Lent 5 Year A
What will you be celebrating on Easter Day? And why? I think the gospel passage this morning takes us a long way in finding an answer to these questions. It is an extraordinary account for many reasons. Most of all because at the centre is the bringing back from the dead a man who has been in his burial tomb for 4 days. There is probably no rational explanation unless he was buried by mistake but even if an explanation could be found it is the meaning of what goes on here that we are most of all left to consider. This passage coming just before Jesus` arrival in Jerusalem, part of the narrative unique to John`s Gospel which focuses on the intimacy of Jesus` relationship with his friends and the dialogues when he talks about them and all his followers dwelling and being bound together with a strength of love not to be found anywhere else.
We actually know very little of Lazarus, more about his two sisters, Mary and Martha. I think this is significant because much of the account is about them and written from their perspective. We can speculate about Lazarus` death which appears to have been sudden and he seems the sort of person who lived a bit on the edge of things perhaps he was disabled or had a mental illness. Most of those who Jesus restored to acceptance by a community began on the edge, like the man blind from birth. Each account contains the element of exclusion by the majority of people`s attitudes and prejudices and backed up by the legalistic blame culture fuelled by some of the religious leaders. I think Lazarus bound in his tomb could represent others similarly bound by the intolerance and fear that take hold in cultures where difference and diversity is not valued. The people who have stood by him and continue to do so are his sisters.
We find quite a lot in the gospels about these 2 women. The scene where Jesus has a meal at their home and Martha is too driven in trying to get everything just right that she does not have time to enjoy the company of Jesus. The same Martha who in today`s reading testifies, and she is one of the first to do so, that for her Jesus is God`s Son, the Messiah. Then there is the later story of Mary covering Jesus feet with expensive perfume and drying his feet with her hair; she is the one person who seems to comprehend that Jesus is moving towards his death. And it will be women who stay close to Jesus on his journey to the cross and in John`s Gospel we have another Mary, Mary Magdelene who is the first person to meet the risen Jesus in the garden.
For Mary and Martha the death of their much loved brother was a tragedy. The emotions of their grieving described in the passage are clear, there is anger that Jesus did not come earlier, there is the weeping including by Jesus and though there is an acknowledgement that the teachings of their faith tradition gave hope of a resurrection at the end of time, it is the reality and finality of loss, and of being overwhelmed by it, that make the now a desperate time for those closest to Lazarus.
Let`s remember also that women in particular in first century Palestine were left very vulnerable by the loss of a close male relative and not just financially. Culturally women were usually excluded from playing a full part in the community but in Mary and Martha we find two people who constantly challenge this second class perception of women. They are determined that their lives should not be defined only by the circumstances of their brother`s death and its impact on them and others. Probably it is this that is the most striking thing within the whole account that it is they, Mary and Martha, who come from the story unbound; they who find a way to live again and they who find courage and strength and show to others goodness and love.
Jesus tells a parable shortly afterwards about a grain of wheat first dying in the ground so that fuller life can emerge and this gives a picture of what I think goes on for Mary and Martha. The grieving sisters brought back to fullness of life through the unbinding of the memory of who Lazarus was; and I think we can leave open a suggestion that one meaning of the passage is that it will be the memory of the life he had, probably one in which he faced many challenges, that will holds firm for them in the future, rather than the impact of his death.
60 years or more years after the days of the two sisters and Lazarus, this passage is placed by the Gospel writer as a prelude to the death and resurrection of Jesus. There must have been a massive impact on others in the future with this remembrance of the two women who had experienced and lived with close family loss and who also partly through this came closer than anyone else to understanding who Jesus is, what is life was for and what his death and resurrection will mean.
So in the end I think the passage is placed here because the Gospel writer wants to help us understand more about the death of Jesus and the tragedy this was for those who loved him most. And then also to show how the followers were unbound by the resurrection and then able to live and grow together in love as they lived as Jesus` risen body, the community of the church. As people living in a world of pain and as people showing Jesus` compassionate love for all.
For us as that community today, this raises great and big challenges. It asks of the church to prioritise its work alongside the grieving, the dying, those who live with mental illness and in being alongside all those who society finds most difficult to integrate and include.
It also asks us to question the values of consumerism that make people want something because someone else has it and has given a value to it. The different way is to consider how Jesus defined value and gave value to human need and human loss. Giving value to lives not defined by the aspiration of wanting money and possessions but built around the accepting, inclusive and releasing love that Jesus showed. At its centre the willingness to put others first, a recognition that sometimes sacrifice is needed and most of all as was seen with Mary and Martha to be with another person in helping and supporting them to begin to live fully again however raw and fragile emotions are and however long the journey ahead may be.