Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die." I have proclaimed these words during the funerals of old people and infants, husbands and wives, lovers and siblings. And more than once I have watched as people latched onto hope at hearing this promise of Jesus.
It’s appropriate that these words are read at funerals because Jesus first spoke them in a graveyard, to grief-stricken sisters whose only brother had died tragically young. Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, probably lived together in a village called Bethany, about two miles outside of Jerusalem. As was the custom, the sisters depended upon the man of the house to provide for their needs, making him not just their brother but also their financial security. But one day, Lazarus developed an odd cough. That night, a fever shook him. And with each passing day, he got weaker. Finally, in full-blown panic mode, the sisters sent for their friend Jesus.
The bond between these four was very deep. Maybe they had grown up together. But despite their closeness, Jesus delayed going to Bethany. He delayed and said something odd about the illness of Lazarus being an avenue for the glory of God. But then Lazarus died. Where was God’s glory in that? Jesus heard that Lazarus had died, but stayed where he was for two more days while the sisters grieved.
When Jesus finally traveled to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. And this is a significant detail because Judaism at the time taught that the spirit of the deceased lingered on earth for four days before passing the point of no return. In other words, all hope was gone.
When Martha heard that Jesus was approaching the village, she ran out to meet him on the road. She ran, powered by grief and anger, excitement and frustration. She ran, and as she ran, she wept. When she got to Jesus, there was an eruption of emotion: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!” And then in much quieter voice, she said, “But I know even now that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Do you think she even knew what she wanted in that moment? Did she dare to imagine that Jesus could give her back her brother? And it was in those pregnant moments that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life…”
Martha latched onto the hope in those words and ran home to get Mary. They returned to Jesus, a group of mourners trailing them. When Mary saw Jesus, she repeated the same accusation: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” And his death hit them all again with a cruel freshness. And there was weeping and wailing, and it broke Jesus’s heart, so much so that Jesus too began to weep. But then he ordered the grave open. This horrified everyone. Everyone knows that graves are supposed to stay closed tight. “No,” Martha said, “it’s been four days. It will stink.” But open the grave they did. And then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus did.
It is usually here, on this triumphal note that most sermons end. Why would you say anymore when you have such a happy ending? It was happy, right, at least from the sisters’s perspectives? But what did this moment mean for Lazarus? About that, the Gospel is silent. Was it a happy ending for him?
We assume so, but playwright Colm Toibin imagines the resurrection of Lazarus as unhappy. In his play “The Testament of Mary” the mother of Jesus recounts the details of that days as something less than ideal. Mary says:
(Lazarus) had been unchanged by death. Once his eyes opened, he stared at the sun with a deep unearthly puzzlement and then at the sky around the sun. He seemed not to see the crowd; some sounds came from him, not words exactly, something closer to whispered cries, or whimpers, and then the crowd stood back as Lazarus moved through them, past them, looking at no one, being led by his sisters back to their house, the world around remaining stilled and silent, and my son too, I am told, stilled and silent, as Lazarus began to weep.
At first they noticed just the tears, but then his crying came in howls as his two sisters led him gently towards the house, followed all the way by the silent crowd as the howling grew louder and more fierce. By the time they reached their door he could barely walk. They disappeared inside and closed the shutters from the burning sun and did not appear again that day…”
I saw Fiona Shaw speak these words on the stage, and I was dumbstruck. I had never imagined the resurrection of Lazarus to be anything but joyful. Why would Lazarus weep? Why wouldn’t he come forth from his tomb laughing and taking deep gulps of the fresh air? Why would he mourn at being called back into the world?
Suzanne Guthrie, an Episcopal priest, writes of her own tears upon being called back into the world. In her essay on this Gospel lesson, she writes of her own near death experience when she gave birth. She remembers being in excruciating pain and then the sudden relief from pain. “There were no bright lights,” she writes, but “I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind.” Some minutes later, Guthrie was resuscitated and dragged back into the pain of this world. That experience changed her. Reflecting on it, she wrote: “How did Lazarus feel about coming back? How far had he traveled along the way for clarity, truth and reality in those four days? How deeply had he journeyed into eternal life?”
Lazarus would have the unfortunate privilege of dying twice. He had already passed through the veil, only to be dragged back. And now there would be more suffering and more heartache, more worry and hunger, more oppression. Some scholars even suggest that Lazarus was killed soon after this event because his resurrection was a political flashpoint, making Jesus all the more popular.
So what are we to make of such a story? Maybe you see it only as an allegory. Maybe you don’t believe in near death experiences. Be that as it may, there is still something oddly familiar about this tale. In Lazarus’s story, we see something of our own. We all know tombs. And sometimes we actually prefer them. Tombs are sealed and safe. And we learn how to live in that solitary darkness. We learn to make due.
Notice that Jesus raised his voice and shouted, “Lazarus, come forth!” Was that just for dramatic effect or was Lazarus reluctant? Maybe Lazarus didn’t want to come forth. But God’s glory would shine all the brighter because Lazarus would reengage with the world.
And so it is with us. God’s glory shines best when we reengage with the world. And because that’s true, Jesus will not let us rest in peace, sealed away and safe. Jesus will not let this church rest in peace, self-satisfied and comfortable. He stands outside our tombs, calling us each by name, and sends us back, again and again and again, into this beautiful and broken world.