On Sunday, April 6, the 5th Sunday in Lent, Josh Evans joined us to preach on John 11:1-45. He has shared his sermon below:
The scene is familiar to anyone who has ever seen an episode of Law and Order: New York City street, middle of the day, two sanitation workers loading bags of garbage into the back of their truck. They’re chatting casually about sports, their children, what rich, entitled snob would throw away this perfectly good sofa. Then one of them suddenly stops, his eyes fixed on the ground: he sees a human arm, or maybe it’s a leg, poking out from behind the dumpster. Replace the sanitation workers with a teacher and her students innocently at recess on the playground or the overnight security guard making his rounds at a Manhattan hotel or…well, you get the idea. With the opening of every episode, there’s always a dead body.
And there’s a dead body in our Gospel reading today. It’s a long reading (as John is wont to do), so let’s back up a bit and recap. Lazarus is sick, likely on his deathbed, so his sisters send word to Jesus to come and visit. Jesus, however, decides to wait two days, and in the meantime, Lazarus dies. When Jesus and his disciples arrive at the home of Mary and Martha, we can imagine a familiar scene to anyone who has ever been to a funeral: the sisters are mourning around the grave, surrounded by their family and close friends.
Now Mary and Martha are understandably upset by Jesus’ tardiness: “Lord, if you had been here, [our] brother would not have died” (v. 21, 32).
Now we could easily accuse Jesus of being lazy or even selfish in not coming sooner, or perhaps, to go a little easier on him, of being in denial of a loved one’s illness, trying desperately to avoid having to deal with the difficulty of the frailty of human life and the uncomfortableness of confronting one’s own mortality. Yet notice something interesting: “When Jesus saw [them] weeping,” the gospel writer says, “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” and then “Jesus began to weep” (v. 33, 35). Now Jesus doesn’t generally exhibit much emotion, or at least from what we can tell in the Gospel accounts of his life, but in this moment we see a Jesus who becomes just as vulnerable as any of us. In this moment, this is the Jesus that John describes as the Word dwelling among us. Such is the astonishing nature of the Gospel—that Christ enters into our human life in all its brokenness and in all its difficult moments, that God’s very self is with us in our suffering. Like the song asks, “What if God were one of us?” I’m inclined to affirm that that is indeed the case.
Now this account of a dead body in John 11 foreshadows the soon-to-come account of another dead body.
First I think this might warrant some context because our reading today comes at a pivotal turning point in John’s Gospel. The first eleven chapters of the book of John comprise what biblical scholars refer to as “the book of signs,” or Jesus’ public ministry with all its healings and so forth. The second half begins “the book of glory”—that is, the account of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. If the lectionary had allowed us to read just a few verses further, we would see the Pharisees’ plot to finally rid themselves of this rabble-rouser—thus setting into motion the road to Jerusalem and, ultimately, Calvary—as we will begin next week ourselves with Palm Sunday and Holy Week. And so that second dead body is of course Jesus of Nazareth on the cross—the perfect sign of a God who suffers with and even for us.
But enough of death. How about a little resurrection, a little Easter-come-early? After all, that's the point of today's Gospel, isn't it? We left off with Jesus having his emotional breakdown. Then, after making those gathered open the tomb, after forty-two long verses of setup, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life—in two simple verses. Clearly John likes to tell a good story. So Lazarus is alive. Again. Now what?
Karoline Lewis, a biblical scholar at Luther Seminary, suggests the action leading up to the dramatic conclusion is just as important. In verses 41-42, Jesus precedes raising Lazarus with a prayer. About this Lewis says:
Note what Jesus highlights in his prayer—hearing. Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and how is Lazarus raised? By hearing Jesus. Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name, Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.1
In other words, we are utterly incapable apart from God to do a single thing to bring ourselves out of whatever mess we find ourselves in. In her book Pastrix, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber says that her experiences of God more often than not come in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. This death and resurrection, she writes, is “the recurring experience of seeing the emptiness, weeping over our inability to fill it or even understand it, and then listening to the sound of God speaking our names and telling God’s story.”2 That, friends, is the profound truth of God’s grace that accomplishes what we cannot, that enters into the cracks of our brokenness, that breathes new life into dead matter—that in the words of Psalm 23 the loving-kindness (chesed) of God will actively pursue us all the days of our lives. It’s all about the never-ending cycle of death and resurrection.
But let us be careful not to over-spiritualize, and therefore de-materialize, this reality of resurrection, lest we lose sight of John’s emphasis on the incarnation. In the “book of signs” so far, Jesus has healed a paralyzed man (ch. 5), fed five thousand hungry people with bread and fish (ch. 6), and restored sight to a man born blind (ch. 9). Clearly, for Jesus as well as John, what’s most important are bodies. And now in chapter 11, we have this profoundly physical, flesh-and-bone, bodily resuscitation—like Ezekiel's experience with sinews and flesh and skin and breath returning to dry bones. Of course, it's easy to relegate the resurrection to the realm of heaven and eternity alone as Martha did (11:24), but John makes it clear that, to quote Lewis again, “the raising of Lazarus also gives him new life with Jesus,” and that new life is in the here-and-now.3 Case-in-point, in chapter 12, we meet Lazarus again in his home, talking and sharing a meal with Jesus—living, in other words.
Resurrection, then, begins now, on earth. As Paul writes in Romans, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11). Indeed, in Christ, we are a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), and we have a new identity because of what God has done for us. In case I haven’t stressed it enough, resurrection is a present reality. Or to put it in the words of Jesus in our text today, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
This past Friday marked the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and he had this bold, radical vision of the Beloved Community. I believe that our new identity compels us to take part in the Beloved Community, as Robert Hoch writes, “Being raised from the dead entails a community dedicated to loving one another in the liberating love of Jesus Christ.”4 The Beloved Community is those gathered around the tomb of Lazarus; the Beloved Community is those gathered on the Washington Mall to hear a man’s dream; the Beloved Community is those of us gathered here today. The Beloved Community is a community of bodies living, loving, crying, rejoicing—indeed bearing one another’s burdens—for in the words of King, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”5 This means that our very existence as individuals is inextricably bound up with that of others in our common struggles, and when we pray for God’s kingdom and God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” we shift our focus from some far-off dream in the hereafter to an achievable vision of justice in the here-and-now. To borrow from King again:
It’s alright to talk about “long white robes over yonder,” in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the [new] New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.6
And dare I add to that list myself: the new Chicago.
So I ask you: Where is resurrection and new life springing up right now where you are? Where do you see moments of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of healing, of hope, of the Beloved Community? But more importantly, where do you see moments of opportunity where you can make that new life real for others?
footnotes after the jump
1 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 11: 1-45,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=42.
2 Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013), xviii.
3 Lewis, “Commentary.”
4 Robert Hoch, “Commentary on John 11:1-45,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1986.
5 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 290.
6 King, “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 282.