“Do You Believe This?” – 4/10/11 – John 11

The title for this sermon comes from a line that Jesus asks Martha when he is talking with her about the death of her brother, Lazarus.  Jesus 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.  Do you believe this?”

Truth be told, I’ve never known quite what to do with this Lazarus story.

What do you do with a story about a man who has been dead four days and is miraculously called out of the grave, stumbling out mummy like with his grave wrappings dangling from his arms and legs?

Is this poetry?  Is this legend?  Is this historical narrative?  Is this its own genre without a name? 

Historically, the church has simply called it Gospel, good news.  But I need more help.  What’s the good news here?

The story in John 11 is working with some of the most fundamental aspects of our humanity – death, life, family, friendship, loss and grieving, reunion and celebration.  But my post-Enlightenment mind gets tripped up on biological facts.  Such as: dead and decaying cells and tissues in bodies do not spontaneously revive and organize into their former structure.  They get metabolized by bacteria and little bits of each piece of this former life make their way into countless other life forms that themselves have a limited lifespan and undergo the same pattern of growth and decay.

Good news?  Maybe in some mystical/spiritual way, that we are all composed of the materials of previous life forms, and that we pass ourselves, our literal physical selves, on to future generations.  A kinship of creatures kind of thing.  But that’s a different story.  It’s clearly not the good news that’s being communicated here.   

It’s easier to know what to do with a story like the one in Ezekiel 37.  Here it’s clear that we’re in dreamland – let in on a vision that the prophet is given by the Lord.

Ezekiel says, “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and the Lord brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  Spirit led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.”   

The prophet of the Babylonian exile, the national catastrophe that devastated his people, is brought in on a scene that is something of a visual display of the state of the nation.  This valley, this low point in the terrain, is full of human remains.  Lazarus was four days gone, but this is way beyond that.  Everything that could be metabolized by bacteria has already disappeared ages ago and there’s nothing but scattered, disconnected bones.  Dry bones.  Very dry bones, observes Ezekiel.     

The Spirit asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?”  Ezekiel perhaps had his biological doubts.  His answer is a good one: “O Lord God, you know.” 

The Lord then commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones.  Preach a sermon to these here bones, Ezekiel.  Tell them to reverse the decay process and have sinew and tissue and skin come up and cover them and come to life.  In his vision, Ezekiel preaches to the bones, then preaches to the breath, which comes from the four winds and enters these reassembled bodies, and a vast multitude stands on its feet and comes to life.

The scattered, devastated, left for dead, people of Israel are revived and resurrected through the power of the Spirit of God.

This is a vision, a holy dream.  Perhaps a stretch biologically; but spiritually, a revelation of God’s life-giving power – giving hope where there was no hope.  Breathing life where there was no life.  Can you see it?  Do you believe this?

It’s easier to accept the hopes and miraculous transformations of a vision than it is a real life situation. 

If we compare Ezekiel’s dry bone vision of devastation, with the present day devastation of the Japan tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, the Katrina hurricane; and if we ask ourselves, “Mortals, can these bones live?  Can these places live again?” perhaps the best we can do is to echo the prophet: “O Lord, you know.”  We try to remain hopeful, and look, straining our necks to see signs of resurrection amidst the rubble.

But the Lazarus story is neither a prophetic dream nor a modern day humanitarian crisis.  It’s a story in our scripture that tells about the death of a friend that Jesus dearly loved, and how Jesus went about raising him from the dead.

The story only appears in the gospel of John, yet plays an absolutely pivotal role in that gospel.  It is located in chapter 11 in this gospel with 21 chapters, literally smack dab in the middle of the whole thing.  Good news central.  While in the other gospels it is Jesus’ clearing of the temple that is the final straw that causes the authorities to conspire against Jesus to bring about his death, in John, it is the raising of Lazarus that triggers the plot against Jesus.  Let me read the portion that comes directly after the raising of Lazarus:

“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did (raised Lazarus from the dead), believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’  He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”  John 11:45-53

If we think about this for a minute, it is rather stunning logic.  In Pharisaic reasoning, which John is always putting in opposition to Jesus’ way of seeing things, raising a man from the dead destroys a nation.  While putting a man to death saves a nation.  The resurrection of Lazarus, which anticipates the resurrection of Jesus, is a threat to the stability of the people.  Yet killing a man, having a convenient scapegoat on which to blame all the nation’s ills, unites the nation and saves it.

