Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)

Matthew 28:1-10 (NRSV)
The Resurrection of Jesus
1After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

I am indebted to Barclay, De Dietrich, Argyle, Meyer, Ryle and Fenton for their thoughts on this passage ...

There is something ‘fitting’ about the way that it is Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who are the first to receive the news of the Resurrection and to encounter the risen Jesus. They had been there at the Cross and they had been there when Jesus he was laid in the tomb. They were constant and faithful and so were richly blessed with the truth that death had been overcome, it is not the end; their Lord was risen! This is such a fine example for all followers of Jesus today; God always rewards the faithful follower who has the gift of persistence, even in the seemingly darkest moments of our lives.

Don’t you love the humanness that the Gospel writers capture? Matthew has no record of the women taking any preparations with them to embalm the body of Jesus, because he includes the detail that the tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers that were under strict instruction to make sure that nothing happened to the body. There would be no way that the women would be allowed in. They probably therefore, still decided to go there and just ‘be’ where Jesus had been laid, just like people today like to go to the burial place of their loved ones – just to be there. It is not impossible that they might have gone with some hope; as Jesus had spoken of the Resurrection (12.40 and 27.63). Imagine how they must have been terrified by the earthquake and the bright light, not least by the appearance of the angel. Unsurprisingly, the guards froze in fear and became like dead men!

But then they are lovingly dealt with, with the words: ‘Don’t be afraid ... I know that you seek Jesus.’ The commentator, De Dietrich captures a wonderful thought in the words: “God turns his face of mercy on those who seek him.”

Jesus has revealed to the world what God is like ... God is love and his Spirit fills us with this love that gives our lives meaning and purpose even in the most difficult of times. We do not always understand. While understanding is important and it is vital that we are seekers after truth, something that we are constantly reminded of as we study the sacred Scriptures, but we also know that we will never understand fully the mythos of Christ. We were reminded of this at Christmas when reflecting on the significance of the magi – the wise people who were present at his birth.  What matters more is that we are seekers, those who in their imperfect yet sincere way, are followers of Jesus – just like the women, who even followed him to the tomb, thinking he was dead.

Jesus himself confirms the message of the angel – ‘‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ We know that Matthew went to great trouble to show how Jesus was the fulfilment of prophecy and Matthew records in 26.32, that Jesus predicted that he would appear to the disciples in Galilee.

As I noted last week, here too, the different Gospel writers have different versions of what happened. Some people think this is a problem, but historians explain how it is these very differences give credibility to their testimony, because, if they were in complete agreement, one would suspect collusion on the part of some later editor. We also know that all of them are authentic witnesses, as, in a court case, in determining the reliability of any witnesses, while one would here too, expect differences, even contradictions, there must be the same golden thread authenticating the same event. In the Gospel narratives of the Resurrection there is the golden thread:
·         The empty tomb
·         Announcement of the Resurrection to the women first
·         The meeting of the disciples with Jesus.

Barclay suggests that three imperatives come to us:

Firstly, they were urged to believe. What they had experienced was so staggering that it could have seemed too good to be true. The angel reminds them of the promise of Jesus and confronts them with the empty tomb. Still today there are many who cannot accept the promises of Jesus because they are ‘too good to be true’. But it is also interesting that when people actually take the trouble to examine all the evidence, few leave the study unconvinced that something special happened to Jesus, and it is best explained by the Resurrection.

Secondly, they are urged to share. When they had discovered the fact of the risen Christ, their first duty was to proclaim it and share the news with others.  Barclay writes: “Go tell! Is the first command which comes to the man who has himself discovered the wonder of Jesus Christ.”

Thirdly, they are urged to rejoice – the word used when Jesus met them as the Greek word translated here as greetings can also be translated as rejoice. Barclay concludes: “The man who as met the risen Lord must live forever in the joy of the presence of Him from whom nothing can part them anymore.”

I now turn to J C Ryle to aid our reflections ... I am often surprised when I read the work of this 19th Century Calvinist – expecting to disagree – but resolved to continue because I will always read those who are dedicated to our Lord but with whom I think I disagree. He always gives me something to think about and is a real source of blessing.

