The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent features the raising of Lazarus, which is the text I preached yesterday at First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas. The story of Lazarus has as many layers as the grave clothes they wrapped him in. It is a much more complex story than any of the previous signs in John, and one can sense that the climactic hour is now at hand.
It is the last sign that Jesus uses to portray that the Word has become flesh, and it is the sign that demonstrates most clearly who he is really is, which is the ultimate provocation for his adversaries. They will seek to kill him for this sign—and Lazarus, as well, for he is evidence of Jesus’ power over death.
Lazarus is an interesting character in the story, seemingly passive with two over-functioning sisters, perhaps older, given to his care. [As an older sister, I started to say bossy, but backed up from that stereotype.] He never speaks, but he is called a “friend,” one whom Jesus loves. When raised, he doesn’t even say “Glad to be back!”—just quietly enjoys supper with his family and special friend. Spiritual writers say he embodied serenity.
Alan Culpepper writes of this signal event in John’s Gospel: “Since the raising of Lazarus is the final offense, which sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus—and he was well aware it would be—Jesus actually lays down his life for a friend by returning to bring life to Lazarus.” Truly.
His is not resurrection like Jesus, however, for he is still bound by the grave clothes. Contrast this with the shroud and headpiece found neatly folded in the tomb of Jesus. He did not require assistance to be unbound.
Why bring a person back to life who will die again? Surely it arises out of compassion for this beloved family, but there is a larger point. John’s Gospel, written in light of the resurrection, want to contrast this present life we hold so dear with the life to come. The author also wants the reader to trust Jesus as the one who will accompany us as we pass through death to life, and that the gift of eternal life is breaking in even now.
Yet it is hard to hold this life lightly. It is all that we know, and when Jesus calls us to value the life he offers, we know that this entails death. In our day, this involves the death of Christendom and triumphalism in the world of competing faiths. This also involves the death of seeing Christianity too closely identified with political machinations in the current climate. Further, we must die to any pretension that suffering will not touch the Christian life; we share in the human condition, too.
It seems that the church only speaks of death when we have a funeral. It is the church’s responsibility to reintegrate death into the mainstream of its theological and pastoral reflection. As the Benedictines say: “Keep death daily before your eyes.” The promises of God in Jesus offered in the face of death can equip the church to understand the promises of God in Jesus offered in the midst of life.
This narrative tells us that Jesus can interrupt our lives caught in a death spiral. I had the privilege recently of meeting with a former student whose life had spun out of control. He had experienced too much grief, so he immersed himself in addictive behaviors, simply trying not to feel all the pain. Somehow in the midst of this, Jesus got his attention, and he has come to himself. He came to tell me this, as one raised from death to life.
The heart of the gospel is our belief that God’s power can overcome all that would threaten us in life or in death. We are both Lenten people and Easter people—frail and dusty, yet able to participate in God’s own power over death. This is the faith we confess.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church and serving humanity.