John 11. 1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘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.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
The focus of our attention in the Gospel reading is Lazarus – whose death, Jesus says, will serve to demonstrate the wonderful fullness of the glory of God. To set the mind on flesh is death( Romans 8:6): but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace. The miracle, for John, affirms the claim that Jesus is the resurrection and the life “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live”. ‘The dead man came with his feet and hands bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth’. Jesus says “unbind him, let him go”.
I wonder what it was like for Lazarus – death then life. Darkness and then light. How does he see the situation? Perhaps his feelings were a little like our experience of childhood illness. Do you remember? Lying in the bedroom hearing the noises of everyday life, distant and magnified. Voices and laughter seem to belong to another wonderfully desirable and free world, while we were incarcerated in our bedclothes, experiencing the early limitations of mortality. Then the first day of going downstairs – and everything seeming to be new and different – as if we were seeing things for the first time, fresh and sweet and hopeful.
Perhaps it could have been like that for Lazarus. This is a parable for the Christian idea of dying to live. On the surface dying to live seems like a killjoy – Christian paradox – we say that the gospel affirms we must die to live. But do we really mean it or act from within it?
I was mildly amused by a television programme a several years ago made by the Bishop of Liverpool. He visited Soho, in full purple, to gain insight into what he called ‘real life.’ The reactionary critic A. N. Wilson commented in the review of the Bishop’s visit ‘Oh dear, once again The Church gets hold of the wrong end of the stick. People go to Soho to get away from the real world, not to find out about it’. In this case, I think, the critic got it right – really living is not the same a living it up in some kind of hedonistic cul –de- sac where our selfishness is allowed free reign. Really living is about sharpening our sensitivity and awareness of the whole life and being able to see the beauty of everyday commonplace things. This has something to do with not really understanding the value of things until we lose them – our health, our familiar surroundings, freedom, sight, colour. Dying to live: seeing things in a new light.
The most powerful and intriguing representation of the raising of Lazarus is in the ante-chapel of New College Oxford, by Epstein.( see above) The mighty hunk of stone shows Lazarus with his back to the altar trying to stride out of the Church. So, ironically, the Church is his tomb – his world view constrains him and he wants to escape from it into a new vision, a clearer vision.
It is prophecy. Religion and we religious people can bring death and not life.
New life means dying to the institution and living for the world. If the church would do that a bit more, we might serve society a little better. What does that mean? For me – a radical dying to institutional self – interest and introspection, such as exclusive clubbiness, obsession with trivial details or the tyranny of certainty that comes from belief in spiritual or theological absolutism. I wonder what it means for you?
I hope that you will keep a good Holy Week, prepare for it and make it a priority -Journeying with Christ through Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day. These are opportunities for us to glimpse fresh insights into God – to let our religion become more real for us. To take the risk of loosing self for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Real religion is something of what Lazarus sees when he steps out into the world for a second time and sees it all afresh – turning his back on the bland assumptions of the past and looking to a new horizon – dying to live. It’s like rising from your sick bed, going downstairs and, being amazed at the vibrancy of life, and excited by all the possibilities of participating once more.
As Gerald Manley Hopkins says in his poem God’s Grandeur
|And for all this, nature is never spent;|
|There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;|
|And though the last lights off the black West went|
|Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—|
|Because the Holy Ghost over the bent|
|World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.|
Turn your back
Renew your soul
Die to live.