When I worked for a time as a chaplain at RPH, I quickly found out that a big part of my job was about death. Of course most people who get admitted to hospital do survive the experience – the vast majority are in and out within about two days. But for a significant number of patients the issue is literally about life and death, and for a lot of people also their admission to hospital is bringing up memories about the death of somebody they have loved. So I found myself talking to people about death – I found myself bang smack in the middle of the biggest taboo subject in our Western culture – the taboo of admitting we know we’re going to die – I found myself dealing with medical staff who didn’t know how to tell a patient that they were dying, and with patients who didn’t know how to hear the fact that they were dying – I experienced the privilege of spending some time with a man for whom the news that he was about to die became the surprising catalyst that enabled him finally to start living – to renew his relationship with his wife and his faith in God – and I found myself starting to think in a new way about the fact that I too would one day die.
Face to face with death – ours or another person’s – we also come face to face with the core of our Christian faith. What actually is the good news that we experience through Jesus Christ, and how real is that in the face of death? Is it just pie in the sky when you die, the sort of pious hope that some of us manage to convince ourselves with – and some of us don’t – or does it somehow connect us with the basic reality of our existence? Is it just a way of reducing our own anxiety about our personal demise – or is it more fundamental than that? Is it so fundamental, in fact, that we actually can’t claim the possibility of having a full and life-giving relationship with the God who created us, unless we also claim that the God who lives among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has forever set aside the power of death to determine the course of human life? When you really think about it, if human life really could be extinguished by death, then our relationship with the God who gave us life could never be complete. It is a pity that, in the church, we tend to save our most powerful message for preaching at funerals and special services like Good Friday. We need to hear it more often while we’re getting on with the business of living.
So, why do we read the story of the raising of Lazarus today, on the last Sunday before the Sunday of the Passion? It’s because this story both looks forwards, to Jesus’ own death, from the perspective of the pre-Easter Jesus – and promises that the human condition leads not to death as the ultimate destination, but to life – and it also looks backwards to Jesus own resurrection, from the perspective of the faith of the post-Easter church. Where for the other gospel writers the trigger for Jesus’ arrest and execution is Jesus’ attack on the traders and money-changers in the temple, in John’s gospel it is the raising of Lazarus. In fact the reasons Jesus gives for his delay, and the need to go to Bethany, near Jerusalem, at all, so much connect Lazarus’s death with his own that when Thomas says, ‘Then let’s all go, so we can die with him’, it’s not quite clear whether he’s talking about Jesus, or Lazarus. Probably, John tells us this story here as a way of getting us to think ahead in the story, like that really bad habit I’ve got of sticking my finger into the book to mark where I’m up to, then looking ahead a few chapters. How’s it going to end, and is it going to be worth the effort I’m putting in?
But I think there’s another, more fundamental, reason for putting this story here. I wonder if you, like me, find this story of the raising of Lazarus holds a special fascination? What would it be like to be Lazarus? After being dead for four days, we’re told in fairly blunt terms that the body has started to decompose. A bit late for a medical miracle. I wonder if you, like me, find yourself especially interested in whether this miracle really happened, or does John just embellish an old story for its theological value? Did it happen? Could it even happen? It matters because, like Lazarus, we’re going to die. For other people, this story raises other questions – what good is it to tell this story when the miracle doesn’t get repeated? When every other time nature takes its course? When even Lazarus, brought back from the dead once, still has to face the certainty of his death a bit later on?
For an answer, we have to notice something about John the Evangelist’s style. The way he writes. John is never just interested in telling us about miracles for their own sake – instead Jesus’ miracles are always signs that point us somewhere, that point us in the direction of revelation, new insights, and belief. And in this story, the sign of the raising of Lazarus is intended to point us back to the conversation that Jesus had with Martha, because it’s here that we see what this story is really all about.
What does Martha say when she meets Jesus? ‘If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died’. It’s a complaint, isn’t it? Martha is telling it like it is, true to the Jewish tradition where there aren’t any inhibitions about being angry with God. But Martha’s complaint comes hand in hand with an expression of trust, because ‘even now’, she says, ‘God will give you anything you ask for’. And here Martha shows that she knows her catechism – like the Pharisees, like most Jews at that time, she believes in the resurrection that for most Jews was the expected outcome on the last day – at the end or the conclusion of human history.
But what Jesus tells her is something a bit more personal than that, a bit closer to home because Jesus says ‘I am the resurrection’. The destination or conclusion of human history isn’t just a vague theological expectation, it is right here and now – the gift of eternal life is right here and now, and it is wrapped up in the flesh and blood person who is standing in front of you. Believing who Jesus is in relation to God has got a major implication – ‘if you believe in me, then even though you die, you will live’. This moment right here is the crux of the whole gospel, because it answers the ‘so what?’ question. Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God? So what? So the relationship that Jesus has with God makes a difference to the lives of those who believe. Faith in Jesus isn’t just about answering ‘yes’ to a series of questions about what we believe, the whole point of faith is that it leads us into a life-giving relationship with God.
So the more fundamental reason for telling the story of Lazarus here is that it answers the ‘so what’ question. So you will have eternal life. Not just a continuation of life for ever, though that too would have to be part of the deal for life at its most abundant. But Jesus’ claim to be the resurrection and the life – standing right in front of us - means that it can’t be limited to some far-off heaven but that there’s a sort of life that can transform who we are right here and now. And Jesus asks Martha, as he also asks us, ‘do you believe this?’
She does, or at least she says she does, but she isn’t really sure. ‘Don’t go in there’, she tells him, ‘there’s a four-day stink of death’. When it comes down to it, it’s not so easy to be really convinced about the ‘so what’ of faith. We remain locked into our preconceptions and our categories about what’s possible for God and what isn’t. We say we believe, but our behaviour tells another story. We believe, Lord, but just don’t ask us to step outside the boundaries of what our lives would be like if we didn’t. We as a church respond to Jesus’ invitation, and to his words of life, in ways that are often just as hesitant as Martha at the door of her brother’s tomb.
‘Even though you die, you will live’. It’s not true, of course – at least not at the superficial level. We will all die. But death itself now belongs – as does the whole of our lives – to the ongoing life-giving power of God’s love made flesh for us in Jesus Christ. That power is relational power, in other words, when our relationships with God and with one another are based on and come out of the relationship that Jesus has with God, we experience the power of God’s love to redefine and transform us. When we do that, Jesus tells us, we will live. Because we will know the reality that our life comes from God, from whom nothing in our human experience can ever separate us. When we know this, then we will finally be free to start living, gladly, and with strength.