There are some Sundays that are harder to preach than others. This is one of them. We are faced today with such an embarrassment of riches in the readings, I hardly know where to begin. It would be interesting to ask each of you what struck you in particular.
John’s Gospel is unique in that he does not report miracles. He reports signs. Signs are intended to point the way. So when I tell you there are seven signs in this Gospel, you will recognize the number 7 as being highly symbolic, representing completeness. The resuscitation of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ signs that John lines up for us in his Gospel. As a story it leaves a lot of loose ends. As a sign it points to Jesus overcoming and redefining death.
Death was thought to be the end for most of Jesus’ contemporaries, as Moses never taught about an afterlife. Even Jews who believed in life after death probably thought of a dismal half-life of shadows. Although some Jewish teachers taught about resurrection, it was more for the vindication of the nation than a personal, individualized experience. The powerful and independent Jewish state that existed under King David would be resurrected under a Messiah who would carry on David’s line. The resurrected Israel would be a beacon to all the gentiles calling them to conversion to the one God.
For many of our contemporaries and our friends, death is simply death, and that is all there is to it. It’s the end. After this world, nothing, or at least nothing so crass as judgement. Which means that love is only for this world; generosity, trust, the pursuit of integrity and wisdom are only for this world.
As Christians we believe that our life is a pilgrimage, a journey to of God. We exist to worship God. On Earth, we live our lives to become more like Jesus. Without that goal and the hope of the Kingdom, life and growth would be at best a random walk, wandering aimlessly, at worst meaningless, and perhaps desperate.
Faith in Jesus plays a significant part in this Gospel story. Jesus tells his disciples before leaving for Bethany that he is glad he didn’t save Lazarus from dying so that they may believe. Then, there is the encounter with Martha, and later, at the tomb, Jesus prays aloud to the Father, so that the crowd may believe that He was sent by the Father. The story ends with the words, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.”
That puts some context into Jesus’ statement “Whoever has faith in me, even if they die, will live; and whoever live and believe in me will never die.” Jesus tells us that death, like birth, is a part of creation, the world made for and through him. Jesus has the power to call forth Lazarus from the tomb and from the stench of putrefaction because he created the world.
Lazarus’s resuscitation from death, whatever else it did, at least undermined the certainty that death is absolute. But it gave no answers – simply shattered assumptions. Lazarus gave no press interview, said nothing. The point of the story, I think, is what Jesus claimed in his conversation with Martha, “I am the resurrection.” That’s new. “I am the resurrection!” “Whoever believe in me, even if they die, will live; and whoever live and believe in me will never die.”
That fact that we have faith in this claim is proof that Jesus redefined death. We do not see death as the end of life. Life and death are not opposites. They do not rule each other out. We see death simply as the end of stage one of life, and the necessary doorway to the next, the details of which, however, we know little about, other than that the first stage sets us up for the next.
The story of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection and highlights the dramatic differences between the two events. Jesus returned from death on his own volition and power, not called back by anyone. He rolled away the stone himself, he came out of the tomb not wrapped and tied as did Lazarus but instead, rolled up in his wrappings. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus will never die again.
What did the resurrection mean to Jesus? He did not stop being Jesus. He did not stop being human. But he was different. He returned to the Father. Somehow, his humanity was divinized, without his ceasing to be human – as the Creed expresses it, “He is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
What did the resurrection mean to us today? Jesus said: “I am the resurrection”. Through our common humanity with Jesus, you and I, and the whole communion of saints, somehow share in the unique resurrection of Jesus. Through Jesus, we too will overcome death – not temporarily like Lazarus, but eternally. Like Jesus, we will be changed but still be ourselves. We will not stop being who we are.
For this reason, our lives have meaning. Values like love, truth, integrity and wisdom are transcendent; they “go beyond”. They shape us. They make us who we are. They make us who we shall be. Our strivings and our struggles to grow, to love, to trust and to be authentic are anything but meaningless. They are the building blocks of life to the full. Without Jesus and the hope of resurrection, our lives would be meaningless and desperate.
Today’s readings redefine death. Jesus does not deliver us from dying. That is part of the human condition, which he also shared. But he does deliver us from death, that is, from death’s ultimate, absolute power. Death shall have no dominion. Jesus told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
He asks Martha “Do you believe this?”He asks you today: “Do you believe this?”