The Resurrection is at the very foundation of our faith and so it is unsurprising that all four of the evangelists deal with it in detail. There is every reason for the resurrection of Jesus to be central to our faith as it is

‘... the seal and headstone of the great work of redemption, which Jesus came to do; it is the crowning proof that He has paid the debt which he undertook to pay on our behalf ... Had He never come forth from the grave, how could we ever have been sure that our ransom had been fully paid?’

But thanks be to God, we are left in no doubt and so ought to be thankful. It is interesting that, while there is space for some discussion about other aspects of our Lord’s earthly ministry, there seems to be no debate here. Ryle writes: “The wisdom of God, who knows the unbelief of human nature, has provided a great cloud of witnesses on the subject.”

The early disciples – yet – were slow to believe, the enemies of Christ were keen to disprove it but it was firmly established. All these things go together to provide us with convincing proof. Ryle continues: ‘... it would be impossible to prove anything in the world, if we refuse to believe that Jesus rose again.’

Ryle is on to something important here. The historical evidence for Jesus (and the Resurrection) is so good that to deny it would bring into question all historical evidence. A case in point: there is much difference of opinion about just about everything to do with the assassination of JF Kennedy, when there were millions of witnesses and the best detective agencies in the world all involved. Yet no one denies that it happened and the golden thread also runs through all accounts.

We can rejoice this Eastertide – Jesus did rise from the dead, and he does bless all those who seek him, in the ways we find we are able to do so, and he meets us where we are and he blesses us with his peace and his love.


Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Matthew 21.1-11 and Philippians 2.5-11

Matthew 21.1-11 (NRSV)
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem
1When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ 4This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
5 ‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
   humble, and mounted on a donkey,
     and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; 7they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. 8A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,
‘Hosanna to the Son of David!
   Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’
10When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ 11The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Increasingly, the question that the crowds asked when Jesus entered Jerusalem remains pertinent in our times. “Who is this?” Sadly, the Church has not done a good job on declaring the truth about our Lord, instead the truth has become distorted by what has been, in the UK is at least, what the Church has been saying and doing that has brought our faith, and therefore also our Lord, into disrepute.

Far too many would not even go as far as the crowds who proclaimed Jesus as ‘…the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee …’ In fact it is often the Muslims in our communities, who stand up for Jesus in this way, because according to their teachings, Jesus is in fact a prophet.

In this passage, Matthew points out that Jesus is much, much more, he is the fulfillment of ancient prophecy, which Matthew goes to great lengths to prove.

(For this reflection, I have used the commentaries by De Dietrich, Argyle and Meier).

The way Jesus entered Jerusalem, from his starting point, right through the details of the event, all show that this was a deliberate Messianic act performed with deep symbolism, by Jesus. In fulfillment of ancient prophecy (Zecharaiah 9.9) Jesus rode in on a borrowed colt. In John’s account, the disciples only recognized the significance of this, much later (John 12.16). Choosing an ass also made the strong point that Jesus needed to stress that humility is at the heart of true greatness, and he set the example that we all should follow (where too many – even in the Church – do not). At the heart of all leadership should be the model set by Jesus of ‘… humility and one who brings peace …’ (cf Zecharaiah 9.9-10). As De Dietrich explains, by doing this, Jesus affirms his royalty.

When one compares Matthew’s account with that of Mark and Luke, we see that Matthew adds detail: that there were two animals and that there were crowds that went ahead of Jesus. This has been a problem for some people, claiming that it is impossible to know which version is right and which is mistaken? For some this has challenged the whole issue of the inspiration of the Scriptures. People like Schweitzer and Bultmann suggested that in the process of compilation and transmission, errors have crept in which means that we will never know.

However, as an historian by training in the first instance, I become even more convinced of the reliability of the Gospels especially because there are differences. Different people experience things differently, and this is even true of eye witnesses. In a court of law, if every witness were to given exactly the same account, collusions would be suspected and the reliability of the testimony would be brought into question. We have the accounts of the different writers, and it is obvious that they are speaking of the same event, and the differences mean that a later editor has not come and harmonized things, and so we can know for sure that what we read of here and elsewhere are reliably historical accounts of this important event.

