RCL Year A, 5 Lent

Reading that story aloud gives me chills. It’s one of the gospels I almost hate to preach on, because I just don’t want to say anything after those last words. ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

This is the sign beyond all other signs in John’s gospel. This is the fullest revelation of who Jesus is. In encounter after encounter, people have been realizing just who he is – in Nicodemus’ nighttime conversation with Jesus, in the Samaritan woman’s time with him at the well, in the blind man’s healing and all the uproar that follows. And now, lest we still be wondering and in the dark about Jesus, John makes it perfectly clear with this story. Jesus is life and resurrection. Jesus is the fullness of God, right here in the midst of mortality and pain. It is such a flagrant display of his power that from this point on, the Jewish authorities will plot to kill him. And Lazarus too, for good measure.

But to get to that point, we have to spend a long time in the story dealing with death. Lazarus is only raised in the last few verses of this long passage – all the way up unto that point we are reminded in every way possible that he is dead. First the news comes that Lazarus is ill, but Jesus waits around somewhere else until he dies. Then Jesus tells his confused disciples: ‘Lazarus is dead. Let us go to him.’ The disciples panic, because returning to Judea sounds like walking into their own deaths – but Thomas bravely says, let us go and die with him. They arrive, and first Martha and then Mary run out to meet Jesus, saying, if you had been here, he would not have died. Jesus weeps with them, real grief at Lazarus’ real death. And finally, to make the point very, very clear, everyone complains about the smell. Lazarus is dead, really dead.

Our Bishop Mary told about time she spent studying at Hebrew Union in New York last year, doing theology and studying scripture with Jewish students and theologians. She said it was a revelation to her how quickly her Christian faith leads her to jump to the happy ending. In our narrative, suffering leads to healing. Death leads to resurrection. Good Friday leads to Easter. Sometimes we make that jump so quickly that we can forget that the suffering and death really exist. And there are problems with that, Bishop Mary realized. Sometimes it makes us the worst kind of companion to people who are suffering or grieving, however good our intentions – we can’t just be with them in their pain without trying to cheer them up. Sometimes jumping ahead to the happy ending makes it difficult for us to stay faithful when we encounter suffering and pain in life – we can’t believe God is there even when things are rough. And sometimes avoiding the hard part of suffering prevents us from really grasping the enormity of the good news. We have to know death to know resurrection.

Suffering is real. We all of us face into our own death, especially as we get older, or as we get new diagnoses of illness that we must struggle to comprehend. We live with the deaths of others: of people we love, our children, our parents, our spouses; and of people we do not know, killed in terrible tragedies halfway around the world. The stink of death and suffering is real – the smell of bodies succumbing to illness and decay; the stink of painful memories of things we have done or that have been done to us. We wish that we could find a way to explain why all of this happens to us and to people we love, and we can’t. It can be very, very hard to find hope – all that we seem to find is heartbreak and loss.

Jim shared with me a story he’d worked on for Guideposts, about a woman with schizophrenia. Her name is Rebecca, and she was a churchgoing, faithful person, with a good stable family, but things had started to fall apart for her in college. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and put on medication, but still couldn’t find her way. She stopped taking her meds and became convinced that people were out to get her. She threw all of her furniture in a dumpster, so she would be ready to run when ‘they’ got to her. She stopped eating, stopped bathing. And finally, one bitterly cold day, her sister Laura came to her door, knocking and calling for her to open up. But she wouldn’t, knowing that her sister and mother would just be waiting to take her back to the psychiatric hospital. She hid in the bathroom for hours, with Laura waiting outside in the freezing weather, refusing to leave. Finally she looked at herself in the mirror, and saw her filthy, gaunt face, her stringy hair. And she heard her grandfather’s voice in her head, the grandfather who loved her, and who always said to her, Rebecca, stay on the road – and this time she heard those words as a call. Slowly, she made her way to the door, and slowly, opened it. Her sister gathered her up in her arms, and together they walked to the car, where her mother was waiting, and drove to the hospital – where she finally found the road to healing. Jesus said, Unbind her, and let her go.

Maybe when you hear a story like the raising of Lazarus, you wonder if it could really have happened. Did Jesus really call a person back from the dead? Is this real, or did John the gospel writer just make it up? But then you hear a story like Rebecca’s. That woman walked out of the tomb that day, moving towards light and healing. Or you live through your own story – you go through a time where you know all too well that the suffering is real and the smell is bad, and yet even so, you find new life beginning. Lazarus is raised. Jesus is raised. We, too, are raised – new life where all we could see was death and a tomb. Yes, it is real. It did happen, and it does happen.

Jesus says to Martha and to us, I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this? May we know God’s new life for us, open the door, and be free.