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Saturday, 1 April 2017

on religious correctness and the loss of faith

9th March 2008

Ezekiel 37.1-14
Ps. 130
Romans 8.6-11
John 11.1-45

From the valley of dry bones to the calling forth of Lazarus there is much in today’s cluster of readings that should speak to us of new life. The famous and vivid scene from Ezekiel has spoken to Jewish and Christian societies for two thousand years and more, speaking of the God who breathes new life into dead humanity and dead human institutions. Similarly, if less poetically, Paul has spoken, even if he did not mean to, for two thousand years, contrasting the fleshliness of lives turned away from God and his Christ with the spirit-filled existence of lives open to God.
We don’t need to be Einsteins to see the contrast between lives invaded by love and lives closed to all that is positive and life-giving. Sadly we see the contrast around us all the time and every time we turn on our news. My sympathies, for example, may well be with the Palestinian people in the never-ending Middle Eastern conflict, but no-one in their wildest dreams could see the gunning down of eight students at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem as a life-giving or peace-breathing act.
But of our readings the raising of Lazarus is the most complex and demanding. It too speaks of new life, or of life called forth out of death. However it makes many demands on us. The event may or may not have been good news for Lazarus (it certainly was for his sisters) but in what way is it good news or edifying for us?  Our loved ones do not return from their tombs, and neither, we can assume will we. Or we cannot at least until God’s end of time. In what way is the peculiar event of Lazarus, whether we understand it literally or not, good news for us?
This moment in John’s gospel story is the seventh and last of the “signs” Jesus performs to elicit or provoke belief in his people. But, as if to prove that the spectacular will never convince the sceptical, this last miracle of bringing life out of death also initiates the beginning of the end for Jesus. Jesus himself announces to the bewildered onlookers, ‘this sickness will not end in death,’ but, ironically it will: in the verse that follow we find a new tone of darkness in the Fourth Gospel, as we make the transition from the story of the Signs of Jesus to the story of the Passion: Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 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.
Faced with the grief of the family of Lazarus Jesus asks hard questions. Jesus has just that moment identified himself with one of the great ‘I am’ statements of his ministry: ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ He confronts the grieving Martha with what might well be considered the key question of faith: ‘do you believe.’ It is not altogether an approach that would win the admiration of pastoral care courses, but it is a question that drives to the heart of this scene. Do you believe? And Martha says ‘yes.’ But there is no encounter with the heart of Martha, and it is instead the broken, belligerent, angry grief-stricken Mary who makes heart connection with Jesus. There is no need to ask the question when confronted by Mary’s pain: she is too broken to believe anything, except that her world has collapsed and her brother is dead.
At that moment of brokenness that the encounter with Jesus begins. Jesus, in the Greek, is both saddened and angered as Mary weeps at his feet, now joined by throngs of mourners. The anger may be at a society that leaves a woman’s life meaningless without her brother to own her and protect her. Or it may be because Jesus must now confront that deepest of all scars, untimely death, the very death he too is soon to face. He may even be angry because, no matter what he does in the minutes that follow, the crowd will not believe, and will be, symbolically, the same crowd that is soon to chant for his execution. It is the story we will sing on Good Friday:
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet they at these
Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.
The Lazarus story is not about resurrection, although some aspects of the way it is told may well give us a sense of looking ahead to the resurrection once we know the two stories. To this point in the Jesus story there is a temporary abeyance of death. It is a little like the healing ministries in our own experience. But as yet there is no resurrection and conquest of death as such. There is though an indication that both the tellers of the story and the Christian community since have felt this encounter was a sign of the divinity of Jesus, the one whose command is action. Come out, says Jesus, and Lazarus does, albeit still bound in the bindings of death. Later, when Jesus conquers death, the robes of death are cast aside.
We can’t tell what happened on that day long ago in Bethany. The story was set down some fifty years later, when all but one of the eye-witnesses of Jesus had gone to their reward. We can assume, since John was so emphatic that he was a reliable witness to the truth, that at the very least a miracle happened that day. The fact that early Christians were prepared to live and die by these claims they made about Jesus indicate that they felt there was more than an elaborate hoax going on here.
In the middle of our long passage though we get at least one very clear indication of how we should read the story. Jesus said to Martha , ‘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?’ Martha replies, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ,  the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ Yet for all her words she fails to grasp the potential that the Messiah represents. It is Martha, the one who professes, rather than Mary, the one who weeps, who tries to stop Jesus from rolling away the tomb. Perhaps Martha is the sign of the modern Church, limiting the risen Christ with professions of belief that are not really transformed into a living faith. Perhaps it is only when, like Mary, we throw ourselves in tears into the arms of Christ, that we will have leaned the meaning of prayer, and dry bones will walk.

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