Yes they can, said Jesus.
The fourth gospel is the most carefully crafted and most literary of all the gospels. The narrative is quite different from the other three. The nativity story for example, lacks reference to a manger or shepherds or Mary and Joseph. Instead the birth of Jesus is set in a cosmic context. Taking his cue from the writings of Plato, the fourth gospel writer presents Jesus as a pre-existent unity with God who becomes incarnate at a particular moment in human time and shows the world the glory of God in human form. God the risk-taker.
John’s gospel is stylish. It’s full of symbolism. A vast crowd is filled with real bread and later in a long digression from the narrative, Jesus explains his role as the bread of life. And at the end he identifies his betrayer by giving him a piece of bread, a sign that he is putting his life into Judas’s hand. At the beginning of his ministry he performs a miracle with water; then at Jacob’s well he asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water and presents himself as living water: whoever drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again. Whereas the other three gospels, though they’re certainly not biographies of Jesus, are close to the style of traditional narrative, John’s gospel is elliptical and full of abstractions and revealed meanings.
The long story of the resurrection of Lazarus which we’ve just heard is one of the most detailed and complex episodes in any of the gospels. There are several resurrection stories in the NT, like the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son at Nairn. We have to ask ourselves what they mean.
There’s another Lazarus story in the NT, in Luke chapter 16. It’s the parable of the rich man, Dives, and Lazarus, the leper. In it, the rich man ignores the plight of the leprous beggar who sits at his gate hoping to be given scraps which fall from the rich man’s table. But when they both die and Lazarus is carried off to heaven, the rich man, in the torment of hell asks that Lazarus can be sent to him with water to slake his thirst. He’s told that this is impossible. Just as there had been in life, so in death between him and Lazarus there’s a great gulf fixed; there had been a gulf of the inequality of their status, income, lifestyle. Now there’s a gulf in the treatment they’re experiencing after death. The rich man begs that at least Lazarus could be resurrected so that he could return to earth and warn the rich man’s brothers of the fate that awaits them if they continue to ignore the poor who sit at their gates. But Abraham, the mouth piece of God, tells them sternly that they have all ignored the words of the prophets and will not be convinced, even if someone should return from the dead. There can be no resurrection for the hard-hearted.
This parable must have been part of the oral tradition which Luke drew on when he was writing his gospel and which John would have known. It’s surely no coincidence that John uses the same name for the character in his resurrection story. Both Lazaruses experience a new life, free from the constraints of their former lives; now they are living a life in God.
The resurrection of Lazarus in John’s gospel in many ways is a pre-echo of the story of Easter morning. The parallels are there: Lazarus was buried in a tomb; the tomb was sealed with a stone; a woman called Mary stood outside the tomb weeping; the body was bound with strips of cloth with a separate cloth wrapped round the head.
What’s the significance of this story?
The writer is clear. The point of this story is to show the hand of God working miracles through Jesus even when the situation seemed totally hopeless.
There are still many people in the church and outside it who seek in God the kind of supernatural power that will break into natural law and overturn it.
I’m not one of those people. But I’m deeply moved by this story, the story of desolation being overcome.
The story contains elemental aspects of the grieving process. There’s an intense sense of loss, masked to a certain extent by ritual – the preparation of the body, the ceremonies of burial. There’s anger – Martha confronts Jesus. If you had been here my brother would not have died. The crowd of friends and family say, He opened the eyes of a blind man; surely he could have prevented this man’s death. There’s a feeling of impotence – Jesus wept. His first reaction is profound sorrow so that the onlookers cease to think of Lazarus in their amazement at the depth of Jesus’s love for him. There’s a need for people to come together and support each other in their mourning. The story conforms to our experience of bereavement, of abandonment.
When Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, he ordered the onlookers, Unbind him. Let him go free. At Bethany, Lazarus was raised to new life and became part of the Passover celebration which began with the anointing of Jesus in Lazarus’s house, followed by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the washing of the disciples’ feet and the last supper .
I see the story as an extended metaphor, like the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones. The monumental piles of bones which represented the history of the house of Israel were enfleshed by the hand of God and brought back to life. God said: I will put my spirit within you and you will live. Even the Israelites in despair, in exile, with no apparent possibility of returning to freedom in their own homeland can be offered the promise of new life and hope.
I hesitate to tempt Providence but I feel that in the C/E we might be tottering slowly to the threshold of a resurrection. It’s just possible that this year, the long march to the consecration of a woman bishop might be coming to an end. And last week the law allowing same sex couples to marry came into effect and the media were full of scenes of great rejoicing as men and women were able to affirm their loving relationships. Anglican bishops had reacted to the passing of the new law by saying that there could be no blessing of these relationships in church, and certainly not a marriage ceremony. But a few Anglican priests said that they were going to defy their bishops, some by conducting same sex weddings and some by actually marrying their same sex partner. Adam Smallbone, BBC 2’s Rev, agonised over a request by two friends that he would marry them He settled for a mealy mouthed compromise in the form of a few wishy washy prayers. Then he pulled himself together and married them. The archdeacon, who had affected to be angry with Adam ended the episode by putting his telescope to his deaf ear. It was funny, though I felt like crying. Can’t we see a new life when it’s staring us in the face?
David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham who caused huge controversy 20 years ago with his remark that the resurrection must be more than a conjuring trick with bones, also said that he wanted to shout at people: don’t tell me that you believe in the resurrection. Show me that you do.
Remember the words of Hosea: Yahweh has torn us but he will heal us; He has struck us down but he will bind up our wounds. He will bring us back to life. On the third day he will raise us and we will live in his presence.
We have to be free to receive God’s spirit within us so that we can live in his presence, NOW.