5. I AM the resurrection and the life
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Let us pray. O risen Christ, open us to the power of your resurrection as we hear it proclaimed today, that we too might rise to new life in you. Amen.
The first funeral I attended was one that I led. One of my grandparents had died in the 1930’s long before I was born. My father’s mom died in 1960 but that was in Newfoundland and only my father was able to travel on that occasion. I was rather ill prepared for the first funeral that I conducted. How grateful I was for the funeral director who led me through it step by step.
As Christians we have what some people regard as an odd relationship with death. Some of you will shake your head at this comparison, but the Christian’s understanding of death can be seen in the difference between two train stations with which I am familiar, Union Station in Toronto and Central Station in Montreal. Trains pass through Union Station; trains come the end of the line at Central Station. For the Christian death is not the end of the line, it is the door to eternity.
Our text for today is part of an incredible story taken from a chapter that is full of meaning from beginning to end. We find here a mixture of social history, a developing understanding of the purposes of God and both teaching and action on the part of Jesus that is mind-boggling.
John reminds us that Jesus had friends. Two sisters and a brother lived in Bethany, a little less than three kilometres from Jerusalem. John 11:3 is a fascinating verse. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” It is good for us to note there are circles of followers around Jesus. There are three disciples mentioned more than any of the others, Peter, James and John. Then, of course, there is The Twelve, the group of disciples that lived with and listened to Jesus on a 24/7 basis. But there were others, and it appears that included Martha and Mary, two women who knew where Jesus could be found: they got a message to him long before the days of mobile telephones. I don’t think there is any doubt that Jesus counted these women among his disciples.
Lazarus too was loved by Jesus. Jesus got close to people. But Jesus does not immediately travel to Bethany. There is confusion around the business of his condition. Jesus says, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11:11). The disciples at first think this is a good thing. If Lazarus is asleep then he will regain strength through his rest.
Lazarus, of course, is dead. This confusion leads to some speculation. It is simply not possible that any of Jesus’ disciples could have been like me, a young man who had never been up close and personal with death. Yet even in this day when death was a common place it appears the language around death was flexible. I wonder about this. When I am not listening to 96.3 Classical FM, I’ve usually got The Fan 590 tuned in. One of the things that has happened over the years is that what I would call mild profanity has become the norm with most of the hosts. They are comfortable then with language that would have gotten them fired a generation ago, but if someone in the sports world has died, they don’t use that word—the person has “passed.” To speak openly of death has become the profanity of our world.
Jesus made sure the disciples knew what was going on. He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead” (John 11:14). He then travelled with these disciples to Bethany. Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. This is one of those details that we might wonder about. Why is it important for us to know how long Lazarus has been in the tomb? Let’s review what would have happened in and around this family.
Burial took place on the same day as death. “We can assume that Lazarus was buried in a rock-cut tomb of the type that have been discovered throughout the hills of Judea. Inside a cave room burial benches were carved in stone along the inner wall. Bodies were buried here and then laid in horizontally cut burial tunnels about six feet deep… After a year or so, the body was removed from the tomb and the bones were placed in a limestone burial box, known as an ossuary. The tomb was then closed with a wheel-shaped stone fitted to cover the entrance. The tomb would be reopened when there was another death in the family” (adapted from NIV Application Commentary, e-book).
Jesus has missed the burial, but he is in time for Shiva, the seven-day period of mourning. Why the mention of the four days. It’s like this. At this time many Jews believed that the soul of a dead person remained somewhere in the vicinity of the body hoping that there might be a chance to re-enter the body. However once the body began to decompose the soul took its permanent leave. When did these people think decomposition began? Of course, the answer is four days. What John is telling us in that detail is this—Lazarus is well and truly dead.
As Jesus approaches the home of Mary and Martha, Martha leaves the house in order to meet him. She says the most incredible thing. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” What exactly did she think Jesus was going to pray for? It is impossible to know; when they get to the tomb she protests the opening of the tomb because after four days there is going to be a stench. I think that’s one of the things this story tells us—that around the whole notion of death we are a mixture of faith and doubt.
The Pharisees had influenced Martha. I know that sounds as if I’m saying she was an enemy of Jesus, but what she says about the resurrection is what the Pharisees taught. I know it likely sounds odd, but belief in the resurrection is something that developed among God’s people over the centuries. During the time of Jesus the Sadducees denied the idea of resurrection; according to the Pharisees that denial meant they were damned. Martha has adopted what was quickly becoming the majority view in Judaism that when the last day or the day of the Lord came, there would a general resurrection that included every faithful Jew. Jesus then zeros in on something that needs to happen in Martha’s heart and soul. I’m going to come back to that in a minute.
I began by saying 55 years ago in July my dad travelled to Newfoundland to see his mother before she died and then stayed for the funeral. He was the only one of our family to go. My mom had given birth to twins just a month before; she took care of them and I suppose I took care of my brother Rick and me. When my dad came home he had some “snaps” with him, which is what all my Newfie relatives of that vintage call photographs. This will not surprise some of you; others will likely be appalled. My grandmother was laid out in her casket not in the local funeral home but in the living room or parlour of her house. Just before the funeral at the local Salvation Army citadel the casket was taken out to the road in front of the house. Two kitchen chairs supported it; my grandfather Bill and their five children stood behind the casket and someone snapped the picture. Can you imagine?
That photo is something that is part of me and has become part of my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in the face of death. Paul refers to death as the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is the most natural thing to recoil when this enemy enters into your world. In that 1960 black and white photo my grandmother was gone from this world. But in my mind that photo says that she was not and is not gone from the family of God. Which brings me back to the text and what needs to happen for Martha and for us.
A few weeks ago when I began this series I told you I felt led by God to finish off my time at Blythwood talking about Jesus. Our text today is the perfect illustration of why that is so. Martha tells Jesus that she has come to accept the new orthodoxy—there will be a resurrection some day, somewhere, somehow. But it’s all still something of a mystery, isn’t it? Jesus tells Martha that the important thing for her is not where she stands in relationship to a matter of doctrine, but where she stands in relationship to him, to a person, to someone who cries with her at the sorrow and pain and darkness of death but who also embodies what it means to glorify God through the giving of life now and for ever. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Does this make sense to you? Chris and I are going to start looking for a new church home next month. One of the reasons for that is one of those cold bits of orthodoxy—I am still employed by the church and frankly, even kicking and screaming, I need to drag myself out every Sunday morning. But…there’s something more going on. There’s something personal going on. We need to replace you folks in our lives. Christianity isn’t just about what one believes, it’s about who is on the journey with you. The most important person on that journey is Jesus.
You see, it’s all very much still a mystery. Grace is a mystery to me, but I discovered grace in Jesus. Compassion puzzles me, but it is in Jesus that I know what compassion looks like. Death is the final enemy and its presence chills my soul, but in Jesus I know that those who die and that me in death will still, through faith, be part of the family. I can’t put it better than what Tom Wright says about this story in his commentary.
“Put yourself in Martha’s shoes. Run off to meet Jesus. Tell him the problem. Ask him why he didn’t come sooner, why he allowed that awful thing to happen.
“And then be prepared for a surprising response. I can’t predict what the response will be, for the very good reason that it is always, always a surprise. But I do know the shape that it will take. Jesus will meet your problem with some new part of God’s future that can and will burst into your present time, into the mess and grief, with good news, with hope, with new possibilities.”
It’s a mystery; it’s unpredictable, except for this. What God is doing, what God is giving, is shaped like a person and that person’s name is Jesus.