The Living Dead: new life, but not just for Lazarus
There are some Sundays in which it is not clear what the Old Testament and the New Testament readings have to do with each other. Today is not an example of that. Today it is obvious that the compilers of the lectionary put two text together that were about what is dead being brought to life: Lazarus from the tomb at Jesus’ word, and the dry bones given skin and muscle and bone at the word of Yhwh, in the voice of Ezekial.
As a fan of fantasy fiction as a young person, I would go through author phases. One phase took me through the books of Lloyd Alexander, who wrote the ‘Black Cauldron’ series of novels, in which the young hero Taran seeks, with his trusty cohorts, to vanquish the evil Death-Lord Arawn, whose power threatens to destroy the land. One of the tools of the Death-Lord is the ‘black cauldron’ with which Arawn brings the dead back to life but a life that has an automaton, robot-like killing purpose.
It is always this that I picture when I read the vision of Ezekiel bringing the dry bones to life. Especially because of the step by step process of bones to muscles to flesh to breath – and described as a “vast multitude” connoting for me a military host. And I shudder with a kind of horror when I think of the reeking, shroud-covered Lazarus emerging, mummy-like from the tomb. We have plenty of Hollywood-created images to enliven our imaginations about what the living dead are like.
Yet as in the zombie movies, as in fantasy novels, the story is not about the dead ones. In most fiction, the story is about the conquering hero. In the Lazarus story, in which we could probably say that Jesus is the ‘hero’ it is about the other characters – what do they learn? How do they overcome? Lazarus’ name is all over this story, but it is not a story about him. It is a story about a) the disciples b) Mary and Martha and c) the Jews. What happens between Jesus and Lazarus brings all the other characters along on a journey. As so often happens with Gospel characters, they move from misunderstanding and incomprehension to a place of understanding and belief.
I will work from back to front in away – the last ones named and yet never given names in the passage that we heard dramatized – the Jews. They ‘believed in him.’ And yet ‘the Jews’ did not start out as ‘believers’ in this story. The first we hear of the Jews is that they had been trying to stone Jesus the last time he was in the area. Jesus’ friends say to him in vs. 8, “Rabbi, just now the Jews were trying to stone you…” So how did they get from that to vs 45 in which “many of the Jews…believed in him”?
It’s not totally clear to me that the Jews who wanted Jesus to be dead are the same Jews who are compassionately consoling the sisters who are grieving for the dead. But by using the same epithet in each case, John must at least have wanted to convey a connection. They come along in steps: in the first reference using their power and their certainty in their knowledge of what is true to seek death for this radical and arrogant teacher who seems to threaten their comfortable understanding of what life – even a righteous life – ought to be.
In the second reference they are sympathetic – mourning for their friend and neighbour, a good Jewish man for whom they believe death to be the end. They have also had some experience of Jesus’ ability to perform acts of power and healing: they reference his bringing of sight to the blind man – yet they themselves are still blind, skeptical of Jesus’ motivation in coming now, after his friend is dead, and of his power to act. The say ‘see how he loved him’ when they see Jesus weeping over his friend. And yet they wonder, if he has the power to heal as he did with the blind man, why did he not do so for Lazarus.
Two weeks from now we will read the texts about Jesus rising from his own death, and in his resurrection confirming that God has power over death, confirming the ministry of radical love that Jesus enacted. When Jesus hollers in the cave, “Lazarus, come out!” he is giving the Jews, in a crowd around the tomb, a foretaste of what God will do in Easter. And in face, what God can do for them. In this final reference to the Jews in this passage they have come to believe. They are no longer the ones seeking death for Jesus, but realizing instead that this man can offer them new life. They, like we, are the living dead, not any movie zombie, not Lazarus. Jesus can provide not only new sight, as we heard Weldon articulate so well last week, but a new life – in this world and with God.
The Jews are not the only ones who wonder why Jesus could not have acted sooner. Mary and Martha, who do know and love Jesus also ask questions about why Jesus had not been there and helped sooner. Surely he could have done something to heal their brother. They had gone so far as to send someone with a message to Jesus (not a short distance) that his dear friend was ill, hoping, it seems, that he could have done something to prevent the death. But Martha and Jesus have a conversation that goes like this:
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (she seems to still believe that Jesus can do something ) 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (she doesn’t seem to quite get that he can act immediately, as she alludes to the common understanding of the resurrection of the dead in the end of the world.)
