(John 11: 1-53)
In every Jesus movie I’ve seen, you can pretty much bank on two stories other than the birth and resurrection making the final cut: the feeding of the 5000 and the raising of Lazarus. They are both a cinematographer’s dream, especially the way the writer of the Gospel of John lays them out. We’ve already delved into the wonder of the feeding story, and when we get to Lazarus, it’s no different.
Lazarus has died. Now this in and of itself is nothing extraordinary – people die every day, loved ones grieve. The only difference is that Jesus knew Lazarus, knew his family, and chose this occasion for his last and final sign. We’ve been talking about these signs in the Gospel of John for the better part of a month and a half – if you want a quick recap, here they are:
- Changing water into wine
- Healing the royal official’s son
- Healing the paralytic
- Feeding the 5000
- Walking on water
- Healing the man blind from birth
- And now, raising Lazarus.
And as we’ve talked about over the past few weeks, these signs are more than miracles, more than magic tricks to “wow” the masses. For John, they pose a simple but fundamental question: what do they have to reveal to us about who Jesus is? What do they have to tell us about Jesus’ priorities, what he’s come here to do; and what it means for us to be part of what he’s doing?
Now one might be tempted to look at the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead and hastily conclude that what John wants us to see about Jesus is that he has the power to bring the dead back to life! Seems to be obvious, right? A foreshadowing of his own resurrection, even. Not that you should, but if you were to rank order John’s signs in order of miraculousness, this is not a bad one to finish on. I mean, water into wine and sight for the blind are pretty amazing, but death to life – you don’t really top that!
Even the way the scene unfolds highlights the drama. It’s not a small gathering at the tomb that day. A lot of people there; grieving family and curious onlookers. Lazarus, not just a friend to Jesus, but based on the numbers, a friend to many. Our passage goes to great lengths to highlight the fact that Lazarus is dead – four days before Jesus comes, we are told. In Jewish custom, four days was significant; it marked the final conclusion of all life at death. Lazarus’ sister Martha reacts in horror when Jesus directs the stone to be moved: Lord, already there is a stench because he’s been dead four days. There’s that “four days” again. This passage goes out of its way to highlight the fact that Lazarus is very, very dead.
Jesus says a prayer – or gives thanks, maybe? It’s not entirely clear which. Maybe it’s both. What is clear is what comes next: Jesus bellows in this loud voice, Lazarus, come out! Which he does, burial cloths and all. To which Jesus then says, Unbind him and let him go. And they do.
It is grandiose, this final sign. Full-on drama. It is no wonder it finds its way in all the movies.
And the only problem is that it is in there for all the wrong reasons.
At least that’s what it feels like to me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love a good Hollywood flick; but if raising Lazarus from the dead were truly about Jesus wowing the crowds into submission and convincing folks beyond a shadow of doubt, it didn’t really work, did it? Just a little over a week later, and Jesus himself is dead.
No, there’s something more going on in this story other than “the next big thing;” other than the drama of it all. And perhaps we don’t find it in the raising of Lazarus itself. Sounds weird, I know. That’s what everything is building up to; that’s what the title in our Bibles says it’s about.
Which is perhaps why we should remind ourselves of this: while the story of Lazarus spans some 53 verses in the 11th chapter of John, only two of them actually talk about the raising itself. Verses 43 and 44:
Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound, his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
And that’s it. Two verses out of 53. So we have to ask ourselves: what’s up with the other 51, and might we find the real sign of the story there?
It was psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who, as a youth, recalled her visits to the concentration camps of post-World War II Germany and remembers finding images of butterflies drawn all over the barrack walls by children. A symbol of the soul’s transition breaking free of its chrysalis, adorning a place that had literally been a tomb for hundreds of thousands. It was these images, countlessly repeated, that stuck with her well into her adult years, and led her on her path of insight and compassion into death and dying.
It has been said that death and life are two sides of the same coin. We encounter this sentiment throughout our passage today. Lazarus is alive, then ill, then dies. Mary and Martha, his sisters, and others are grieving, mourning. Even Jesus grieves. There is regret as well. Mary and Martha both tell Jesus in separate instances that if he had just been there, Lazarus would not have died. One wonders about the tone Mary and Martha used with Jesus – was this a statement of belief or subtle chastisement? Maybe both.
And through it all, Jesus speaks of both life and death, but in markedly different ways. He first informs his disciples that Lazarus has “fallen asleep.” I find it terribly odd and a little disturbing, quite honestly, that Jesus would use this expression here – one of the first lessons of Counseling 101 is to avoid euphemisms for death, because it can be confusing or misleading. Which is exactly what happens here – the disciples don’t seem all that troubled by the news, because they figure he’ll eventually wake up. So now Jesus speaks plainly: Lazarus is dead, he tells them. You can’t get any plainer than that.
