A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 10, 2011.
Fifth Sunday in Lent
– Defining Moments –
Psalm 130:1-8; John 11:1-45
If the purpose of going to seminary was to shake loose some of the old assumptions I had picked up along the way toward becoming a minister, it worked. Allow me to offer a couple of examples.
I will never forget the afternoon we were in our class on the Gospel of John. George Beasley-Murray had recently come over from England to serve on the faculty, and had taken over the leadership of the course. On that particular day, we were considering the arrest of Jesus in the garden. I asked a question that had to do with John’s account of Simon Peter’s taking out his sword and cutting off the right ear of the high priest’s servant. I made reference to Jesus’ replacing the servant’s ear. “Who said Jesus replaced his ear?” Dr. Beasley-Murray asked. Well, I had always heard that is what happened. That’s what they taught me in church. Is it not there, in the gospel? “The Gospel of John says nothing about Jesus replacing the servant’s ear,” my professor said.
Really? Sure enough, a closer examination of the gospel reveals that John doesn’t even say that Jesus healed the servant’s ear, much less replaced it. Then what about the other gospels? I must have gotten this idea from somewhere. Let’s take a look at the other three gospels, the ones they call the synoptics. You’ll find that this incident is mentioned in them as well – that one of Jesus’ followers took out his sword and cut off the servant’s ear – but only John tells us it was Simon Peter, and only John gives us the name of the servant whose ear was cut off: Malchus. Luke is the only gospel that says Jesus healed the man. The other three gospels simply leave us with a bleeding and wounded one-eared servant.
So there it is in Luke. At least we’ve got that. But wait… Luke says that Jesus healed the servant, not that he replaced the man’s ear. But I thought… you mean… it’s not in the Bible that the servant’s ear was replaced? Nope. You can look it up. Jesus may have replaced the man’s ear, but that’s not what the Bible says.
Another assumption I took with me to seminary was that John, the brother of James and son of Zebedee, was the one referred to in the fourth gospel as Jesus’ beloved disciple. I was told that this same John is the one who wrote the gospel, and this was, no doubt, his way of being humble… by not naming himself as the one Jesus loved more than any of the others. I had heard this just about all my life (you have too, I imagine), probably because of the Gospel of Michelangelo more than the Gospel of John.
Another professor – this time it was Bill Hull – challenged that theory. He didn’t believe the beloved disciple was John at all, but was Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus brought back from the dead. He cited a story that is told in the final chapter of John’s gospel. The resurrected Christ has come early in the morning and made breakfast for his disciples who had been fishing. The disciple whom Jesus loved walks by and Simon Peter asks, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus’ response is, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” If Jesus had not responded that way, we would have no clue as to what Simon was talking about. But Jesus’ answer to Simon’s question provides the meaning to what Simon is wanting to know. Simon is asking Jesus if the beloved disciple is going to die. Now, why would he even wonder about such a thing unless… unless the beloved disciple had already died once? If he had died once, would he die again? Dr. Hull says that is what Simon Peter is asking Jesus. If he had already died once, then who could the beloved disciple be other than Lazarus?
Kinda makes your head spin, doesn’t it? It can be tough sometimes when our assumptions are challenged like that.
Well, if Lazarus wasn’t the beloved disciple, we can say with certainty that his being raised from the dead became a matter of great excitement, if not curiosity, among the people. If people will flock to see vegetables that look like the Virgin Mary, they’ll come from all over to see a man who had been dead four days and is now as alive as anybody else.
It is, of course, one of the Bible’s great ironies, that the One who gives life to Lazarus, because of this miracle, would have his own taken from him. “See how he loved him!” the crowds said when they saw Jesus weeping over the dead Lazarus.
Maybe Dr. Hull was right. Maybe Lazarus was the disciple whom Jesus loved.
Suzanne Guthrie is an Episcopal chaplain at Cornell University. She tells of the time she thought she was dying. And she didn’t want to come back. “My consciousness hovered somewhere above the body lying on the gurney,” she says. “It was all over, I thought. The last sensation I remembered had been incomprehensible pain, then a tunnel, and a grinding noise as described in other ‘near death experiences.’ But… I saw no lights, no angels, no dead relatives, no friendly saints; rather, I found myself very much awake in a weightless, imageless, gray hyperreality. I experienced a blessed clarity, freedom and relief, and a stunning sense of the illusory nature of the life I’d left behind.”
The way Guthrie tells the story, as she was brought back to this life she kept saying to herself, “No! NO!” She didn’t want to return. “I came to consciousness disappointed, frustrated, unspeakably sad – and in excruciating pain.”
She wonders if this may have been something like the experience Lazarus had. “When Lazarus heard his name did he want to shout, ‘No! Not even for you, my friend and Master! Please, NO!’ With what sense of contempt or ambivalence did he slip through his grave clothes into his body and back to his troubles? Could he have refused to respond?”1
“Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus says to those who were standing near. “Let him go” to what? Back to this limited life he had known? Back from eternal life, from the joy that God had prepared for him? Back to the reality of seeing his friend – and if Lazarus is not Jesus’ beloved disciple you can be sure that Jesus was his beloved Friend and Master – back to seeing his Friend strung up on that Roman cross? Don’t you imagine that having experienced eternal life those four days would have been enough for Lazarus not to want to return to this little life he had known?
