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We’re looking at the seven “I AM” statements of Jesus in the Gospel of John, and we’re on the fifth one. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the resurrection and the life. We find this morning that a story about a death has much to teach us about life. A few weeks ago, I was talking about the play “Everybody” that’s playing in NOTL right now. I was amazed that the topic of death was treated so openly. It’s rare in our world. We don’t like to see it. We don’t like to talk about it. Oftentimes we don’t even want to mark it. We can’t even say “died” or “death,” and we use euphemisms like “passed away” or just “passed.” Death is not something that’s spoken about in polite company. Death to our society is like sex to the Victorians. You might be feeling that this is a bit of a heavy topic for a summer Sunday morning. I think we can handle it, though. The Bible does not shy away from heavy topics. This is the heaviest, perhaps. It goes back to the question with which we began this whole series – the question these self-descriptions of Jesus ultimately ask us. “Where do you find life?” Better yet, “In whom do you find life?”
Or, as Jesus said to Martha – “Do you believe this?”
I’ve never preached on this passage outside of a funeral service. I was talking a few weeks ago about weddings and funerals. The raising of Lazarus is the 7th of Jesus’ signs that John writes about – seven miraculous signs that Jesus performs. We haven’t mentioned this pointedly, although some of the signs have been around the words of Jesus we’ve looked at so far. Signs that point to who Jesus is. They are: Changing water into wine at the wedding of Cana in John 2; healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum in John 4; healing the paralysed man at Bethesda in John 5; feeding 5,000 people in John 6; walking on water in John 6; healing a man born blind in John 9; raising Lazarus in John 11. We go here from the first of the signs – a wedding – to the last of the signs – a funeral. Now I said a few weeks ago that if you asked me which I prefer, I said I’d rather be part of a wedding (we were talking about the great wedding feast of the Lamb to which we look forward). This doesn’t mean that I don’t like to be part of a funeral – though maybe like is the wrong word to be using. Life in Christ means that everything has changed. I am a big fan of Johnny Cash. I read an article recently which was talking about Johnny Cash in the context of masculinity and toxic masculinity (let me know if you’d like the link to the article). Here’s a bit from it – “While Cash celebrated a kind of rugged masculinity, he was also a deeply-flawed man. His life was marked by infidelity, alcoholism, and drug abuse. He was no pastor. And yet, Cash had a singular advantage — something the current rhetoric around masculinity misses. He knew he was a deeply flawed man. He knew he was a man in need of grace. So while he sang about the temptations that are common to all, he didn’t justify or excuse his own participation. Instead, his discography rings with confession, grief, and cries for redemption.” “Ain’t No Grave” is a song that Cash wrote about resurrection. “Ain’t no grave, can hold my body down,“ sings Cash. Here’s the song.
We talked last week about coming to see everything newly in the one who called himself the light of the world. The light of life. Even death. Someone has put it like this, in Jesus, “God’s Word-made-flesh enters fully and assumes the condition of humanity, including suffering and mortality; yet in his resurrection, Jesus reveals that death’s pernicious grip on life is not ultimate. Death is powerful, but it is not all-powerful.” In our story here in John, Jesus’ death and resurrection are still to come, of course. Jesus has already been making his life-giving ways known, however. Feeding 5,000. Provision. Restoring sight. Restoring the ability to walk. Jesus’ life-giving way has been made known in words describing him as the gate – the door to new life; the bread of life. Now Jesus’ life-giving way is going to be made known in an entirely new way.
It's a way that addresses our “if only’s.” “If only” has to be among one of the saddest phrases in our language. Jesus arrives in Bethany. It’s a town around 3km away from Jerusalem on the other side of the Mount of Olives. Lazarus, whom Jesus loved, has died. We read of Jesus’ love for this Lazarus earlier in the message that the sisters sent him – “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Another great prayer. Many had come to Martha and Mary (whom Jesus loved) to console them about their brother.
