Lazarus Unwound

8 03 2008

Texts: Romans 8, John 11:1-45

The story of the raising of Lazarus is at an odd place this year. One would expect that this would be part of the Easter cycle of the Lectionary as opposed to Lent, when our focus is more on death. However, it is very significant that the story of Lazarus is this close to Easter, so our challenge is to look at it with fresh eyes and hear it with fresh ears. This Sunday is a transitional Sunday, right before we join Christ as he enters Jerusalem and then later lend our voices to the mob that shout “Crucify Him!” Likewise, Romans 8 is a transitional chapter in Paul’s magnum opus on the state of the human condition and our future hope. We look forward to God’s final triumph over Sin and Death and we rest in the knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

When we look at the story of Lazarus, one of the striking things we find is how hard everyone tries to prevent Jesus from giving life to his friend, whom he loved, who has died. At the news of Lazarus’ illness, his disciples say, “Don’t go!” When Lazarus dies and Jesus says, “he is sleeping,” the disciples says, “well, that’s all right then … still there is no need for us to go to Bethany and put ourselves into Deep Trouble.” When in Bethany and Jesus is trying to explain to Martha that her brother will live again, she has no idea what he’s talking about. The mourners hired for the occasion simply want Jesus to shut up and let them get on with what they are there to do. And finally, Martha is very hesitant to allow anyone to roll away the stone to Lazarus’ tomb, for it has been four days since his death and in the words of the King James Version of the Bible, “he stinketh.” What is most telling is that our own human nature and the Powers of this world will do everything they can to stop Jesus from doing what he is about.

Jesus, as usual, is not really concerned with what Martha or anyone thinks they might know; but what they are willing to believe. He cares not for theology, but faith. Jewish thought at the time was divided into two camps over what the idea of resurrection might mean and all of its implications. Indeed today, the vast majority of Christianity still hasn’t come to terms with the weight of what resurrection means. For all of our theological theorizing, anything we might say or think is meaningless if we do not trust the one who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Martha knows something of contemporary theology at the time, and she says “I know my brother will rise again on the last day.” Jesus answer to this is, “I am the resurrection and the life. If you believe me, if you trust me, then even if you die, then you will live.” To know and trust Jesus, then is to know and have eternal life. St. Paul expands on what it means to have eternal life in Romans 8 when he speaks about living “according to the flesh” or “according to the Spirit.”

Now, for Paul, living according to the Spirit is not some Gnostic exaltation of the spiritual and a denunciation of the flesh. The mystery of the Incarnation, after all, is about the “enfleshment” of God in the person of Jesus. Living according to the Spirit is not so much about a religious, ascetic life, or even the life of a mystic, or even one of outward piety, but about being a reflection of what God has done in Jesus. Likewise, living according to the flesh is not so much about gluttony, vanity or lasciviousness (though those are the fruits of such a life) but about living in such a way where you are enslaved to the powers of Sin and Death. Paul challenges our perspective of what it means to live in the Spirit. Simply stated, the Spirit of God is God’s Spirit. It does not belong to anyone but Him. Jesus did not raise himself from the dead, but is risen by the Spirit of God, and this same Spirit is a gift given to all who put their trust in Christ.

Now, because of this gift, we say that we more authority than others or even our vocation gives us that authority, we should be very careful. All gifts of God call us to a greater accountability to Him and within the world. The gift of God is a gift of empowerment to hasten the coming of the God’s Kingdom and an empowerment for life. We are able to see the riches and promises of the world for what they really are: entrapment and self-consumption. Living according to the flesh and for the promises of the world make us a serpent eating our own tail, where oppressed and oppressor feed on each other in an endless cycle of violence and death. But with this responsibility and empowerment comes a promise for the future and the present. Life in the Spirit means that death has no authority over us, for we are living by the Spirit of the one who conquered Death.

Believe … Trust … you will not die. How sad that for so many Christians the vast majority of us think of resurrection is really a future event. On the contrary, Resurrection is now. How sad that the end result of our faith for so many of us is the promise of life after death. Jesus, in his Resurrection, promises life after life after death. In spite of all the protests, all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, Jesus says, “Roll away the stone.” Here we see Jesus at his most emotional. He is “Greatly disturbed in the spirit and moved.” He weeps. He shows anger, grief and empathy for he knows that for all of his power, the Powers of Sin and Death are still in place for the time being. But in the middle of it all, he thanks the Father for hearing him and says in a loud voice … “LAZARUS … COME FORTH!” And Lazarus cannot help himself but come out of the grave. He cannot help himself. This decaying corpse cannot help but become resuscitated and made whole, for as we see in all the Gospels, every time Jesus meets the dead, it gets up and walks.

The after effects of the raising of Lazarus tell us exactly why this passage is in the cycle of Lent. Some believed in Jesus, to be sure. But, others plotted to kill Jesus, and even plotted to kill Lazarus, who is at this point to them nothing but a piece of evidence to be disposed of. “This is not the time for rejoicing,” says the Powers of this world. “It is time to get serious and dispose of this troublemaker once and for all.” The Powers of this world respond the only way they know how … with death, violence and condemnation.

Where is the Good News in this? We might be tempted to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the point of it all?” For all of Jesus’ power, how does he counteract the destructive and consuming powers of the world? For all our desire to do good, apart from God we are unable to be fully free from our fallen-ness, our destruction, our condemnation. Even St Paul says right before he launches into today’s text, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”

The Good News is that Jesus gives life and the last enemy, Death, is overthrown by the power of the Resurrection. The Good News is that “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” and “live according to the Spirit.” The Good News is that “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Amen

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5 responses

9 03 2008
Doorman-Priest

Yes! My afterlife has already begun. PTL! (Sorry, got a bit Evangelical there for a moment.)

9 03 2008
Reverend boy

Getting Evangelical is fine as long as you don’t start channelling Jan Crouch. If you don’t know who that is, email me. Don’t say i didn’t warn you …. 😉

9 03 2008
Grandmère Mimi

RB, I like this. I like your delivery, too. You seemed to speed up your pace toward the last. Perhaps you could keep a slower, more even pace.

The new life in Jesus is, indeed, for right now for us to do our part in building the kingdom, the paradoxical kingdom that is right now, but not yet.

9 03 2008
Reverend boy

Thanks as always GM! I’ll keep that in mind. As y’all know, one of the things I really hope to do as a priest is to be an effective preacher (assuming I make the cut, that is!) and that kind of feedback is very helpful.

Much appreciated.

13 03 2008
John-Julian, OJN

I have the utmost (almost inexpressible) respect for GM, but a sermon HAS to speed up towards the end or the preacher loses everyone.

The beginning is sort of trotting and cantering “background” stuff and then one reaches full gallop just before the winner’s gate– and I think you do very well indeed in the homiletics department! Blue ribbon quality, man!

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