Joe Neville

John 11:1-45



Fathomless Cup

This is the fourth week in which we have read very long passages from John.  The lectionary isnít very forgiving.  As I read this passage, I was struck by a strong feeling, which pushed me back to a time, about two years ago when it seemed that life just simply wouldnít give our family a rest from grief.  It seemed that one family member after another was struck with either cancer, or lupus.  In between that, we got a call from our thirty five year-old daughter in Massachusetts, who was alone, frightened and shockingly said she unable to tie her shoe.  She was describing the beginning stages of a stroke; and we were over 100 miles away.  In addition, each of our mothersís, after living rather full lives, slowly, and not painlessly, died as we watched their bodies collapse, organ by organ.  Then a call came telling us that cancer had taken our brother Jim and would we get the funeral arrangements together for him.  Then, this year we sat around a table and had our sister tell us, that she was told to get her affairs in order because nothing else could be done for her.

Then I recalled the wonderful news that the arteries had opened up in my daughterís head allowing the brain to retrain itself, and there was no paralysis; then the news that the scare we experienced before Thanksgiving was well under control.  That the nieces and nephews were doing well in their lives, jobs and bragging of grandchildren.

Yes, it has been an exhilarating, powerful, wonderful and terrible few years! I have been thinking about and interacting with our text all week -- for it too, is wonderful and terrible. This morning we have heard the Gospel story of the death and new life which was given to Lazarus.  This is a compelling story, which gives us a blueprint for the living of these days.

We find ourselves on to the road to Bethany on this final Sunday of Lent. This morning's Gospel story is probably the most awesome story in scripture. The story of Mary, Martha, Jesus and the raising of Lazarus, rich with the power of relationships that matter and fierce with human emotions, finally challenges us with the essence of the meaning of our Christian faith. This is not an easy story or a gentle one; in fact, it is almost bizarre in the questions it dares to raise -- Will that which has been given up for dead breathe the breath of life again? Can there be honest hope in the midst of unbearable suffering and sorrow? Does love matter in the face of life and death? Can new life come from death?

The theology and style of John are very different from the other three evangelists. John is a mystic, which is why this Gospel is so appealing to many Russian, Greek and Ethiopian Orthodox, whose liturgies celebrate so much better than most Protestant liturgies, the mystery contained in God's love. Often in John, there is the surface truth, the cure of Lazarus -- and beneath the surface, another truth lurks, the raising of Lazarus will hasten the crucifixion, for the crucifixion, in John's view, is the glorification of God's love.  If the story of the cure of the blind man allows us to see that Jesus is the light of the world, then the story of the raising of the life of Lazarus is a story whereby we see Jesus as the life of the world.

I found three aspects of this story which particularly spoke to me this morning. The first is the power of relationship. Our story begins, "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus." Scripture does not talk about Jesus and his birth family, but it does talk about Jesus and his relationship with his friends.  Bethany just was two miles outside of Jerusalem and we can imagine Jesus spent time with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, time enough to create friendship in which there was a spirit of love and caring.

It was good; too, that when Lazarus became ill Mary and Martha knew they could send word and Jesus would come.  They were strong enough and secure in the friendship to know they could ask for help when they needed it.  So many people are unable to ask for help in the midst of suffering and dying.  We have a tendency to steel ourselves against sickness and the fear of death, thereby walling off the very support we need.  The one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept a giving hand.  In their distress, the sisters extended an open hand, asked for support and Jesus responded.

It is the power of relationship that causes movement toward new life in this story.  It is the power of relationship that pushes us toward new life and wholeness in our own living.

This morning, this congregation can celebrate the beautiful ministry of their refugee program.  You captured the dream, you renovated the cottage, and you handed the keys over to a man and woman from Liberia so they could stand on their own feet. There was a lot that happened in this endeavor. Relationships were created between the folks who renovated the house, a relationship was made with the folks who got to live in the cottage, and perhaps a new awareness began with the God who made all things possible.  I know and you know, too, that poverty, racism, injustice and inequality cannot be conquered or overturned in a day, but today, many in this congregation have had an opportunity to be instruments of peace in a world of poverty and estrangement.  Compassion and care can be the first steps in building a world where justice and love reign. It's a life-changing experience; I know that those who participated have been changed, even transformed, from their experience.