It’s a story that gives me goose bumps every time I read it. Just think, Lazarus in the grave four days. And Jesus, in the power entrusted to him by his heavenly Father, shouts for the dead man to come forth. In a few breathless moments, during which you could hear the proverbial pin drop, this man who had most assuredly been as dead as a doornail comes walking stiffly through the entrance of the tomb. Can you imagine the excitement, the joy, the celebration, the wonder?!
Maybe for those who were there to witness it. But have you ever considered the effect it had on Lazarus? We’re happy for Lazarus because Jesus brings him back to our world, the only world we know. But Lazarus, when you stop and think about it, might not have been so happy about this whole thing. If our theology is half right, death to this world means life in the world to come… life with God, life eternal. Having experienced that, who would want to give it up?
It’s been four days that his body has been in the tomb. Four days. But do you think Lazarus was really in the tomb? I don’t. His body was there, true enough. But if you think Lazarus remained in the body, as it rested in the tomb, you are denying all that Jesus said about himself and the eternal life that is found in him.
Think about it… four days. How far – how deep – into eternity can a man travel in four days? Four days might just be an eternity in eternity… know what I mean? How much distance had Lazarus journeyed between this often painful, sinful, earthly existence to that wonderful place and time where, as John puts it in the Revelation, “God wipes away every tear from their eyes”? Where “death will be no more,” John says, where “grieving and crying and pain will be no more,” where “the former things of this world are passed away”? Lazarus has had four days to bathe in the glory of such a place – an eternity unto itself – and now Jesus wants him to go back to the little life he had known before.
How much had Lazarus been transformed after four days of having his soul separated from what Suzanne Guthrie very graphically calls this “prison of blood and bone and brain”?2
As the joke says, all good people want to go to heaven; they just don’t want to do it today. And they’ll hold it off as long as they possibly can. But why would you want to live to 150 when you don’t even know what to do with yourself on a rainy Sunday afternoon?
Can you imagine? Lazarus in eternity four days, luxuriating in the promise his friend and Lord Jesus had given him of the life to come, only to hear that familiar voice calling him back. “Lazarus! Lazarus! Come forth!” Jesus’ words might very well have sounded to Lazarus something like this: “Lazarus, Lazarus, come back to this painful place of death and uncertainty, come back to this seemingly God-forsaken place where there is death and grief and crying and pain and conflict and war. Lazarus, come back to this mortal, sinful place. Come back, come back.”
And surely, as Jesus calls out to his friend to return to this world, he knows that soon Lazarus will have to witness his death on a cross. And if perchance Lazarus was the beloved disciple, according to John’s gospel, he was there at the cross for Jesus to give him custodianship of his mother. That’s what Jesus is bringing Lazarus back to. Do you think Lazarus fought internally against emerging from that tomb? Do you think that possibly he shook his head and said, “No, I don’t want to go back!”?
How long does it take Lazarus to come out of the grave? Ten seconds? Twenty? A full minute? John doesn’t give us a time line, does he? But I wonder if it isn’t a little while. And when he finally comes stumbling out of the darkness of the tomb, back to that little life he had known before, does he do so most reluctantly?
Perhaps. But this is the way I figure it… Lazarus emerges from the grave, not just because Jesus commands it, but because he wants to be in Jesus’ presence no matter where Jesus may be, as painful as it might be. Here’s why I think of it that way…
It was the custom in those days, that when a death occurred, family members were not to leave the house for seven days. That was the common period for mourning. The one exception to that rule was that they could leave the house to visit the grave of their departed loved on.
Think about this story we have read this morning. Both Martha and Mary, when they hear that Jesus has come, break the custom and leave the house to greet him. Actually, they leave the house to confront him. “If you had been here my brother would not have died.” Why? Jesus’ presence, even though Lazarus had already died, was so compelling to them, so desired by them, that they were willing to break with tradition in order to be with their Friend and Master.
Now, if that was true of the sisters, could it be just as true of their brother? When Jesus’ voice rings out for all to hear – “Lazarus, come forth!” – that prison of blood and bone and brain awakens to the sound. Lazarus hears his friend Jesus and emerges from the grave, returned to this little life he had known only – only – so he could be with Jesus in his final days.
Wherever Jesus is, that is where Lazarus wants to be… even if it means he will have to return to this little life he knows.
Is there a lesson in that for us? If so, it is this: Don’t cling so fast to this little life you know that it keeps you from the promise of the life that is to come. Who knows, it might just be the most freeing experience you will ever have. And it will bring you into, and keep you in, the presence of Jesus.
Wherever you are, Lord, that is where we want to be. Plant in our hearts such a desire to be with you that nothing else ultimately matters. But in the meantime, find us faithful in serving you. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
1Suzanne Guthrie,“Back to Life,” The Christian Century, March 8, 2005, p. 22.