Jesus arrives, and Martha goes out to meet him. The next place that Jesus is going to arrive at is Jerusalem. People will come out to meet him there too. We can see the ties between the two stories that are going on. Martha comes out to meet Jesus and brings to Jesus her “if only.” “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.” Martha brings her “if only” to Jesus in faith. This is honest. We understand this. We understand the sadness of “if only.” If only he hadn’t taken that route. If only this had been diagnosed earlier. If only I had worked harder/studied harder. If only I had known... It’s like a kind of nostalgia. We often talk about nostalgia (which is a word made up of two Greek words that mean “homecoming” and “painful”) fondly. I’m not talking about fond memories or remembering the things of old, as the Bible puts it. I’m talking about a wistful longing for a past that very often never existed in the first place. “If only” brings in a sort of present nostalgia. It’s a longing for a situation to be different now based on something that we wish had or hadn’t happened in the past.
If only I had… If only I hadn’t… “If only you had been here…” “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (11:22). Even now. Author James Baldwin once wrote, “The Lord never seems to get there when you want him, but when he arrives, he’s always right on time.” Even now. Martha brings her “if only” to Jesus. Jesus talks about the future. “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answers, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This was a common Jewish belief of the time. A new heaven and a new earth where peace and justice would reign. “I know that,” says Martha, and it seems to be not a terribly comforting thought in her acute grief. I understand this. When my father died, I remember people asking me how I was doing. I was a little bit platitudinous, saying things that we are expected to say. “I know I’ll see him again,” was one of the things. In actual fact, I wasn’t doing very well with it and really should have been more honest about that. We learn, though. I remember a friend saying to me, “You don’t have to put a bow on it,” and he was right.
Into the middle of this comes Jesus’ pronouncement and Jesus’ promise. Resurrection, rising again, new life, is not just something we believe in. It’s not some vague idea about some sort of life after death. It’s a person. He’s standing in front of Martha. In the Spirit of God, he’s standing with us today. Resurrection, new life, is a person who brings the future promise right into our present and right into the middle of all our “if only’s.” “I am the resurrection and the life (again the promise of life abundant – life lived in communion with the divine – in communion with God).” And then the promise – “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.”
NT Wright, in his commentary on John, puts it like this – “He is challenging her, urging her, to exchange her ‘if only…’ for an ‘if Jesus…’ If Jesus is who she is coming to believe he is…If Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was promised by the prophets, the one who was to come into the world…If he is God’s own son, the whom in whom the living God is strangely and newly present… If he is the resurrection-in-person, life-come-to-life…”
If Jesus is life who has come to bring life, life who comes to bring life, life who will come to bring life… We as a church need to be re-evangelized; I believe this. We need to be brought back to the good news, to fundamental truths about this Jesus who we follow. If you’re not following him then hear the good news. To follow Jesus is not hedging our bets against the afterlife. To follow Jesus is not simply a get-out-of-hell free card. This story does is not here to show us simply that Jesus has the power to raise the dead, but that Jesus has the power to give new life. Resurrection life – rising again life – is not simply something we look forward to, but something we take part in and share now. To be “in Christ” and for Christ to be “in us” means that the one who is the resurrection and the life is in us as we are in him. It is the life of the ages, eternal life that begins now and that even physical death cannot bring to an end.
Christ in us, the hope of glory. What a marvellous mystery. How beyond our ability to grasp. At the same time, it’s something the youngest among us can understand. Christ in me. I remember being about five or six years of age, thinking about Jesus in my heart and picturing him sitting on a three-legged stool with a lantern. The resurrection and the life in me. Now. Always. I believe it.
Do you believe it? This is Jesus’ question now. “Do you believe this?” When we read “believe” as we’re going through the Gospel of John, we can consider the word “trust.” “Do you trust me?” asks Jesus. It’s a very personal matter. We’re not talking in generalities at this point or merely philosophizing. The question is before us if we’re hearing it right now. The question is not “Do you believe in some sort of vague idea of life after death or that there is something beyond this life?” but “Do I trust that Jesus means what he says?” In one of the great statements of faith, Martha answers, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ – the anointed one, the chosen one – the Son of God, the one who came into the world, comes into the world and will come into the world.
In a little while, Jesus is going to cry with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” It’s the invitation to new life. Not that resurrection life, because Lazarus will live out his days after all and die a physical death at the end of them. New life in Christ began that day for Lazarus, which would be marked by a life lived in the presence of Jesus. Look at 12:1 – “Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, who he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served (typical Martha!), and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” The invitation is to new life. The invitation is to take our seat at the table with Jesus (and now you know why I’d like to celebrate the Lord’s supper more often). May this be an invitation we each take up daily, and may this be true for us all. Amen.