This relates directly to the story of the blind man from last week, when Jesus reveals that the way of sin, that the Pharisees, and just about all of us, are caught up in, is this very mechanism of exclusion and casting out one for the purpose of saving the group.  It’s easy to unite against a common enemy.  It gives us a sense of righteousness and it is one of the most unifying forces we can find to “save” us from our inherent instability.  The only problem: it’s based entirely on a system that requires death, lynching, scapegoating, casting out the other. 

Resurrection, on the other hand, is the reversal of this process, destabilizing everything.  How can you build a stable group when you can’t even count on who’s alive and who’s dead?

To get a taste of how Pharisaic logic is still with us, consider how much more valuable Martin Luther King Jr. is to our nation as a dead man than an alive man.  With him dead, we can selectively remember the parts of his message that we like.  We can praise him for his bold dream, his courageous actions, and his quest to unify all people under the banner of love.  That’s something we can all get behind.  But if he were still alive, or, miraculously, brought back to life, imagine how divisive he would be in standing up for workers, for the poor, in speaking out against war, against incarceration of our youth, against materialism.  The high priest says, “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”  Resurrection is a highly disruptive force.  If you want control and unity, go with death.

So is the resurrection of Lazarus just a prelude to the resurrection of Jesus?  A dress rehearsal?  A dry run before the real thing?  A pre-interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death, in order that we can better understand it when it happens?  Maybe.  Maybe it’s more.  I’ve still been trying to figure that out myself.

I think John would have done himself, and all of us, a favor, if he would have had Lazarus be dead for only a half day, or something like that.  Like the story in the other gospels when Jesus arrives at a home just after a young girl has died, just as the mourners are gathering, and Jesus declares that she is only sleeping and says to her, “Child, get up!” and her spirit returns.

If this were the case with Lazarus we could at least accept that this might be a similar situation, one of those Princess Bride scenarios when the person is only “mostly dead.”  If you’ve seen the movie, which I truly hope you have, you might remember the scene where the friends take Wesley to see Miracle Max to see if he can revive him after Wesley has died in the Pit of Despair.  While his friends believe him to be dead, Miracle Max pronounces the good news that: “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.  There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.”

This at least would be a somewhat believable scenario.  But instead, John goes to great lengths to assure us that Lazarus is all dead.  Jesus could have gone sooner to see him when he was sick, but dawdles around and, when he finally gets going to see him, arrives when Lazarus has been dead four days.  This is precisely one day after the three day period when Jews believed that the soul still lingered with the body before departing.  So Lazarus is truly, all dead.  In case we still have doubts, John narrates the detail that there was a stench coming from Lazarus’ tomb as Jesus approached it.

Yet, in this story, even “all dead” is not beyond the scope of the divine power working through Jesus.  Lazarus lives, disrupts the whole order of things, and, as we know, causes quite a raucous with the leaders who see this as a threat to the stability of their world.

Despite our biological hang-ups with the story, and despite John’s all dead emphasis which makes it even harder to believe, even if we wanted to, I’ve come to land at a different point in the story that, at least in this week’s study, has provoked me even more than these other things.

This goes back to Jesus’ conversation with Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who is mourning his loss.  In verse 23, Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Or, in other words, “there will be resurrection.”  To this, Martha answers, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Martha, in her response, tries to give some kind of confession of faith in a future resurrection of the dead.  To which Jesus answers, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.” 

“I AM,” is one of the titles that Jesus uses for himself throughout the gospel of John.  I AM the vine.  I AM the shepherd.  I AM the gate.  I AM the way.  It’s a claim that closely identifies his being with the divine.  God’s self-title for God’s self at the burning bush in Exodus is “I AM who I AM.” 

The self-selected name of God, which Jesus identified with, is a present tense verb of being.  I AM.  It is a statement of pure presence, pure being.  I AM.  Here, now, in this moment, the very power of being itself is present.  Jesus asks, “Do you believe this?”

Martha wants to talk about belief in a future resurrection.  Jesus brings it back to present.  I Am Resurrection.  Resurrection is.  The power of new life which destabilizes our security and our grasp on what we thought to be true, IS.

Which is harder to believe?  That resurrection could happen someday in the far off future?  Or that resurrection is a present reality, available to us, just as it is in this story for Lazarus?  That even though we count ourselves, or our brother, or sister, all dead, stinking to high heaven, that the Spirit of Life has the power to call us out of the grave and breath new life into us?  Do you believe this?

I know, at least, which is more of a risk to believe.  Belief in the Christ Spirit as I AM, as powerfully present, throws everything off balance.  It might even change how we experience life this very day.