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

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 2: “I am the Resurrection and the Life”

Reading: John 11.17-27
This Holy Week, we are studying the great I AM sayings of St John’s Gospel. Last night we began with “I am the Door” in chapter 10. That saying is so closely associated with “I am the Good Shepherd” that you might expect us to come to it next. However, I want to save that for Good Friday for reasons that will make sense then. This evening we are going to move into the next chapter of the gospel and “I am the Resurrection and the Life”.
The raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus in Chapter 11 of St John is a kind of preamble to the passion narrative. Already, Passover is drawing near. At the end of the chapter, the talk about arresting Jesus and putting him to death suddenly becomes more serious. “It is better for you to have one man to die for the people” says wily Caiaphas “than to have the whole nation destroyed”. In those days as in ours, leaders know all about “expediency”, never mind who suffers on its altar. Someone who goes around proclaiming himself to be God’s Son and bringing a dead man back to life is bound to subvert the good order of a well-regulated Roman province. The threat is, in the words of the authorities, that “the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Jesus is already regarded as dangerous. The raising of Lazarus at Bethany raises the stakes considerably. No-one knows this better than him.
What St John sees in this beautiful story of a death and resurrection is a foreshadowing of the imminent events of Holy Week and Easter. It’s an analogy, a visual aid, if you like, of what will shortly come to pass. The pre-echoes of the resurrection story are unmistakeable: the woman weeping, the question “where have you laid him?”, the rolling away of the stone from the tomb, the details about the grave clothes. Why does John need to tell the story at all, so close to Jesus’ own passion and resurrection? Maybe it’s to allow some of the deeper meanings to emerge as a kind of commentary, so that when we come to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, that narrative can speak for itself without too much elaboration or interpolation. I’m thinking of when Jesus speaks about seeing in this sign the glory of God, and how he thanks his Father for having heard him so that everyone “may believe that you sent me”. And of course the saying we remember best of all from his dialogue with Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life”. 
We must have heard it at every Church of England funeral we’ve ever attended, the first of the sentences that are read as the coffin is processed into church. In the church service, I suppose we inevitably hear it in the way Martha replies to Jesus’s questions. To “your brother will rise again” Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. And this matters to us who instinctively want to keep death at bay, protest against its cruel extinction of all that it means to be alive. When we hear the words of committal at the end of the funeral rite, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, when we throw soil on to the coffin of a loved one or imagine it consigned to fire at the crematorium, we are faced with the brutality of death. We do not, most of us, want to “go gently into that good night”, at least not when we feel glad and grateful to be alive. Our faith is stretched on these occasions that confront us with our own mortality. The confidence of affirming “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead” isn’t always echoed in our own hearts.
What do those words mean to us? I can only say what they mean for me. I hear them in the light of the passage we are looking at tonight. It seems to me that Jesus is not asking us to base our faith on what will happen to the dead at the end of time, what will happen to me. Rather, the focus is on Jesus’ own resurrection, and its consequences for all of us in the present, here and now. The key is in the words believe and live. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus did not say only, “I am the resurrection” (which is what Martha hears) but “I am the living resurrection, the resurrection and the life. This is about life now, God’s life that transforms us, irradiates even our darkest times with life and love. We need to recall, even in Holy Week, the Christmas gospel, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all people”. And in last night’s passage about the gate, “I have come that they may have life, life in all its fulness”. And in the best-known verse in the Bible, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” That means the abundant gift of God in our present experience. This is the sense in which believers “will never die”, for this eternal life transcends the worst that even physical death with all its terrors can do to mortals like Mary, Martha and Lazarus, like us. Death, where is your sting? Death, where is your victory?
This is what Jesus wants Martha to understand. But in St John, words by themselves aren’t enough. A sign is needed, the raising of Lazarus from the grave. I said that it’s a metaphor, like the feeding of the crowd or the healing of the blind man. What happened then, what John bears witness to has a significance infinitely greater than the event itself. For what it symbolises is nothing less than that death will no longer hold power over us, for Jesus has overcome it. In him, a new world is becoming a reality by virtue of his own death and resurrection; there is a new humanity already risen from the death our condition had brought upon us. And all this, I think, is what we are meant to draw from the resurrection and the life text when we hear it at a funeral. We do affirm it for the dead, of course, because we believe that God does not stop loving human beings when they die. But I think we affirm it even more for ourselves, who for now are still the living, and who, for as long as we live, will go on hoping and yearning and praying to be born anew as the children of God’s reign of grace and truth.
In these Holy Week addresses, I want to remind us that at its heart, Lent is the season when we prepare for the paschal celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. For centuries, we have tended to separate Passiontide from Easter, as if the empty tomb were somehow the “happy ending” of the story of suffering and death. I think St John would point us back to the raising of Lazarus and remind us that death and resurrection – Jesus’s dying and living, our dying and living - belong together in the story of that first Holy Week and in the experience of believers. 
When we renew our baptism vows as part of the Easter liturgy, we are taken right back into the memory of passion and suffering, and enact ritually what St Paul meant when he spoke of being “crucified with Christ” and being “buried with Christ in baptism, so that we might rise to newness of life”. The Easter liturgy is the most powerful event of this Great Week precisely because it celebrates Jesus’ passion and resurrection, not simply as an event in the past but in its present reality, its extraordinary power to gather us up in the God-given movement from death to eternal life. As the cycle of the seasons brings us back once more to Holy Week, it reinforces our sense that this is where we experience being human in the most profoundly life-changing way. This is where we begin to understand ourselves as those whose lives are forever enfolded in the all-encompassing love of God.
For if Christianity is not about transformation, if it doesn’t touch our lives and make a difference when we most need to be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, why are we here tonight at all? The raising of Lazarus is St John’s parable of what it means to cross the chasm from death to life in every dimension of human living. The whole gospel of Holy Week and Easter is here in this story. 
Here is Malcolm Guite’s sonnet on this saying.
How can you be the final resurrection?
That resurrection hasn’t happened yet.
Our broken world is still bent on destruction,
No sun can rise before that sun has set.
Our faith looks back to father Abraham
And toward to the one who is to come
How can you speak as though he knew your name?
How can you say: before he was I am?
Begin in me and I will read your riddle
And teach you truths my Spirit will defend
I am the End who meets you in the middle,
The new Beginning hidden in the End.
I am the victory, the end of strife
I am the resurrection and the life.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

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