John 11:1-45, The Great Transition

[April 6, 2014] The text is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. I cannot improve on what I wrote in 2011 (except the two posts are badly in need of some editing!), especially in my present state of mind (a head cold, sleepless, and distracted), so here are the links for you to read them:

John 11:1-21, The Unexpected Basis of the Little Flock and
John 11:22-44, “I Am the Resurrection and the Life.”

Chapter 6, the feeding of the five thousand, the crossing of the sea, and the sermon on the manna from heaven, takes place at the time of the Passover, the celebration of the exodus from Egypt. In chapter 7 Sukkōt began, recalling the wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and we stay with this until Hanukkah in chapter 10. Jesus is the Shekinah presence that led them and the rock from which flowed the living water that sustained them, while the old generation died in the wilderness and the new generation awaited the Promised Land. Then in John 12, the Bethany that was the “House of Misery,” where Lazarus died, becomes Bethany the “House of Figs,” a foretaste of the Promised Land. That little village feast, at which Jesus sat with Lazarus, and Martha served, and Mary poured out her love, is a picture of the church, or at least what Jesus intended to be the church.

The story of the death of Lazarus and his rising again is what takes place between existence in the wilderness under God’s judgment (this is painfully recalled by Hanukkah too, though under the Seleucid tyrant) and the feast of the Promised Land, between our existence in the world and our existence in the church. It takes place between the man born blind being cast out of the sheep pen, the casting out, and the gathering of the disciples in Bethany. That gathering is described in chapter 10, but it does not yet take place—the Shepherd has to lay down his soul! And so do the sheep …

As believers we are still in the world and in complete solidarity with our neighbors. We too live under the judgment of God that is upon the whole world. We do not get to escape it into pretty lives because we are believers; indeed, our suffering may increase. We do, however, live a double life. For while we live in the world with everyone else, we also live in the church.

By “church” I certainly mean something radically different than what we think of when we hear the word or the images that we conjure up in our minds. I mean the flock that Jesus has called out of the sheepfolds of the world and gathered to himself. These are the believers who abide in him and share with one another the Holy Spirit who indwells them. It is a very precious community of love and humility that only exists in this world in broken lives that are never quite made whole, but that do know healing. This is the community that comes into being when Jesus breathes into the disciples—and to all who subsequently believe—the Holy Spirit, a community that already was nascent in the women and the other disciples that hung on to Jesus, and whom Jesus had called and gathered.

The church as we see it in today’s world—well, what are we to say? It is this same gathering, but painfully disguised by sin. It is there, as Israel is also there, each what they are, each elect and true—Israel faithful to the Torah and the church to the Gospel—and each in a rainbow of diverse colors in which the divine sparkles, yet each also showering the world with mud. But I speak not of Israel, for they are a sign of God’s election by which God speaks to the church (and vice versa: the church among the gentiles is a sign to Israel), for the church to hear and not for the church to judge (we are, in fact, forbidden to). When we look at Christian gatherings, our local churches, how little sense there is of the presence of Lazarus at the feast. One can only wonder whether the other guests are present—including Jesus—or if they are even invited. Yet, we open the Book of the Gospels and the words are read and in the darkness of our minds we give it assent. Christ stands by as witness. He who commanded us to love and not judge, sees us judge and not love. Surely this is the shadow cast by the light. Somehow the light has continued generation after generation even though it often seems as if no one sees it. It is the providence of God.

Yet even in this 21st century, the eyes of the spiritually blind are opened and the spiritually dead are raised to life. We may not think so, and yet I hope you see that the light of Christ is in you. It may seem like only a spark, and compared to what it will be, indeed it is. Yet that spark will set the tinder and kindling of our souls on fire and we may know before we depart this life the real power of the divine life radiating beneath us. Or we may not. In either case, the life we have lived will become hummus for the lives around us. I encourage you, though, to fan that spark into a flame and to feed that flame until it can be sustained. Guard it, for nothing else in our trivial lives matters as much as this.

And there are communities of believers who love one another without judging each other and without setting themselves up as judges of others, communities where love overflows. If we do not find one, it is incumbent on us to become the beginning of one, beginning with the hospitality we offer to others.

Chapter 11 is a study of reactions. The disciples are backdrop; it is the sisters who are in the foreground. The disciples resist the truth of Lazarus’ death and do not want to go to the place of death for fear of their lives.

Both sisters are angry with Jesus, but Martha is at least willing to see him when he comes. Jesus begs her to pay attention to who he is. Their Jewish faith in the resurrection of the dead depends on him, himself. He is the resurrection and the life (no one can rise from the dead unless he does it)! She lets go of her anger long enough to see him and out of her mouth comes the strongest affirmation of faith in any of the four gospels (yes, stronger than Peter’s).

Mary is so angry that she will not go to Jesus until he calls her, and he waits until she comes. When she comes she falls on the ground at his feet crying and makes the same accusation that her sister made. Jesus can say nothing to her. He asks the people who had followed her, “Where have you put him?” But seeing Mary weeping, he starts to weep himself, even as some of the other people start making the same accusation.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he did not intervene to heal Lazarus before he died, for they would see the “glory of God” when Lazarus came to life again. Yet his emotions are conflicted, for he did indeed refrain from healing Lazarus and thus he did hurt the sisters so much. And he will hurt them all even more when he himself will go to the cross and die, humiliated, wounded and tortured and nailed to the cross and pierced. This business of death loomed in front of his face at this moment.

