There are a couple of reasons why I thought that it might be nice to see this story acted out. We call it the story of the raising of Lazarus and that is the climax of this story but the bulk of the story, the heart of the story are these interactions between Jesus and Martha and Mary. They are the emotional center of the story. They are our entry point into the story–it is their loss and their grief that we might remember our own, times we have lost and grieved. Martha and Mary seem to be caught between pain and grief and disappointment and hope, which seems familiar to me, maybe to you too.
Which is probably why Jesus throughout the Gospel of John is sometimes hard to understand: Jesus often seems hesitant to connect with others, even while prioritizing community. His first response to his mother’s request at the wedding is about how it isn’t his time, Jesus heals from a distance-not getting invested in the day to day of the official and his son, she helps the man who had been at the pool waiting to be healed and then disappears into the background. He even lets the man who had been blind continue to be investigated while he stayed away.
I’m not saying that Jesus is lacking of compassion or passion but it does seem a little hurtful that the one who healed the official’s son and could make the man at the pool walk and healed the man who had been born blind to see, would take days to get to his sick friend to help, we even know Jesus wouldn’t have had to show up to heal Lazarus, it’s something he could do from a distance. But he doesn’t. He waits on the other side of the Jordan. And Jesus and his disciples are there because the last time he was in the Jerusalem area the leaders had tried to kill him. They would try again if he returned. Jesus knew the consequences. Thomas knew the consequences when he said let go with Jesus to Jerusalem so we can die there with Jesus. Thomas, the one with great commitment and faith. We’ll come back to him next month.
So they go. They cross back over the Jordan and head back to Bethany which is just outside of Jerusalem to visit his friends, whom he loved.
*This is the first time in this Gospel that we hear about Martha and Mary and Lazarus. I love these picture because I can tell a story about them. You can’t tell someone’s age but, Martha and Mary remind me of aunties. Like, maybe they made promises to look after their baby brother. I think we are to assume that the hearers might already know the story of this family. But it also means there is a back story there. Maybe Martha and Mary’s home is where Jesus had spent some of the festival days, Passover or Sukkot. Maybe they had sat around multiple meals sharing stories of their childhoods, of people they had met on their travels, of what they hoped for their world. Maybe they had played games together, laughed together, wept together. I think that this is the first time in this Gospel that it says Jesus loved anyone. Jesus had been moved to compassion, Jesus had been in times of celebration, but this is the first time it says Jesus loved, which I think just means that this family had been important to Jesus.
And that Martha and Mary and Lazarus felt the same way. Maybe they had whispered while Lazarus was sick, “When Jesus gets here, everything will be ok. Remember that story they told of the healing…” Which makes that grief all the profound when Jesus finally does arrive, four days after Lazarus had been dead. There were ancient traditions, including ancient Jewish, that the soul would stick around three days after the body died before it moved on. The fourth day meant Lazarus was really, really dead.
Martha meets Jesus on the way, like she was waiting for his arrival. She meets him in her pain. Mary meets Jesus in her pain. The community has gathered around them in their pain and grief. Martha said: “I believe in the resurrection on that last days but if you, Jesus, had been here my brother would have never died.”
They said: couldn’t Jesus have saved Lazarus? They said: why didn’t he show up? They say: Why did he wait?
They say: Come and See. Just like Jesus said to the disciples when he first called them. And Jesus did. He saw the fullness of the human experience in the relationship with this family: joy and laughter, pain and sorrow. And he wept.
Everything Jesus has done up to this point has been about timing, his time, at the right time, when the time has come. Everything Jesus has done up to this point has been to point to the larger truths about why he is here. It seems that this is one of the moments. A moment where he met the pain part of living a human life.
Jesus said: I am the Resurrection and the Life. Mary hears Jesus talking about the resurrection in the final days. But our gospel writer speaks on levels. He doesn’t just say resurrection but also life. The life that is to come and the life that is. All that will be and all that is present. This moment, and the next moment, all of them is found in the word made flesh, in the author of creation, in the bread and water of life. It isn’t that we will have resurrection and life but it is enfleshed, embodied, alive, in Jesus.
And then Jesus calls Lazarus from his grave. The author of creation, the word made flesh, spoke life back into Lazarus and death was transformed. Instead of an end becomes like sleep. Lazarus’ illness didn’t lead to death because Jesus was transforming death. It can’t just be about what happens after we die because Lazarus was raised on this earth, this plane, flesh and blood. While this is when we meet Lazarus in this story it is not the last time we will see him. He takes this new life, this renewed life, this life lived in the light of the resurrection and follows Jesus, is there in the upper room, is there in the crowds and at the cross and witness to the resurrection. Jesus calls that his death shroud is removed, unbound, and that he is set free. And he was, and we are.
