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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The Raising of Lazarus, the Raising of a City

“To the glory of God this Cathedral burnt.” “This illness does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” Two striking sayings about ordeals and suffering. The first text is inscribed in the nave floor of this Cathedral. The second comes early on in St John’s story of Jesus and Lazarus that we’ve just heard. What connects them is the word glory.

I doubt it would have occurred to anyone who watched this Cathedral burn on the night of the 14th November 1940 to speak of that fiery holocaust as glory. It was no doubt an unforgettable spectacle to behold. But it was a calamitous act of violence and destructiveness. Many died; many more were grievously injured. Where is glory when precious human lives are laid on the greedy altars of war? Where is glory on a day when the grim reaper gathers up so bitter a harvest in this city that is home to men, women and children like us?

But you could have said the same about the suffering of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” The meaning is clear: this is a mortal sickness. The end is coming quickly. Soon this good man, this beloved friend will be dead, and Jesus is needed there. And when the worst has happened, there is still the desperate hope for a miracle: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Where is glory in any of this?

There are degrees of glory. Perhaps we use it a trifle too easily when we say that something is glorious. But in the Old and New Testaments, the meaning is quite specific. Literally in Hebrew, glory is “weight”, and therefore something significant, portentous, having lasting meaning. So glory belongs fundamentally to God himself, and to created things to the extent that they embody or reflect the divine. When we are confronted by glory, we do what Moses did at the burning bush and bow before the Holy One. We are silenced like the disciples on the mountain when they saw the glory of the transfigured Lord. Where glory is manifested, we are on holy ground. We acknowledge that God is among us. We learn our place in the world. And we worship.

When Jesus speaks of Lazarus’ illness being “for God’s glory”, his meaning is specific. It is not that there is any glory in anyone’s suffering and death, but rather “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it”. At the climax of the story, when the stone is rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus turns to Martha and says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” In the first sign that Jesus performs at Cana in Galilee, St John says that Jesus “revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”. As then, so now, in this last sign before the passion. Glory and belief coalesce around the mighty works of God that reveal him as having come into our very midst.

I said that the death and raising of Lazarus are the last sign before the passion. Immediately after this episode, Caiaphas speaks about how one man must die for the people. And in the next chapter it is Passover time, and in this same home at Bethany whose intimacy Jesus loved so much, Mary anoints him for his coming death. And as he trembles on the very threshold of Holy Week, he speaks again of glory. “Now my soul s troubled. And what shall I say – Father, save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

And this is where the story of Lazarus is pointing: to the glory of God in the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son. Like Lazarus, Jesus must be subject to this ordeal that lies ahead. “The Son of Man must suffer” say the synoptic gospels. But whereas for Matthew and Mark, the cross is a dark place of dereliction and abandonment, for St John it is glory. In the Christmas gospel he acclaims that “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten Son full of grace and truth. And if you asked him where, more than anywhere, he beheld glory, he would say, at Golgotha. On the cross. Because it is there that we see the glory of loved poured out, with which “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”, where Jesus is “lifted up” and draws all humanity to himself.

So there is the paradox of this day we call Passion Sunday. Glory means, not the splendour we thought it meant as we nodded casually in its direction. As we probe more deeply, we find it means the infinite “weight” of “God’s presence and his very self”, as the hymn puts it, at the heart of humanity. It is the suffering, death and raising to life of Lazarus that reveal it, and all the more because it enacts the suffering, death and raising to life of Jesus himself. But we only see it that way as we look back across the whole story. This is St John’s point in writing his gospel, so that we can enter into what glory means in the big story of God’s solidarity with the human race, his raising all of us to life through what the Son of Man must suffer and endure.

And this Cathedral is itself a living emblem of glory through suffering and resurrection. To the glory of God this Cathedral burnt and was rebuilt. I understand those words better, thanks to Lazarus. Like him, this place has a story to tell about how resurrection can take us by surprise and transfigure us even in the darkest of times. For the story of Coventry is not only about a building, powerful though the imagery and the witness are. The tapestry of Christ in Glory presides over every offering of praise and prayer, and every act of celebration and lament. It lodges in every memory we attach to this place, and in the longings and heartaches, the sorrows and joys of all who come here and stand in their simplicity before God. What burnt and was rebuilt was not just a cathedral church but a household of faith, a community among whom the lived experience of dying to ourselves and being raised in Christ is at the heart of our Christian identity. You and I, all the people of God in every place: all of us are a temple of God’s glory. The resurrections in our lives are the best evidence there is for glory. We are all Lazarus if we have been buried with Christ in baptism and raised to newness of life.

We have a little time left as we travel towards Holy Week and Easter. What will our hope and prayer be? The story of Lazarus is placed where it is in the Fourth Gospel for a reason. We read it on this Sunday for a reason. It is to provide a gateway at which to pause and ask what we really want to happen during these awesome days that will soon be upon us. In the book of Exodus, God promises to pass before Moses. Partly out of fear, but more out of love, Moses cries out: “Lord, show me your glory”. The passion, cross and resurrection are the answer to that prayer. Lazarus has given us a parable. Now it is for us to walk with Jesus in the way of the cross and find once more in that place of pain the glory of redeeming love, and beyond the empty tomb, the glory of his resurrection life.

Coventry Cathedral, Passion Sunday, 2 April 2017. John 11.1-45

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