5th Sunday of Lent – Passiontide begins

Romans 8:6-11 and John 11.1-45 

Today we have the fourth of our Sundays in Lent when we look at an encounter with Jesus and certain individuals. They were part of the early church’s preparation for baptism at Easter and can also help us in our discipleship. We can learn from Martha, Mary and Thomas who all feature in the story. I wonder which you will identify most with or how your thinking about them can help you think about your own discipleship.

This long story of the raising of Lazarus is also the 7th of the Signs in John’s gospel and marks the turning towards the cross when we are told about the Glory of God that will be displayed. This final sign, the raising of Lazarus from the dead, points us to the most amazing sign – the raising of Jesus from the dead. Whilst Lazarus would go on to die a physical death, Jesus’ resurrection is final and makes a change in the way that death affects Christians.

Raising someone from the dead is amazing and happened about 10 times in the bible (that we are told of). But in the story of Lazarus the miracle and even Lazarus himself get little attention compared to Jesus’ conversations with disciples.  For John, discipleship was more important than Jesus’ wonder-working, and while miracles are always a nice surprise, growth in faith usually involves some struggle.

When Jesus says he is ready to return to Judea — the area they had just left because people were preparing to stone him. Thomas speaks for the group saying in effect, “Are you stark raving mad?!” (John’s more respectful translation reads: “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?”)

Jesus’ response is typical of him and can be taken literally or metaphorically. “If you walk in the day, you won’t stumble,” a statement so blatantly obvious that the disciples have to work out what it really means. Another way to say it is, “When you walk by the light of the world, you won’t stumble, but if you walk on the dark side, the light is not in you.”

Or, you could say that if you are facing the sun all the shadows are behind you and you can see clearly. But if you have your back to the sun, then you are walking in shadow. This can be an image of how we are when we are looking towards Jesus and wanting his light to show us the way – or the opposite and wanting to go our own way, in effect turning our back on him and his light.

By inviting the disciples to go with him, Jesus is effectively saying that when they walk in his way, his own inner light will dwell in them.

Thomas didn’t quite understand, but he did know where he stood. If Jesus were determined to head toward danger, he wouldn’t leave him to do it alone: “Let us also go to die with him.” If love and loyalty are important aspects of faith, Thomas had plenty of it. Walking with the light of the world would be OK, even if dangerous.

It’s a shame Thomas has been dubbed Doubting Thomas from the exchange at Easter.  He could easily be called Faithful Thomas who just got angry at missing out on seeing the resurrected Jesus.

Either way, as disciples we are called to be loyal, and we may sometimes misunderstand how that might work out in practice, in our daily lives.

Let’s look at Mary and Martha.  It’s interesting to note, that it’s usually women who push Jesus to more. I wonder if it is a female trait to point out a need and expect the man to do something about it.  The grass is long – there’s a pile of washing up to be done – The wine has run out (Jesus’ mum at the wedding)  –  even the dogs get the crumbs under the table (the Syrophoenician argued for a cure for her daughter); in this incident, Martha and Mary both let him know, “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.”

It is OK to shout at Jesus and let him know your pain and anger when you are grieving.

Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead before he arrived. Indeed he had been buried for four days, and Martha was in no doubt that his body stank. Whatever Jesus was going to do, it was not the resuscitation of a person with any life in him.

Jesus responded differently to Mary’s and Martha’s identical declarations that, had he been there, their brother would not have died. This suggests that they used very different tones of voice. It also shows that Jesus knows what is going on in each of them and what they need to hear from him.

But Martha didn’t stop with what hadn’t happened, she added her own open-ended request: “I know that God will do whatever you ask.”

So far, Martha has recognized Jesus as a dear friend, a healer and one whose prayers get answered. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise, she hears that as a traditional teaching.

Explaining that her concept encompasses only a miniscule portion of God’s offer he says, “I am the resurrection and the life … Do you believe this?”

This led to her affirmation of faith that Lazarus would rise in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus’ response – “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” – is one of that Gospel’s seven statements which embody the Hebrew name for God, “I am.”

Martha’s response, theologically correct as it sounded, didn’t begin to grasp the depth of Jesus’ meaning. So, when he called for opening the tomb, she betrayed her lingering belief in the uncompromising power of death: “Lord, there will be a stench.”

But Jesus, Son of the God who promised to open the graves of the people, called Lazarus back into life.

Next, let’s look at Mary, who said exactly the same thing, and yet elicited a totally different response. Jesus wept with her, sharing the pain of death and loss.

God has made us for friendship and love and, when friendship is severed by death, grief is a natural response. It doesn’t show a lack of trust in God, but of bereavement.  And bereavement can be a situation where we meet God most profoundly.

Jesus knew the intensity of human loss. Later, through the cross, the Father was bereaved. Nothing we experience is alien to God; even in our loneliest and most unhappy places, we are not beyond God’s reach of compassion.

Lent started on Ash Wednesday with us being reminded of our mortality – remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. But we did that within the context of a communion service, celebrating the resurrection and the fact that death, for us, is not the end.

Jesus had told Thomas and friends that with him, they could walk in his light, which meant that they could be with him in facing down death.

Jesus wanted Martha to go a step further, to realize that God is the God of life. Death does not exist for God, at least not as tragedy, not as the defining limit of life.

Jesus is the Light of the World and when we believe and trust in him his light lives in us. Jesus also says that we who believe, even if we die, will live, and the life he gives can never be touched by death. Knowing Jesus as the resurrection and the life changes everything. In Paul’s language, it moves us from the realm of the flesh into the realm of the spirit. Discipleship is a journey we’re invited to take in the light of the God of life.

I have to acknowledge one of my sources for this sermon is ‘Models of discipleship’ by Mary McGlone (April 2017)

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