A similar misunderstanding happens when Jesus goes to a grieving Martha. Your brother will rise again, he says to her. She thinks he’s talking about the final consummation. He’s not, and so once again he speaks plainly. And this is what he says:
I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Familiar words we’ve heard before. Often read at funerals. Comfort to the grieving, knowing that life with God extends well beyond death; that those who believe will never really die. But there is more going on here than that.
The New Testament uses two words for “life.” One is bios. Bios is day-to-day physical living, the life we know. It is breathing, moving, lungs filling with air, heart pumping with blood. Bios, not surprisingly, is where we get our word “biology” from – the study of life.
Bios is found in the Bible wherever there are words of finitude or futility. There’s the parable of the sower and the seeds in the gospel of Luke, where Jesus says, “The seed which fell among the thorns are the ones who have heard, but as they go on their way they are choked with the worries and riches and pleasures of this life, this bios, and therefore bear no fruit.”
Bios life is what we lay testimony to every Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our Lenten journey. At our Ash Wednesday service this week – which happens at 12:15, remember – it’s here where we wear ashes on our forehead and acknowledge that we are living beings who die; that we are broken beings with a deep need for God; that we remember, as the words Grace and I will say to you, that we are dust and to dust we shall return.
Bios life is born. And bios life dies.
And that is not the kind of life that Jesus speaks of here.
I am the resurrection and the life. The word for life here is Zoe. And Zoe is something else entirely. Zoe is “life real and genuine; life active and vigorous, life devoted to God, life blessed.” Zoe is not to be mistaken with eternal life per se, with heaven. Zoe is life in the here and now. It is life in the moment, those sacred ground times when we finally realize we are part of something bigger than ourselves; when we see, hear, feel in multiple dimensions. It is part of bios life, but it is oh so much more than that.
Bios life is one-dimensional and move in one direction.
Zoe life moves in multiple dimensions as it looks forward and looks back in the present.
Bios life views the resurrection as God’s great final act.
Zoe life sees the resurrection as a springboard to something more.
Bios life is not sure what the future holds, so the present is tenuous.
Zoe life is content with the present, because it has faith in the future.
Bios life gives voice to the Marys and Marthas among us, anyone who seeks justice, loves kindness and walks humbly with God; and yet nevertheless feels like the seeking and loving and walking goes unacknowledged, unrewarded: Lord, if you had been here, this would not have happened. Has their voice ever been yours? Lord, if you had been there, this would not have happened.
Zoe life comes to us in the midst of that uncertainty, that messiness, and offers us a real and lasting hope – hope in a God who doesn’t promise us a life without problems, without setbacks; but does promise to be present with us in the struggles that come. I am the resurrection and the life. I am with you. I am here.
We, bound by the daily constraints of our bios life, we tend to view the resurrection as some distant promise, our guarantee of salvation, our ticket to heave. But what does it mean for us, people of God, that Jesus is not just the resurrection but the life, the zoe life? In the very next chapter is the anointing of Jesus – in the home of Mary and Martha, nonetheless. We are told that Martha serves, Mary anoints, and Lazarus, “is one of those at the table with him.” We find Lazarus sitting down with Jesus and sharing food and fellowship with Jesus.
That – that right there is zoe life. Intimate living, closeness, indwelling with Jesus and with each other. Not an individual excursion, but as the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer beautifully coined, life together. And not life in some far-off distant future, but life in the moment, life in the here and now.
This is the final sign that John’s Jesus wishes to convey – that Jesus is the giver of not just bios life, but zoe life. And zoe life is more than simply filling our lungs with air and pumping blood through our hearts, more than clocking in and clocking out, crossing things off the “to do” list, waking up and doing it all over again tomorrow. No, this is life with purpose and meaning, life that gives sight and feeds thousands and turns water to wine. A life that never truly dies.
Which is exactly why, as we are told in the last few verses, that there were others who wanted him dead – those who’d been watching from a distance, those who’d seen these signs and found themselves more afraid than inspired. To end the story at Lazarus’ unbinding is to fail to tell the whole story – because, as John immediately reminds us in the following verses, not everyone was unbound. The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? They wanted him dead because they were afraid. And they weren’t afraid because he had brought a dead man back to bios life. No, it was the zoe life that Jesus could offer the whole world – that’s what terrified them. Because they knew the only power they had was the power to take life, not give it.
I am the resurrection and the Zoe life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. You and I, people of God, we are inheritors of this zoe life. How are we sharing it with the world? In the face of those who cling to hate and fear, those who embrace all the wrong kinds of power, how are we exuding zoe life?
In our church?
In our families?
In our schools and places of employment?
In our community?
In our human institutions?
In our world?
May we embrace the zoe life of Jesus Christ – not just the one that is to come, but more importantly, the one here and now. May we share that zoe life with the world.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation