Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
James V. Stockton
People like the idea, and rightly so. Starting over means leaving the former behind. And if this sounds good sometimes, it’s important to consider the most basic and original notion of new life held closely by the apostles and first generations of the followers of Christ Jesus. For them, new life pushed right up to the edge of all the metaphorical applications of the phrase the metaphor and beyond. It means that people’s entire foundation of understanding about life and its meaning and its limitations, of their most basic beliefs and assumptions, is undone and replaced with something unlike anything that has been before. The apostles understood this. The early Christians understood this. I’m convinced that people for whom the metaphor is appealing have need to understand this, too.“We believe in order that we may understand.” It is the foundational statement of 11th century English theologian Anselm of Canterbury. And it sets him apart, for his approach is not to explain belief in God and faithfulness to God by citing appropriate scriptures. Instead, he calls upon one of the great gifts God gives to humanity, the gift of reason. It can be no accident of history that some 5 centuries later, having separated its affairs from the foreign influence of Rome, the Church of England comes to define itself as precisely grounded in the three authoritative sources of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. And we may rightly be thankful that, though having separated itself from the rule of England, the Episcopal Church in this country, in its Anglican heritage, does the same.
“We believe in order that we may understand.” It acknowledges, I think, that a relationship with God is rooted in the gift of faith. And it goes on to claim this gift of faith is intended by God to lead people almost automatically to the gift of a better understanding of the object of that faith, a better understanding of God. It implies, also, I think, that the reverse is not necessarily the case. People’s understanding of things does not necessarily lead them to God. Certainly, people may be able to come by themselves to the concept of a higher power. It’s also true, though, that people can bind themselves to the limits of their understanding, and thus confine themselves and their god to those limits.
Raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus pushes beyond the limits of the people’s assumptions and expectations. Raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is pushing the people beyond their limits, in order to bring them to new foundation for their faith and understanding.
‘Let’s go back to Judea,’ Jesus tells his disciples. ‘Jesus,’ they say, ‘they tried to stone you to death there once, already.’ ‘Are you sure you want to go back?’ ‘We have to go,’ says Jesus. ‘Our brother Lazarus has died.’ That’s when Thomas speaks from a faith pushed to the limit of its understanding. ‘Let’s all go,’ he says. ‘Even if we have to die there, at least we’ll be with him.’ They arrive and Martha the sister of the dead man comes to Jesus. In the midst of her mourning the death of her brother, she does her best to confesses her faith, her trust in Jesus. ‘You could have saved him,’ she says. ‘I know this. And I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’ ‘Know this, then’ Jesus tells her, ‘your brother will rise again.’ ‘I know that he will rise again on the last day,’ she says. ‘And I know that you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Likely, she is confused and overwhelmed by Jesus’ words. She goes to retrieve Mary. Maybe Mary will understand better what Jesus means. But she, like all, of them, has no other expectation than that the tomb contains only her brother’s dead body, and that some day, somehow, God will end her grief and she will begin again.
But if Jesus’ coming a sign of hope for his followers, it is something else entirely for Jesus’ critics. ‘Oh look, here’s Jesus,’ they say when he arrives. ‘He healed a man born blind; why couldn’t he have saved poor Lazarus?’ They aren’t really moved by the miracle that Jesus did in giving sight to the man born blind, of which we heard in last Sunday’s gospel. Jesus’ presence today and his recent miracle are simply opportunities to criticize him. For them, Jesus will never do enough, never be enough, to be the Messiah that they want.
The religious among them expect a pious wise man; learned, maybe elderly, reverencing tradition, and wrapping himself in the mantle of orthodoxy. The militant among them are looking for a rebel leader; a radical prepared to insight insurrection; someone with a sword, not so much ready to die for the cause, but certainly ready to kill for it. In either case, there should be no doubt that the critics of Jesus do have faith. It’s just that their faith is in a god that is bound by their own understanding. The hyper-religious define God by a code of righteousness and piety. They dissect every move that Jesus makes, they parse every word that he says, in order to charge him with technical violations. For theirs is the god of the fine print. The radically militant understand God according to wrath. Their understanding of God is expressed in violence, and in the pursuit of power. And they justify it all by claiming that it is ‘done in the name of a higher cause.’
And though we may say of Jesus’ critics that their faith is small, yet it is firmly placed, entrenched and immovable. And it is powerful enough to effect an unholy marriage of religious piety and religious violence that soon will place Jesus on the cross.
In the hearts and minds, then, of those who trust Jesus, there is something very different. It is a faith given and a faith received. It is God’s faith in them, which holds them, and a faith in God within them that leads them onward to the very edge of their understanding of God. None of them expects Jesus to do what he does next. That’s when he does the impossible.
When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he does so not on the strength of anyone’s belief that he can do it, for no one thinks he can. And that’s exactly why Jesus must do this; so that all may experience God as more than they expect, as more than they understand, so that all may trust God more, and more may come to understand God better.
The new life given in relationship with God through Jesus Christ is an attractive and powerful idea. Notice this, this week. And notice how it is or might be also to the people all around us; and rightly so. When Jesus says that those who believe in him will live, many want to believe; many choose to believe; and by the gift and grace of God, they and we do believe.
Especially in this season of Lent, notice how, in believing, we find together that new foundation for understanding that the same Spirit of God that came upon Jesus at his baptism, comes upon each of us at our own. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God of Scripture and tradition who defended Jesus in the wilderness is defending all of us, too. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, bridged the suspicions of the Samaritan woman at the well in order to bring to her God’s love for her, is reaching across suspicions of every kind through you and me and those around us, and bringing to us God’s Love for all.
We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, restored sight to eyes of the man who had never seen, is giving to us that vision which God has always had for us all, and the gift of faith in God to make it real. We find together a new foundation for understanding that the same God who, in Jesus, brings new life to one thought gone and lost to yesterday, brings us to the new life that is already ours today, that carries us forward and makes every tomorrow new.
And now may Almighty God, whose desires that all should come to know the gift of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, so inspire our faithfulness to God in word and deed that we may always know and share the blessings of life and life eternal; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. Amen.
© 2008, James V. Stockton