection. Our belief in Jesus affirms our desire to remain in relationship with him. His gift of resurrection affirms his desire to remain in relationship with us.
When my grandmother died, my family came together to celebrate her life in the midst of our grief. We spoke comforting words to each other, words that had the power of love behind them. And at the service where we laid Esther’s body to rest next to her beloved Jack, we heard Jesus’ words of life proclaiming Jesus’ desire to continue his relationship with us beyond death in the power of the resurrection.
* The names of my maternal grandparents have been changed (in order that you’ll have a harder pretending to be me while filling out bank forms).