Tuesday 9 August 2022

Sermon on John 11:17-27 - I am the Resurrection and the Life

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On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Today we continue our series of sermons on the 'I AM' sayings of Jesus from John's Gospel. As most of you will now know, these are a series of powerful statements in which Jesus reveals different aspects of who he really is, and what it means for him to be the Son of God.

More than that, in each of these statements he identifies himself with God in a profound way. He echoes the great declaration God made from the Burning Bush to Moses before God rescued the Israelites from Egypt. Moses asked, what was the name of God that he should give to the people of Israel, and from the Burning Bush God answers “I AM WHO I AM". This is what you must say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me.’” In the Burning Bush, God revealed himself to Moses in a new way, as the One who would stand in a Covenant with the people of Israel; and now in these 'I AM' statements Jesus is revealing himself in a series of new ways. He's giving pieces of detail about who God is and what he means to us.

Today we are looking at the statement - "I am the Resurrection and the Life" - and the context of this statement involves the death of Lazarus: Jesus' friend, and the brother of Mary and Martha, who appear a number of times in the Gospels. Lazarus has fallen sick and then died, and Jesus travels to visit Mary and Martha in their grief. When Martha hears Jesus is coming she runs out to meet him, she has probably been waiting for him, wondering when he would turn up. When she sees him she is clear about her faith in him, she addresses him as Lord, but her statement of faith carries a sharp edge. "If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask". You can hear the criticism in her words, it's implicit, but that doesn't take away the sting. 

"But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask", there's a request there as well, and like the rebuke it's implicit, but pretty obvious. Jesus does not take offence at either her rebuke, or her request. He knows the grief and pain she is speaking from. God wants us to speak to him honestly and openly in our grief. God is big enough to handle it; he only asks that we trust in him to answer. 

Martha had faith that Jesus could yet save her brother, though she did not understand why Jesus had waited. We have all lost loved-ones at some point in our life, we have all been in Martha's place, and like her we must have faith in God's purpose. Sometimes the answer to our prayers comes in this life, and in other times we must wait and have faith that beyond the veil of physical death God will bring healing and justice to all our loss.

Jesus answers the question that she has not asked and assures her, saying "your brother will rise again", but she doesn't entirely understand. She replies saying, "“I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Now, as Christians when we talk about the Resurrection we usually mean, first and foremost, Christ's Resurrection after the Crucifixion, which we particularly celebrate every year at Easter. But Martha here is speaking within the Jewish tradition she is familiar with. 

In this tradition the Resurrection was a great and terrible event that would happen at the end of the World, at the Apocalypse. At the end of time, the Jews believed that all people would be judged by God according to their actions. The righteous dead would rise from their graves to live with God forever, and evil people would be destroyed. This, by the way, is still basically the understanding of what the Resurrection means in Islam, it is repeated again and again in the Quran.

In Martha's Jewish understanding at the time, this is strictly a future event. She has faith that Lazarus will be raised at the end of time, when God brings an end to the whole universe and judges the wicked and the righteous, but until then she can only wait; hence her grief that Jesus was not there in time to preserve Lazarus alive here and now. Jesus' reply transforms this traditional understanding of Resurrection. "I am the Resurrection and the Life", he says. Instead of being a hoped-for act of God in some distant future, Jesus is telling her that the Resurrection is here and now, standing in front of her. 

"I am the Resurrection and the Life". He is personalising this great final act of God, he is saying it is in himself and through himself that Resurrection comes, right now. He demonstrates this by raising Lazarus from the dead, immediately after this reading, though he'd been dead for four days, though he was starting to rot. Almost nothing could make a more dramatic example of what it means for the Resurrection to be here and now. Jesus goes on to explain what Resurrection and Life in him and through him will mean. "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” There are two different deaths Jesus is speaking of here. At first we will die, yet live; and then we shall never die. 

At first he is talking about our physical death in this age, we know that we still suffer physical death: St Peter died, and St Paul died, and every one of the Saints down to our own family and loved ones have still died. But in Christ death has lost its sting, for this death is not the end, it is merely another step along the climb to greater Life, more enduring, eternal Life; "Life in all its fullness".  We cannot now fully appreciate and understand what this will mean, but we can approach it. In our music and worship, when we feel the love and fellowship of friends and family, or out in Nature; anywhere we feel the presence of God, we gain a glimpse of what that life will be like, when we will live in God's clear and direct presence forevermore. In moments of surpassing beauty and peace, when briefly it seems our cares have fallen away, we get a glimpse of what that life is like. 

