Starting Passiontide on a Learning Curve
Today we stand at the beginning of the two week period called Passiontide, leading in to Holy Week and Easter.
That’s why the crosses and some of the statues are veiled, today.
It encourages us to turn our thoughts to what is actually happening in the story we are going to be sharing in the next two weeks, from now until Good Friday and beyond. We know so well, don’t we, that there’s a cross to come? But we are asked to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and then to Golgotha, ….not flipping the pages or fast forwarding the video… and to move on into an Easter that isn’t simply an annual festival but a decisive once and for all transformation.
Today’s Gospel gives us that whole story in miniature.
John’s gospel was written later than the others. The people it was written FOR had not witnessed Jesus’ miracles in person. They had never encountered him. Instead of the thrilling cumulative momentum of Mark’s chronology… the sharply drawn and sometimes homely details of Luke’s eyewitness account… or the carefully woven work of Matthew with his zeal to connect Jesus’ story with the Hebrew scriptures…we have in this Fourth Gospel an architecture of revelation where a series of key conversations—meetings of Jesus with individuals—bring us face to face with the self-revealing Messiah, the one who says I AM the bread of life; I AM the light of the world, I AM the good shepherd, and so forth. Like the readers & hearers of the second century… and readers and hearers around the world today… you and I are invited to meet Jesus ourselves.
These conversations are written down, as the Gospel writer says at the end of the book, “that we may believe.” Believing springs from our relationship with the One who reveals himself to us. It’s not an abstract yes or no… not a creed that we say. The word FAITH in fact is not found in this Gospel. Here, believing is a VERB. It’s something we DO.
A couple weeks ago, I told a friend I was going to preach on today’s Gospel.
“What are you going to say?”
I want to tell them that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life.
“Vivian, you can’t tease them. What do you actually believe?”
Well, here goes: I believe at least three things about this story.
First, I believe God knows we’re on a learning curve, and God’s with us all the way.
When Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died,” we’re brought into the heart of compelling and poignant family drama. Martha is amazingly honest, and confident enough to speak her whole mind to Jesus. We can ONLY be THIS honest with someone we love and trust.
In the presence of death, I have to say I haven’t generally been so honest and open with God. I’ve turned to formal prayers. Or sought the comfort of friends. Truth be told, more eager to accept their offers of food and drink, than ready to ask for their prayers.
How much courage it takes for first Martha and a little later, Mary, to face Jesus head-on and yes, reproach him for his inexplicable delay! After all, he had already shown himself to be a miracle worker.
And his response? Not a word of rebuke or reproach. As He did with the Samaritan woman whose story we took up earlier in Lent, Jesus responds lovingly and respectfully, and reveals himself more fully.
11:25-26 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.
and then asks her
Do you believe this?"
At this point, she offers the most complete confession of faith to be found in John’s Gospel:
11:27 She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
It’s very tempting, if we’re asked to tell the story of our relationship with God, our spirituality, to pick out the lollipops. The peak experiences, the times we are really sure of God’s presence and activity. But that’s only half the story and perhaps not even the best half. Think of the times when things were difficult, uncertain, scary, disastrous. Where was God then?
In our story today, Jesus’ absence conveys a theological truth that his presence would not have been able to do—that he has, indeed, has been right here all along, in the midst of calamity. In fact, it’s clear that he was always entirely aware of what was happening with Lazarus. He was entirely mindful of the whole situation, even though neither the disciples nor Martha and Mary understood what he was about to do.
Second, I believe it’s significant that Jesus wept.
The poet and priest John Donne, whose feast we observed this past Friday, wrote an entire early sermon on this single verse. It was over 9,000 words long. If he spoke at the pace I’m speaking now, it would have taken him an hour and a half to preach all of it.
Why did Jesus weep? Not because he thought his friends were criticizing him. Not because he doubted what he was going to do. He cried because Lazarus was dead, and because Jesus was fully human. So we can believe that Jesus shared, and shares, exactly how we have all felt in the face of death. I don’t think our bodies have learned theology. Our bodies, no matter now firm our convictions, shudder in the presence of death. Death is real, and so is the suffering it causes. And while is not ultimately compatible with despair, it is no stranger to tears. (Schneiders p. 181).
In fact, as Donne observes, “
Christ made it an argument of his being man, to weep, for though the lineaments of [the human] body, eyes and ears, hands and feet, be ascribed to God in the Scriptures, [and] though the affections of [the human] mind be ascribed to [God], (even sorrow, nay repentance itself, [being] attributed to God) I do not remember that ever God is said to have wept: [weeping] is for [humankind].
And when God shall come to that last act in the [our] glorifying , [having promised] to wipe all tears from [our] eyes, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?
Finally, I believe that when I say “He IS the Resurrection and the life,” I don’t mean that resurrection is some kind of shape shifty thing that happened once to Jesus and might happen to us and our loved ones at some time in the future (possibly only if we live right).
Because in John’s gospel, the resurrection isn’t a hypothetical object of faith. It’s what we experience as a result of having Jesus’ life in us and being part of Jesus’ life. Jesus demonstrated this in Lazarus, as a token of the power of his own coming glorification. Resurrection is something I stand in as a member of Christ.
And it’s important to say… this is not a private devotion. It’s not a me-and-my-God kind of deal . Look at how Jesus’ path towards Lazarus tomb gathered more and more people as witnesses. Look at how he didn’t even TOUCH Lazarus, but told the bystanders to unbind him.
The new life that is promised to us is by its nature SHARED.
It promises us a completely different order of reality—sharing in Christ’s glory in a way we can barely have glimpses of … but we do have intimations of this glory… when we open our hearts to scripture or worship or music, or when we experience ourselves working together for justice, or when we find ourselves showing more mercy than we had ever imagined we could, or when our unity completely transcends pettiness and ego. These are glimpses of heaven. These are signs of imperishability.
And this is why the wise people who put together today’s readings chose the passage from Ezekiel where God tells him to prophesy to the dry bones.
“Thus says the Lord God, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”
Sisters and brothers, Amen
Sandra M. Schneiders. Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. New York: Crossroad, 2003.