This Lent we have been peering at the recorded conversations of Jesus: Jesus and Satan (out in the wilderness), Jesus and Nicodemus in the night, Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus and the people surrounding the blind man, and now today, Jesus and Martha.
This Lent we have been immersed in the murky duality of the gospel of John—light and darkness, water and living water, blind and seeing, and today death and life.
I was struck by this passage at the end of our Scripture lesson for today. “Jesus cried with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out.” The dead man? Why still call him dead? Why not the formerly dead man? Why not the one newly alive? Why ‘the dead man’ and not Lazarus?
Did you notice that Martha and Jesus don’t seem to be talking about the same thing regarding death and life. Jesus says to her “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha hears that as a statement for the future “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus tries again. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me with never die.” And I can see Jesus tilting his head and gently asking, “Do you believe this?”
And Martha answers: “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” I get the strange feeling that the practical Martha can believe this about Jesus and the future, and even though she says “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him,” she doesn’t really believe it. Not for this life, not for this moment, not for her dead brother Lazarus.
And what do we believe? Jesus being the “resurrection and the life”—is that just something for the future (hopefully the way distant future!)? Jesus being the “resurrection and the life”—does that have anything to do with us, today?
All this musing began because of a quote in a book I was reading: “Shakespeare Saved My Life” by Laura Bates. Laura is an English professor who has taken on teaching Shakespeare (as a volunteer) in our prisons—even in the solitary confinement area of the super max near Chicago. The super max is for the most dangerous of people. And they are confined, one to a cell, for 23 hours a day. Their cell has only one small opening, about waist height, through which, food is passed. Laura teaches her class in the super max, sitting between the four cells, and her students can only see her by crouching down, and looking through their small opening on the world.
It was here that Laura met Larry Newton—a convicted murderer who had attempted to escape several times, but who possessed a brilliantly agile mind.
The book opens with Larry wanting to share his favorite Shakespeare quote, from Henry the Fourth, Part One (Act 5, scene 4). And while Laura is still scrambling to find it in her two-thousand page Complete Works of Shakespeare, Larry is quoting, “When that this body did contain a spirit, a kingdom for it was too small a bound”! When that this body did contain a spirit (when it was alive)—a kingdom for it was too small a bound (this kingdom, great as it seems, couldn’t contain it—there was so much more). What did this “favorite freakin’ quote” mean to Larry? Did he know what it was like to have a body that didn’t contain a spirit? Did he know what it was like to be dead?
And then, through Shakespeare, through Laura, had he discovered that when his body contained a spirit, a spirit of learning, a spirit of friendship, a spirit of life, “when that this body did contain a spirit”—the skies were the limit (even if physically, his world will remain very small)?
What is the story of the Raising of Lazarus about? Is it just about “the dead man” who Jesus calls out of his tomb? If so, why is it that Lazarus doesn’t become the main focus of the story—paraded around to be the proof-positive of Jesus’ miraculous powers? After walking out of the tomb, Lazarus just seems to fade from view.
I think the answer for John, and maybe for us, is that Lazarus is not the final stop for this story. The raising of Lazarus, like the restoring of sight to the man born blind, is not so much about Lazarus as it is “so that God’s works might be revealed.” It is less about the dead man, and more about the power of Jesus to reanimate, to give back spirit, life, to all kinds of things that are dead—including us.
So the questions that buzz around are:
Are we going to be like Martha—knowing all the right things to say, and yet missing the point of the proclamation about life?
Are we going to be like Mary who is so bowed down with grief that she can’t even summon up enough energy to have a conversation with her friend, her Lord, Jesus?
Are we willing to acknowledge the places of ourselves that are dead, we have buried, put in the tomb, shut the stone tight over the entrance, and vowed never to think about again?
What does it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Is it like that living water—that can gush up in us, changing everything?
How do we get that life from Jesus? Do we just ask? Will he promise to stand next to us as we get the strength, the courage, to roll away the stone, no matter what the stench, and call that dead man, those dead parts of ourselves, into the light of day?
As we wind our way towards Jerusalem and what we call Holy Week, as we all live burdened by the things we have entombed, we need to hear this story of death and life.
Being dead doesn’t scare Jesus. You see, he knows: being dead can be a prelude to resurrection. And Jesus doesn’t want us, any part of us, to be dead.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says.
Then he asks,
“Do you believe this?”
May it be so, Amen and Amen.