I hope that you’ve come to appreciate something of the complexity, depth, and riches in the gospel of John as we’ve worked through these readings over the last several weeks. Today, we have come to the end of this series of stories from John’s gospel, and with this reading, we have come to something of an early climax in the gospel as well. This story of the raising of Lazarus is the last of the seven “signs” recorded by John. It’s a clear demonstration of Jesus’ power but also, in its focus on his emotions it describes Jesus’ humanity in ways that we don’t see elsewhere in the gospel.
In this gospel, the words on the page should never be the only focus. It’s our natural tendency when reading the gospels, to approach them as history or biography, to see them as straightforward tellings of Jesus’ life. We assume they move forward chronologically from Jesus’ birth through his crucifixion and resurrection (even if as in John, Jesus’ birth is not recorded).
We’re given a clue that reading the gospel this way may not be terribly helpful in the very first verses of today’s reading, although we might not realize it. John identifies Lazarus as the brother of Martha and Mary, then explains to us that Mary was the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oil. We pass over that comment without noticing, even though the story to which it refers takes place after Lazarus is raised. We’re in chapter 11, and the anointing of Bethany appears in chapter 12.
Its appearance here should jolt us out of our ordinary assumptions. It disorients us, reorients us away from an ordinary approach to the narrative. It encourages to read this story in light of the whole gospel, not only the next episode—when Mary anoints Jesus, but in light of everything that comes before and comes after. To understand John’s gospel, we need always to have in mind all of it, from the opening cadences of “In the beginning was the Word” to the end, to the appearances of the risen Christ to his disciples. We have to read this gospel all of this after, and in light of Easter, and that the gospel can only be understood in light of our experience of the risen Christ.
But there are other interpretive frameworks, other experiences that shape our engagement with this text. Many of us know what Mary and Martha went through as they watched their brother die. Many of us have experienced similar distress and grief. The gospel writer’s emphasis on Jesus’ own distress at Lazarus’ death brings those emotions forward, especially if our grief is still raw, our distress current because we are now living through, or have recently experienced the death of a dear friend or family member. We share Mary and Martha’s pain, we may even share Martha’s anger that Jesus did not come in their time of need, that he did not heal his beloved friend as he had healed strangers he’d never met before.
But even more the pain and anguish of his sisters, the gospel writer depicts Jesus’ own anguish at the death of his friend. Those of us of a certain age and background are familiar with this story because in the Authorized version, one terse verse was known by all of us as the shortest verse in the bible. In its brevity, its power haunted us: “Jesus wept.” Notice, though, how the gospel writer repeats that imagery of Jesus’ grief: “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved; … he began to weep … Jesus again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb…”
The emphasis here on Jesus’ humanity, his deep affection for Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, his grief at Lazarus’ death, none of that is accidental. As readers, we are drawn at this moment to Jesus’ humanity, to his weakness and vulnerability to his display of feelings we’ve all had. At this moment, just as he is about to perform the greatest, most powerful of his signs, we are encouraged to remember that although he is the Son of God, the one coming into the world, to use Martha’s phrase, Jesus is also profoundly and completely human.
In the midst of that pain and grief, experienced by Jesus, by Lazarus’ sisters, by the friends and neighbors, Jesus took action. In front of our eyes, in the midst of the tears and disbelief, the raising of Lazarus takes place. I said that the stories in John’s gospel always refer backwards and forwards to other stories in the gospel. That is especially true here because so many of the details call to mind Jesus’ own burial and resurrection.
Two details in particular are echoes of Jesus’ resurrection. First of all, the stone rolled across the tomb. Here, Jesus tells bystanders to remove the stone. In John 20, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb, she discovers that the stone has been removed. Here, human beings do the work of removing the stone—later, we assume that the stone in front of Jesus’ tomb was moved by divine action.
Jesus calls to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man walking emerges from the cave. We imagine him looking mummy-like, with the grave clothes still binding him, wrapped head to foot. Jesus instructs the bystanders again to take action. This time, they take off the burial garments, and with that, Lazarus is restored to his community and family.
I mentioned two details here that foreshadow Jesus’ own resurrection. One, the stone covering the entrance to the tomb, I’ve already mentioned. The other is this, the burial clothes. The gospel writer tells us that there were strips of cloth wrapped around Lazarus’ body, and another cloth covering his head. Later, when the Peter and the Beloved Disciple enter Jesus’ tomb, they see his burial garments: a bundle of linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head rolled up in a place by itself.
In Lazarus’ case, both the stone and the burial garments were removed by the bystanders. In Jesus’ case, we presume, they were removed miraculously. In order for Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, in order for him to be fully restored to life and to his loved ones, his friends and neighbors had to participate. They removed the barrier that separated him from life, and they removed the garments that marked him as a dead man.
We read this story across two millennia, moved by its power, perhaps troubled by its supernatural character. We see the display of Jesus’ power, we see the grief and anger. We also know what will come. This story serves for John as the final straw in the case Jesus’ opponents make against him. They resolve to have him killed. The journey to Jerusalem that we have been traveling these last weeks will soon come to its end, the cross and Golgotha looming over us.
We bring our fears and anxieties to this place, our uncertainty and questions, our anger and disappointment. Like Lazarus, we are trapped in tombs of our own making, in tombs made by circumstance and fate. Jesus calls us, “Come out” but our way is blocked by the stone in front of the entrance, our motion hampered by the burial clothes in which we are wrapped. For us to be fully alive, for us to know the love and life that Christ offers us, we need the help of a community, we need the love and support of others, to roll away the stone, and to unbind us and let us go. May we hear and respond to Christ’s words of life, and my our actions, our love and friendship, help others to know that Christ is resurrection and life, and to experience that resurrection and life in our midst.