(This sermon was preached on March 17, 2013 at Christ Church, Bronxville, NY, and posted at the request of a parishioner.)
My friends in Christ,
I find the Gospel reading today simply astonishing, for a number of reasons. The main reason may have slipped people’s notice because it’s glanced over so quickly in the narrative itself. Lazarus is alive! Jesus has come back to Bethany to visit his friends, and there is Lazarus, sitting at the table and eating along with others, as if there is nothing remarkable about a dead guy coming back to life. He is not the center of attention in this story. Jesus and Mary and Judas are.
Mary, out of devotion and gratitude and reverence, is anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume. Imagine the lush fragrance in that room, the soft touch of her long hair on his bare feet as she kneels before him. Imagine how emotional she must have felt at this reunion of Jesus and Lazarus, and how inadequate her response to Jesus must have felt. How do you thank Jesus for raising your brother from the dead?
When we Christians talk about resurrection, we almost always mean Jesus. The Roman Catholic church that I attended as a child was called The Church of the Resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The church’s name was quite clear: the resurrection that we commemorate is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s the only resurrection that changed the course of history.
And yet, a resurrected man already sits at the table before the death of Jesus. And if we cast back further into the Hebrew Bible, we find that the prophet Elijah prayed to God to restore the life of the widow’s son in Zarephath. And God brought the boy back to life.
So really, the resurrection of Jesus that we anticipate in Lent is not a unique occurrence in terms of the Bible.
It is, however, unique and startling to us. I’m startled when this story tells me that Lazarus is hanging out at the dinner table. This is not supposed to happen. The law of nature says that when things die, they stay dead. This is the horrible sting of death. This is the horrible sting that makes Jesus weep when he hears the news of Lazarus’s death. It is the sting that any of us feel when we have lost a loved one. This sting causes us to be surprised at Lazarus’s appearance at the table.
It stings because we know this is usually not the way death goes. Our lost loved ones do not sit at the table. I, too, had a sick brother who died as a young man. I knew his diagnosis was a death sentence because he was diagnosed with the same illness that our mother had when we were young. For eight years, I watched him get sicker and sicker and decline, all the time preparing myself and praying. I knew I would lose him someday, and then he would be gone. Forever.
You would think that those of us who have lost family members in some untimely way would read this Gospel and say, “Why Lazarus? Why not my brother? Why not my mother? Why not my sister? Why not my spouse or parents or child? Why not my loved one?”
And yet, that is not our typical reaction to the resurrection of Lazarus—or Jesus or the widow’s son for that matter. Of course, we may sometimes have bitter moments when we reflect upon loss, asking God why it couldn’t have been different. But in many cases, I think we Christians are surprised that, even in the midst of grief, we experience amazement, hope, and gratitude. It defies expectations.
One of the charges that the New Atheists have levelled against Christians is that we have constructed this vast delusion about the risen Christ and life after death to cope with our anxiety about dying. We are placating ourselves with a fantasy of afterlife to avoid facing our mortality head on.
That charge makes absolutely no sense to me. First of all, we Christians begin Lent by contemplating our own mortality. “To dust you shall return.” And then we spend the rest of Lent contemplating the impending death of Jesus Christ.
Second, who here thinks that being a Christian is easy? Sometimes, I would rather not forgive my enemies. It’s hard to do and doesn’t always feel fulfilling, at least at first. Sometimes I would rather not ask for forgiveness, either, because that also can be hard and embarrassing and uncomfortable. Sometimes, like Judas, I would rather not kneel at the feet of Jesus in gratitude. Instead, I want to complain to Jesus and belittle others for not taking care of the world as well as I would if given the chance. I just don’t see how Christianity can be considered a haven of emotional ease for the fearful. It is a challenging spiritual practice for those who engage it.
However… what atheists say is true about my Christian experience of grief. Many Christians do experience hope in the midst of grief. In my experience, those positive feelings are not self-generated by my own psyche, but sent from beyond–from God. After my brother’s death, whenever I began to feel the weight of grief descending upon me, I also felt a strange warmth and comfort both within and around me, strengthening me, giving me hope, and assuring me that all was well. I had a traditional Christian understanding that my brother had passed beyond to a heavenly existence, that he had been transformed in some way. I feel secure in that belief, that my brother is free from pain and experiencing joy.
But what amazed me is that I felt myself being healed, too. I became aware that God was taking care of me, Janine, in those moments of grief. I noticed that God was noticing me as an individual, not as some nameless minion in the great army of God. But as a grieving sister who was telling Jesus, “I do believe in the resurrection.” I felt healed by God in a way that seemed very much like resurrection. I felt filled with hope instead of despair; mostly peace instead of mostly upset; and to my surprise, love instead of bitterness.
If Jesus had suddenly appeared in my kitchen, I would have knelt at his feet and anointed them with expensive perfume, even though my brother was gone, even though my brother no longer sits at the table. That’s how grateful I was for the healing power of Christ. I was reborn.
In his book titled Surprised by Hope, the Anglican Biblical scholar and bishop N.T. Wright argues that Christians have the wrong idea about the idea of resurrection. We’ve been told that it means something that will happen when we die. Our souls will leave our bodies and go to some wondrous place. Or we have the evangelical idea from the Left Behind series in our heads: there will be this cataclysmic Second Coming, and some will be taken up bodily and some left.
In the Apostles’ Creed, we profess that we believe in the resurrection of the body, but we don’t quite know what we mean. N.T. Wright points out that the Biblical witness about resurrection is very different: Jesus comes back in the body. And so do Lazarus and the widow’s son. He argues that this should tell us something about the resurrection of the body. It is not only about a disembodied future in heaven, but an ongoing work happening in our bodies on Earth.
This attitude toward resurrection involves our participation, of course. Our hope should not be simply in a future of God’s making, but in a present healing of ills, from the personal level to the societal level; to a bringing forth of new life that rises out of the tombs of despair and poverty, sickness and violence. It’s a new life in which everyone can sit at the table, healed and hungry for more life.
The Gospel story today is full of resurrection—and I don’t mean the main attraction, the one we are waiting for on Easter. I mean the ongoing resurrection of our bodies. Lazarus is alive–and getting his sister Martha to wait on him! And Mary is resurrected, too, in the sense that she has new life as a sister and as a disciple. And there is the hint of resurrection for Judas Iscariot in this story, too. He is not the only one who betrayed Jesus; so did Peter. So he should not be vilified more than other disciples. The Gospel today calls him a thief, but it’s important to remember that the thief on the cross next to Jesus was the first to enter heaven with Jesus. Notice that Jesus speaks to Judas with the kindness of a patient teacher. It is as if he knows that Judas suffers in his own private hell. He knows that Judas wants deliverance.
And the rest of us hunger for deliverance, too. Resurrection, in the form of healing and deliverance, is part of what we celebrate and give thanks for at the Eucharistic table and in our healing prayer. Notice that these are bodily practices. We bring our bodies to the altar. We kneel as Mary knelt at the feet of Jesus in a posture of gratitude, awe, and worship. We feel the press of the bread in our hands. We taste the goodness of God in the body and blood of Christ. We feel the anointing oil upon our foreheads. And even as we ask for God’s deliverance, even as we realize that we need healing and forgiveness, we can be assured that the resurrection of the body has already begun. Because Lazarus is alive, my brothers and sisters in Christ.
Lazarus is alive.
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C