Lazarus Unbound

Featured image: Jacob Epstein’s Lazarus Unbound, New College, Oxford

On Passion Sunday – Lent V – we hear the story of the Raising of Lazarus as the seventh in the series of John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom. John has an overarching-transpersonal message he wants us to hear. This overarching message is that Jesus is the Son of God, the Light that has come into the world as the Word of God – who was with God before the beginning of creation; that we come into relationship with God through hearing and accepting this message. John weaves his overarching-transpersonal message into a rich fabric of arresting personal human-interest stories.

John places his seventh sign story at the Bethany home of his friend Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Bethany is two miles from Jerusalem, conveniently placing Jesus within commuting distance for the start of his final week in Jerusalem.

We’re attracted to the narrative richness of John’s storytelling. But we’re also put off by their complexity for John is always weaving two parallel storylines at the same time. We’re jolted as the narrative wanders back and forth between his overarching-transpersonal and personal human-interest storylines – between the storyline about Jesus’ relationship to the glory of God and the intimate personal storyline of love, loss, and friendship.

In the personal human-interest storyline, the disciples and Jesus are just across the Jordan in the region of Perea having fled Judea after the Judean officials threatened Jesus’ life. Bethany is also in Perea, so they are not too far away when they receive news that Jesus’ friend Lazarus – has fallen gravely ill. His sisters’ request Jesus to come immediately. The disciples are puzzled by Jesus’ response to this urgent request for help. Instead of rushing off to Bethany Jesus simply says that Lazarus’ plight is not one that will lead to his death but is an opportunity for the glory of God.

So here is an example of the John moving rapidly between storylines. In response to the disciples’ human question Jesus gives a transpersonal answer – which at the level of the personal human-interest storyline must have struck them as a callous response. John then moves equally abruptly back to the personal storyline – showing Jesus responding to the disciples’ anxiety by explaining that Lazarus merely sleeps, so no need to be alarmed.

There are other examples of abrupt transitions between storylines as when he answers the disciples’ anxiety about his going back to Judea having only just escaped being stoned there with a transpersonal explanation about walking in the light and stumbling in the dark. I imagine the disciples exchange of puzzled looks – thinking to themselves – now what’s he on about?

We see the interesting contrast between transpersonal and personal storylines in Jesus’ encounters first with Martha, and then her sister, Mary. Incidentally, we know both these women independently of John’s account here. Both Martha and Mary appear in Luke 10:38-42, from which we learn that Martha is the hyperactive one, while Mary is the contemplative. It’s no surprise that while Mary is being comforted indoors, Martha is out pacing the road on the lookout for Jesus’ approach.

Both sisters greet Jesus with identical words: Lord, if you had been here my brother Lazarus would not have died. Martha encounters Jesus within the personal human-interest storyline of friendship and loss but in his response to her, we are jolted back into the overarching-transpersonal storyline. In response to what is in effect Martha’s rebuke – really Jesus, how could you not have come immediately for now Lazarus is dead! – he subjects her to an examination of her belief in the resurrection – hardly evidence of a skilled pastoral manner here. He then identifies the resurrection with himself leading Martha to proclaim: Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. 

Jesus’ response to Martha focuses on the transpersonal -theological significance of Lazarus’ death as an opportunity, not for sorrow, but so that God might be glorified in the presence of the bystanders who will come to believe in him. In the overarching-transpersonal storyline the outcome is already preordained, so there’s no need for Martha to worry.

In contrast, his response to Mary who greets him with the same words as her sister has used, reveals Jesus now responding to Mary from within the personal-human interest story. John describes Jesus being greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. The result is that Jesus too begins to weep with Mary as John presents Lazarus’ death within the parallel storyline of human love and loss. Nowhere else, does Jesus appear more vulnerable – more human – than in his response to Mary. Together, both now weeping, they go to the tomb of friend and brother.

It is at the tomb we see how the overarching-transpersonal and personal human-interest storylines merge. Both storylines are about relationship. In the transpersonal storyline its Jesus awareness of his relationship with God. In the personal storyline it’s his experience of friendship with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Trust the lofty and theological John to offer us the most moving vignette of the importance of human friendship for Jesus. While unashamedly weeping over the death of his friend we see a moving picture of his compassion for this family of friends. In his command Lazarus come forth, Jesus articulates his human sorrow within the narrative of his transpersonal relationship with God.

