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!!