Apr 5, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent: "Lazarus Come out!"

(Henry Tanner)
"I am the resurrection and the life."
Ez 37: 12 – 14
Rm 8: 8-11
Jn 11: 1-45

Not long after I first came to this parish and was still learning the who’s who and the what’s what, I was handed four funerals within the first months.  Celebrating a funeral was not something new to me but all four of them were children.  None were related to each other but they were two little ones less than one year old one child about nine and another in her early teens.  You can imagine the grief of the parents. 

As I surveyed the community I wondered, not wishing for more funerals, why God would permit the death of four very young lives and spare the death of folks who were 90 plus.  Of course, I didn’t have an answer but just needed to accept the truth that God has his ways and reasons for ending life and for sustaining life.  This Sunday’s Gospel provides an answer, however, that should bring us all some comfort as we approach the mystery and joy of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. 

Many in Jesus’ time must have likewise wondered why he was so brutally murdered. But faith is the only true answer.  God does not promise what he cannot deliver.  As a result, Jesus words and actions never went without a purpose and always hit their mark. What he says is true. 

In our Preface this Sunday we hear: “As true man he wept for Lazarus his friend and as eternal God raised him from the tomb, just as, taking pity on the human race, he leads us by sacred mysteries to new life . . .”

These beautiful words sum up for us the essence of this most dramatic miracle we hear of in our Gospel which Jesus performed: the resuscitation, not resurrection, of Lazarus from the dead.  Not only is Jesus’ humanity revealed as “Jesus wept” for his friend Lazarus but then as the Son of God, Lazarus himself came out of the tomb at the command of Jesus, “come out!”– from death to life. Considering the other readings this Sunday, our theme of resurrection and new life in Christ is starkly obvious.

In Ezekiel we hear: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them . . . I will put my spirit in you that you may live.”

St. Paul in Romans writes: “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”

And in the central line of John’s Gospel this Sunday we hear Jesus proclaim: “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”

For ancient Israel, hundreds of years before Jesus appearance, it was a time of hope in restoration to new life after its exile.  A return to the Promised Land was hoped for, so Ezekiel uses an image which gives them that hope but also foreshadows the greater hope of resurrection after death.  St. Paul and St. John seem directly connected to Christ this Sunday who fulfills that hope for all who believe.

Yet, in spite of all this scriptural promise, the experience of death remains so final. But, Jesus never promised something he could not or would not deliver.  God does not make empty statements, play tricks on us or lead us down a blind path deliberately.  What kind of God would that be? So, it seems the context of Lazarus’ situation may indeed be an important point of the story.

St. John makes sure we know that Lazarus was not comatose, temporarily unconscious, holding his breath pretending to be dead, or that Mary, Martha and Jesus were in on a plot to simulate a miracle and win Jesus great praise.  No, Lazarus was indeed dead as dead could be.  Wrapped tightly in the burial shroud and sealed in the tomb. Martha said to Jesus about her brother’s condition: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” So, in the presence of death and the smell of decay Jesus approaches the tomb. What will he do?

With profound faith, Martha ran to Jesus and knew that he could do something even at this seemingly final moment when she said to him: “But even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Am I willing to trust God so implicitly that even at the most desperate moments of life, I will still turn to him?

Martha’s faith must have deeply impressed Jesus. I believe she is an icon of Christian faith.  No matter what may seem impossible God will still step in. While our loved ones in death do not just suddenly walk out of their casket – could you imagine that? Our faith is one that does not give way to despair.  We are a people who do not live in the past or look back and survive only on memories. 

We are called to move forward and to trust that despite the obstacles and barriers that seem to at the least slow us down and at the worse stop us in our tracks our faith cannot be bound tightly in burial cloths.  We should never close the tomb and walk away seeking answers in places that will never bring us hope.  Like Martha, it is our faith in Christ alone who is “resurrection and life” that can alleviate the deepest fears we have.  How can one live without it? In his humanity Jesus walks in our shoes.  In his divinity Jesus invites us to trust.  It is easy? No it isn’t. 

What was it was like when Lazarus died again? We don’t know when that was or what caused his death – again - but obviously this time Jesus was likely not present for he had his own cross to carry. How did Martha and Mary feel at that moment if they survived him? We may wonder if it was softened by the experience of Lazarus’ resuscitation by Jesus and his words to Mary about resurrection and life. Their faith was strong.

While Lazarus was not resurrected but rather resuscitated his return to life foreshadowed the resurrection of Jesus.  But Jesus’ resurrection was such that he lives eternally as humanity and divinity are forever joined. As Jesus states to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

This dramatic story as Jesus encounters Martha, the sister of Lazarus who he knew well along with her sister Mary and Lazarus himself, elicits from Martha what strikes me as a same confession of faith which Peter had made.  Martha states: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ the Son of God.”  Doesn’t that sound familiar? 

Matthew 16: 13-17 relates the conversation with the Disciples in which Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter blurts out with conviction, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”  While Martha was not given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” as Peter was, her confession of faith in Jesus strikes me as a conviction we must all have.  If we’re going to fall in love with the Church, we must first fall in love with Jesus Christ and know him as he is: “Christ, the Son of God.”

The Preface states above: “He (Jesus) leads us by sacred mysteries to new life.” As we look towards Easter and the birth of new Christians among us we know those “sacred mysteries” refer to Baptism and Eucharist and the other sacraments.  The presence of Christ in and through them brings the grace of salvation. 

May our celebration of the Holy Eucharist be for us a living encounter with the risen Christ who says to us as he did to Martha: “Do you believe this?”

By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God,
may we walk eagerly in that same charity
with which, out of love for the world,
your Son handed himself over to death.

(Collect of 5th Sunday in Lent)