This Sunday’s Gospel reading is John 11.1-45. It’s the very famous account of the death – and raising – of Lazarus.
My focus in reflecting on this passage is always on the resurrection. Not specifically on that of Lazarus but rather on the resurrection of which it is a foretaste. Lazarus has died, of this there is no doubt. He has, by the time Jesus arrives, been dead for four days. Corruption has taken hold of his body. He is decaying and anyone with a nose knows it.
When Jesus does arrive, he is greeted by Martha. More accurately, he is admonished by Martha. It’s worth reflecting here on the sort of relationship Jesus clearly has with this family of two sisters and a brother. It is close enough that Martha is not only certain that Jesus is capable of preventing death but sufficiently confident in her friendship with him that she can tell him off for not having been there to do so. Jesus is sufficiently confident in himself and in the love he experiences in this family that he allows a woman to whom he is not married and who is not his mother to talk to him in that way. As with the Samaritan woman at the well, as with Mary Magdalene, as with so many other women, Jesus breaks down societal norms. He certainly isn’t confined to the Billy Graham rule.
Returning to the narrative of this chapter, as much as Martha is right about Jesus’ power, she has actually low-balled it quite dramatically and Jesus is about to reveal to her how something she believes for the future is actually being inaugurated in and through him.
The key teaching verses in the chapter are 23-26. Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus will rise again and, like a good Jew, Martha knows this. Jesus isn’t telling her anything new – or is he? Of course he will rise – in the resurrection on the last day. Surely when Israel’s God finally and definitively acts to vindicate his people, then Lazarus will be raised. Resurrection wasn’t a new and radical notion. It was the accepted (unless you were a Sadducee and your rejection of the doctrine of resurrection helped reinforce your position of power in cahoots with the Roman authorities) expectation and hope of the Jewish people. So of course Lazarus would be raised.
What Jesus then says brings that future hope right into Martha’s here-and-now and it is one of the most radical statements that it would be possible to make, “I am the resurrection.” In other words, that action of God, that future life-restoring, death-defeating, covenant-fulfilling, creation-affirming action of God is not only future and is not only an action of God, it is now and is experienced through connection with a specific person, the person John has identified at the beginning of his Gospel as the Word made flesh. God incarnate, standing with Martha just outside Bethany. All he asks of her is, Do you believe this?
The promise of this passage to us is exactly the same as it was to Martha and to Mary, to those who were stood at the tomb, who had come to comfort the sisters. Jesus offers the power of his resurrection in our lives today if we will accept it. We can have the same hope instilled in us that though we will die, we can – and will – be raised to new resurrection bodies on the new earth. This is no “rapture”, not a disembodied, go-to-heaven-when-you-die notion because that’s not the witness of scripture. This is real, earthy, physical resurrection. This is God demonstrating his commitment to his creation. This is not the blithe acceptance of death as some sort of gateway to something better to come but God in Jesus promising to overturn and defeat death. And all he asks of us is, Do you believe this?
Now, there’s living required after the response to Jesus’ question. When Lazarus came out of the tomb, he was still in his grave clothes, and the community had to help him out of them. We are called to live as a community of those who follow Jesus, to continually help each other out of the metaphorical grave clothes that bind us. We do this in anticipation of the Kingdom of God that is to come in its fullness. It is then that, as Jesus did when he was raised on the first Easter morning, we will be raised without grave clothes. Unhindered we will be then by the past and free as children of God to live our eternal life in and with him.
I am indebted to N.T. Wright and Graham Cray particularly for insights into Jewish understandings of resurrection at the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the call to live in anticipation of the future. I commend Surprised by Hope by Wright and Disciples and Citizens by Cray as further reading.