The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      2nd April 2017
Jesus said: I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25)
Handley Stevens

Passion Sunday, Year A
Psalm 130
OT Reading: Ezekiel 37.1-14
NT Reading: Romans 8.6-11
Gospel: John 11.1-45
Jesus said: I am the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25)

On the day after April Fools Day, the gospel story of the raising of Lazarus, especially when combined with Ezekiel’s famous image of the valley of dry bones, does rather lay our resurrection faith open to the charge of gullibility which Bishop David Jenkins summed up so well in one of his Easter sermons when he referred, perhaps rather unwisely, to ‘a conjuring trick with bones’.

So what did happen to Lazarus?  The story seems to have been  believed at the time, contributing dangerously to Jesus’ fragile and short-lived celebrity status.  It led Caiaphas the high priest to conclude that it was now urgent to suppress the Jesus movement before it led to a popular uprising which would provoke terrible vengeance from the occupying power. There is no way we can investigate the facts now, but if we believe that Jesus himself was raised from the dead, and that he was the Son of God, then his power to raise Lazarus cannot be ruled out.  I believe it happened.
In his gospel St John gives us a wonderful collection of stories about the people Jesus met, and the conversations he had with them.  In recent weeks we have met Nicodemus, the woman at the well in Samaria, and the man born blind.  Attempting to be clever, or to change the subject, they quite often say rather foolish things.  Yet in every case Jesus meets them where they are, gently penetrating their defences, giving them insights about themselves and about God, which shake them to the very core, in order to lead them to a deeper level of engagement.  Nicodemus learns what it means to be born again.  The woman at the well learns about the water of life, and the nature of true worship.  The man born blind discovers what it means to see clearly when everyone else is wilfully blind to the plain truth about Jesus.

And now we come to the little family at Bethany.  Mary and Martha greet Jesus with the same words: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  They are not blaming Jesus.  In their distress they just blurt out what they must have said to one another more than once in the days since Lazarus died.  Mary is so overcome with grief that she falls weeping at his feet. Martha, who has more control of her emotions, can’t do that, but she goes on to assert that even now Jesus could pray and God would hear him.  What would he pray for?  As her incoherent plea tails away into a silence of confusion, Jesus gently reminds her of the promise of resurrection, and you can almost hear the sadness in her voice as she acknowledges that, but finds no comfort in it.  I have a lot of sympathy with Martha.  Perhaps you do too.

But then Jesus looks at her with deep compassion, and is moved to make an astonishing revelation:
I am the resurrection and the life, he tells her. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  And then the gentle challenge: Do you believe this?

Martha struggles to find a truthful reply.  In her grief she declares her absolute faith in Jesus himself.  I believe you are the Messiah, she pours out, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.  And without waiting for any further response she turns away to fetch her sister.   Amidst the emotional turmoil of this steady woman, we sense a new hope, even if she would not dare put it into words.
The drama continues when Martha returns with Mary, who bursts into tears as she repeats the words her sister has used.  Behind her a whole crowd of friends and neighbours.  Jesus himself is so overcome that he too is weeping.  Noone can find anything more to say, so he simply asks to be taken to the tomb, where in great perturbation of spirit he wrestles in prayer with the conflicting impulses of his compassion for Martha and Mary, urging him to act, and his commitment to his Father’s mission which might be knocked off course if he misused his powers.  The pressure is almost unbearable, but finally he decides to act. The tomb is opened and Lazarus is called out.

What a rich story, full of deep insights into Jesus’ humanity as well as his divinity.  Jesus still meets each one of us where we are, responding to our special needs, so I hesitate to suggest any one conclusion for us all.  For myself there is still so much to learn from pondering the revelation given to Martha: I AM the Resurrection and the Life.  A free translation of this passage runs as follows:
Your [brother Lazarus] is alive now; for in me he touched the life of God which is eternal; in me, he had already risen before his body perished.

That in a nutshell is the good news of the gospel, the truth about God, so dramatically manifested in the raising of Lazarus.  Is it not the gift promised long ago in Ezekiel’s vision of the spirit of God giving life to our dry bones?  It is the gift fully realised in the resurrection of Jesus, and now offered to us, if with Martha we can say: Yes, Lord, I do believe all that my leaping heart can grasp of who you are and what you promise.

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