“Called from death to life”Katerina K. Whitley Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45. Year A - Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lazarus. Even his name causes confusion with most English-speaking people who seem unable to pronounced all the consonants in it correctly. An elusive name, an elusive personality, he remains a man of mystery. So much so that great writers have been intrigued by his story, the seventh and final sign of Jesus in the gospel of John.
Robert Browning wrote one of his brilliant dramatic monologues on Lazarus. In the poem “Epistle,” an Arab wandering physician of the first century comes across Lazarus. “The Man had something in the look of him,” he writes in wonder back to his teacher, Abib. Throughout the monologue, the wanderer tries to report on his other scientific and healing discoveries in the Middle East, but he circles back again and again to the most intriguing one of all:
“—the man’s own firm conviction rests
that he was dead (in fact they buried him),
—that he was dead and then restored to life
by a Nazarene physician of his tribe”
he reports; “this grown man eyes the world like a child.” The physician’s interest is not in how and if this bringing Lazarus back from death occurred; his fascination lies in the person he became afterwards— “for see how he takes up the after-life.” In this after-life, Lazarus is a man who is not troubled by great events, like the gathering of armaments and impending war, but by little things, like the gestures of a child. His sense of values is opposed to our sense of values. Lazarus “knows God’s secret. . .” He lives now “in prone submission to the heavenly will—seeing it, why it is and what it is.”
The Arab physician then explains to his teacher why he was not able to meet the prophet who brought Lazarus from death to life. With sorrow, resignation, and the understanding of the sophisticated man who knows what happens to Truth-tellers, he recounts the death of the Nazarene in the hands of those who killed him. And then, at the end of the poem, something happens: the physician tries to discount all that he had heard and seen but he cannot help himself. He bursts forth with this wondrous, What if this is true? Then, this is what it means:
“The very God! think Abib, dost thou think?
So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too—
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, ‘O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself! . . .
Love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee.’”
For some reason that I don’t quite understand, when I was 19, this poem and its final affirmation did more to persuade me of the Incarnation than all the sermons I had heard to date. Seeing Lazarus as a human being who had been confronted by God’s reality and who returned convinced that the healer he had known as his friend Jesus was one and the same with the God who fashioned him brought me to a conviction that has never quite left me. “The all-great is the all-loving too.”
The story of Lazarus as told by John is described more dramatically than any of the miracles/signs of Jesus in the gospels. We see before us Jesus as a full human being—he groans in agony for the human condition, he weeps at the sorrow of his friends, he is deeply troubled within himself. The three Greek verbs used here to describe his condition are startling in their power and agony. And then he stands as a lone and distraught human being before the grave and cries aloud in the voice of God, “Lazarus, come outside!”
There are riveting details in this story: Martha, first- born, practical, active, runs to meet Jesus. Mary, quiet, contemplative, stays behind weeping with her friends. Both cry out when they see their friend, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” I don’t think they mean, if you had been here you would had performed a miracle. No, I think they are stating what to them was obvious: That Jesus is Life and their brother would not have given up on life in the presence of Life.
The powerful Anglican writer Dorothy L Sayers is the second person who helped me see this story instead of merely read it. In her masterful series of plays, The Man Born to Be King, she writes of Lazarus and his sisters. Lazarus has a very tenuous hold on life, but the presence of Jesus in the siblings’ home helps him hold on. When, however, Jesus leaves for his final journey into Trans-Jordan, Lazarus lets go. Jesus’ hope for the sisters is that they will see that resurrection and life mean not escape from death but the passing from death to life.
The same is true of Archbishop William Temple’s interpretation. In his magisterial Readings in Saint John’s Gospel he writes of the exchange between Jesus and the sisters. The first one, Martha, complains to Jesus while asserting her belief in the resurrection, but “on the last day.” This was the Pharisees’ belief of a general resurrection on some future last day. But that is not enough. It is too vague, too distant. Jesus presses her for a more fundamental belief in who he is, as he makes one of his rare Divine declarations: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Of this startling declaration, Dr. Temple writes: “There is no denial of a general resurrection at the last day; but there is an insistence that for those who are in fellowship with Jesus the life to which that resurrection leads is already present fact. (Emphasis mine.)
The momentum builds. When Mary falls at his knees and says the same thing as her sister, “If you had been here our brother would not have died,” Jesus moves to action. As I mentioned above, the Greek uses powerful verbs for his state of mind here—groaning comes close to it—filled as he is with sorrow for this world of unbelief. He is trembling, preparing for a mighty act (the kind that always left him exhausted afterwards), when power is being pulled from him: Lazarus, come out! Come out of death into life.
And Lazarus is set free. So, Jesus pulls us through death and out of death into life. The bonds that hold us to this life of deadly politics, enslavement to money and power, neglect of the poor and of refugees, material goods that burden us, fear of a dark-looming future for our children and grandchildren; false or idolatrous loves—all these death trappings fall and we acknowledge resurrection.
Acknowledging resurrection is not an easy thing to do. It is there for us in the person of Christ. Without him resurrection does not happened. We hear his question again and again: “Martha, do you believe in me?” And with her we answer: “Yes, Lord, you are the Christ, the anointed one, the son of God who is coming to the world.” We cannot give this answer without the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that much to Peter. We cannot come from death to life without responding to Jesus’ call, “Come out of death into life!” And so, we are unbound and turned loose to go home.
About the writer:
Katerina Katsarka Whitley explores the characters of Martha and Mary in her book Seeing for Ourselves: Biblical Women Who Met Jesus. She is the author of seven books, a lecturer and retreat leader. Katerina, a native of Thessaloniki, Greece, lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina. email@example.com and www.katerinawhitley.net
Scripture and Music:
Love Divine, All Loves Excelling
This Is A Day of New Beginnings
Trust and Obey
Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed
Lord of the Dance
Ah! Holy Jesus (Cruger)
Dry Bones (spiritual)
Anima Christi (Robert Powell)
Out of the Deep (John Rutter)
Psalm 130 (John Ferguson)
I Heard About A Man
Lord of the Dance
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart