John 11: 1-45
The Gospel of John is full of long and poignant stories. It seems we often only pay attention to this gospel in the season of Lent, and sometimes Advent. Perhaps that is what it is~a gospel of life and death. The lectionary for this week is exactly a recounting of life and death, literally, and one that underscores the impact that life and death have on community.
I have preached on this text before, it feels familiar. Yet this time what captures me is the line “This illness does not lead to death…” They are the words of Jesus. Words that are so easily forgotten in our daily lives. As a chaplain I saw how illness can radically change a life of an individual or family, sometimes even led to the end of the physical life. The line is paradox. It is wise for us to ever remember the line that repeats through out scripture “be not afraid”. Both illness and death have a way of making people afraid in our real lived lives. Illness and death do of course bring change, different kinds of change. Change frightens us, always. Jesus seems to be reminding us that illness does not always bring death. He is challenging a stigma that plauges humanity to this very day. We assume illness and change lead only to death. Of course, the paradox in this text is that illness does lead to death, and then back to life. That is the cycle of Lent. It is also the cycle of life, forgiveness, spiritual growth, and resurrection among others.
John 11 is of course the recounting of the resurrection of Lazarus from the grave. When Jesus is telling his followers that Lazarus’ illness would not led to Lazarus’ death, it seems that Jesus was pointing them to the larger picture of existence, one that his followers could not imagine. The disciples had no frame of reference for anyone returning from the dead. As if to make the point Jesus delays his return to Bethany. When Jesus arrives at Bethany there is no doubt among any assembled that Lazarus is dead, and buried.
That is when the unexpected happens. That is when Jesus reveals that something beyond human understanding is at work, and that something more powerful than death can triumph. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave, and out Lazarus comes to greet the professional mourners who have been hired to wail at the grave. People have all kinds of justifications to make sense of this account. Personally, I do not think it is a literary device in the gospel to foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. I think Lazarus was dead not sleeping, and I think he returned from that state to the living. I do not not know how it occurred other than through Jesus and powers we still do not understand. While I do not think it was foreshadowing, I do think Jesus may have been teaching those around him that there was more to life and death then their understanding.
I still think there is more to life and death than what we understand. My work as a chaplain in the hospital ICU wards and in hospice have only confirmed this belief. Although I have seen people resuscitated, I have never seen that done days after their death, after they have laid in the tomb. That is difference between resuscitation and resurrection~time. But this chapter of the Gospel of John and in the cycle of Jesus’s death and resurrection which we will celebrate and ponder in the weeks to come speak to us of something that, to me at least, is more intriguing than life and death. They speak to us of life after life in the flesh. What is beyond death? We don’t have answers for that. But as I ponder John 11, two things seem clear that Jesus loved his friend Lazarus and that life somehow exists after life in the flesh–if the former was not true how would Lazarus or Jesus return? Resurrection is more than an issue of time it also speaks to us of love for the companionship of the other, and God’s love for us. “This illness…”, this living, “…does not lead to death” is one thing that my work with persons who are dying has confirmed for me beyond any shadow of doubt.