Despite continued widespread views to the contrary, the raising of Lazarus is not a premonition of the resurrection, a kind of trial demonstration. Lazarus’ emergence from his tomb is simply resuscitation. Lazarus is returned to life for the somewhat specific purpose of glorifying God in the presence of some -note only some of the bystanders. It is not to set up a happily ever after ending. For in the act of glorifying God, Jesus drives others of those who witness his action into the arms of the Judean religious authorities – setting in motion the very resolve that will end in his arrest and death.

Lazarus’ restoration to life is a limited one-time offer only. Nothing is surer that at some future date he will die again. The theological point for John is that what begins in resuscitation will end in resurrection. If you want to know more about the difference between the two – you will need to tune in on Easter Day.

On Passion Sunday we are 14 days from the Great Three Days of Easter and I want to now to make some general comments about the significance of worship – particularly liturgical worship – that is – worship shaped by the traditions of ancient, catholic, and apostolic Christianity – which the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church preserves.

We can commemorate the events of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection at a personal level – attaching importance to them to the degree to which they break through the cacophony of noise and distraction at the level of our every-day preoccupations. At the level of personal association, we will treat the events of Jesus passion, death, and resurrection – as either spiritually meaningful to us in the here and now or as merely of historical significance.

In contrast, Liturgical Christianity commemorates these events not so much as a sequence of personal associations, but as collective memory reenacted in present time through participation in a great drama in distinct acts. Act 1 concerns Jesus preparation for his death – on the night before he died Jesus took bread. Act 2 is his death. Act 3 concerns God doing a new thing by raising Jesus to a new and transformed life.

In liturgy we are not commemorating historical events – that is looking back in time. We are bringing history to life in present-time – as if these events are happening for the first time.

Of course, we know how the drama ends. But like a Shakespeare play – our knowing how the play ends does not deprive us of experiencing the impact of the drama in new and unexpected ways. After all it’s one thing to read the play in the comfort of an armchair, but it’s always a more meaningful experience to attend its performance.

A few of us will he here on Maundy Thursday evening, though not enough of us. Many more of us may be here on Good Friday evening, though again never enough of us. A few of us will be here on Easter Eve for the retelling of our faith family story around the new fire of Easter concluding with the renewal of our baptismal covenant. Nearly all of us able to be here will no doubt be here on Easter Day. So let me leave you with this thought. None of us would be seriously content to arrive for the final act of a play having missed the preceding acts. It makes little sense to us to attend the conclusion of the play without having been present at its beginning – hint, hint!!

Mud in Your Eye

Last week in the archeology of a story I noted that John’s approach to story is different from that of Mark, Matthew and Luke where stories flow out of events. In John it’s the other way around. The event emerges out of the story.

A good example of this is the first of John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom – the much-loved story about the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Is this a real event or is it an event created by the story John tells to make a point about Jesus? John’s stories are created to reveal Jesus’ identity rather than as accounts of what did or did not happen.

Today we are two weeks away from the start of Holy Week – a week ending in the Great Three Days of Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the Fourth Sunday in Lent the scene opens onto John’s sixth Sign of the Kingdom – the healing of the man born blind. There’s only one Sign left after this – the raising of Lazarus and as its title suggests this is a time sensitive story that prepares us for the journey through Holy Week to the Great Three Days of Easter.

On the face of it – the healing of the man born blind is a story about two kinds of blindness. John wants us to see – ha – see, note the play on words – that this is not only a story about how Jesus cured a man’s physical blindness, but how he struggled with the community’s spiritual blindness – that is their refusal to see. It seems Jesus can restore physical sight but is powerless to remove a community’s blindness – which continues as a barrier preventing the dawning of deeper sight – that is – the discovery of insight.

I’m struck by the way John constructs this story. It’s not a story about any old blind man, it’s a story about a man born blind. It’s not a story about a man who loses his sight as the result of a misfortune. It’s a story about a man born into a state of blindness.

There are two groups of by-standers in this story. There is the man’s family and neighbors. Then there’s the godly -Jesus’ disciples and the serious religious types. The man’s neighbors are overjoyed when he gains his sight. The godly types are perplexed if not downright disconcerted.  They ask: Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus will have none of this. In answer to the question, he tells them, neither!

