If Only…

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On October 30, 2022, we spent some time thinking about the day he stood in the graveyard and told Martha and Mary that he was the resurrection and the life.  Our scripture references included John 11:17-44 and Lamentations 1:16.

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I suspect that you have been stood up at some point in your life.  An old friend, perhaps, has reached out to you and suggested getting together for lunch.  You arrive at the restaurant, and you bide your time for bit, and then, maybe, you find yourself sending that awkward text: “I’m here… we did say noon today, didn’t we?”  And you wait…

Or maybe it’s a little more painful: you’re ready to leave town for a week or so and you hand your roommate half of the rent.  “Thanks,” she says, “I’ll take care of it.”  And then, three weeks later, the landlord calls you and is talking about late fees and the magistrate.

Or perhaps you’ve been out walking and been surprised by a sudden rainstorm.  It’s miserable, and then you see a friend drive past, honking and waving at you… and you think, “Really? What the heck?”

My point is that I suspect that at some time or another, you have been left hanging by someone you care about, or someone you trusted – someone who you thought would have your back.  Am I right on this?

If so, I’d like to you meet, if you haven’t already, Mary and Martha.  They are old friends of Jesus – he was frequently a guest in their home.  Their brother is a man called Lazarus, and Jesus evidently loved him very much.  But Lazarus gets sick.  The sisters know that Jesus isn’t too far, and so they send word.  And they wait and watch.  Nothing.  Days pass.  He’s not far away – only a couple of miles – from here to, say, the Chartiers Country Club, or Mount Washington.

And yet, Jesus doesn’t show up.

Until, he does.  But not only has he missed his chance to see Lazarus – he missed the funeral as well. By the time Jesus waltzes into town, Lazarus has been in the ground for four days.  When she hears that he’s headed their way, Martha can’t hold back.  She goes to greet him, and she just unloads on Jesus: “Where were you?  If only you’d been here, none of this would have happened!  What the heck, Jesus?”

The Raising of Lazarus (detail), by Duccio (c. 1310).

Without breaking stride, Jesus offers her a theological response: “You know, my friend, that Lazarus will rise again.”  And Martha, who is way past all of the normal niceties, rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, yes, I’ve heard all the preaching.  I know, and I believe that he will rise at the last day.”  It’s as if Martha wanted to make sure that Jesus knew that she was still orthodox, even if she was hot under the collar with anger and grief.  She knew what the “right” answer was.

But Jesus doesn’t let the conversation die there.  Instead, he launches into the fifth “I Am” statement recorded in John’s Gospel.  I won’t rehash it all here, but I do hope that you can recall some of what we’ve said about the importance and meaning of that phrase.  Perhaps you remember that “I Am” is the Divine name that God revealed to Moses back in Exodus 3, and that when Jesus used it in reference to himself, it was by design.  Jesus wanted those around him to understand that in using these words, he was connecting himself to the Divine.

“I am the resurrection and the life” is what Jesus said to Martha.  He just tossed it right to her.  And, to her credit, she heard that, understood it, and pitched it right back.  “You absolutely are,” she said.  “You are the Messiah.  The Son of God.  The Divine Presence in the world.”  Doctrinally speaking, she aced it.  She believed in Jesus.  She trusted in Jesus.  She was right!  From a theological perspective, it was a fantastic moment.

Except there was one small thing: her brother was still dead.  Here was Martha, right as rain… and there was Lazarus, dead as a doornail.

This part of our reading proves that sometimes, all the truth in the world can’t seem to get near to the deadness, the brokenness, the messed-up-ness of our lives.  Yes, yes, yes – Jesus is all of these wonderful things.  And still, the world is a broken and painful place.  That’s just the truth.

While all of this is happening, sister number two arrives on the scene.  Mary greets Jesus in the exact same way as did her sister: “If only you had been here, Jesus…” And then she collapses into a puddle of grief.

But look at what Jesus does now: He does not move into the theology lesson.  He does not preach to Mary. He sees her grief, and feels her pain.  He asks her to lead him into that.  “Show me”, he says.

Beloved, there is so much I’d like to say about this passage, but for now I’ll dwell on these two words that Jesus is: the resurrection and the life.

I Am the resurrection. Oh, you know that this is a profound theological statement with far-reaching eschatological implications.  Yes, that’s right, I just used the word “eschatological” in a sentence.  I bet it’s been a while since you did that!  When I talk about the eschatological implications of this statement, I’m saying that Christians have historically understood that Jesus was saying here that he is the means by which God will restore all of creation to God’s original intent.  “I am the resurrection” is a way of saying that none of the death, or decay, or fragmentation that we experience is greater than God.  “I am the resurrection” means that whatever precedes or necessitates resurrection will not have the last word.  Death is not the end.  Decay is not perpetual.  Something better, and even more final than death, is on the way.