We can know with confidence that the crowd acknowledged Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ quoting from their liturgy as recorded in Psalm 118 (part of the Jewish Hallel). ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’ ‘Hosanna’ literally means ‘save now’ or ‘come to our help’.

The people of Jerusalem would have been astonished by what they saw and heard, leading to their question. ‘Who is this?’

In Jewish eschatological theology, it was believed that the Messiah would come to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Zecharaiah 14.4) and it was here that Jesus finally told his disciples that he would return (Matthew 24.3). Matthew, therefore, is doing everything he can to show how Jesus was the fulfillment of the hopes of prophecy (see also Isaiah 62.11). Even the riding on a donkey, with the reception of the crowds mirrored the Messianic ideas expressed in 2 Kings 9.13.

There is therefore no doubt in Matthew’s mind that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah that the people had been waiting for, for so long.

The UK is largely a secular society where by far the majority of people know very little about what the Bible really teaches, and where the whole notion of God is largely dismissed as dated and therefore irrelevant. Our society has bought into the distortion that all Christians refute the obvious testimony of science and reject the theories of evolution and cosmology and that we all slavishly and stubbornly insist on believing every word in the Bible to be literally true and of equal value, and if anyone challenges the authority of Scripture, they are wrong and the literal message of each word of the Bible is right. But this is not part of our Christian heritage. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus shows us that Genesis was not taken literally at the time, but it is still true, but in more important ways; because it captures the essence of something so great that ordinary words just cannot suffice. Early Christians stressed this, people like Origen and Augustine, who stressed that when something clashes, contradicts or seems to be in conflict with what we know in the literal sense, this is a hint that we should look for a deeper meaning – the mystery of God and especially the mystery of this love that motivated God to come to us in Jesus, as Paul explains in the epistle appointed for today.

Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.

Here I turn to William Barclay for inspiration ...

Barclay suggests that this piece of poetry of St Paul is ‘... in many ways  ... the greatest and the most moving passage that Paul ever wrote about Jesus ...’ Here he echoes what he has written elsewhere – that Jesus was rich, but for our sakes he became poor (2 Corinthians 8:9) which seems to be the essence of Paul’s understanding. In our passage, Paul takes this further and re-states his understanding with a greater fullness and richness without parallel. Paul has been pleading with the Philippians to live in unity and harmony, to lay aside their disharmonies and discords, to shed their personal ambitions, their pride and desire for prominence and prestige ‘... and to have in their hearts that humble and selfless desire to serve, which is the very essence of the life of Christ.’ He ends his plea with verse 5 of our reading: ‘5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus ...’

Verse 6 is loaded with rich meaning and Barclay comes into his own as he unfolds the significance of the Greek words used: ‘... though he was in the form of God ...’ The word form is a translation of the Greek word morphe which refers to the essential form of something – that which never changes. This is a reference to what something is in its very essence. Here he is making the claim that Jesus was ‘... essentially and unchangeably God ...’ because he was in the morphe of God. There is another word for form – schema­ – which refers to the outward form – what something looks like. This continually changes as we age and other things happen to us. So, the schema of Jesus might change, but his essence – his morphe never would.

Verse 7 has another interesting word: emptied being a translation of the Greek word kenoun which literally means to empty – to pour something so that there is nothing left. This, in effect, gives us depth of understanding of the essence of the Incarnation – “He emptied himself of his deity to take upon himself his humanity.” He emptied his morphe of and took on the morphe of a servant. So being a man was not play-acting, it was stark reality – he really was fully human. The Greek clearly states that Jesus took on, not only the schema of man but the morphe as well.

Here we run into mystery – can one unchangeable morphe - be replaced by another unchangeable morphe? Tis indeed mystery all ... as Charles Wesley was to write. But what we do know is that it was and is true in Jesus – but something our finite minds simply cannot grasp – but it is good that we struggle and try, for in doing so, we find rich truth and blessing. It is not always in the answers that we are enriched but in seeking to ask and answer the questions.

I come back to the comment by one of my students: “Always trust a seeker after truth, but never one who claims to have found it!”