And Lazarus lived knowing he would still die someday. And Martha and Mary lived knowing the kind of grief they experienced was something they would experience again. There will be pain in their lives and they will see the world in pain, but they also carried the memory of Jesus being present and weeping with them and revealing that there is life after the pain and life is more powerful than death.
I struggled a little bit with this story. It’s amazing, it’s a deep well of theology and questions, hope and pain. It is complicated. It encompasses everything that we believe about Jesus and everything it means to be human living in this world. That we will struggle, we will overcome, we will feel joy and we will feel pain, we will eventually die.
I read an article years ago that talked about how the reason children don’t like to go to bed and go to sleep because they don’t understand it. It’s as if they think they don’t exist in the world while they sleep. It’s like death.
But we know better, we know like the disciples that there is a vast chasm between sleep and death. But maybe we are too certain.
And you know pain and grief and sorrow. You have prayed for healing and said goodbye. You have been Martha and Mary demanding of God, “If you had just…” We are not spared the human experience of pain and loss and grief. You have faced death, your own or those you love. We start by believing in the God who became flesh, abides with us and in us, and weeps with us, is not passive to the full spectrum of our human emotions and experiences.
Then we try to believe the other things. Years ago, one of my seminary professors told the story of the day the doctor told him and his family that his teenage daughter’s cancer had returned. She, almost an adult at that point, climbed onto his lap and said: it’s ok daddy. I believe in the resurrection, so either way, I have life. I heard the story at her memorial service offered as a word of hope even in the midst of pain and even all these years later I marvel at her wisdom and her faith. Either way there is life.
Because in and through Jesus death has been transformed in a profound and cosmic way. Death becomes temporary, like falling asleep. And there is life on the other side of death. And there is full and abundant living on this side, too.
Because sometimes it isn’t the shroud of death that has us bound up like Lazarus but the things that bring death–isolation, despair, addiction, all that undealt with trauma, shame, fear and 100 general and a million specific things in your life have bound us up to keep us from living fully and abundantly and authentically. Jesus says I am the life as well as the resurrection, there is life to be lived today. And as followers of Jesus isn’t is about checking off the items off our bucket lists, no judgment on that, but our lives are to be about Christ’s life. Remember that the word became flesh and abided among us. And we abide in Christ and Christ in us. We are in relationship with the author of creation and the word made flesh, the bread and living water, the Resurrection and the life.
And that is what we do when we come to the table, when we eat the bread and drink front the cup. We ritual out of this complicated thing of Jesus living in us and us in him. We try to understand what it means to have within ourselves the word and water and bread and resurrection and life. Because we could put thousands of words around this–what Jesus said, what Jesus did, what it means to gather in community around all of it and it will still come back as mystery. So we eat, we abide, we let Christ grow in us so that we might resemble Christ in the world and we might see Christ in the world.
So we might be in the world and see the pain and sorrow and, like Jesus, let it disturb our hearts and move us to tears and cause us to act. When we consume the Resurrection and the Life it becomes part of who we are and we, you and I become sources of life that acknowledge pain and yet continue to insist that the pain isn’t the final answer, our own pain or the world’s.
Henri Nouwen would call wounded healers. “When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and we become a source of healing we have become wounded healers.” We help to unbind those who have been bound by death and by the agents of death–fear, addiction, shame, patriarchy, racism, sexism, queerphobia, despair, incarceration, marginalization, lack of access to the things that bring life and health–*and we are love led to remind them of life, to heal in the name of the Resurrection and Life, that there is abundance and wholeness even on the other side of this pain. We have to live through the reality of human life, and not one can take that away, but we can experience it differently knowing the power of life is greater than the power of death. And that is Good News. That is what we are called to share with the world–there is healing and there is wholeness, there is resurrection and there is life, now, on the other side of this moment and pain, always.
May this Lazarus Blessing be a blessing to you:
of this blessing
is that it is written
on the back
of what binds you.
you must take hold
of the end
must begin to tug
at the edge
of what wraps
It may take long
for its length
to fall away,
for the words
of this blessing
about your feet.
you will no longer
By then this blessing
will have pressed itself
into your waking flesh,
will have passed
into your bones,
will have traveled
until it comes to rest
inside the chambers
of your heart
that beats to
and the cadence
—Jan Richardson ©Jan Richardson. janrichardson.