Passion Sunday 2017

The Friary  Passion Sunday 2017:  John 11. 1 – 45, the raising of Lazarus.


We have just heard one of the greatest stories of the whole New Testament. But even as you listened to it, maybe you thought:  ‘what a strange Gospel for Passion Sunday, when the church is called to reflect on the passion and suffering of Christ’.   And in a way you would be right. It appears a strange choice because this story of the raising of Lazarus is so saturated with the message of Easter and the Resurrection.


But then so is the whole Gospel of John saturated with the message of the Resurrection.  In John it is impossible to have the passion without the triumph.   Different in tone from the synoptic Gospels, the Jesus of John is always on every page the triumphant risen One, and this story of Lazarus is the triumphant culmination of the first half of his great work.  Chapters 2 to 11 of John is sometimes called ‘the book of signs’.  There are seven of them.  The first is the turning of water into wine at Cana, five further signs follow, and then the last is this one, the seventh and greatest sign, in which we hear also the greatest I AM of the seven I AM’s – ‘I am the resurrection and the life’.


So with this narrative, John brings his carefully constructed work to a triumphant conclusion.  But, he also means this story to be forward-looking. It is a foreshadowing of the passion – a kind of dress rehearsal of what is to come.  And it is not difficult in this story, to spot hints and echoes of the final triumphant struggle with death, that he will soon tell us in his final story.


For example, for no apparent reason he brings Thomas into the story in his most doubting, despairing mood. ‘Let us also go’, he says, ‘that we may die with him’.   Thomas is put in to remind us of the Thomas who would not believe at the end of the book.   At the tomb Mary is weeping, just as another Mary will weep at another tomb.   The words ‘where have you laid him’ are strangely resonant.  We will hear them again.   And there are other hints – the word for the cloth wound round Lazarus’ face is the same as the napkin that was in another tomb – in a place by itself.


So it is a foreshadowing.  Lazarus represents both Christ raised from the grave – but also all of us doomed to death.  And Jesus is the Divine Word of God who speaks into the darkness and decay of our deathly lives calling us out of the suffocating holes in which we trap and entomb ourselves.


Well … we might say to John, ‘this is all very well, all very clever even …  but it is a bit too neat.  Where is the Passion?  Where is the pain? Where is the agony and struggle to the bitter bitter end with this arch-enemy death that is at the heart of the costly divine story of our rescue?’


And John would have an answer to that.  He would say: read what I say about Jesus as he comes to the tomb … see how he comes slowly, pausing again and again … see how difficult he finds it … see how he struggles and shudders and is in tumult.  Notice how he groans … notice that he weeps.    It is an agony for him.   He most profoundly does not like it.


John really wants us to understand this … the verbs that he uses to describe Jesus approaching the place of death are emotionally excessive.  Our translation – ‘he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ goes some way – but the Greek is much more extreme than that.  The verb translated ‘greatly disturbed’ is the word used for the snorting, shuddering and panting of a terrified horse.  Or it could be translated ‘he was groaning within himself’, he was in the most profound tumult, deeply disturbed … as he wept.  And John repeats it to emphasise it – in verse 38 “then Jesus again ‘groaning in himself’ came to the tomb”.


This is not just an interesting study of scripture.  This is our experience, is it not?, for we all know all about this most profound resistance to facing death.  We know it because we practice it every day.


In homes, in work places, in communities, in our world … patterns of thought and behaviour – ways of human beings being with one another that are deathly and death-dealing – can develop like suffocating tendrils.   An obvious example is that when there is any kind of disagreement, a kind of self-opinionated hardness can set in accompanied by a refusal to listen to the other.  Or in a nation, a leader under threat can become increasingly authoritarian – that is happening in Turkey, in Russia, in India, and it could happen in America.  In any community, people can so easily find themselves shutting the door in one another’s face for whatever reason, and then becoming increasingly defensive/aggressive.  Or … another deathly way of coping with the world’s difficulties, is to become cynical, which is a disguise for despair and hopelessness.   We can become fenced in by death.  Which can lead to depression and despair and actual death.


In lesser or greater forms, in subtle and hidden ways, the damage of our death-dealing ways … it’s what the bible calls ‘sin’ … can constantly stalk us.  And so habitual can a person’s particular death-dealing tendencies be,  that they are usually completely unaware of it, blind to it.


And then something happens that obliges us to face up to who we are – our habitual destructive patterns – and what we do … and we buck and shudder and refuse and self-justify and deny.  The truth of who we sometimes can be … we can most profoundly wish to avoid.   We resist it, even if it may mean that death and decay therefore creeps on, the death of love in a home, the death of joy in a marriage, the death of trust in a community, … the death of hope in a country.  This Brexit thing is likely to go very wrong, and there is likely to be a lot of blaming and finger pointing and there could be a lot of despair all around, unless we face up to our own particularly British brand of nationalism, our grand delusions about ourselves, our xenophobia, our destructive hubris.


It takes courage to face what may be deathly in a person, in a community, in a nation … it is called ‘repentance’ …  but unless we do it, face it, death will continue to do its fatal deadening work.


So John tells us, Jesus persists, he faces up to it.  He comes to the tomb.  And Martha shouts out – ‘no Lord there will be a stench’.  It will stink.


It is significant that it is Martha, agitated Martha, who shouts out, for Mary I think would not be phased by the stench.  She has already dealt with the rubbish in her own heart which is why she is able to sit still.


But Jesus persists.  He insists: move the stone.  Open it up.  Let the light into the dark hidden place where death is festering.   And into this darkness, this mess, this confusion … into the subtle layers of concealment and avoidance, into this stinking troublesome place … which is a kind of metaphor for all of us, he lovingly calls a personal name, ‘Lazarus’.   Somewhere in all the muddle that we are, there is the human being created in the image of God … an image which is deeper and stronger than all that would deny it.


Those who have had the privilege of working with couples or families who are in crisis will know that when people have summoned up the courage to face the power of death in their relationship … when they arrive in a counselling room … with faces hardened, humanity buried, defences up, self-justifications ready … encouraging them to address one another by their personal name can be a first step to vulnerability, to mutual understanding, to hope … even to love returning.


Jesus uses his name.


the literal translation of the Greek is:  ‘Lazarus, come hither, out!’


And then one of those heart-stopping moment of the Gospels:  the dead man emerges …  with death like the useless strips of cloth that have bound him, falling off behind.


But Resurrection is never a solitary individual thing.  ‘The Raised Christ’ says the theologian John Zizioulas ‘is unimaginable as an individual’.  ‘The Raised Christ is unimaginable as an individual’.  If Lazarus is to be fully released he needs the help of others.   It is a releasing done together in which they all participate.   Jesus commands them: ‘unbind him, let  him go’.


The word ‘unbind’ can also be translated as ‘forgive.’




Patrick Woodhouse.