Paul’s reflections are never only theoretical or intellectual – they were always practical as theology and action are always bound together. Barclay writes: “Any system of thought for him must necessarily become a way of life.” These verses are some of the greatest theological utterances in the NT but their whole aim was ‘... to persuade and to compel the Philippians to live a life on which disunity, discord and personal ambition were dead.’
The great characteristics of Jesus’ life were humility, obedience and self-renunciation and we should all aspire to be like this. Jesus did not desire His own way; He desired only God’s way. Jesus put it this way, only those who humble themselves will be exalted (Mt 23:12).
Christians needs to follow the example of Jesus. True Christian greatness and Christian fellowship depend on the renunciation of self and are destroyed by the exaltation of self. Barclay continues: “Selfishness, self-seeking, and self display destroy our likeness to Christ and our fellowship with each other.” It was the self-renunciation of Jesus that brought him the greater glory – the wondering worship of the entire universe – the bowing of every knee. Jesus won the hearts of people, not by blasting them with power, ‘... but by showing them a love, a self-renunciation, which cannot but move the heart.’

We do not fall at the feet of Jesus in broken submission, but ‘... in wondering love ...’  This theme is picked up by the hymn writer ... ‘love so, amazing, so divine, demands my soul my life my all.’ Worship is founded not on fear, but on love. As a result of Jesus’ humility and submission – God gave Jesus the name that is above every other name.

It is a biblical idea to give a new name to mark a new and definite stage in a person’s life: Abram became Abraham; Jacob became Israel the new names of Jesus are Christ and Lord. Lord comes from kurios which originally meant master or owner. It was always a title of respect: the official title of Roman emperors (Latin dominus) as well as the title for heathen Gods. Jesus is the master of all life, the Lord of all emperors (lords) – the God of gods.

So, Jesus Christ is Lord – to the glory of God the Father. Barclay suggests that verse 11 is one of the greatest verses in the New Testament. This is the aim of God – when ‘... every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord ...’ This is one of the marks of a Christian – we declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and that Jesus Christ is unique. Christians are those who give to Jesus the obedience we are not prepared to give to anyone else; we are prepared to give Jesus the love and loyalty and allegiance that we will give no one else in the universe. Our experience cannot be expressed in words ‘... but so long there is in his heart this wondering love, and in this life ... obedience.’ This is all that is required.  Barclay puts it brilliantly: “Christianity consists less in the mind’s understanding than it does in the heart’s love.”

One day all will acknowledge Jesus as Lord, but they will do so to the glory of God the Father.

Too many Philippians had their eyes focused on themselves: the main aim of Jesus was to focus eyes on God the Father. Followers of Christ must think not of themselves, but of others – to seek not our own glory, but the glory of God.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

John 11.1-45 (NRSV)

The Death of Lazarus

11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

Jesus Weeps

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

The Plot to Kill Jesus

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

I acknowledge my indebtedness to the commentators that has helped my understanding of the passage, most notably: Marsh, Suggit, Ryle.

My text is written in John 11:25-26:

25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

As always, John’s writing is rich in symbolism – even the name Lazarus means God helps! When Jesus received the message that Lazarus was ill, his reply seemed enigmatic and John expects us – his readers - to exercise our judgement when he gives Jesus’ reply: “This illness does not lead to death ...” (Marsh) i.e. the life of Lazarus was not in danger. But then Lazarus died! So what was Jesus saying? Characteristic in John’s writing is the use of language that has a double meaning and so we can assume that Jesus is saying “... the illness and the coarse it will run will not take Lazarus out of the sphere of life which comes and flows from Jesus Christ.” (Marsh) In other words, it will not result in the real death of Lazarus, because God is going to use it to make manifest the victory the father will gain over death through the death of Jesus, His Son.

The disciples were concerned that they should not return to Judea because it was too dangerous. They thought that Lazarus was not really that ill interpreting what Jesus had said in verse 4 literally – that he was not going to die. Jesus replies by using symbolic language of light and darkness – the light of the day enables one to walk in safety. Marsh explains: “... to be with Jesus is to be in a place where danger can do no ultimate harm.” Jesus then brings the conversation back to Lazarus and says that he has fallen asleep.

The disciples still did not understand. Why should they risk their lives going to Judea if all that was needed was for someone to wake Lazarus up? Marsh explains: “The sleep with which Jesus is about to deal is more than sleep within life, it is the sleep from life, the sleep of death. Only Christ can awaken men from that.” So Jesus shocks them by speaking plainly that Lazarus was in fact dead.

