A Sermon for Passion Sunday
Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-4
“I am the Resurrection and the life.” These are words of promise and hope. They are the first words of the funeral service. “I am the Resurrection and the life.” Here we see Jesus at his most powerful, commanding the dead man to live again. But we also see him at his most vulnerable, weeping for the death of his friend. “I am the Resurrection and the life.” This is a story about freedom, but it is only a story about freedom because it brings us face to face with despair, judgment and death.
“I am the Resurrection and the life.” Jesus arrives in Bethany at a time of despair. It is too late. There was a folk belief that the soul lingered in the body for three days, but four days have passed since Lazarus died. All hope, even of miracles, has gone. Did Martha know that Jesus delayed his coming? There might be more vitriol in her telling Jesus that “if you have been here my brother would not have died” if she did. Jesus, it seems, withholds himself from the place where he is needed. When he arrives, it is into the midst of despair. Lazarus is dead. Hopes and dreams are no more.
When have we known despair? Because I think we do know despair. There are times and places when we have been brought to a complete halt, floored by something that leaves us seemingly with nowhere to go. The death of a loved one. The end of a job. The break down of a relationship. And more. Our world ends and we know despair. And we rail against God and Jesus. Where were they? Why has God permitted this? “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” Martha’s complaint is one we know well, and we share her suspicion that Jesus has delayed and that has made things worse.
“I am the Resurrection and the life.” Spoken in a place of despair. As his conversation with Martha goes on, Jesus seems to give cold comfort. He speaks good religious platitudes, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha, perhaps coldly, gives the good religious answer, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” The last day, a long way off, the day of judgement. And Jesus turns the conversation in a new direction. “I am the Resurrection and the life,” he says. Jesus, as John’s Gospel has been keen to tell us throughout, is judgement. Here he claims that judgement to himself. And he is also life, life in all its fullness. Life which is inescapably linked to judgment. Bringing Lazarus out of the tomb is life and it is judgement.
Judgement is something we fear. And all too often, so is life. Life is raw, holding us up to the light of reality, marking us harshly. We fail life’s judgement, hiding as cowards from all that is dark; contributing to the misery and pain of others and of ourselves. Moses set before his people two ways: the way of life which leads to blessing and the way of death which leads to curse (Deut. 31). The choice seems obvious, but how often we choose the curse. Resurrection brings us up against this brightly burning life. It burns away from us all that leads to death and to curse. Painfully, we are offered life once again, life that brings blessing.
“I am the Resurrection and the life.” Words of judgement, spoken in a place of despair. They are words that speak of life, but words that lead to death. Today we enter Passiontide, when the focus of our Lenten observance shifts from the wilderness to the cross. It may seem odd to mark that shift with a reading that tells of Resurrection and new life. Our reading ends on a positive note, with many believing in Jesus. But the story of the raising of Lazarus does not end there. I urge you to read the whole of chapter 11 of St John’s Gospel over the coming week, as part of your preparation for Holy Week. Immediately after the end of our reading today, we learn that the religious authorities, fearful of Jesus, the crowds and the Romans, decide that enough is enough and that he must be killed. The high priest, who St John tells “prophesied” (John 11.51) in giving his verdict, says that “it is expedient that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11.50). In bringing life to Lazarus, Jesus brings sentence of death on himself.
We too know this expediency. Whether it is the cheap tabloid scapegoating of the poor or the immigrants, or our own blaming of politicians, those in authority, or the media. We know how difficult it can be to take the lonely road of standing up for the weak and the picked upon. We know the fear of choosing goodness and life for others, only to bring pain and death on ourselves. The road to life goes through death, not around it. We know this, and we try not to know it.
“I am the Resurrection and the life.” Words that bring death, words of judgement, words spoken in a place of despair. But these are Gospel words, words of good news, words of freedom. “Lazarus, come out,” cries Jesus, and stumbling, struggling with his shroud, Lazarus leaves the tomb. “Unbind him and let him go” Jesus tells those who watch.
Lazarus, tied up by all that would still bind him to death and the tomb, stumbling and needing to be set free, Lazarus is us. We still know the despair that binds us, immobilizes us and leaves us for dead. We still dread the judgement that the light outside brings. So we turn from life, preferring the comforting darkness of the tomb. We know the fear of standing for life and the ease of finding another to blame. We are tied up by all of this, bound in grave cloth, locked in a tomb. And Jesus calls us out, and stumbling and struggling we Christian pilgrims are in the process of leaving the tomb. We are Lazarus, still bound by death, still struggling with our bonds, but called into new life.
Given at the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby 6.3.14.