Jesus spits on the ground to make a poultice of mud and spreads it over the man’s eyes. There’s another whole sermon in this simple act. For here we again see the homeopathic principle in operation. The Hebrew for ground is adamah and the word for the first human being is Adam. Genesis tells us that Adam was made from adamah – the ground. We are formed out of the dust of the earth and it’s this same dust that holds the key to our healing. But I digress.

Having spread the mud poultice over the man’s eyes, Jesus tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He does so and returns able to see for the first time in his life – an outcome that amazes his family and neighbors. Yet for the godly among the by-standers, this is a deeply concerning outcome. Their question to Jesus is not how was this man born blind but who sinned that this man was born blind? Blindness is not the issue here, but sin – more particularly – punishment for sin.

Today we understand that in premodern societies illness and sin were closely aligned. Sin explained the arbitrariness of illness – why him and not me, why me and not her? We don’t think this way today because in the wake of advances in medicine we know better. Or maybe it’s just that we think we do.

Today, medical science offers us an explanation for illness. Medical science may explain how and even why someone develops an illness, but in the face of incurable illness knowing the how and why still leaves us with the unanswered question – why them and not me?  Medical science has no answer for the sheer arbitrariness of the way illness strikes some and not others. We’re quick to disavow sinful behavior as a cause for illness. Yet beneath the surface – accusations of carelessness and negligence in lifestyle often persist and are not a million miles away from a notion of sin and blame.

The why him and not me question lies at the heart of the who sinned question of the godly by-standers in John’s story. Medical science may explain the causes of illness, but it remains silent before the question of suffering and punishment. Sin as a cause of illness address the question of suffering and punishment head on.

No amount of medical knowledge can reassure us against the arbitrary and indiscriminate injustice of suffering. Nevertheless, we still seek reassurance in the way we try to distance those who suffer from those who don’t.

We’re not that different from the godly in John’s story. We have many ways of assigning blame to reassure ourselves that we are different from the ill who suffer. She’s only got herself to blame – we say if we’re brave enough or just think if we’re not. Afterall he should have worn a mask – or they should have been vaccinated – or even more far-fetched – it’s because they were vaccinated that they became vulnerable to infection. She should have smoked less, he should have drunk less, you should have not eaten so much.  Our need to pronounce judgement is endless. What matters is that we find an explanation for reassuring ourselves by denying our own vulnerability.

We draw distinctions between conditions we can reasonably catch and those we feel safe from catching. Allowing for the hypothetical that we all may develop cancer – we feel safe around cancer patients because after all they have it and we don’t. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are not a member of a vulnerable population that is genetically predisposed to diabetes or heart disease. We congratulate ourselves on controlling our food intake, drink in moderation, and exercise regularly. Protected by the illusion of reassurance we are too ready to sit in judgment of the afflicted.

As we continue to recover from the Corona Virus plague – as a society we’ve been shocked by how hard it is to maintain the fiction of a protective barrier between us and them. How easily we reverted to ancient fears of contamination from conditions transmittable on the air, through touch, or proximity. How quickly those in authority stoked public fear as we reverted to the ancient remedy of quarantine with all its attendant moral judgements. We’ve been painfully reminded of what it feels like to be treated as a plague carrier. We’ve quickly rediscovered that quarantine is as much a moral as it is a physical segregation.

Having worked for 18 years in acute mental health ministry, I’ve long pondered public fear of those who experience mental illness. Who says the practice of shunning is dead?

Following one of my first patient groups one man who seemed struck by my rapport with the group asked me if I’d ever had mental illness – to which I replied – so far I’ve escaped being diagnosed. Mental and emotional disturbance- whether it ascends to the degree of psychiatric diagnosis is a matter of there but for the grace of God go we.

John’s story of the man born blind is the sixth in his Seven Signs of the Kingdom – which are all theological stories constructed to reveal Jesus’ divine identity to those capable of moving from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight.  For John, Jesus and God are indivisible – a feature that distinguishes his Christology from that of the other Evangelists. Yet, the story of the man born blind is also a story about our denial of human vulnerability and our conflation of illness and suffering as punishment. In John’s story of the healing of the man born blind Jesus challenges us to open our eyes to a new world view – and turn away from judgement and embrace our common solidarity.