Because Lazaus had died, the family had started with the appropriate measures of preparation and finally burial. The news came that Jesus was near and Martha went out to meet him. When she met him she expressed deep regret. Marsh suggests that she represents those who can only see death in purely human terms: once it has happened there is nothing that can be done about it because it is so final. This was the plain and simple teaching of human experience.  But Martha also shows a sense of openness: she knows Jesus had a special relationship with God the Father so nothing was really completely impossible. She had witnessed some of the miracles and so had ‘... a ray of impossible hope.’ (Marsh) The reply that Jesus gave her ‘... is the whole of the answer to dying man. “Your brother will rise again – death is not the end.” (Marsh) And there is more: specific people individual persons who have died will rise again. To begin with Martha still does not quite get it and thinks Jesus is just referring to a general resurrection. Jesus replies in what many consider to be the greatest saying in the Bible: “25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’”

This is wonderful good news: If a believer in Christ suffers physical death, which is the removal from society of the lovers of Christ from this life, this is all that has happened. They have not died the real death because they cannot escape from the life that is life indeed – which is to know God and the Son whom he sent into the world. This is a statement about Jesus himself ‘... as the real life of all whom he sent into the world.’ (Marsh)  Martha, in this encounter, has been prepared for a right understanding of the last and greatest sign – the death and resurrection of Christ himself.

When Mary reached Jesus, she repeated the words her sister had used. And she prostrated herself before him but like her sister, she was not sure what Jesus could or would do in their present situation.

None of this reads like myth or allegory “... but like an actual transcript of something that once happened to real men and women, as the Word-made-flesh moved in the deepest understanding and sympathy among them.” (Marsh) Jesus wept!

Jesus was ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus was distraught because he had lost a much loved friend and is moved deeply by the distress of the man’s relatives and friends. What we see here is love in its purest form – he wept because he could do nothing else – self-control and putting on a brave face was both impossible and inappropriate. The Jews who had followed Mary state most appropriately – “See how he loved him ...” This is what Jesus and God is all about – the purest love that identifies with our every experience and lives with us and in us and through us. The shortest verse and one of the most beautiful: “Jesus began to weep.”

Jesus takes full command because He alone can give life. Jesus said: “Take away the stone.” Martha is still unprepared for what is about to happen because she knows of the state the body would have been in: ‘...Martha said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’

Jesus began his prayer for Lazarus with thanksgiving. He lifted up his eyes and acknowledged that he was not doing anything alone ‘... but that the Father was complicit in it ...’ (Marsh) The word thanksgiving – is the same word used when Jesus fed the 5000 – eucharistein – and is also used with special reference to the death of Jesus in John 6 where the implication is that life comes to those who eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood. Jesus is in effect thanking the Father that on the previous occasion – the feeding of the 5000 - there had been ‘... effective complicity of Father and Son ...’ (Marsh) and a sign had resulted that for those who could see with the eyes of faith were enabled to see more than just food for the body, but also food for the soul.

Prayer is always followed by action – Jesus cried out with a loud voice: “Lazarus come out.”

What happened next was a miracle within a miracle: Lazarus is able to obey the command even though he was a dead man! It seems, on the surface at least, that what Jesus did here was restore Lazarus to the life he had had before – and part of this is true. But this is only possible because Lazarus also has the life of Christ and the joyous thing is that it is this life that we too have. To stress, John teaches us that we have two lives: (i) this earthly life and (ii) the life that Christ gives. These two lives cannot be separated but we must distinguish between them ‘... to avoid presenting Jesus as the miracle worker par excellence ...’ (Marsh) He is much more – He is God Himself.

Suggit makes the most important point – in my view – as we read the Gospel today, and that is that “Lazarus can be seen as a type of Christian disciples, and what happened to him is the experience of every Christian.”

Like Lazarus:
·         Disciples are loved by the Lord – agapetoi - (1 John 4:11);
·         We are called by name (11:43);
·         When we hear Christ’s voice we listen and obey (10:3-5);
·         We are handed over to the care of the Christian community when we have found life in Christ;
·         We share in the Supper with Jesus and the disciples (12:2);
·         We are called to be witnesses to Jesus.

