Sunday, April 17, 2011

The One who Unbinds You and Sets you Free

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the 5th Sunday in Lent: John 11:1-45

On the First Sunday of Lent, four weeks ago, I asked a question. I asked, “How many of you feel like the church did a good job teaching you how to have a relationship with Jesus?”

Since then we have been talking about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus using the stories from John’s Gospel of Nicodemus, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, and the Man Born Blind, and I think we have learned many things. I am not sure we have done much more than hinted about “how,” however. How do you have a relationship with Jesus?

The story of the raising of Lazarus from John’s Gospel tells us how. Some of you will not be surprised by the answer, but others may even be shocked by it.

The answer is, put simply, you have to die. And I don’t mean you have to die some day, which, of course, you will. I mean you have to die now.

Why this shouldn’t surprise us is because of how we talk about Baptism. In many ways, to witness a Baptism is to witness a drowning. We say over the baptismal water

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death.

We perhaps should take a dramatic pause at that point, because we normally move on too quickly to say

By it we share in his resurrection.[1]

Now you can hear those words and think little of them. They are biblical allusions that have to be made. It is symbolic language that should not be taken literally or even, probably, very seriously.

But in our way of being Christian, symbols are incredibly important things. They speak of things literally “thrown together,” and in that throwing together there is something like a nuclear reaction, energy is released; energy we call “grace.”

The baptismal language of us dying in order to rise is not just some quaint way of talking about the action of Baptism, nor is it a reference to some future hope. It is now, eternally now. It is a way of life. It is how life with God works. It is how you have a relationship with Jesus.

Let’s stop there and pick up the story of the raising of Lazarus. We left Jesus and the disciples last week in Jerusalem following the healing of the man born blind which had involved some conflict with the Pharisees. The story ended with the Pharisees asking,

Surely you do not mean that we are blind also?

And Jesus answers,

If you were blind, you would not have sin. But since you claim to see, your sin remains (9:41, my translation).

Jesus then, without pause, goes right into talking about sheep and gates and shepherds and thieves in chapter 10, culminating in his declaration, “I am the good shepherd.” The religious authorities are smart enough to know that means he thinks they are thieves.

In the middle of chapter ten some time passes about which we are told nothing, but we find Jesus back or still in Jerusalem for Hanukkah. He is questioned about just who he thinks he is and he talks more about sheep, at the end of which he says a startling thing,

The Father and I are one.

This is blasphemy, pure and simple, and those present take up stones to stone him. He seems to talk them out of it, but they do try to arrest him. He escapes and gets some distance between himself and Jerusalem across the Jordan River, a couple days journey away.

It is there that a messenger finds him. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Bible readers and scholars have tried to figure out the special relationship Jesus’ seems to have had with Martha, Mary and Lazarus for two thousand years. There is no figuring it out. Jesus appears to have had “special friends.” Well, he was human, after all.

Jesus reacts strangely though. He waits. Perhaps he is not anxious to go back to the Jerusalem area where they just tried to stone him, and certainly the disciples are not keen to return there. But he says something cryptic

This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory; so that the Son of Man may be glorified through it.

Since we know the end of the story, it seems that Jesus knows all this is planned. Two days pass and he’s ready to go. He gets some major push back from the disciples and Thomas sums up their feelings,

Let us go with him that we may die with him.

Jesus, for his part, says that Lazarus is asleep and he is going to wake him up. The disciples take him literally, so he admits, “Lazarus is dead.”

As they approach Bethany, Martha greets Jesus. She’s gotten advance notice that he was near. She does not actually greet him. She, at best, states the facts as she sees them. At worst, she scolds him.

Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.

How many days have each one of us and millions upon millions of believers before us thought this same thing. “If.” Sometimes our “if” is aimed at God, sometimes at doctors or family members or ourselves. If only something had happened differently, my loved one would not have died.

But Martha goes on to confess her faith.

I know that he will rise again on the last day.

We speak in a similar way in the Nicene Creed.

We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

The words clearly have a future orientation.

But Jesus replies to her, “I am resurrection and life.” Now. Not someday. What I hear him saying is, “If you are in relationship with me, you know resurrection and life already, you have access to resurrection and life through me.”

When they get to Bethany, Mary comes to him, and she opens with the same line as her sister.

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Jesus says nothing this time, her weeping and that of those around her moves him deeply. He is “disturbed in spirit.” To get an English equivalent you have to go to something like “gut-wrenching.” Jesus feels human pain and knows it himself. Jesus wept. This is all part of the reality of Jesus that still lives. God feels our pain and weeps with us.

Then Jesus does simply what he came to do.

Take away the stone….Lazarus come out!... Unbind him and let him go.

Chapter 11 goes on beyond this morning’s reading. There are consequences to this action. The chief priests appear for the first time. Now the guardians of the relationship of the Jews with the Romans have gotten involved. A council is held at which Caiaphas utters the famous words,

It is better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.

And there they sentenced him to death. How ironic. The last straw was his raising the dead. Later we are told that Lazarus is to be put to death as well. That’s one way of getting rid of the evidence.

It is a powerful story with many meanings. I believe one of them is that it establishes very clearly the paschal character of being in relationship with Jesus. [paschal=the Christian Passover which we celebrate during the Triduum—the Three Days—Maundy Thursday evening to Easter evening].

We meet Jesus as a man about whom many stories are told and in whom hundreds of millions of people put faith, although the results of that faith can be very, very different, sometimes even seeming to be diametrically opposed, which can make him a very confusing character indeed.

It is best to get to meet Jesus in the stories we have been given. Ultimately this claim in John’s Gospel has to be dealt with: “I am resurrection and life.” And he asks, as he asked Martha, “Do you believe this?”

We may take this as a simple “yes” or “no” question, but I do not think it is. Relationship with Jesus is not a single moment; it is a series of moments, a lifetime of moments. It is a journey.

So I may say, “I think I may want to.” Fair enough. But now we are back to the beginning of this sermon. What is the next step? You have to die.

Put another way: you have to trust. And the only way to trust Jesus is to let go of something else. Let go of what? Anything that comes between you and God, you and Jesus. And that can be, perhaps, something that is very precious to you.

But if you will do that, then comes the resurrection. It always comes. That’s the promise. Jesus will say, “Unbind her, and let her go.” And you may find that the very thing you let go of is given back to you in freedom, but it is a different relationship, one that has meaning within your relationship to Jesus.

You see, this paschal mystery, the mystery of resurrection and life is that the One who seems to insist that you be bound in death, is actually the one who unbinds you and sets you free.

And that, my friends, is what we are celebrating over the next two weeks.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer, p. 306.

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