Today’s gospel lesson (John 11:17-27; 38-44) tells the familiar story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Lazarus to comfort Lazarus’ sisters and subsequently to raise Lazarus from the dead. And yet, for all its familiarity, the good news that it declares continues to offer a challenge that is both individual and corporate.
Most of us know the basic plotline. Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is sick. But rather than rushing off to Bethany to provide healing, Jesus delays his travel until after Lazarus has died, knowing that what’s about to happen will glorify God and spur belief (see John 11:4, 11 and 14). Upon his arrival in Bethany, Jesus is greeting by Lazarus’ sister Mary, who says to him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). Jesus assures her, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23), and Mary expresses faith — shared by many other Jews of her day — that Lazarus will share in a general resurrection that’s promised at the end of the age. But then Jesus makes the statement that has the potential to turn our lives rightside up:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (v. 25)
I’ve been thinking about this statement a lot in recent months, mostly because I know a great many people who are dealing with fear: fear about their health, fear about our political climate, fear about loss and violence and change. (And to be honest, of course, I’ve got a few fears of my own.) And like Mary, we believe in resurrection in a “general” way. We trust that we’re saved and that we’ll be raised to life in God’s kingdom someday. But Jesus, I think, is talking about more than that. He’s saying — that in Him — the “general” resurrection becomes our “specific” resurrection, as His life fills us with life, right here and now. And when we believe that we’re alive in this way, what have we to fear? Like the psalmist says, “The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere people do to me?” (Psalm 118:6) And like the Apostle Paul writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31) No wonder Jesus asks Mary, “Do you believe this?”
In the second half of today’s reading, Jesus gives Lazarus that “right here and now” resurrection life. He calls for Lazarus to come out of his tomb, and Lazarus does exactly that. But it’s worth noting that when Lazarus steps out of the grave, he’s still bound in a burial shroud. And so, Jesus tells those standing near, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (v. 44) I heard a wonderful sermon on this text once in which the pastor observed that “stepping into” resurrection life isn’t something we can do on our own. It takes the grace and power of Jesus to give us life, and it takes the help and support of others to disentangle us from the wrappings of death that so often have us bound.
And so, as we look toward the weekend ahead, I pray these two things on our behalf. May we live like those who trust in the resurrection life that we’ve been given by the One who is Resurrection and Life. And may we help each other to remove the grave clothes (the fears, distractions and sins) that keep us from embracing the life we’ve been given.