Nor should we underestimate death in this context. Death is a common event, and it is natural. Yet there is also something dreadfully unnatural about it. From the beginning of the Gospel according to John to the end of it, the theme of life has been repeated and repeated, woven through every story. It is the central focus of the gospel. And death is its opposite, its nemesis, that which life—eternal life, the life that Jesus imparts—overcomes. Eternal life, the uncreated life of God, overcomes the death that so oppresses our lives, that weighs like a leaden blanket over everything we do, that stands beside us when we look in the mirror each morning.

And here, at the scene of Lazarus’ death, Jesus is face-to-face with the power of death, and he feels it. He feels it in Mary’s accusation. He can say nothing to her. What she says is true. He allowed death to have its way on her brother, the brother whom he too loved.

Yet he was able to collect himself at the graveside. It was time. “Take away the stone.” What did he want to do? Pay respects to the body? Not now; it is too late. Decomposition has already begun and the body will smell. “No, I know; but go ahead, do as I say.” “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” It seemed at that moment that no one believed. Yet they did. However angry they were with Jesus, they loved him. They rolled away the stone.

Jesus prayed aloud, not so much for his own sake but for the others, so they could get a glimpse of his inner life, of what was going on inside of him. Yet it was for his sake too; this prayer brought into his human consciousness who he was: it expressed his relationship to the Father. It was in this power that he then cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” At his command, the power of the life that is in him brought life and healing back into the body of Lazarus. The life that is in him is the life that sustains our bodies right now, but it is far greater than what we know. For it can reverse the effects of death; it can breathe life into dead matter and create; it can give eternal life to those who rise again on the “last day.” This life was in Jesus when he shouted. It was always in him since his conception. It is the life of the Son of God who entered the womb of Mary and became incarnate in her baby. It is the life that will keep him through his own death, and he already knew this, however difficult it was for him to handle emotionally.

No one expected what happened (except Jesus). They stood around dumbfounded while poor Lazarus hobbled out of the cave in his grave cloths. Jesus, seeing the miracle for the first time himself—what must he have felt?—commanded the sisters and the others, “Unbind him! Let him go free!”

So this story is the great transition from our desert wanderings to the Promised Land, from the sheep folds to the flock, from the world to the church. What it tells us is that in order to make this transition we have to die. Not biologically, but in our souls. Yes, this is what Jesus says in the next chapter: “Unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his soul loses it; anyone who hates his soul in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:25-26). There is no feast in Bethany, there is no anointing of Jesus with the pound of nard, unless we first die.

People look at their little churches and how poorly they are doing and they decide to close the church. What on earth can that mean? How can you “close a church” unless every last member has died or moved away? Of course they identify the church with their building and their ability to maintain it and possibly to hire a minister. As long as they have a few people who can gather in the building and as long as they can afford to keep the building, there is a church.

What really is the church, I mean the local church? I don’t mean to get into the ecclesiology of Luke and Paul, with whom it is clearly defined. I mean to look at it from the point of view of John, who is writing this gospel. He is in Ephesus, probably, where the gathering of believers was begun long before in the days of Paul’s first visit. John uses the word “church” in his third epistle, so he does not dismiss the term. But his concern is with the internal life of the Christian community, internal in the sense of its spiritual space. Without delving into his epistle, the evidence of the gospel stresses our life in the Holy Spirit as a result of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling us: our life in Christ as Christ is in us. It is a community of love. Our love for one another is the mark of the Holy Spirit’s presence in and among us. (It is not the Holy Spirit, of course, but the Spirit’s manifestation among us.) However, that love for one another is only the mark of the Holy Spirit’s presence in and among us when another factor is also present: we love Christ, having believed into Him. Where the love of Christ is missing, our love for one another is irrelevant. For the love that constitutes the Christian community comes out of our love-relationship with Christ, or it does not exist. “Getting it” (who Jesus is) issues in belief into Christ, which issues in love for Christ, which issues in our love for one another. I think this represents the point of view of the author of this gospel.

If this is the reality of the Christian connection, what has this got to do with buildings and hired clergy? (I am not, by the way, opposed to having a place to gather nor do I think the worker is not worthy of her wages. Christ certainly uses the apostolate and believers are certainly obligated to support them.) If a group of believers can no longer maintain a building or their hired clergy, this hardly dissolves them as a church. What confuses the issue is that they always gather in isolation from other believers in the same parish (locality). All the believers in a parish are the church. What confusion we have! For everyone is gathering as if they were a voluntary social organization. Where is the church gathering?

This is when those whom Christ casts out of the sheepfolds need to hear the voice of the Shepherd and follow him. And if we follow him, he leads us down the pathway of death, death to all of our worldly ways of thinking about the church. Until all of that dies, we will not discover the flock, the gathering of Bethany, even if we are bleating in the middle of it.

We need to let go of all of our own expectations and stop shunning the Christ who let “our brother” die, and “get it” like Martha did, or just love him like Mary. Surrender to this internal death in the arms of the Shepherd. When he says “Remove the stone” and expose the stench, we won’t argue with him; we’ll just do it. And then will we be surprised! Where we least expect to find life, there it is!

Now, unbind him and let him go free!

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