Chapter 11 – our Gospel reading – reflects the experience of every Christian who has been raised to new life – Christ’s life – by faith. Later, Lazarus was threatened to death by the High Priest because being alive was a testimony to Jesus and the crowds came to see him (12:9-11) but no threat of loss of mortal life could have any effect on him.

Suggit believes that John intended both Chapters 9 and 11 to remind readers of the Gospel of their own experience of their lives as Christians. So, like the man’s blindness and Lazarus’ death were both for the glory of God (9:3 and 11:4). The light that the blind man had been given lead to new life for him and was in fulfilment of the promise of 8:12 -  ... I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of Christ ... This fulfils the prophecy of Psalm 36:9 – For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light ... Suggit explains: “Jesus is shown not only as the giver of light, but as the light itself and the giver of life.”

The gift of life that Jesus gives is not just physical life, nor a mere continuation of earlier mortal life. Life becomes a symbol representing life in its fullness; life of a new quality, what existentialists would refer to as ‘authentic being’. According to John, this was an historical event – but one that symbolically revealed the real person and work of Jesus as the Son of God. It is the claim of the fourth Gospel that true life can be found only by abiding in Christ, since he is the life.

This authentic life is received by faith when a person in obedience to God’s word becomes a Christian as symbolised in Baptism – we die to the old self and rise anew. So life (in this sense) involves death – dying to the old ways – and most especially the death of Jesus on the Cross that makes all this possible. Suggit continues: “The account of Lazarus, therefore is also the story of Jesus going to face death in order to conquer death.” (CH Dodd, 1954:367)

I close with some final observations. It is interesting to note that being a Christian does not mean that we are freed from illness, suffering and even death. Lazarus is described in verse 3 as ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ Sickness and suffering are part of human experience. It is not a sign that God is displeased with us and when we endure it we grow through it. J C Ryle suggests that these difficult times ‘... draw our affections away from this world and direct them to things above ...’ and they remind us that we are not going to live this mortal life forever. It is also true that Jesus is with us in these dark times. We need to be faithful in our prayers as we come to Jesus with those known and loved by us – and our Lord – with the same words: ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ We need, like Mary and Martha to do everything we can and then we too can come to our Lord with the words: ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ And when Jesus hears our news he feels for us – because he has experienced it all before. His response to the news of the death of Lazarus was that he wept. When he hears of our suffering and that of those we love, He reaches out to us, touches us and blesses us and those whom we bring to him.

We also need to realise – difficult though this can be – that Jesus knows what is best for us. He delayed for two days and it seemed to make no sense – but in the end it was to mean the richest and greatest blessings for all.  True, the ways of Jesus can seem mysterious, and this is revealed also in the seeming nonsense of him returning to Bethany when he knew a hostile reception awaited him. But he knew what was needed and what was best. Life and be troubling and even perplexing to us; often we struggle to see the point and perhaps cannot see the point or purpose; the path that we are forced to take removes all choice from us. God’s grace and love in Christ can be all we need. Paul writing to the Corinthians speaks of never being tested beyond our ability to endure because the Holy Spirit enables us to find the way through and out of the difficulty.

Notice also how God blesses kindness. Those Jewish friends who came to comfort the family of Lazarus were privileged to witness the greatest demonstration of the power and the love of God in seeing Lazarus rising from the grave. This must surely have resulted in their coming to faith and finding true life for themselves. J C Ryle puts it well where he writes: “... one secret of being miserable is to live only for ourselves; one secret of being happy, is to try to make others happy, and do a little good in the world ...” At our major Founder’s Day service a few years ago, Professor Ralph Waller put it this way: “Everything you do for yourself will be forgotten; that which you do for others will be remembered.”

Prayer always involves action. Jesus ordered: “Remove the stone ...” He could have moved it miraculously, but he wants us to realise our responsibility. Jesus expects us to do whatever we can and ‘... in the trying, Christ will meet us and grant us His blessing ...’ (Ryle) All this because the love of God is most manifest in the life, death and Resurrection of the man of history – Jesus of Nazareth who is alive and lives with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. John puts it this way:

25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’