First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 5

William Loader

Lent 5: 29 March  John 11:1-45

This another great narrative in John’s gospel, a well chosen sequel to John 4 and John 9 in the previous weeks. The verses which end the previous chapter (10:40-42) take us back to where the earthly ministry began: Jesus and John the Baptist. The effect is twofold. We are reminded of the difference between Jesus and John; John did no ‘signs/miracles’ (10:41). Jesus is greater - a major concern of the author. And, secondly, Jesus really is the one whom the Baptist predicted (10:41). The broader impact of these two verses is that they prepare us for the climax of the account of Jesus’ ministry. We are heading towards death and resurrection!

The story of Jesus and Lazarus, like the other great narratives of John 4 and John 9, operates at two levels - at least two! At the basic level (Nicodemus’s level) it tells the story of bringing a dead person back to life (who will eventually die like other human beings). Like the healing of the blind man in John 9 or the lame man in John 5 it is a miracle. John believes in miracles and is able to convey to us a sense of what the death meant for the people involved. It was real: Jesus wept! That verse alone is worth a sermon in contexts where the gospel is understood as all light and joy.

As the drama unfolds at the basic level we have a number of scenes. Martha and later Mary affirm that if Jesus had been present Lazarus would not have died. Jesus responds to the distress of Mary and her friends. Jesus is very fond of the family and of Lazarus, which has led some to speculate whether Lazarus might be the enigmatic ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’ of whom we hear elsewhere. Jesus had deliberately postponed his response for strategic reasons. In the larger story the raising of Lazarus will set off a chain of events leading eventually to Jesus’ journey through suffering to glory. All these and other details fit the story at the basic level.

We do not have to travel far into the story before we see that something else is also going on here. Jesus’ response that Lazarus’s sickness was not terminal may reflect an earlier form of the story in which Jesus really did assess the situation wrongly, but it is not the case here in John. ‘This sickness will not lead to death’ eventually becomes true. That it takes place ‘for the glory of God’ interprets the sickness (and death) as having a purpose (with all the theological issues that raises), but the outcome will be: Jesus, ‘the Son of God, will be glorified’. Passages like John 17 show that John portrays Jesus’ path of suffering and death as leading back to the Father’s glory, ie. his glorification. Jesus knows that. The hearers of the gospel know that. His disciples and others in the narrative do not. This creates irony in the passage.

The irony is apparent in 11:8-10 where the disciples (cannot help but) miss the point, because going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die is Jesus’ plan. Jesus’ response about light and darkness reminds us of his affirmation that he is the light of the world. The period of his ministry is coming to an end. Darkness is coming! A similar irony follows in 11:11-16 where again the disciples are missing the point and Jesus is speaking in riddles (from their perspective), but we the hearers know it all makes sense! We smile sadly at Thomas’s words in 11:16: some will die with Jesus - or, at least, for him. Indeed they will.

The two meetings, first of Martha, then of Mary, with Jesus sit neatly in the centre of the narrative. They have the effect of highlighting Jesus’ proclamation that he is the resurrection and the life (11:25-26). Martha typifies faith: she believes in Jesus’ power; she believes in a day of resurrection. We should assume the same for Mary (whose quieter character is reminiscent of what we read in Luke). The Jewish crowd is also important for the basic level of the narrative. Their reports and the controversies which ensue will bring Jesus to death - and then to resurrection! On the way we pass through the description of distress, of weeping, of the smell of the corpse, of the dramatic emergence of the embalmed body, and of wonder and excitement. But, above the drama at that basic level, hovers a higher meaning which comes to expression in Jesus’ response to Martha.

Jesus declares: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone believing in me, even if they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ (11:25-26). At the basic level it is not, in fact, true: Lazarus will eventually die. But it is not meant to be understood as applying to that level. Rather, like the statements that Jesus is the bread of life and the light of the world, it is making a different point. It is typical of John’s gospel that it can be read at both levels. Because it uses the words, ‘even if they die’, we might think of what happened to Lazarus. ‘Will live’ introduces the point of ambiguity. At the level of the narrative this is also true of Lazarus (until he dies again!), but the implications of such a statement would be that any believer who dies will be similarly brought back to life for a while in a literal sense. That is about as absurd as when Nicodemus thinks literally about being born a second time (3:3-5).

The point of the saying, and ultimately of the narrative as a whole, is to make and celebrate the claim that people who believe in Jesus find life. It is eternal life, which includes timelessness or eternity in the temporal sense, but the focus is quality not quantity. It is sharing the life of God here and now and forever. The claim made in 11:25-26 uses the narrative as a springboard to jump to a different level of reality that leaves the original story behind and no longer applies to it. People who remain at the basic level of the story will have a faith like that of Martha and Mary. They need to move beyond that. If they do not, they will be left looking for the next miracle and failing to see, that from John’s perspective the miracles are signs of something else.

As we retell the story today we will have some who are as happy with the miracle as John was. We will have others who find such reports problematic and question the point of telling them if they are not repeatable in other situations of need. For the former an event becomes the setting for a claim which goes far beyond it. For the latter the narrative is a mythical drama, but to make the same claim.  

To acclaim Jesus as resurrection and life is ultimately to say something about God and to do so we need to ensure we think theologically. How do we understand this God who through Christ is shown as life and nourishment? We then find ourselves talking about compassion and challenge. John’s gospel keeps doing this: making claims which need careful exposition because the content is implied. At worst the claims become slogans of propaganda which are made also about others (that they are truth, the way, etc). At best we tell the whole story and know its summary: God so loved the world; God is compassion. That is the light that challenges the darkness, the truth that challenges the falsehood, the caring that challenges the abandonment - and so leads from death to life.

Epistle: Lent 5:  29 March  Romans 8:6-11