The Stench of Life!

Gospel of John 11:1-45; Raising of Lazarus

April 2, 2017: Lent V

The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw

Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA

 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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 will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
                                                                                                                                             Gospel of John 11:1-45, NRSV

The good news is that this morning’s sermon will not be as long as this morning’s Gospel reading. The bad news is that this reading is a bit too close to home.

Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench…

By too close to home, I am not talking about last night’s sewerage backup in the undercroft, although that was an uncanny happening on the eve of this reading. But I am talking about the ways in which we all resemble Lazarus. The ways in which we all require some degree of resurrection here and now. The stench that we all experience and exude when awake and are called to new life, like existential morning breath. The stench that pervades our being when we are too long….inert; physically, spiritually, effectively inactive. It is a shared and common phenomena. There is a certain stench that accompanies all of our apathy and atrophy and all that wastes in decay when we are not fully alive. My grandmother used to say that festering lilies smell worse than weeds. And I have known that adage from the inside out. I bet you have too. We are all at one time or another, Lazarus. All in need of a shot of new life. We are all entombed in…whatever entombs us. And when we fester too long, we begin to stink to high heaven. Our challenge is to respond to the call of Jesus to awake from our inaction and come out of our tombs, otherwise known as our comfort zones….and live into the dangerous calling of love!

And this call to arise is not a suggestion, it is an imperative. No one asks Lazarus if he wants to be raised. I am guessing he does not. Death is peaceful. Life is hard. And very few folks die without enduring some serious suffering of some sort on the way to their passing. Does he want to rejoin the land of the suffering mortals? Does he want to have to die all over again? Maybe not. But he does not have that option. Jesus commands him: Come out!

And eventually, we are called to hear those magic words, that liberating imperative, even though the prospect of such new life may frighten us to death. The command to: Come out! Is a command to rise to the power of love. The terrifying prospect of losing our lives to gain them. This is truly the great Christian coming out story!

This story of Lazarus stands alone in the Gospel of John. There is a story about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke, but unlike the nearly anonymous beggar in Luke, John’s Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha, and the friend of Jesus of Nazareth. This story not only stands alone in John, it replaces the last straw for the authorities before they arrest Jesus, in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. You will remember, in the three narrative Gospels, Jesus is arrested shortly after chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. That act of civil disobedience is the final straw for the powers-that-be and the direct impetus for Jesus’ arrest in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus is feared as a rabble-rouser, a political activist, an agent of social change who has no regard for the authority of the authorities. And so in those three Gospels, the overturning of the tables in the Temple marks the crescendo of Jesus’ earthly ministry….and the last straw.

But in the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist John puts Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple not at the end, but at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The disruption in the Temple is not conveyed as the reason for Jesus’ arrest, but the inauguration of Jesus’ mission. Civil disobedience is not the last straw, it is the job description in John’s Gospel. Social change and political activism is the fabric of Jesus’ mission. It is who he is in John’s Gospel. His very mission is to re-vision and re-form the standing and understanding of God on earth; nothing less than turning the tables on the very identity of God.

And so, the last straw in John’s Gospel, is not a show of Jesus’ strength in the political arena (that is a given) but rather it is a showstopper of divine proportions – it is this morning’s account of Lazarus. The raising of Lazarus is the end, the finale of Jesus’ ministry in John. It is the divinity of Jesus, exemplified here by his absolute power over life and death, that is both the reason for Jesus’ demise on earth and the message in the Gospel of John as a whole. In John, Jesus is not the healer or the prophet or the teacher or the brother; in John, Jesus is God on earth, the beginning and the end. And this difference in the very identity and mission of Jesus, as God’s own self in John’s Gospel versus God’s agent, God’s Son in the synoptic Gospels, is at the heart of the age-old debate about whether the mission of the church is to save souls, as the divine Jesus in the Gospel of John would have us believe, or to save lives, as we see the human political activist Jesus encountered in the narrative Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Is our faith about resurrection or life? Our life in heaven or on earth? Are we to spend our lives saving our own souls or the lives of those on the margins? John’s Gospel or Matthew, Mark and Luke?

But maybe we do not have to choose. Jesus said: ‘I am the resurrection and the life…everyone who lives and beloves in me will never die.’  And so in John’s Gospel the resurrection and the life are a matched set. They are inseparable. For the Evangelist John, there is no resurrection without life and no life without resurrection. And we translate and hear that second part as “anyone who believes in me,” but the German roots of this word allow an equally authentic translation of believe as belove…..”anyone who beloves in me will never die.”  That feels much more inclusive and forgiving and realistic to me than the mandate to believe, which, if I am honest, I myself can not be counted on to do 100% of the time.  And so the resurrection and the life, heaven on earth, is available to any and all for the unambiguous price of nothing less than beloving.