If we can what will we discover in moving from blindness to sight and from sight to insight?

In his 1947 novel The Plague Albert Camus echoes John’s portrayal of the tension between Jesus and the godly-bystanders – his disciples and the Pharisees – when he contrasts the responses of Oran’s doctor and the parish priest. The priest condemns the suffering he sees explaining it away as God’s punishment for sin. Who has sinned – Jesus disciples ask him? This man has sinned by healing on the sabbath – the Pharisees complain. Both seek to distance themselves from the arbitrary, indiscriminate nature of illness and suffering.

Camus’ doctor knows that suffering is a cosmic tragedy -and if accepted as such leads to a softening of the heart. Camus’ doctor says that the only way to fight the plague is with decency. When asked what decency means, the doctor responds that decency: is doing my job.

What is that?

Decency and doing our job means committing to living lives of courage -trust fueled by hope. Not the fairytale hope in faith as some magical protection, some divine insurance policy, a denial of vulnerability, but the hope rooted in a refusal to be defeated by fear in response to the seeming random unpredictability of illness and suffering.

The man born blind moved from blindness to sight, and from sight to insight. When we do likewise, we find a surprising rediscovery. In the face of fear, we just need to be decent enough to do the job God called us here to do.

At the Last Supper, having washed his disciples’ feet John has Jesus give them a new commandment to love one another so that the world may know them by their shared solidarity. Accepting we’re all equally vulnerable to the misfortunes of illness and suffering – that we are all in this predicament together – is the greatest sign of Christian – of human solidarity with one another.

The Archeology of a Story

Image by Sadao Watanabe

Here’s a little Bible trivia to get us started. In year 1 of the 3-year lectionary cycle we read from Matthew’s gospel biography of Jesus’ life and ministry – except on the Sundays in Lent when after Lent 1 we switch over to John’s account. Except for a return to Matthew on Palm Sunday, it will be John who will also accompany us through the Easter Season.

Among the Evangelists, John’s approach to story stands out from the rest. For Mark, Matthew and Luke, stories flow out of events. They’re called synoptic gospels because they follow a synopsis of events. Stories emerge out of events often arranged chronologically within a broad theological framework. Nevertheless, story arises out of and explains the meaning of a particular event.

In John it’s the other way around. Events are created from stories. There is no event until the story creates one. So instead of following a broad chronology of Jesus life and ministry, John constructs seven stories around which he builds his very distinctive theology of Jesus. We refer to these stories as John’s Seven Signs of the Kingdom. Linking the seven sign stories we also find in John many other stories that do not appear anywhere else. Last week we had the story of Nicodemus, the high-ranking member of the Jewish council who comes to Jesus under cover of night. Today we are given the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well.

Like all John’s stories Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well is multilayered.  My title for today’s sermon is the Archeology of a Story because if we dig down through the multiple story layers, we come to understand how John shapes the story to become a narrative for building of a new and radical type of community.

John’s is a community made up from disparate groupings – coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others among whom were a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new kind of Christian community. In the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well – John seems to have in mind this constituency in his community. Yet the story has an overriding message that would not have been missed by the other sections in the Johannine community in Jerusalem around the end of the 1st-century CE.

In Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well John is weaving a new story from the fragments of older storylines – some close to the surface of current memory – others more deeply buried and encountered only in places where they poke through from below – with the potential to pose serious trip hazards for some in his complex community.

For example, there’s the storyline of contested origins. As Samaritan and Jewish converts come together in John’s radical style Christian community- they brought with them contested origin stories that come into focus around Jacob’s Well. Both Jew and Samaritan each regarded Jacob as the father of their nation – and hence had contested claims to the Well’s ownership.

We see the protruding tip of another more deeply buried story of dispute over the true site for God’s worship. Was it – as the Samaritans claimed on Mt. Gerizim – the ancient holy site of the Northern Kingdom of Israel before its destruction in 721 BCE or as the Jews claimed – at Jerusalem – a more recent development and a claim particular to Judah?  

The story follows a conversation between Jesus and a Samaritan woman he encounters at Jacob’s Well. As noted, in Jesus’ time, this was a place of contested historical and religious tension between Jews and Samaritans. The Samaritans were the biracial descendants of intermarriage between Assyrian forced foreign migrations (five in total) and the remnants of the Jewish peasantry left following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel after 721 BCE. Nevertheless, the Samaritans – the descendants of Samaria – another name for the ancient Northern Kingdom continued to protest their historic and religious claims against a Judahite Jewish population who regarded them as racially and religiously impure.

