Gospel According to John 11:1-45; Raising of Lazarus
March 26, 2023: Lent V
The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Trinity Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, CT
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
This morning we are remembering the life and ministry of Father Ron Glaude who served as the pastor and priest of this parish of over 28 years. That is a whopping long stretch of service. Worthy of remembrance. In a few minutes we will offer our gratitude in the prayers of the people and dedicate our Eucharist to his memory. And it seems fitting for the Gospel reading this particular morning to be an account of the resurrection of a friend of Jesus. An account of how God both lifts us to new life even when we are in the clutches of death.
But also, and maybe more importantly, how God can turn a story that begins with deep grief and sadness into a divine sign of hope and everlasting life.
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 invites us to see ourselves and our life-force in a new way. And not a cocky, rosy, all is well and good sort of way. But in an honest, heart-wrenching, come-to-Jesus sort of way.
Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench…
The scripture is so graphic in its description of the stench
that emanates from the tombs in which we encase our dead….ness. Death stinks. But with God, life always overcomes the stench. Life always overcomes death. This passage is about the power of God to resurrect life.
All life. All parts of life. Even an ordinary human life. Entirely.
But Jesus does not just raise Lazarus.
He also raises Mary and Martha, albeit in a much less physical way.
But the tangential message is that if God can raise a human being from the dead, Think of what God can raise in us while we are still alive. Think of the parts of our lives that seem beyond salvation.
The parts within us, the relationships among us, the hopes and dreams around us that feel dead or dying.
Not literally, but metaphorically. We all have facets in our lives that we have allowed to wilt and wane and maybe even gasp for air. Things that could use a bit of divine resurrection. Some part of our lives – our relational life, professional life, family life, spiritual life that is in dire need of resurrection.
My grandmother used to say that festering lilies smell worse than weeds. It’s the stench of a good thing gone bad. And I have known that adage from the inside out. I bet you have too. In many ways my time here with you as your PIC is a sort of resurrection for me. My vocation had been lingering for …awhile. And I was not at all sure that it was not …..on its way to the glue factory, as we horse folk say.
But here I am. A new lease on the life of my vocation here with you.
Taking my own place in the long line of faithful pastors whose vocations have flourished here. I did not orchestrate this resurrection. God did.
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 Jesus – who will inevitably call (it might take three days, or three years, or an opportune time) but he will call to awaken us from our inaction, and summon us to come out of our tombs, otherwise known as our comfort zones….and live into the dangerous calling of loving ourselves and each other…and the God who is the giver of all life.
The raising of Lazarus is a call for each and all of us to rise when God beckons.
And not because we necessarily want to rise. Lazarus did not ask to be raised. God insisted.
Rising from the stench of the tomb was not a suggestion, it was an imperative. Come out! No one asked Lazarus if he wanted to be raised.
I am guessing he did 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. Did Lazarus he want to rejoin the land of the suffering mortals? Did he want to have to die all over again? To leave paradise with God. Maybe not. But he did not have that option. Jesus commanded him: Come out!
And eventually, we too are called to hear those magic words; that liberating imperative, even when the prospect of such new life may frighten us to death. The command to: Come out! is a command to wake up and rise to the power of love. And it is the moment we understand what it means to lose our lives in order to gain our lives.
This story of Lazarus stands alone in the Gospel according to 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. And most importantly, for our understanding of John’s Jesus, this story is the last straw before the authorities arrest him.
This show of absolute power over life and death is the thing that makes Jesus absolutely unacceptable to both the political and religious authorities. At least in John’s Gospel.
But in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke the last straw is the story of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. In those three Gospels, that act of civil disobedience is the final straw
before the powers-that-be arrest Jesus. In those Gospels, the last straw is his assault on the political power structure. When Jesus is seen as a political activist, the authorities have finally had enough.
But in the fourth Gospel, the Evangelist John puts the cleansing of the Temple not at the end of Jesus’ ministry, but at the very beginning. Political activist is where Jesus starts in John. The disruption in the Temple is not conveyed as the reason for Jesus’ arrest, its the inauguration of Jesus’ mission.
In John’s Gospel, civil disobedience is not the last straw, it is Jesus’ job description.
His very mission is to re-vision and re-form the standing and understanding of God on earth. John is doing 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
but this morning’s showstopper of divine proportions. 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.
And the message for us is that no matter how dark the tomb in which we find ourselves, God can and will raise us to new life….whether we want it or not. God has the power to change everything in the blink of an eye.
The name Lazarus is a shortened version of the Semitic name El-azar, which is literally translated as “God helps” – El (God) Azar (helps). Lazarus. But God’s help, God’s power to raise life from the dead,
is not the only phenomenal gift of God on display in this morning’s passage. Equally powerful, at least to me, is God’s ability and willingness to feel our pain. It says so in black and white. The shortest verse in our canon.
It is astonishing to me that the only place where Jesus experiences this abundantly human thing is in the one Gospel where Jesus is barely fully human. In John Jesus is not God’s Son, Jesus IS God. And so because this happens in this Gospel it says, unequivocally, that God’s own self weeps with us. Not just God’s agent, not God’s Son, God’s self.
No wonder these tears were not ordinary tears.
The verb used here, is unique in the entire Bible. Nowhere else does this particular verb for “wept” occur. Anywhere. God’s empathy is a unique brand of compassion. And it is definitive. Because he wept only once. Ever. He did not weep for hundreds the legions of 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.
He wept with Mary and Martha. Not for Lazarus, with Mary and Martha. Jesus’ weeping was pure unadulterated compassion. Com-passion. Suffering with another. He did not weep for his own loss, his own pain, he wept for the pain of others. 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 how deeply God feels the depth of human suffering. How deeply God feels our suffering. When we suffer. God suffers. When we are overcome with grief, God is overcome with us.
It is indeed a Christian comfort to know that God can and will resurrect each one of us when we die. But the real comfort in this passage, at least for me, is knowing that while we live, God lives with us. Fully. And that our suffering is always shared by a God who weeps with us.
But who taught God to weep? I suspect that weeping was a human gift to God.
I am guessing it was a new and startling phenomenon for Jesus. He must have been flabbergasted when those tears poured from his fully-human-and-also-divine eyes. It took him 11 chapters in John to finally break down. But he got there. He wept.
And not for nothing, I think in this new experience of empathy Jesus is teaching us how to resurrect each other. How to lift each other from our own tombs of suffering and grief. We humans do not have the power of life over death. But we do have the power to genuinely share each other’s tears. I saw that in living color at yesterday’s healing service. We have the power to resurrect the spirit in each other. And it is a mighty power. It may be our one true superpower.
As I said at the start, this Gospel is very well suited to this morning’s remembrance. Both in its assurance of resurrection. And in its invitation to share each other’s tears.
Jesus said: I am the resurrection and the life.
And then he wept.
© March, 2023 The Rev’d. Dr. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw