Today’s gospel lesson tells a story, but the meaning of the story may not be immediately apparent. We may miss the meaning of this story because the story doesn’t follow the pattern we’re used to seeing in other stories. Normally, when we hear a story, there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and where’s the meaning usually found? At the end. We see this pattern all the time: we read it in books, we see it in movies, we hear it in jokes, and we use it when we construct an argument. Point one, point two, point three: conclusion. This happened, then that happened, and then this happened, and they lived happily ever after.
But that’s not the pattern in today’s gospel. The conclusion comes right in the middle of the narrative. And because it comes in the middle and not at the end, there’s a danger we’ll miss it. We’re likely to mistake the end of the story for the conclusion or the meaning of the story. And, admittedly, this story lends itself to this kind of misunderstanding. What’s the last thing that happens? A dead man comes back to life. That’s a pretty big deal; that makes for a very nice, very satisfying kind of conclusion. Jesus went here, he met so and so, he did this, and then he brought this dead guy came to life again…and they all lived happily ever after.
But the raising of Lazarus is not the point of this story. The point of this story is found in the conversation Jesus has with Martha when he arrives at Bethany. The conclusion or the meaning of this story is found in these words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Today’s gospel “concludes,” as it were, with a question.
Now, we’re likely to have one of two reactions to the story of the raising of Lazarus. One of these is what I’ll call the skeptical response. It’s hard to believe that Jesus brought a dead man back to life, isn’t it? Our experience suggests that when people are dead, they tend to stay dead (especially if they’ve been dead for a couple of days). Of course, we sometimes hear of neardeath experiences, but the fact that we call them “near-death” experiences is significant. So we may feel a need to tweak this story a bit. “Well, Jesus didn’t really bring someone back from the dead: that’s just a story that was invented to make a spiritual point.” That is one possible response to this story.
The other response is what I’ll call the naïve response. The naïve response is characterized by a kind of mild acceptance. “Sure, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead: the Bible says so, and, after all, Jesus was God, so no problem. Besides, Lazarus wasn’t the only one Jesus brought back from the dead, and he did some other cool stuff, too, like walking on water and healing people. Okay, I believe it; why not?” That is another possible response to this story.
These responses appear to be different, but in at least one very important way they really amount to the same thing: both reflect a kind of avoidance. They both miss the point of the story; they miss the point because they look to the end in an attempt to find the meaning. But if the meaning of this story isn’t found there, then neither of these responses will really do. The thing that both of these responses are avoiding is Jesus himself. Both responses avoid an encounter with Jesus by putting all the attention on what’s going on with Lazarus. If we look at this story from a skeptical perspective, Jesus is nowhere in sight…or, if he is, he’s a very different kind of Jesus than the one described in the story.
Similarly, if we look at this story from a naïve perspective, Jesus is there alright, but it’s likely that we’ll see him only as someone who can do something for us. The biblical scholar Stanley Marrow has suggested that miracles like the raising of Lazarus ultimately cannot serve as the foundation for a vibrant, living faith because we tend to recognize only those miracles that potentially benefit us. A “healing here, a recovery there, a success in this, an avoided failure in that … Our tragedy,” says Marrow, “is to pretend that this is faith. But it is nothing of the sort. It believes only [in] the gift and forgets the giver.”
When Jesus speaks with Martha, it’s very clear where he’s trying to direct her attention: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who believes in me will never die. Martha, do you believe this?”
There’s another thing that happens when we make the mistake of looking at the end of this story to find its meaning: we end up thinking that what this story is about is the resurrection of Lazarus. But let me ask you a question: how many resurrections are there in the gospels? Jesus raises Lazarus, of course. He also raises the dead son of a widow; that story is in the gospel of Luke. He also raises the daughter of a man named Jairus; that story is in Mark. Anybody else?
But here’s the thing: this is not a resurrection story. Nor is the story in Luke about the raising of the widow’s dead son. Nor is the story in Mark about the raising of the daughter of Jairus. There is in fact only one resurrection story in the gospels: the resurrection of Jesus. These other stories are stories of resuscitations, not resurrections. Lazarus was raised, but he had to die again. When Jesus was raised, he was no longer subject to death. His resurrection was not a return to an old form of life, but rather the start of a new form of life.
But it’s easy to forget this if we hear Jesus saying “I am the resurrection and the life” and then we see someone brought back from the dead and think, “Aha! Resurrection, back from the dead: got it!” That’s reading the meaning of the story in light of the end of the story rather than reading the end of the story in light of the meaning of the story. This is indeed a story about new life, but the new life isn’t found in Lazarus: it’s found in Jesus. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and everyone who believes in me will never die.”
Well, what does all of this have to do with us, anyway? Is this story for us, does it offer anything for our life of faith? As it turns out, there’s quite a bit here for us: the question Jesus asks Martha is the same question he asks everyone: “Do you believe this?” In other words, do you trust me enough to give me your life? Martha, do you trust me enough to give me, not just your life, but the life of your brother, or your father, or your mother, or your child?
What does it mean to “believe” in Jesus in this way? What kind of faith is he looking for? Our culture defines “belief” in terms of mental assent: I recognize or apprehend the truth of something, therefore I can be said to believe it. For us, belief is almost entirely something we do with our minds. But the kind of belief Jesus is talking about is different than that: we don’t practice this kind of belief only with our minds, we do it with our hearts and our wills and our bodies, too. We are commanded to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind, and all our strength. In other words, our faith, our belief in Jesus, should touch on every part of our lives. There is no part of us where we are not called to live out our belief, because there is no part of us that God does not want to save. And here’s where the rubber really starts to meet the road.
Oftentimes, we want to give some part of our lives to God, we want to give some part of ourselves to God, but what we’re hoping for is that God will be able to do something with it or to fix it without our having to die first. But in order to have a resurrection, you first need a death. And if we’re called to practice this faith with all our hearts, and all our soul, and all our minds, and all our strength, that means we have to learn to die to ourselves in each of these areas.
Don’t hold some part of yourself or your life back from God thinking that God’s not interested; God wants it all. But don’t think that once you’ve given yourself to God that he’s going to settle for anything less than resurrection and new life.
“Well, okay,” you say, “I’m ready to give myself to God, and I’m even ready to accept the fact that in order to be raised with him I’ll have to die with him. Now, what does he want me to do?” I think this morning’s gospel gives us a clue.
If you really want to discover God’s will for your life, the first thing you probably need to do is stop looking for it. Stop running around, looking for it here, looking for it there, looking for it everywhere, first trying this and then trying that, wondering why nothing seems to be working, wondering why you can’t hear the voice of God.
Stop; learn to be still, in your heart, in your mind, in your body, in your soul. Learn to be silent. We have in this morning’s gospel an excellent example of the kind of stillness and the kind of silence we should practice if we want to hear the voice of Jesus: Lazarus is our example of this. Learn to be still the way a dead person is still, learn to be silent the way a dead person is silent. “Consider yourselves dead,” said St. Paul, “for then you will discover what it means to live.”
When we practice that kind of stillness and that kind of silence, then we’re better able to hear the voice of Jesus when he calls to us: “Come out! Come out and see the glory of God! Come out and be free of your bonds and go your way.”
It’s not easy to practice that kind of still or that kind of silence. In fact, it hurts to be that quiet and to be that still. In fact, it hurts to death. That’s why Jesus is clear about what this is going to cost. But that’s also why he’s clear about what it is he has to offer, something no one else can offer.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”