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is the clearest articulation thus far in John of Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the One coming into the world. When God comes into the world, God does not allow things to stay as they are – the world will change! This new Messiah is not like any other king or ruler that has come before. He has turned old understanding, old ways of being on their head. In the Jesus-world power is servitude, those who have been captive to oppression can be set free. Can we perceive it? The reign of God is here.
The disciples were in a perpetual cycle of perceiving it, and then losing sight of it. Here, Jesus and his disciples start out in Perean Bethany – a place on the other side of the Jordan river from Bethany , which is close to Jerusalem . It seems they are relatively safe from the torment of religious leaders and hostile groups. In Bethany and Judea generally, there had been some conflict even to the points of stone-throwing earlier in Jesus’ ministry when he had made claims about his intimate relationship with God and his ability to grant salvation. Now they were among people who had been friendly to John the Baptist and were now receptive to Jesus’ ministry.
It is here that the disciples and Jesus hear from their friends about the illness of Lazarus. The disciples are afraid – if not for themselves, at least for Jesus. When he says to them, ‘let’s go back to Judea .’ they reply ‘are you crazy, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you want to go back there? Do you want to get into even more trouble?’
Jesus reply to them is cryptic – “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk in the day do not stumble because they see the light of this world. But those who walk during the night stumble, because the light is not in them.” This could be very literally a reference to the fact that it wouldn’t be that dangerous because they would only have to travel during the daylight hours and could arrive well within the twelve hours of the day.
My speculation leads me to deduce that it is more than likely to have also, and perhaps primarily a meaning which is related to one of John’s pet metaphors. He often uses imagery about light and dark. Jesus and his disciples who know the light of God are secure in that relationship and will be safe (at least for now). The ones who walk in darkness, unknowing, unseeing, will not be a danger because of their stumbling. In any case, he pushes on by saying, ‘Lazarus is asleep and I need to go wake him up.’ Danger or no, Jesus is going – will the disciples get on board?
But still they are confused…”What? Asleep? Then he’ll be fine. What’s so urgent?
So Jesus states plainly, “Guys, Lazarus is dead.” And he goes on to tell his witless disciples that because of their delay in leaving, because Jesus was no there for the illness, he can now show God’s power in ‘awakening’ Lazarus, so that they may believe. And now, finally there seems to be some kind of understanding, since Thomas answers “Let us go that we may die with him.”
Now the understanding to which they come is a question because who ‘him’ is, is a question. Could Thomas have been saying, we’re already dead anyway, following this guy around, learning what we’re learning, and doing what we’re doing. Powerful ones don’t like us healing, and giving sight and associating with the unclean, so let’s just go and be ready to die. Let us go that we may be ready to die with Jesus who is our teacher and our leader and the Messiah.
Or could he have been saying, Let us go, that we may die with Lazarus, recognizing the great work that Jesus was about to do in Lazarus and wanting to experience it either literally or by seeing it somehow realize anew the power of God in Jesus. There is new life available in this action, but not just for Lazarus. Thomas is ready to risk – to face the stones with Jesus for the sake of a new life – Lazarus’ and his own. If death cannot stop Jesus, what are some sticks and stones. This will be a glimpse of what is to come.
Last weekend we had a meeting of the congregation in which we made the decision to welcome into our midst an intern who has openly disclosed to us that she is lesbian. I did not see or hear any stone throwing in this meeting, but I did hear and identify with a fear that we could be targets, that our relationships outside this congregation will be in danger. I also heard some of Thomas’ willingness to face the risk for the sake of new life. It is uncertain what new life will look and feel like. We are seeking to follow Jesus. I hope we also humbly willing to die with Lazarus that Jesus can bellow at us ‘Come out’
Lazarus did not ask to be resurrected, and each of the disciples, the Jews and even Mary and Martha were taken along on this ride very much on the time table of Jesus’ working out. There were surprises and shifts in understanding. What is alive is dead and what is dead can be alive. We are the living dead. “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?”