A sermon for April 2 on John 11:1-45
For the fourth Sunday in a row, the lectionary has had us read an extended episode from the Gospel according to John; an episode marked by lots of dialogue, in which Jesus says one thing, and the others only partially understand what he’s trying to say. All four of these Lenten gospels are unique to John, and all four present a Jesus who is very much in control. It is as if John, writing later than the other three gospel writers, is so very clear as to who he believes Jesus is that he almost can’t help but present a Jesus who is equally clear; a Jesus who is completely self-assured, in control, all but orchestrating each step of every scene. In the Gospel according to Mark, the Spirit is said to drive Jesus out into the wilderness for his forty days of solitude, but you just can’t imagine John using that kind of language.
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And so as John tells this story of the raising of Lazarus, he gives us a picture of a Jesus who knows precisely what is unfolding before him. At one level, the point that John is making is simple. As Robert Farrar Capon once quipped, “Jesus never meets a corpse that doesn’t sit up right on the spot.” He has come to save the last, the least, the lost, and the little, and by his very presence to raise the dead. Jairus’ daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and now Lazarus. It is an easy sermon, preacher. Someone dies, Jesus looks with compassion at those who are grieving, and in that compassion he restores them to life. What more needs to be said?
Well… in the case of this story, I think we need to really contend with some of the details that John—a careful and poetic writer—offers to his readers. As the story opens, Jesus receives a message from Mary and Martha, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The Greek word translated here as “love” is phileis—friendship love—and I think that is notable. It isn’t agape, which is the selfless and self-giving love which we typically associate with Jesus—with God, in fact—but instead this word that signals a more personal and intimate sort of bond. Your beloved friend is in trouble; he’s sick.
But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Although Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. I’m not sure that I like that. Lazarus’s illness is all for God’s glory, and so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. I’m really not sure that I like that, because it seems to turn this man’s illness—this friend’s dying—into a sort of object lesson. And then in case there was any doubt about this, in the next section Jesus says very clearly to his disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
And so off they go. As they get closer to Bethany, Martha comes out to meet him, and she comes out with a little bit of an edge. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Where were you? We’ve seen you restore others to health. This is Lazarus, for pity’s sake. And then she continues with a statement that hangs somewhere between deep faith and desperate hope. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” At this point, John is still offering a picture of a very composed Jesus; a Jesus very much in control of things. “He said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’” To this Martha replies with a statement that almost sounds like something learned from a catechism: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” This was the theology of the Pharisaic movement; that in the last day the dead would be raised. This was the Judaism that formed Paul, and in all likelihood Jesus too. We can assume, then, that it is also the Judaism of Mary, Martha and Lazarus; that for the faithful there was a future beyond death.
And here Reynolds Price comments that, “with words as prized as any in the New Testament, Jesus makes her the promise that anyone bereaved of a loved one wants—‘Your brother will rise again… I’m the resurrection and the life. Who trusts in me even if he should die will live.’” Again, so calmly spoken, and Martha manages to really hear him. Yes, I believe.
As they draw closer to the tomb, Mary sees him. “[S]he knelt at his feet,” John says, “and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” A challenge again, but this time from a woman on her knees, weeping. It doesn’t feel like it has the edge that Martha’s words did, but is instead marked by the deepest kind of grief. Where were you? “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the people who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.”
Greatly disturbed in spirit, he began to weep. And suddenly for all that John wants us to know—needs us to know—that Jesus is the Christ and is in control and knows precisely what he is about; for all that John proclaims the highest Christ theology of all of the gospel writers, he also finds he can’t not show the utter humanness of the man. The Greek word translated as “disturbed” is one marked by passion, even anger. “Thundered” is the most direct translation. His spirit thundered within him, and the tears began to flow. It is, Reynolds Price says, “[in John] the nearest approach to a human passion shown by this man who is also God.”
Why does Jesus weep? Why does his spirit thunder with an all but angry passion? When they get to the entrance of the tomb, that same word is there once more. “Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.” Why such a powerfully emotional response? Why does John so need us to bear witness to that in Jesus, particularly given that everything he’d described up to this point had shown Jesus as being so utterly in control?
Do you know what triggered his tears and that thunderous response in the very depths of his being? Mary’s agonizing grief. With Martha there had been that edge in her voice, followed by the theological repartee. But Mary? She just fell to her knees weeping. Where were you, Jesus?
I think John wants us to know that Mary’s grief and tears broke his heart. I think John wants us to see that though Jesus had so calmly said to the disciples, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe,” he also had to confront the huge pain that this had all caused those sisters. It is seeing the crippling sorrow that put Mary on his knees, that releases his own tears and sets his soul in turmoil. I almost wonder if at that point he himself had to ask, “You’re right Mary… where was I?”
I am deeply grateful that John includes the tears and the thunder and the passion. He could have shown Jesus just floating above the human emotions and the grief, and related a startling and victorious story about the raising of a dead man. He could have. But he didn’t. He gave us a teary eyed Jesus with a troubled thunder coursing through his soul. He gave me a Jesus I can recognize; one I can love and follow. And so I do. On account of the tears and thunder in his soul—on account of the blessed humanness of the Christ—I can follow.