I am, my friends, deeply and profoundly grateful that Jesus is the resurrection. That gives me great hope.

Yet today I am even more struck by the fact that he added, “and the life”.

“I am…the life.”  In Greek, the word is zoe.  That word was mostly used to convey the idea that life itself is not a thing, but rather there is a vitality that characterizes all organic beings.  For instance, the word zoology, meaning the study of animals, comes from this.  There is a force or vitality that flows through all that lives and moves.  That is zoe.  That is Jesus.

“I am the resurrection” is a great theological and eschatological truth.

Adding “and the life” is a way of conveying the thought that Jesus is the vitality that gives meaning to existence.  “I am the life.”  Jesus is the example of how we are to live and move in the world.  And so it strikes me that after making this incredible pronouncement, Jesus enters into the grief of this family.  Jesus stands at the grave of his friend and shakes his fist at the universe.  “It’s not supposed to be this way!” he laments.

Twice we read that Jesus was “greatly upset” or “disturbed.”  It’s a very specific word, embriaomai.  Trust me, I would talk all day about that word if you gave me half a chance, but for now I will simply say that it is a word that expresses sadness and anger and pain.  It’s a shudder.  It’s an involuntary grunting or groaning.

Jesus, who is the life – who defines vitality and invites us to follow him in a pattern of faithful living – uses this moment to demonstrate that authentically participating in the life that God gives to us includes a willingness to walk toward and even embrace grief.

On this day, when Jesus saw the pain and sadness of his friends, he did not dismiss it, he did not wish it away, and he did not scold them for their lack of faith or faulty theology.

Jesus Wept, by James Tissot (1886-1894)

Instead, he stood there with them.  And he cried.

He honored his friend, Lazarus.  He bore witness to the love that Mary and Martha had for their brother by standing in that pain with them.

The day after tomorrow – Tuesday, November 1 – is All Saints Day.  It is a day to remember that each of us has been acquainted with the power of death and brokenness.  That each of us has known loss and grief.  And whether you are nursing a loss that occurred years, or even decades ago, or you are in the midst of a trauma that makes each day painful and even raw – you can remember that you are not now, nor ever, alone in that grief.  Jesus is there.  Jesus weeps.  The body of Christ – the church – honors and shares in your grief.

Sometimes the church is in so much of a hurry to get to the big flashy miracle at the end of this passage that we rush past Jesus weeping in the graveyard.  When we do that, we shortchange him and we miss out on a chance to learn something of what it means to belong to him.

As it is, we see that only after standing with his friends in the midst of lament and brokenness does Jesus command those in the cemetery to move the stone.  Only after weeping does Jesus set about the business of restoring life to Lazarus. He offers a prayer and then he calls out to his friend.  In doing so, he restores Lazarus to his family and his community.

It’s worth noting here that Jesus did not transform Lazarus’ body completely.  It does not appear as though the risen Lazarus behaves the same way as the risen Christ will at the end of the Gospel.  Presumably, Lazarus got colds, or felt pain, or experienced seasonal allergies… From everything we know, Lazarus had to die twice.

In calling Lazarus from the grave, then, Jesus did not bring about an ultimate reversal of the death and decay that surrounds the world and fills graveyards every day; rather, he used this event to punctuate a statement about his own power in and over the world, his closeness to God, and to offer a sign of hope as if to say, contrary to the word from Lamentations, that the enemy has not, in fact, won.  Death does not have the last word, even as we suffer through it with such regularity.

What are our takeaways from this passage this morning?  I’d like to suggest that there are several.

The presence of suffering does not indicate the absence of God.  When you experience loss and grief, do not for a moment think that means that God is distancing God’s self from you.  Rather, take this passage as a reminder that you are free to invite God into the depths of your pain and sorrow.

Further, we can take from this story the assurance that we are acting like Christ when we honor or share the pain of another.  Holding the grief and sadness of someone else is a profoundly Christ-like practice in the world.  Perhaps it is not your job to “cheer up” your friend who has suffered tragedy; maybe Jesus is inviting you to stand there and cry together.

And lastly, we can remember that what we see now, and how we move through space and time on most days is not all that there is.  There IS profound eschatological hope to be shared.  The manner of life in which we participate and understand is a part of what God is doing in the world, but there is more to it than we can see.

In light of all this, then, beloved, let me encourage you to believe boldly.  Love recklessly.  Stand firmly and quietly with those who are in pain.  Pour yourselves out into and on behalf of others.  In doing all of these things, you will reflect the Christ who is the resurrection and the life into a world that needs both of these things. Thanks be to God, amen.

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