April 6, 2014 – 5th Sunday in Lent
We hear a story from John again this morning. A reminder that in John’s gospel, Jesus calls God “Father” more than any of the other gospels. And in this gospel, Jesus’ use of “Father” is not a title of patriarchal domination but a name that John scholar Gail O’Day says the writer of John’s gospel uses “to highlight the theological possibilities of intimacy and love that rest at the heart of God.” So I invite you to hear this name for God as a term of intimacy and love.
Reading: John 11.1-53
Once more in John’s gospel we have a story where meaning resonates at multiple levels and the people Jesus is talking to think he’s talking about one reality while he’s talking about another reality.
Jesus speaks to his disciples about Lazarus who has “fallen asleep”–that’s the literal meaning of the word but it is also a word used frequently as a euphemism for death. Jesus says he will go to “awaken” Lazarus. The disciples are confused why Jesus is going to wake Lazarus up from sleep. Unlike in many of the other stories, Jesus quickly clears up the confusion. “Lazarus is dead.”
Arriving at the home of Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. Martha assumes Jesus is talking about a future resurrection of the dead which some sects of Judaism believed. Martha affirms that she believes this will be true for her brother. At some future point in time, God will raise those who have died to eternal life.
But that’s not what Jesus is talking about.
“I am the resurrection and the life” he says. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Most of the time when we hear about resurrection and eternal life, we also think of something in the future. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He doesn’t say “There will be a resurrection and eternal life.” He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
So what does that mean?
Gail O’Day says it means Jesus has something to do with the believer’s death and the believer’s life—our death and our life.
Those who believe (or “trust” is another way to translate that word) in Jesus and die, yet live. Those who live and believe (or trust) in Jesus, never die.
On the face of it, that seems crazy. We know that people, even people who trust in Jesus, do die. Even Lazarus, raised from the dead in this story, will die again. But here’s what it means: “For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us; our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death. For Jesus to be the life means that [our] present is also determined by Jesus’ power for life, experienced as the gift of eternal life.” Another way to say it is, “In life and in death, we belong to God.”
First, life. Eternal life is not something waiting in the future. Eternal life is a life lived now “in the unending presence of God.” To have eternal life is to live life, as author Sara Miles says it, “liberated from human rules about who belongs and who has power and who deserves to be part of a family.” “To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God.” It is to live life as God intends it–here and now. It’s a revolution of values and priorities, a reorienting of everything in our life to be rightly oriented to God and to one another.
Wendell Berry in his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” writes of the values of eternal life.
“…every day do something
that won’t compute. Love [God].
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what [humans
have] not encountered [we] have not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Now the part about death. In life and in death we belong to God. This story in John is not just about Lazarus who has died. It is even more so about Jesus who will die. This story is the precipitation for the religious leaders who now seek Jesus’ death. It is about Jesus who freely walks into the grave and calls us to life. But in between the walking in and the calling out, Jesus dies. A real death.
Most of us don’t really want to talk about death. Our own or anyone else’s. Author Sara Miles who was previously a war reporter, writes, “Death and the fear of death, continue to drive so much on earth. They lie under all human violence, drive our sad struggles for domination, allow the manipulations of religion and empire to thrive. As a war reporter, surrounded by terror,” she writes, “I’d experienced the power death had to make me betray or refuse to help others. I’d seen people who were, in their souls, no more than walking dead: they were completely ruled by fear of the grave.” And yet, she writes, “I witnessed amazing sights…whenever a person left the fear of death behind, and rejected the temptations of power through violence…These people had a totally different kind of power, one which comes from believing that death doesn’t have the final word.”
“For Jesus to be the resurrection means that physical death has no power over [us]; [our] future is determined by [our] faith in Jesus, not by [our] death.” That doesn’t mean we’re not realistic about death. We are. We know that we will die and we know that people we love will die (and have already died). But we are not held captive by fear of death. Because we know we belong to God in both our living and in our dying. Nothing, in life or in death, will be able to separate us from the love of God. And so we are free to live our lives fully. Free to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers because we are not afraid.
There’s a prayer from the funeral liturgy that says, “Help us to live as those who are prepared to die. And when our days here are ended, enable us to die as those who go forth to live, so that living or dying our life may be in Jesus Christ our risen Lord.”
Trusting in Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, we are raised into a new way of seeing and being and living.
Here is Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer continuing his manifesto:
Listen to carrion [carrion is what is dead or decaying]–put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
One of the practices of resurrection is gathering at this table where we remember that in life and in death we belong to God. That nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Neither depression, nor aging, nor cancer, nor AIDS, nor heart disease, neither our weariness of soul or of spirit, neither our lack of faith, nor our greatest fear, none of it need keep us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
At this table, we are welcomed by the One whose arms are open to us and who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who trust in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and trusts in me will never die.”
* * *
 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol IX, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 496.
 Ibid., p689.
 Opening line of the PC(USA) “Brief Statement of Faith.”
 Sara Miles, Jesus Freak – feeding, healing, raising the dead, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010), 152.
 O’Day, p552.
 Wendell Berry “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” Collected Poems 1957-1982, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), 151.
 Miles, 125-126.
 O’Day, 689.
 Book of Common Worship, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 916.
 Berry, 151-152.
 Jon Walton, “If You Had Been Here” sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church, November 5, 2000.