Sunday 2 April - Lent 5 - Eucharist Passion Sunday - Stephen Holmes

Lent 5 (Passion Sunday) 2017 – John 11:1-45

‘The once dead man struggles to sit up / gripping the edge of the tomb, wrenched / from a place he might rather have stayed /called out of darkness into the questionable light. / It’s not at all clear / that this return will give him / reason to rejoice.’

The raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel has inspired a lot of art. This poem by Marilyn McEntyre suggests that Lazarus might have preferred to stay dead. If you look at the story in John’s gospel it is not really about Lazarus at all, he says nothing. It’s about his sisters, Martha and Mary, and above all about his friend, Jesus. In the gospel it is the hinge between the life of Jesus and the events of his passion. Unlike the other gospels, John gives the raising of Lazarus as the reason for his death: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation… it is better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’. So it is good to hear it on this Passion Sunday when Lent turns to look more intently at the cross. We’ll hear the passion story sung next Sunday and be at the cross on Good Friday the week after. If we want the hope of life we need to think of death, so what about Lazarus?

‘Called out of darkness into the questionable light’. There’s a TV series on Netflix called ‘Shaka Zulu’, about the rise of the Zulu kingdom in South Africa. A small group are sent from the British colony to negotiate with Shaka. On the way they see the burial party of a young African woman. One of the group notices that she is still alive and helps her recover. The Zulu believe that the Europeans have raised her from the dead. When they appear in the King’s Kraal, Shaka has her brought out and killed in front of them to show that he has power over life and death and to deprive the white men of their perceived power. Being raised from the dead is not much good if you are going to die again. Jesus and the sisters love Lazarus and they get him back, but this is a resuscitation, not a resurrection. Lazarus is called out of the darkness of death into the questionable light of everyday mortality.

‘Called out of darkness into the questionable light.’ Sermons often concentrate on the emotions with which this story is filled. Mary and the Jews were crying and Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. It says again that Jesus was deeply moved and we have the shortest verse in the NT, ‘Jesus wept’: the human Jesus, with us in our emotions and our tears. But he had deliberately stayed away to allow Lazarus to die. There is something more than emotions going on here.

We get a very modern hint of what this is in a sermon on the raising of Lazarus, preached in Ravenna 1600 years ago. The preacher says that Jesus stayed away ‘so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths’. Jesus stayed away to allow ‘the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld and take possession of him’. One thinks of the ages of faith, in the past, as when people were serene in their hope in the face of death. But no, death has always retained its terrible finality. In waiting, Jesus doesn’t cover death with pious platitudes or pretend it isn’t there. He allows it to stand before us with the silence of a sealed tomb. Jesus cries at the tomb to show us grief is normal. God does not require Buddha-like zen serenity.

Jesus stayed away ‘so that human hope may perish entirely’. This is modern because in our society there is no lively hope that death is the gateway to a new and better life. The TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ is a modern mythology, in the sixth series a central character Jon Snow is brought back from the dead. He is asked ‘what did you see?’, and answers: ‘nothing, there was nothing at all’. And this is the modern fear, ‘nothing, nothing at all’. Jesus, God, steps back and allows Mary and Martha, and all of us, to feel this nihilism; nothing, nothing at all; life has no meaning and death is the end. ‘dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark’. It is with tears at this ‘nothing’ that Jesus stands at the tomb. The stone is rolled away and Jesus stares into the gaping void, full of the stench of death.

‘Called out of darkness into the questionable light.’ Jesus shouts into the darkness of the tomb and Lazarus comes out from the underworld, hero of a thousand paintings, wrapped in his grave-clothes. But it is ‘into the questionable light.’ He comes out ‘from a place he might rather have stayed in’. It’s not resurrection, its resuscitation. He’s going to die again, like the girl impaled on the spear of Shaka the Zulu. ‘It’s not at all clear that this return will give Lazarus reason to rejoice’. In our lives we skate on the surface of the void, we live our lives trying to forget this ancient fear: ‘nothing, there was nothing at all’. And it is usually death and pain that roll away the stone from the gaping mouth of the tomb. Forget fears of Brexit, Trump and the break-up of the UK; forget the once-in-a-lifetime referendum that comes around every couple of years. The raising of Lazarus isn’t the triumph of life over death, it leads inexorably to the death of Jesus; but it does gives us permission to weep with Martha, Mary and Jesus, to face the reality of mortality standing with Jesus at the gates of death.  

Later you find another Mary weeping at a rock-hewn tomb. This time the dead man does not come out. The tomb is already empty and the grave clothes neatly folded. We’re in a different story, away from Jon Snow, the Zulu girl and Lazarus. Lazarus goes back to his old life; Jesus can’t be pinned down. He appears and disappears; they don’t recognise him until he breaks bread; he goes through closed doors. It’s a hope beyond the void of nothingness. We will experience it here, in this place, at this time, in two weeks’ time. But Lazarus tells us that we remain in this ‘questionable light’, we are still skating on the surface of the void. And so the church tells us that in this in-between time, when the terrors of death are still with us, we still need the cross and the tomb. If we are to get to Easter Sunday, we need to go through the horror of Good Friday and the waiting of Holy Saturday. We are baptised into death and resurrection at the same time. Time makes us wait. Jesus stayed away ‘so that human hope may perish entirely and human despair reach its lowest depths’. Jesus stayed away to allow ‘the realm of darkness to seize his friend, drag him down to the underworld and take possession of him’. But in the dark waters of baptism and in the broken bread and outpoured wine of this holy sacrament, we know that, even in this questionable light, the darkness doesn’t have the last word. We do have ‘reason to rejoice’.