Remembering Death, Confessing Life
Jesus Raises Lazarus

For Sunday April 6, 2014
The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Ezekiel 37:1–14

Ezekiel 37:1-14

37:1 The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.

2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.

3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!

5 This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.

6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.

8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’”

10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’

12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.

14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

Psalm 130

Psalm 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;

2 Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

3 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?

4 But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

5 I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in his word I put my hope.

6 I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

7 Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.

8 He himself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.

Romans 8:6–11

Romans 8:1-11

8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,

2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.

3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh,

4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

6 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.

7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.

8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.

10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness.

11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

John 11:1–45

John 11:1-45

11:1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.)

3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”

4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”

5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days,

7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”

9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light.

10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”

12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”

13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.

14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead,

15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.

18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem,

19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother.

20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

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

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

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;

26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

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

28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”

29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him.

30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.

32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

35 Jesus wept.

36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance.

39 “Take away the stone,” he said.

“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.

42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”

43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.

Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

           A month ago we began Lent with the imposition of ashes and the recitation of Genesis 3:19: "remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return."

           In Latin, memento mori, "remember that you will die."

           That's not just a pious platitude, it's wise advice, for biological death threatens every thing about us. And lest we forget, I've found several atheists who do a good job of remembering death.

Wall painting of Jesus raising Lazarus, late 3rd century catacomb.
Wall painting of Jesus raising Lazarus, late 3rd century catacomb.

           Several months ago the literary critic James Wood of Harvard described attending the funeral of a man who died "ridiculously young." The service honored the memory of the man, but it also reminded Wood of the futility of life in the shadow of death.

           Wood writes, "It was just a life, one of millions, as arbitrary as everyone else's, a named tenancy that will soon become a nameless one; a life that we know, with horror, will be thoroughly forgotten within a few generations." We're "appalled by the meaninglessness and ephemerality of existence."*

           In Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), the British novelist Julian Barnes explored his fear of death in light of his lack of faith. Was it possible to give his life a meaningful narrative? The title of the book is a clever play on words. Is death nothing to fear? Or is death a nothingness we rightly fear?

           The prospect of absolute extinction, both personal and cosmic, and the terror that that thought provokes in him, causes Barnes to admit that while he "doesn't believe in God, he misses him."

           Barnes's newest book, Levels of Life (2013), explores his grief when his wife of thirty years died — thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death. There seem to be two lessons. First, when you put two people together and one is taken away, "what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This might not be mathematically possible, but it's emotionally possible."

           And second, the grief we bear is proportionate to the love we shared. A friend wrote to Barnes after his wife's death, "The thing is — nature is so exact, it hurts exactly as much as it is worth, so in a way one relishes the pain. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't matter."

Jesus raises Lazarus, medieval fresco.
Jesus raises Lazarus, medieval fresco.

           There's also the posthumous book by Christopher Hitchens called Mortality (2012). Hitchens remained an atheist to the end, but like Wood and Barnes, he's much more circumspect than you might have anticipated. Beyond his trademark bravado, Hitchens is brutally honest about what it feels like to die — feelings of impotence, oppression, resignation, unbearable physical pain, humiliation, and vulnerability.

           He calls the bluff of the cliche that "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." That's a dangerous and pretentious illusion, he says. He meditates on the poetry of TS Eliot: "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, / And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker; / and I am afraid."

            As for Philip Larkin's famous death-poem Aubade, with its terrifying description of fear in the face of death, Hitchens describes it as an implied "reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either."

           Death is the greatest of all the "principalities and powers" that we face. Paul called it our ultimate enemy.

           Our default mode, though, is to ignore death. The lay theologian and street lawyer William Stringfellow observed how we glorify death in war. We deny death at our funerals. Death, said Stringfellow, assumes many "social forms" that serve our "social purposes," like Hiroshima or ignoring the poor.

           At Lent we give death its due. But in our Christian vocabulary, death is a penultimate word, and not the final say.

           John's story about Lazarus is only one of many instances of the confession, deeply embedded throughout the New Testament, that Jesus "conquered death" (2 Timothy 2:10). He "tasted death for every one," and "through death he rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:9,14).

Jesus raises Lazarus, 6th-century mosaic, Ravenna.
Jesus raises Lazarus, 6th-century mosaic, Ravenna.

           The earliest witnesses "proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4:2). Like a lot of important things that are true, this is easier to confess than to explain, describe or understand. Nor is there any proof for this affirmation of faith. How could there be?

           Christian resurrection of the physical body isn't Plato's immortality of an immaterial soul.

           No, not everyone believed this. Some of those who followed Jesus said "it seemed like nonsense." (Luke 24:11). There have always been doubters.

           Yes, there are alternate explanations. One proposal “widely circulated” after Jesus's death was that the disciples stole the body and created the fiction of Christ's resurrection (Matthew 28:15).

           Others argue that the life and teachings of Jesus are “immortal” in the sense of being sublime or inspirational, much like we describe the music of Mozart. Some suggest that Jesus "lives" on in us as a powerful memory and presence, like the spirit of Gandhi or a favorite uncle.

           And maybe the first believers were badly deluded and wrong, or blatant liars and immoral — "deceived or deceivers," as Pascal put it (Pensees 322, 310).

           So, take your pick.

Gravestone of a Christian named Datus, 3rd century catacomb, with Jesus raising Lazarus.
Gravestone of a Christian named Datus,
3rd century catacomb, with Jesus raising Lazarus.

           Julian Barnes doesn't let himself off the hook too easily. He's bothered by the "haunting hypothetical" that the Resurrection Story could be true. He questions his atheist faith — is personal identity no more than a social construction, such that when your heart and brain cease to function your self ceases to exist?

           In the epistle for this week, Paul articulates the good news that lingers just beyond Lent: "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you."

           This hope for the future transforms our present. We're freed to live gladly, for we believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Not even death.


* See James Wood, Why? The Fictions of Life and Death, in The New Yorker (December 9, 2013), p. 34.

Image credits: (1) Brooklyn College; (2); (3); and (4) University of the Holy Land.