Secondly, we read in this story of fierce and tender emotions existing between people who live in relationships of care and concern.  Martha runs to tell Jesus about Lazarus, "If you had been here, my brother would not have died." There is a reproach in her words and even some anger. She is not easy on Jesus; she expects a response from him. Mary also goes to meet him saying the same thing. It's as if the Gospel writer is reminding us that there were difficult feelings, brave reproaches being expressed between the people in this story.

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her weeping too, he was deeply moved in his own spirit and troubled and he said, "Where have you laid him?" "Lord, come and see." Jesus wept.

Please picture this tender scene: Mary, Martha and Jesus, all weeping.  For a moment, no words, no deeds, only tears. It is a powerful moment in the story. Jesus is filled with compassion and sorrow for his friend and those he loves. Itís the same sadness with which he viewed the hungry multitudes, the lepers, the man with palsy, the man born blind and Jairus's daughter. The heart of God goes out to all those who suffer. The heart of God is broken open in suffering and sorrow.

When I got the news my daughterís recovery went not only okay, but the best news we could possibly receive, I let out a whoop, then a yelp and then a "Thank God!"  Without intending to, I caused a little stir among those waiting in the doctorís receiving room! I didn't care about that; I was gloriously happy, relieved and grateful in that moment.

When we choose to love and to live as deeply as Jesus dared to live, we may feel deep emotion. I am glad that the Gospel records stories such as this one, where Jesus is not afraid to show his love and tenderness. He also is not afraid to show strong emotions related to justice and right relationship. He gets angry with the moneychangers in the temple, he is irritated with the disciples, he weeps over the city, and he anguishes in prayer and even sweats great drops of blood.

I recall a reviewer who years ago declared that Katherine Hepburn displayed a range of emotions from A to B.  In the life of Jesus, we get to see the full range -- A to Z.  So it should be in our own lives.  Modern culture can cause us to be dulled and subdued about our living.  We can become fearful of showing too much of ourselves; we fear being seen as too sensitive or too soft or even too crazy.

One of the great gifts of community is the trust created between and among us which allows us to show some emotion.  Most of the time, we just bump masks; within the community we get to express our fears, our longings, our anxieties, our grief our joy and even our anger, trusting in the power of the community and our faith in God.

Finally, the text asks us to comprehend the primary message of our faith.

"Your brother will rise again," says Jesus. To which Martha replies, reflecting an Orthodox Jewish belief of the time, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Jesus corrects her: "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live and whoever believes in me shall never die."

In other words eternal life begins not at the end of time, or at the time of death, but right now in this moment.  Jesus did not say, "I will be the resurrection," or "It is coming soon." He said simply, "I am the resurrection."  Here and now.

John Dominic Crossan has commented on this text that he doesn't think any one, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.  But he sees the process of resurrection in the life of this text.  Jesus brought life out of death for folks all over Galilee.  They would not have described it as a heavenly future, but an earthly present.  He writes, "Life out of death is how the people would have understood the Kingdom of God, in which Jesus helps them take back control over their own bodies, hopes and their own destinies."

So it is with us. We want to live full, authentic lives, which are not dominated by symbols or activities of death.  To be a person of faith means that we take a stand for life.  To believe in God means we take sides with life and love and end our alliance with hopelessness and death.  The abyss of God's love is deeper than the channels of death.

The story of the life of a Christian is not a story about life after death.  Our stories are about life coming out of death.  We can live resurrected lives each day of our living.  

God says, "I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.  I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am God."

We can know the resurrection from all that is deadly in life.  For we have seen hope in the midst of despair, love triumph over hate and apathy, faith outliving doubt, and life emerging from that which is dead within us. Amen.