I trust none of you are such weather purists that you were deflated by that great, unseasonably warm weather we had on Monday and Tuesday. It fit with the week of Rose Sunday to relax from the discipline of bundling up against the cold and bracing ourselves against the icy sidewalks, in what the calendar told us was still Winter. We felt the Spring breathe back into our bones a little bit earlier this week, and I was totally living in Spring mode. So were the early buds that came out in our garden, and gardens across the city.
Jesus begins, and the early Church expands on the idea that those who die in the Lord are like seeds planted in the Earth – their resurrection is as certain as the coming of Spring. That would make Lazarus like one of those early buds, called forth by a couple warm days in the winter, as it were. He would be destined to die again, though nonetheless chosen in the depth of winter to bloom back to earth, as a sign of God’s power in the Messiah.
But this raises questions, right? Why just one early bud, shooting up before the rest of the dead? Elsewhere in the Scriptures, Jesus seems to call dead people to life – like the Centurion’s daughter. But that girl, Jesus says, was ‘only sleeping.’ The dead are raised after Jesus’ death in Matthew’s Gospel, in an almost ghostly way. But Lazarus is different – he was dead and Jesus chose to bring him back. How wonderful for his sisters, Mary & Martha, who were mourning him. How wonderful for his friends and the rest of his family. How wonderful that they were able not just to have one last conversation with him, but many more.
But why just one Lazarus? Why couldn’t Jesus Christ have done this for our dead friends, mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, and whomever we’ve grieved in our lives? Like Martha, we know that they will rise again in the resurrection at the last day, and that Jesus who dwells among us is the resurrection. But still – why just one Lazarus?
At least 300,000 have died in Darfur. A hundred thirty five thousand people have died in Iraq since we initiated the current war. Since the outbreak of civil war in the Congo ten years ago, 2.5 million people have died. In our own city, gun violence has taken young lives at an alarming rate. And in the midst of all this anguish, still, we know, with Martha that the dead will rise again on the last day, and Jesus who dwells among us is the resurrection. But for a family who’s just lost their only daughter to a stray bullet on the streets of Baghdad or our own streets, where is the opportunity that Lazarus had, to rise and be greeted once more on this Earth by his loved ones?
The families and classmates of those killed in campus shootings in Louisana and Illinois last month, and Virginia Tech last year - those thousands of mourners would be consoled by Martha’s faith that the dead will rise again on the last day. But they might also wonder why their dead sons and daughters, classmates, sisters and brothers can’t rise a little early, like Martha’s brother.
It’s confusing. But what’s clear is that God cares for every one of us, and Jesus mourns every death – it’s impossible to read the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, and not understand that. So I think what’s really confusing about this question is what theologians call the scandal of particularity. Part of what it means for God to become human and dwell among us is that he lives in a certain place, at a certain time. This means that Jesus’ ministry (of healing and teaching) and resurrection were conducted also at a certain place, at a certain time – this inevitable ‘scandal’ of particular circumstances culminates perhaps with the fact that only certain people got to see him after he rose from the dead – as for the rest of us, he says, “blessed are those who have not seen, and still believe.”
But it would have been magnificent to see. It would have been amazing to hear him preach. It would have been consoling to be healed by his very hands. It would have been wonderful if he called our own loved ones forth from the grave. But what we’re desiring thereby is that Jesus would never have ascended to heaven at all, and would instead have remained on earth forever. And even then, we would find ourselves wanting more. We wouldn’t want him just to be in one place at once time. We would want him always, wherever someone dies, calling the dead forth. And at this point, we realize what we’re really desiring is more than even Jesus’ earthly ministry, as broad as it ever could have been: we’re desiring heaven, where pain and sorrow are no more.
Now we must look back to the Resurrection of Lazarus and remember that Jesus did this and all his signs to show that the heaven we desire really exists. And that, really, is the point. Jesus did these things to show that we become part of that eternal life now, through him, and that indeed, our bodies are like seeds which will all blossom in the eternal Spring, which will all be ‘called forth,’ like Lazarus.
Our Gospel reading ends with the statement: ‘Many… therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.’ The amazing thing, I think, given our tendency to doubt, is that after those who saw Lazarus rise had themselves died, still their faith was passed on to another generation. In other words, it was amazing that there only needed to be one Lazarus, there only needed to be one earthly ministry for Jesus, there only needed to be one death on the cross and one resurrection of Christ for the mysterious and life-giving faith we now share to be passed down through history. God’s grace and truth are powerful conduits.
And that truth, the truth of which Lazarus’ resurrection is a sign, is that God has something greater in store for us than even Mary and Martha witnessed on the day Lazarus came back. God has prepared eternal life for us, and this eternal life begins now, it dwells within us. That means that resurrection can never be something only far off in the past or many years to come in the future. Paul writes: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you.” Despite the ‘scandal of particularity,’ still the one Spirit of Christ dwells in all of us. The power of resurrection is alive in all of our bodies, which are the Temples of the Holy Spirit. There has been a long winter – I know, in Philly, it’s really been mild; but since the Fall from grace, metaphorically there’s indeed been a long Winter, with only a couple early buds before Spring. Still, these ‘early buds’ witness the power of their creator. Albert Camus said, in an admittedly non-Christian, but completely applicable statement: “I realized that in the depth of Winter, there lay within me an invincible Summer.”
“I realized that in the depth of Winter, there lay within me an invincible Summer.” Now, in the depth of Lent, as we walk the way of the cross, there lies within us resurrection: strength beyond any human strength, which is good, because the journey is hard. I heard a country preacher on a radio station in southwestern Virginia say: “you know why Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth?” (And in the background, on the radio, everyone hoots and hollers.) “Cause if he would have just said, ‘come forth!’, all the dead would have been raised.”
Now, uncontrollably vibrant inside us, breathes the invincible Spirit of God who sees the dry bones of all who have gone before and says to them and us, without qualification: come forth. Out of sin, come out. Out of the old way you used to live your life before you heard about this higher love: come out. Out of death: rise again to the faint resonance of bells from our true and native land, as you’ve come so many times to the communion rail, to the looming and unfathomable peace of the varied, deep and narrow way: come, come, come; but this time, stay.
Preached by Dcn. Paul Francke
9 March 2008
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia