Fifth Sunday of Lent; 29 March 2020; Lent 4A (RCL); Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45.
This is puzzling episode in John’s Gospel. Why does Jesus delay two days? Why does Thomas say, “Let us go die with him?” Is he speaking about Lazarus or Jesus? Why does Jesus grandstand for the crowd? There is so much misdirection in this passage, it will require digging to figure it out.
I think the first clue is that when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, we are told that the “dead man” came out. This is a resuscitation, not a resurrection. Lazarus is still wrapped in his grave cloths; when the beloved disciple entered Jesus’ tomb, he saw the strips of cloth and the cloth that covered Jesus’ face neatly folded off to the side. John wants to draw a stark contrast between Lazarus’ resuscitation and Jesus’ resurrection.
Perhaps the signal misdirection occurs in the exchange between Jesus and Martha. Martha comes to Jesus and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I wonder if this is John’s community grappling with what scholars call the delay of the parousia. Jesus was supposed to return before this generation of Christians died. There is a hint of that in the 21st chapter, when Peter misinterprets Jesus’ comment about whether or not the beloved disciple would remain until Jesus came.
Jesus replies to Martha that her brother will rise again. Martha says that she knows that he will rise on the last day. Jesus responds, “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 says, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”
That is not the question Jesus asked. Martha misunderstands. When Jesus arrives at the tomb, he is deeply angered in his spirit. The translations say ‘disturbed’ but the word is furious. He is angry at the misunderstanding. The Greek uses that word twice. Resurrection is not resuscitation, and the crowd doesn’t get it. When he tells them to roll away the stone, Martha says, “It’s been four days. There will be a stench.” Clearly, she doesn’t understand.
When things go wrong, we want to know where God is in the middle of the confusion and hurt. And if God shows up, we want things to go back to the way they were. If that’s what happens, we had better be ready for Martha’s observation: it will stink. When Jesus encounters Mary at the tomb, he tells her not to hold on to him, because he has not yet embarked to his God and our God, his Father and our Father. The resurrection is a journey toward God, not a restoration of the past.
In the midst of this pandemic, we are going to want things to go back to the way they were before it all happened. But, it won’t happen, at least not if we let God into the mix. Jesus tells the crowd to unbind Lazarus and let him go. We will have to unwrap the grave clothes of the past if we are going to come again to life. And we have to pass through death in order to begin the journey toward God.