Have you ever been looking forward to going somewhere on holiday, and then you go and it's even better than you expected, more joyful, more carefree, more beautiful? Have you ever been waiting at a train station or a bus station for a loved one to return after a long absence? Have you ever sat there surrounded by concrete and dinge, waiting for someone you love more than life itself, and then finally they appear, and you run to hug them and hold them, and its like the sun comes out and the air is clear, and for a moment there is nothing but joy and safety and relief.  These things reveal to us in part the Life that God is giving us. Saints and Mystics have experienced it too in another way, as sheer bliss, indescribable bliss, that comes from seeing God with the mist between us totally fallen away. Even for mystics, in this life, that perfectly clear vision last only for moments; but Jesus makes clear that through him that true life is destined to endure, saying "whoever lives by believing in me shall never die".

We must realise though that this Life, with a capital L, this Resurrection, is not just something that happens after we die, or at the end of the Universe. No, Jesus says, "I am the Resurrection and the Life". The Resurrection was there standing and speaking with Martha, in a village outside Jerusalem. From the moment of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, and then more so once his ministry began in Galilee, the Resurrection and the Life was happening and is happening still. Jesus does not point us to the Resurrection, and the Life, he does not point us towards God; he is God, he is the Resurrection and the Life, and through him we can be part of that Resurrection today and everyday.

We grow as children and teenagers, and our bodies and minds develop, and we think that we are done growing and developing. But with God we are still children, however old we get, and if we have faith in Jesus, if we follow where he leads, then every day we can grow, we can experience resurrection and enter into new and deeper life. The Resurrection is happening all around us, if we follow Jesus, if we put our trust in him, then we can grow and grow.

Martha and the Jews were expecting the Resurrection and the coming of the Messiah, as some future event where God would flip the world upside down, overthrow their enemies, condemn the wicked, and make everything right. They thought they just needed to stay as righteous as possible by the Law, and keep out of trouble until that day.  But Jesus was telling them, No, the Resurrection is in me! It is standing in front of you. It is among you, here and now, with God's own terrifying power, and that power will spread from Jesus to every willing heart that trusts enough to follow where he led. Our Resurrection means that we are called, one individual soul at a time, to walk his journey of service and sacrifice, and so spread new life from soul to soul. 

And we know how this was done: Christ shared in our death, even so we could share in his Resurrection. Remember what he says in this reading, "The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die." Martha may not have understood this at the time, but she, like the other disciples, understood after Christ's own Resurrection. Christ lives, even though he died, and now he shall never die.  But this was not a piece of divine showing-off, God was not doing this to prove he could, but as the first step in spreading resurrection to us all. In the words of St Paul, Jesus is "the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep", the evidence of the greater harvest to come, so through him we may enter into true life, that does not start after we've died, but from when we first accept Christ, and grows whenever we turn to him.

The Bible makes clear that one day Christ will return in the same way he left us, and there will be a final Judgement, and it will be great and terrible. So why does God delay? Only God knows for certain when and why. But we do know that "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so through him the world might be saved". God does not want to destroy the world, he wants to save it. So I suspect God delays so the Good News may grow and spread, that more people may have a chance to know Jesus of their own free choice and be saved; that people on continents and in countries that Martha could not have imagined may first experience the Good News of Resurrection in their own lives. God's Kingdom is like a seed that falls to the ground and is buried, but then it sprouts. That means it grows inch by inch, first a fragile seedling, then a slender sapling, and finally a mighty tree, whose branches and leaves grow and spread. Sometimes frost or drought or disease may delay the growth, but through the power of God the final result is certain. 

At the end of his astonishing statement, Jesus challenges Martha, "Do you believe this?", and she responds in glorious style, "“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Amen to that. Martha's statement is an amazing declaration of faith, but faith only begins with the mouth; if it means anything it needs to carry on throughout the body, into the brain and the thoughts we have, into the heart and the love we have for others, into our hands and feet, and the work we will do to serve and support the people around us. 

In any community, one of the greatest dangers is complacency and inertia. Do we become static, sedentary and sluggish, or are we being filled each day with new energy through the Holy Spirit? Resurrection means new and transformed life, if we are brave enough to embrace it, if we are willing to rely on God's strength, that is so much greater than our own. 

So what risks are we prepared to take? Which new people are we prepared to trust? What new ideas are we prepared to embrace? Do not be afraid. Though we face uncertainty and danger in this world, the victory of God is certain, so there is no need to be afraid. But also, we must not be complacent. God gives us time, so beauty and love may grow and spread, but not so we can waste it. Let us never hesitate from doing good, but embrace the chance; let us not delay in reaching out to people with the Good News that God offers, but speak out today. In every thing we do let us bring our best efforts to God, knowing he deserves nothing less; and knowing that God will bless the gift, however humble it may be.