Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Gospel according to Lazarus (J. Barry Vaughn, Lent 5, April 6, 2014)

This morning's sermon will be part New Testament lecture and part sermon, so bear with me.


New Testament scholars divide the gospels into two groups: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are the synoptic gospels. "Synoptic" means "with the same eyes". For the most part, they tell the story of Jesus the same way. However, one big difference is that Mark begins the story of Jesus' life with his baptism, but Matthew and Luke add an account of Jesus' birth.


The fourth gospel, the so-called gospel of John, takes us back even further. John takes us back to the creation of the universe. He tells us that Jesus is the very agent of creation, God's creative and dynamic word. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made."


The author pulls back the curtain, and just for a second he allows us to see Jesus for who he really is - the source of life itself.


The fourth gospel is also unique in that it is the only gospel that names its author, but that creates a great mystery. At the very end of the 21st chapter of John, the author writes, "Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved ....This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true." But who is the "disciple whom Jesus loved" or the "beloved disciple"?


According to The DaVinci Code Mary Magdalen was the "beloved disciple," but I'm sorry - Dan Brown was wrong. Tradition tells us that  the beloved disciple was John. However, nowhere is John identified as the beloved disciple. So, who wrote the Fourth Gospel? I believe if we read the fourth gospel very carefully, we can learn who the author really is. More about that later.


The Fourth Gospel falls neatly into two parts.


The first part is the Book of Signs. "Sign" is the author's word for "miracle." The first sign is the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. The author says, "This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him."


In all, there are seven signs or miracles: turning water into wine, healing a Roman official's servant, healing a paralytic, feeding the five thousand, walking on water, giving sight to a man born blind, and the sequence climaxes with the greatest miracle of all - raising Lazarus from death to life.


The second part of the Fourth Gospel is the Book of Glory. Immediately after the story of the raising of Lazarus, some Greek-speaking Jews say to the apostle Phillip, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." In response, Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." In other words, Jesus identifies his death on the cross with his glorification. By extension, those who follow Jesus and give up their lives for his sake, will share his glory.


The story of Lazarus is the turning point, the hinge on which the Fourth Gospel turns. The story is almost too familiar to repeat, but that won't prevent me from repeating it. Lazarus' sisters - Mary and Martha - send a message to Jesus saying that their brother Lazarus is desperately ill. So what does Jesus do? He waits! He procrastinates! I can sympathize!


The text tells us that Jesus waited two days before setting out. When Jesus and his disciples finally arrive in Bethany, they not only find that Lazarus has died, but his funeral has taken place, and he has been in the tomb for four days.


To me, the most moving part of this story is not the powerful miracle that Jesus performs. It is not his grand announcement to Martha, saying, "I am the resurrection and the life." What most moves me is that Jesus wept.  If he were the Son of God, then we would expect him to be able to raise the dead. What we would not expect is that he would be moved by human suffering. This story tells us that the heart of God breaks at the sight of human pain and suffering, that human tears run down the face of God. God loves us and when we weep, God also weeps.


Now, picture the scene: Jesus takes his stand before the tomb of Lazarus. He closes his eyes and clenches his fists. He reaches down into the very depths of his being, summoning all the divine power which he possesses, and then these words roll like thunder among the hills: "Lazarus! Come forth!"


Imagine the awe of the spectators. Can you see the wonder and perhaps even fear in the faces of Mary and Martha? The sweat rolling down Jesus' face? Then... Lazarus, bound by the clothes of the grave, smelling of the tomb and decay, comes forth.


But... have you ever thought about what Lazarus was feeling?


Did something like an electric current run through Lazarus' heart? Was he overjoyed at being restored to life? Or... is it just possible that the principal thought in Lazarus' mind was, "Oh, no... not again"?


Was Lazarus thrilled by being raised from the dead, or is it possible that he had settled down for an eternal snooze; that he had embraced the peace of the grave and was not all that thrilled by having to go back to the 9 to 5 grind, the "heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to"?


I want to suggest to you that the story of the raising of Lazarus is John's way of summing up Jesus' message to Nicodemus: You must be born again.


The story of Lazarus is about the possibility of new birth, second chances, starting all over again. But it is also about our resistance to those possibilities.


You and I become wedded to the routine, the every day. We become resistant to new ideas and new ways of doing things.


It goes without saying that I have no idea what it is like to give birth, but I'm told that it is not easy. How could it be easy? It takes nine months? It is accompanied by a multitude of aches and pains. Labor can go on for more than 24 hours.


Our evangelical friends tell us that we can be born again in the blink of an eye. Really? Spiritual gestation is that easy and quick? I don't think so.


Christ Church is going through a season of new birth, and it is going to be a long and difficult process. There is some resistance here to God's invitation to us to new life.


I strongly suspect that both Lazarus and Nicodemus were Episcopalians. There is a reason that we are called the "frozen chosen"! Put yourself in Nicodemus's place. Imagine Jesus saying to you, "You must be born again." Now think about that for a minute. If you were born again, you would not get to choose the new life to which you will be born. You would have to give up your present life. Everything would change. I wonder if Nicodemus thought: "Born again? Give up my status, my position in the world? Thanks very much, but I like my life the way it is."


Or put yourself in the place of Lazarus. The tomb is a peaceful place. Perhaps his life had been hard and challenging. Perhaps he had suffered from a chronic, debilitating, painful illness. Death might have come as a blessed release. Then, suddenly, Lazarus was thrust back into the midst of the hustle and bustle of the world, the reality of bills to pay, chores to perform, a job to do. I imagine he had mixed feelings about obeying Jesus' summons to come forth.


God is summoning this church to new life. I say this with profound love for all of you and for this church: There is some resistance to change and new life. There are patterns of conflict that are deeply embedded in this church's culture. And the fuel for conflict is rumor and gossip. Sisters and brothers, we must change these patterns. We must let our life together be ruled by truth and transparency. We must let our speech about each other proceed from love and charity. And when we do that, the conflict will end.


Now, imagine what will happen if we accept Jesus’ invitation to be born again. The Book of Signs transitions into the Book of Glory. The invitation to be born again, to die to our old lives, is also an invitation to share God's glory.


Now, what about the great mystery at the heart of the Fourth Gospel?  Who wrote it? Who was the disciple whom Jesus loved, the beloved disciple? Who was he... or she?


Listen to these words from the story of the raising of Lazarus: When Martha summons Jesus to come and heal her brother, she says, "Lord he whom you love is ill." And when Jesus receives her message, the text says, "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Laz'arus." And when Jesus weeps, the bystanders say, "See how he loved him."


Is it possible that Lazarus was the "beloved disciple"? Who better to tell the story of Jesus than the one he raised from the dead? Who better to summon us from death to the new life that Jesus offers? And who better to tell us of how difficult and painful it may be to be born again?


Jesus is summoning us to new life. He is summoning this church to new life. Will we accept his invitation? Will we have the courage and faith and strength it will take to die to our old patterns of conflict and to be born anew to a life of grace and love and truth?


I pray that we will hear and respond when Jesus summons us to new life as he summoned Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, because he also summons us to share his glory, the glory of God's only begotten Son, full of life and truth.