Sermon / April 2, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / John 11:1-45 /
His hour is coming.
Soon, it will be Holy Week. Day by day, we will see Jesus live out his final hours. He will be betrayed, deserted, falsely imprisoned, interrogated, tortured, and crucified. We will watch as some weep over his suffering, and others laugh at it. And then, after he is buried, we will wait to see what will come of all this grief and violence.
Those of us who have grown up with this story will probably find little that surprises us as we re-hear it this year, because we’ve heard it so many times. We are so habituated to the story that sometimes its power is diminished. I realized this when I taught the New Testament to fifth graders at Grace Church School in Manhattan. Most of the kids knew the story. But some – a good third of the class – had never heard it, because their families had no faith connection or religious tradition. And when some of those kids heard the story of Jesus’s crucifixion for the first time, they were undone. All through the semester, we had read of his ministry, his miracles, his teachings, his incredible goodness. After learning all that, the kids could not believe the violent end of Jesus’s life. Some of them ran out of the room and sat outside on the floor in the hall, their backs against the lockers, weeping. “Why?” they said.
Nothing I said consoled them. The hour had come when they began to know what human beings are capable of.
The Scriptures mince no words about what the world is like. It is a place of grace and violence. The Bible is very clear that sin and self-regard are part of our story from the very beginning. And Jesus himself is a victim of violence from the start of his life, when he and his parents have to run (like the people of Mosul are running, as we speak) from the terrorist threats of Herod, to the end of his life, when he is executed by a totalitarian state.
This same violence has been with us in an especially visceral way during the past several months, as we continue to see terrorist attacks all over the world, committed in the name of God. It is as if violence itself has become a religion, whereby the dispossessed of the earth, abandoned to poverty, perpetual war, hopelessness, and perversions of belief, try to achieve transcendence and meaning through bloodshed. And the Bible is very clear that this is what we have made of our world as a human family.
So when our kids ask us why there are terrorists and why the walls of the world are splashed with blood, we can’t tell them it’s the fault of bad people who believe the wrong things. Because (as I said last week), the Bible is not a book about other people. It’s a book about us. A corrupt humanity, camouflaged in religious language and wielding the name of God like a sword or a submachine gun, exercises its power through a false salvific system that pretends to righteousness but that is actually demonic. When I say “false salvific system”, I don’t mean Islam. I mean, as the baptismal service in our Book of Common Prayer says, “the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” – specifically, the false promise of coercion and violence to deliver meaning and life. This lie – that violence is somehow consoling, even redemptive – is what sin is.
We are all infected to some degree with this lie and this potential for violence as a way of trying to find a secure footing in life. Most of us use the bloodless brand, using our wills to coerce others into being props on our stage. Others of us don’t or won’t recognize that the way we live contributes to the bloody variety – even if only way down the line. A life of distraction, acquisition, competition, and isolation is a politely violent life. When only 80 people hold two trillion dollars of the world’s assets, we shouldn’t be surprised when those who have lost out and lost hope respond with what they believe to be the vengeance of God.
Jesus came to show us a new way of being human in a world that belongs to God. The events of Holy week show us exactly what that new way is, how Jesus established it, and how we can live it too. It’s the only hope we have for this poor old world.
The event that triggered Jesus’s arrest is recorded in today’s gospel. What finally ended it for him? It was the raising of Lazarus. In this final act of power and compassion, Jesus makes clear what the scope of God’s sovereignty really is. He doesn’t raise Lazarus from the dead just to give him a few more years because he’s his friend, because after all Lazarus has not been granted immortality; he’s going to have to die again, eventually, and who can say that his second death might not be more fearsome than his first? And so this is a resuscitation, not a resurrection.
Jesus raises Lazarus as a sign, to show what it always going on in this world that belongs to God, even though we are often blind to it, and it is this: Death, sin, and violence are all too real, but they are penultimate. They will never bear fruit. They will never solve anything. They are liars. They hold only as much power as we give them. When he raises Lazarus, Jesus pulls out his trump card – the power of God to always give life. It’s the Big Reveal. And it’s the sustaining principle of the universe: Whatever is going on, including death, God is always giving life, if we will have it.
Jesus says to the disciples: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” “I am going there” – by which he means, into death. Jesus takes Lazarus’s place in the tomb. He take our place in the tomb. By virtue of our sin, we have all fallen asleep, we are all living within the power of death, but on the cross, Jesus goes there to awaken us, to unbind us, and set us free. This is not just a theological metaphor. Jesus suffered death, and God pulled him through it and up out of it into greater, richer life. When we say that Jesus died for us, we are saying that we believe the same thing is going to happen to us. We will each suffer death, and God is going to pull us through it and up out of it into greater, richer, risen life. Which means we don’t have to be afraid of death anymore. People who do not fear death are free. People who don’t fear death can do anything. This is why the raising of Lazarus was the nail in the coffin for Jesus. The powers that be, whose ultimate weapon is the threat of death, saw once and for all that Jesus was liberating people from the fear of death. He had to be eliminated.
His hour is coming. We all have to make a decision, eventually, about what our lives are really about. I suppose it is possible to live your whole life without knowing why you are alive. But each of us needs a narrative to live by; if you don’t have one, you’re just sleepwalking. Or, as David Foster Wallace said, “If you don’t have a way to make meaning out of your experience, then you will be totally hosed.” The narrative that suicide terrorism offers is that if you throw your life away through violence, you will acquire concrete rewards in a world beyond this one, reserved for the self-anointed righteous few. This narrative has been around since Cain and Abel – it’s the “get rid of anyone in your way” method of living.
The narrative that Jesus offers is that we find our humanity and our lives when we give ourselves away in solidarity with others and for the care of others, as he did. When you live that way, you’re already in heaven. This is the new creation that God established through the cross and resurrection.
This lies deep inside each of us, waiting to be discovered. When I preached at an ordination recently, I saw a little boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, creep up to the front of the church as the young man about to be ordained lay prostrate, face down, on the floor of the chancel. The boy listened to the serious words of the ordination vows. He heard the Scripture readings, the prayers, the music. After the service, the little boy said to me, “Mother Anne, I think I want to be a priest when I grow up.” Of course it wasn’t the priesthood that drew him in so strongly…he was too young to understand that. But all that reverence and love helped him see that a life of meaning, purpose, passion, and God’s love is possible. He saw another human being lay his life down for something beautiful, something holy. And he wanted that. He was only 7 years old….but his hour had come.
At the end of the story, on the final day of Jesus’s life on earth, Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” Jesus didn’t answer. Because the truth doesn’t come to us as an answer. It comes as a life lived. My friends, let us live that life.