*Passion Sunday: not sure why this Sunday is called Passion Sunday given that next Sunday, Palm Sunday, there is an enjoinder to read the whole passion narrative!
Theme(s): Death and Resurrection // Resurrection and Life // Lazarus anticipates Jesus' death and resurrection
Sentence: They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat upon them, for the One who loves them will lead them and guide them beside the springs of water. (Isaiah 49:10 adapted).
Most merciful God,
by the passion of your Son Jesus Christ
you delivered us from the power of darkness;
grant that through faith in him who suffered on the cross
we may be found acceptable in your sight,
through our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Few passages in the Old Testament are more famous than this vision of 'The Valley of the Dry Bones' with its haunting yet hopeful vision of the rattling bones (7) being brought together, sinews and flesh joining them together and skin covering them (8) and, most importantly, the breath of God coming into them and so the bones live again (9-10).
From a New Testament perspective the vision is a vision of the resurrection of the dead.
But if we were with Ezekiel when he announced this vision we would have latched on to the explanation in verses 11-14: Israel in exile in Babylon (where Ezekiel exercised his prophetic ministry) was effectively dead as a nation, "our hope is lost" (11), but God says otherwise, "I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves" (12) and "I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live" (14).
The God of Israel is the God of new beginnings, of life beyond the grave, of new life when the old has been thrown away.
This psalm would be as appropriate to read in an ancient Jewish synagogue in conjunction with the Ezekiel reading as it is today in a Christian church. The psalmist is far from being in the place he or she wants to be. From the depths the cry of the psalm is made. Please hear my prayer, Lord! (1-2) In the meantime, I will wait patiently (5-6), acknowledging that if there were no divine forgiveness then nothing could change (3-4). From the individual psalmist praying, a turn is made to Israel: don't give up! "O Israel, hope in the Lord!" (7). The Lord, that is, with whom "is great power to redeem" (7).
Where is resurrection in this life? What does the 'life' of Christ, expressed in the gospel reading as "I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), mean for the believer in day to day terms while the physical body is alive?
Romans 8:6-11 answers such questions. In particular, Paul argues that since the same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead is 'in'/'dwells in' believers (11), that raising from the dead Spirit will 'give life to your mortal bodies' (11).
That is, though 'the body is dead because of sin' (10), the 'Spirit is life because of righteousness' (10). The death of Jesus Christ has secured righteousness for all believers (Paul's argument through Romans 1-7), thus the potential for life in the Spirit (the theme of Romans 8) in opposition to the terminating character of sin can be realised.
Specifically, in the battle for the mind, between 'flesh' and 'Spirit', the Spirit can bring victory (verses 6-8). But by the end of Romans 8 it is clear that the potential for life in the Spirit is also for life undefeated by the death of the body (e.g. 38).
In other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead along with the death of Jesus Christ on the cross sets in motion
- the possibility of the sinner being declared righteous,
- of the 'dead man walking' sinner having hope of resurrection in the life to come and
- of the believer in this life experiencing the power of the resurrection in the battle between good and evil, between his or her mind set on God rather than on rebellion against God.
2020 special insight - I never knew this, but apparently for year A in the three year cycle, A, B, C, the readings for Lent 2, 3, 4, 5 are focused on individual encounters Jesus has (so last week Nicodemus, this week, the Samaritan woman at the well, next week, the man born blind (which in John 9 is a significant encounter with Jesus), then in Lent 5 (Passion Sunday), Jesus and Lazarus. This comment, by Andy Burnham, offers an ancient explanation for these readings: "In Year A the readings shadow the teaching and enlightenment of those to be baptised or confirmed at the Easter Vigil. This set if readings is privileged in the sense that, in the Catholic Church at least, they may be used also in Years B and C"
In other words, as we journey as a congregation through these readings and these weeks building up towards Easter, we are taking an ancient journey that many catechumenates preparing for baptism at the East Vigil have taken through two millennia.
Back to John 11:1-45: This story functions in two ways within the larger story which John narrates in his gospel.
One way is that within the building crescendo of conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities (7), this story provides the clinching reason for the authorities to take action against Jesus: see 11:46-53 which includes the reasoning of the high priest, 'it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed' (50). To raise Lazarus from the dead is one miracle too many for the authorities for the miracles are gathering believers in Jesus (45).
Another way is that the story highlights the extraordinary impact of the transformative ministry of Jesus. Thus far he has transformed water into wine, a few loaves into an over supply of food for 5000, blindness into sight, etc. But the final enemy of life, death itself is going to be transformed. Jesus will die yet live again: 'I am the resurrection and the life' (25). This will transform death for all who believe in Jesus (25-26). In the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus paves the way for believers to begin to grasp the ungraspable: Jesus will die but death will not conquer him.
The actual telling of the story is full of its own intrigue. Messengers race to tell Jesus that his friend Lazarus is dying (1-6) but Jesus deliberately lingers where he is (6). A brief interlude conversation ensues re the wisdom of deliberately going up to Judea, and this serves to remind the reader of the state of the conflict between Jesus and the authorities (7-10). Lazarus dies. Only then does Jesus make an effort to do something about the situation, explaining this as an opportunity for God to be glorified (11-16). (Cf. also the previous gospel reading, about the man born blind that the glory of God might be displayed in him.)
So we arrive with the disciples and Jesus near - but not actually at - the tomb of Lazarus where the body has been 'in the tomb four days' (17).