John intends his story to shock. You might ask, what is so shocking in a man asking a woman for a drink of water? To appreciate how this encounter challenges social taboos of the time let’s group them under the headings of race, religion, and gender.

Firstly, racial prejudice. Imagine a white man in the Jim Crow south asking a black woman for a drink from the colored water fountain. Or imagine today, an Israeli Settler asking a Palestinian woman to draw water for him from Jacob’s Well – which today sits in contested territory within the city of Nablus in Israeli occupied and annex-threatened Palestine.

Secondly, religious bigotry. A Samaritan woman drawing water for a Jew would have rendered the water undrinkable by virtue of ritual contamination. A religiously observant Jew could not have even entered conversation with a Samaritan woman – let alone drunk water from her hand.

Thirdly, gender conventions. As an adult man, like Mike Pence who reputedly will not dine alone with another woman who is not his wife, Jesus could not have looked at – let alone spoken -unchaperoned- to a woman who was neither his wife nor a close female relation. Yet he does – and this shocks the Samaritan woman into asking: How is it, you a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria? In her one question she encompasses all three taboos – racial, religious, and gender.

But she’s not the only one shocked. The disciples on returning were astonished that he was alone and speaking with a woman – but no one asked [her] what do you want or [ Jesus] why are you speaking with her? We can imagine what they were thinking though. Honestly Jesus, we leave you alone for five minutes and this is what you get up to!

Beyond its shock value – that where Jesus is concerned always adds value to any story -John is building a crescendo of storyline around the theological theme of recognition – that is – who sees the truth about who Jesus really is – and who doesn’t.

The water from the well is not any old water but living water. It’s not our physical thirst but our spiritual thirst that we seek slaked. Only Jesus alone has the gift of living water. The woman gets this right away and says Sir, give me this water so I may never thirst again.

Jesus then somewhat perplexingly tells her to fetch her husband. She must admit she doesn’t have one to which Jesus says you are right – for you have had five husbands and the one you have now is not your husband. This is the point in John’s story when we might ask one another: sorry, but have I missed something here?

It might appear so until we see how John is slowly ratcheting up his theme of recognition. And here is another trip hazard where an ancient story pokes up for the unwary in John’s community. Jesus’ reference to her five husbands is a historical metaphor for the five forced foreign migrations with whom the Samaritans had intermarried. The man she is currently with, and who by-the-way is not her husband, extends the metaphor to include a sixth forced migration into Samaritan territory under Herod the Great in 37 BCE. That this man is not her husband is an allusion to the later Roman prohibition of intermarriage between this last group and the Samaritan population.

The theme of recognition now builds towards the peak of its crescendo. Following Jesus’ comments about worshiping the Father neither here on Mt Gerizim, nor in Jerusalem, but in spirit and in truth – the woman speaks about her messianic hope. She now recognizes Jesus as the One. John wants us to note it’s the despised outsider – and a woman to boot – who comes to recognize the truth about Jesus long before it dawns on anyone in his intimate in-crowd of followers.

The rest of the story focuses on the blindness of the disciples. Unlike the Samaritans who now flock to Jesus in response to the woman’s invitation to come and see- a particularly resonant phrase for John because Jesus’ disciples continue to miss the point of his messianic identity and the nature of his mission for which John offers the metaphor of gathering in the harvest.

Through excavating the buried layers within this story, we can see that for John this is not about the past as much as it is about the future.  It’s a story about the building of a new and radical type of community from among the jumble of racial and religious constituencies sharing contested histories. John’s is a community of disparate groupings coming together in a multi-ethnic melting pot of Jews, Greeks, and others – among them a significant number of Samaritan converts attracted to this new way of living.

The upshot of the encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well is that many Samaritans sought out Jesus and asked to stay with him and many more believed in his word. They believed not because someone else convinced them but because they heard and saw for themselves.  The disparate constituencies that made up John’s community could not have missed the point of a story about the building a new way of being in community. Through the reconciling of historic grievances – required a confrontation with ingrained and divisive social and religious prejudice.

Was there ever a story more pertinent for our time?

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