Christopher Morse is the Dietrich Bonhoeffer professor of Theology and Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. He wrote a fascinating book called The Difference Heaven Makes in which he analyzed every reference to heaven in the New Testament. And after all of his research his conclusion is that contrary to popular opinion and discourse, heaven is not where we go from here, but from whence God comes. Heaven is not a promise for tomorrow, it is a reality that we can live into today. Heaven is the symbol of the life of God which keeps adventing into history, our history.  The Christian challenge is to be on hand for that which at hand but not yet in hand, says Morse. At hand but not yet in hand. And so as disciples of God in the flesh, our job is to keep looking for the advent of God. Keep listening for the command to Rise Up! Come Out! Live love!

The name Lazarus is a shortened version of the Semitic name El-azar, which is literally translated as “God helps” – El (God) Azar (helps). In the symbol of Lazarus we see the union of heaven and earth, the way God calls us to action and life. The way God is in relationship with us, and we are called to respond, to complete the reconciliation. Because God cannot do God’s work alone….in the beginning there may have been but the Word, but on the very last day, there was nothing but the Relationship.

The importance and weight of relationality is exemplified in the tears of our savior in this morning’s reading. Jesus wept.  As you may know, this is the shortest verse in the entire Bible. And the verb used here, is unique in the entire Bible. Nowhere else does this particular verb for “wept” occur. So we know right off the bat that this is a very special event. This is not your typical pity party. These are not your run of the mill tears.

Jesus wept once. [1] He did not weep for Jairus’ dead daughter. Nor for the herd of God’s beloved creature swine possessed by the demons of Legion who threw themselves into the sea….I wept, but Jesus did not weep. Nor did he weep for hundreds of other sick and dying and dead that Jesus must have encountered over the course of his ministry. He did not weep in the Garden of Gethsemane. Nor at his own crucifixion. He wept only once. He wept at the death of his friend Lazarus.

But we must be careful here, Jesus knew that Lazarus would be raised. And so we must be careful not to misinterpret his tears. Jesus did not weep for Lazarus, he wept with those who wept for Lazarus, actually for those who wailed, as the Greek word used to describe Mary’s and Martha’s cries literally means. Jesus wept for the depth of suffering that came when his beloveds were in abject pain. Jesus wept for the grief of the living not the fate of the dead.

These tears, these rare tears of our Savior, tell us of the relationship of God’s deep love to the depth of human suffering and weakness.  Jesus wept because, when we weep, when we wail, when we are overcome with grief, God weeps with us. And so Jesus, God on earth according to John, wept not for the loss of his friend, but for the love of humanity and the weakness and suffering that we endure as an inescapable part of our human lives. And this steadfast companionship in our common suffering is the way… is the way Jesus himself teaches us to raise each other up.

It is the proximity that provokes our compassion. That is, we cannot suffer together at a distance. And so if we do not want to weep as Jesus weeps, then we would do well to keep our marginalized neighbors at an arms’ length, especially those who suffer the most. Those who are feeble and infirmed. Those who are poor. Unhoused. Undocumented. Those who are refugees. Prisoners. “Others.” Because if we dare to share their lives and their stories, we may be in for some serious weeping. If we take them into our hearts and our homes. If we break bread together on our knees. If we risk our comfort and our safety and our privilege to welcome heaven to this earth, we will surely weep as Jesus wept.

But we can always keep those “others” at bay, at a safe distance. And we may still weep for their poverty and their disadvantage  and their distress. But we will be weeping for them, not with them. Our tears will taste of charity, not compassion.

Which is why God weeps with us, and not for us. There would be no point in God weeping for us. Because Lord knows God can simply change whatever it is that is causing the suffering. But rather than eradicating the source of our pain, God always chooses to share it. To take our flesh and cry our tears. And why that sort of sharing rises, nothing short of love is born.

And when we follow God’s lead, when we rise from our comfort and put ourselves on the line, we should expect some tears. And we should expect a bit of a stench, the stench that come from too long-buried hearts and hands. And it is another Gospel paradox. That such an awful stench is the tell-tale sign that the tomb is opening and new life is just ahead. And the stench becomes a fragrant offering.

Sometime in each of our lives, that offering is ours to make. When we finally rise from our entombment, the work of raising heaven on earth is ours to behold.

Like the poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Very fittingly by Emma Lazarus. It says:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

An invitation to the stench. And I can almost hear Jesus commanding us: Rise up! Come out!  Risk Love! Share Everything! Follow me!

Heaven on earth is calling our name!


© April, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw


1 In Luke’s Gospel Jesus weeps for the city of Jerusalem (chapter 19), but the verb that is used there does not denote a weeping of personal suffering, but weeping in disappointment.


Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (London,       UK: T&T Clark International) 2010.

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