Perhaps this is a good time to note that the complete family of Lazarus are his sisters Mary and Martha whom we meet (without their brother) in Luke 10:38-42. We have not met them before in this gospel but through this and the next chapter the family figure prominently as John's story of the anointing of Jesus before his burial takes place at their home (12:1-8).
Mary and Martha are distraught with grief (17-21, 32-34). They have lost their brother (and their breadwinner?).
Nothing is hurried as Jesus now lingers outside the tomb. He talks with Martha (21-27), Martha fetches Mary (28) and Mary hurries out to Jesus and says to him just what Martha said to him (21=32).
Intriguingly Jesus responded to Martha with a confident, "Your brother will rise again" (23) whereas with Mary, Jesus 'was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved' (33) and begins himself to weep, leading to the shortest and (arguably) most moving verse in the Bible, 'Jesus wept' (35). Here the divine and human Jesus intersect as Jesus experiences genuine grief for the loss of his loved friend (3, 35 - giving rise, incidentally to a possible but not quite plausible identification of the 'Beloved Disciple' as Lazarus).
Meanwhile John the story teller is in no hurry to take us readers to the climax of the story and so we have a very long gospel reading this week!
Jesus arrives near the tomb in verse 17, arrives at the tomb in verse 38 and Lazarus leaves the tomb in verse 44. John is not trying to wind us up, rather he pours into this narrative as much of his theological perspective on the significance of Jesus as he can. More simply, the sign (or miracle) is significant and John majors on the significance (what the sign points towards) more than on the sign itself (which, effectively, is told in verses 41-44).
What then, of John's theology? No claim is made that the following is exhaustive:
1. concern for the glory of God (4, 40): Jesus will do that which brings glory to God; bad things happen to good people but they will bring glory to God (see also last week's gospel reading, 9:3); later Jesus' own death will glorify God (12:23).
2. death is not the final enemy because resurrection defeats death: note the dialogue in verses 7-16 in which concern is raised about Jesus returning to Judea. There he might die. But Jesus in this dialogue treats death (in this case the death of Lazarus) as 'falling asleep'. It is not the end, 'he will be all right' (12). Yet Jesus is not denying the reality of death 'Lazarus is dead' (14).
3. Jesus is the fulfilment of Jewish hope and expectation: when Martha speaks of 'the resurrection in the last day' (24) she spoke as an ordinary Jew of her time. She looked forward to a future day when the resurrection of the dead would occur. Thus she could concur with Jesus promising that "Your brother will rise again" (23) while crying bitter tears of grief. But Jesus turns this response on its head. The resurrection is not a future event: it is here ("I am the resurrection and the life", 25). But that means that Jesus is no mere 'Rabbi' (7) - a teacher who teaches the future of resurrection. As Martha has consistently recognised, Jesus is 'Lord' (3, 21). But what kind of lord? In verse 27 she recognises that "you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." Here (in Johannine terms, see 20:30-31) is the ultimate recognition of the significance of Jesus. The Messiah has come, the resurrection is present, the new age of the kingdom of God is inaugurated.
4. the gospel is an invitation to 'come and see': John's Gospel has many recurring motifs and themes, along with what we could call 'signature' phrases. One of those phrases is the invitation "come and see". The first occurrence is Jesus himself inviting would be disciples to 'come and see' where he was staying (1:39). The second occurrence is Philip persuading a sceptical Nathanael that the prophesied messiah has been found, 'Come and see' (1:46). The Samaritan woman at the well invites her fellow Samaritans to 'Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?' (4:29). Variations on this invitation are the expressed wish of some Greeks in Jerusalem to Philip, 'Sir, we wish to see Jesus' (12:21) and the invitation of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, 'Come and have breakfast' (21:12).
Here, when near the tomb it is Jesus himself who is invited to go to the tomb of Lazarus:
'He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see".' (34)
At face value this occasion is not a 'gospel' invitation: it is a mundane use of a characteristic expression of John's Gospel, inviting Jesus to visit the tomb of his friend. But let's dig deeper. That invitation paves the way for Jesus to perform the miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. It is a gospel miracle. A loved man has died, people are grieving, including Jesus himself (35). Death is the end of life, that is the bad news about life. All die. Except Jesus disagrees. The good news is that resurrection has come. The grave is not the end. "Come and see" is the invitation which leads to the visible sign of the good news, a dead man is raised to life.
Jesus performs this sign/miracle "so that they [the gathered crowd] may believe that you sent me" (42). The invitation to Jesus to "come and see" is, in fact, also an invitation to all readers of the gospel to "come and see" for ourselves the good news in action.
A final note to wrap up
Alert readers of all four gospels may puzzle as to why this story of great significance in John's telling of the story of how Jesus came to die is omitted from the other gospels. Surely, we might reasonably say, if such a mighty miracle occurred and if it was of decisive importance in the Jewish leaders coming to firm resolve to kill Jesus, there would be a sign of it in the other gospels?
Richard Bauckham offers an explanation worth considering (in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp. 194-196):
In the gospels some characters are anonymous because there was a need for certain people involved in the events of Jesus' life, still alive at the time of the composition of the gospels, to be protected from harm. Bauckham calls this 'protective anonymity.' In the case of Lazarus the need was so great in the period of the earliest three gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) that not even the story of his resurrection is mentioned, let alone his name. By the time of John's Gospel being composed, Lazarus, so the explanation goes, was dead (for the second time). His story could be told and his name could be mentioned.
Important for the explanation is the reference in John 12:9-11: there was a plot to kill Lazarus as well as to kill Jesus.