Written by Pastor Ed
I Am the Resurrection
November 26, 2017
John 11: 17-27
Today we wrap up our look at the “I AM” statements of Jesus, and while I took the liberty of rearranging them from the order in which they appear in the Gospel of John, it seemed appropriate to focus on this one on this Memorial Sunday. And it’s not totally out of line to do so, because if you read the commentaries, you discover that there is a lot of discussion about this account of the raising of Lazarus. One of the oddities is the fact that although this story is given a prominent place in the gospel of John who specifically links it to the triumphal entry and the plot to kill Jesus, it is not mentioned in any of the other gospels. That’s not to discredit it, simply to note something that seems a bit odd.
In the novel Passage, author Connie Willis, a well-known sci-fi writer, tells the story of a researcher into near-death experiences who has found a way to simulate the experience. It’s a fascinating read and raises interesting questions about life and death. Death itself has been a fascination for many people, even though for most of us, we would prefer not to talk about it. And yet we really can’t help talking about it, because it is part of our experience. As is clear from the candles burning here in front, death touches many of our lives.
Over the course of the past 40+ years I have been involved with 92 funerals, not including those involving my own family members, which would bring the total closer to 100. The deceased have ranged from an infant a few days old, to an elderly 105 year old woman. And even when, as one of my friends used to say the person was “old enough,” it’s still never easy to face or to talk about.
So we can undoubtedly sympathize with Mary and Martha who were just a little annoyed that Jesus delayed in coming after he heard that his friend, their brother, Lazarus had died. Even the disciples had to wonder why Jesus would wait two days before starting out for Bethany. And when he does arrive, Lazarus has been dead for four days, clearly past the normal time for any miracles to happen; the rabbis said that three days was the limit.
It is in that context that the question of resurrection arises. Martha begins the conversation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” To which Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again.” And Martha responds with the common belief of the Pharisees, as opposed to the Sadducees, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” The idea of resurrection was a commonly accepted one in the Judaism of Jesus day, although there was debate among the rabbis about it.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus responds. “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” We read these words, and yet we often wonder just what does Jesus mean? I often read those words at the beginning of a funeral, when we are indeed mourning the fact that someone has just died! People who clearly believe in Jesus. And even though Lazarus was brought out of the tomb alive, the greatest of the signs recorded in John, he still died later on. He’s not out there walking around somewhere.
It’s a question that has been asked through the ages and one that we will continue to ponder. But let’s be clear at least about what it is not. The scripture, and our theology are clear that this is not about an immortality of the soul. That is a Greek idea that somehow separates us into a body and a spirit, so that while the body may die, the spirit lives on to eternity. To follow that line of thought leads to a denigrating of the body, even to a view of the body as somehow evil, or sinful, and only the spirit or soul as good and immortal. That view comes from Plato, not from the Bible which says that God alone is immortal.
Rather the Bible clearly teaches the unity of our existence as humans and that resurrection is of the body, a bodily resurrection, just as Jesus was raised and ate and drank with his disciples. In fact, Paul says that belief is fundamental to our faith – if we don’t believe in the resurrection of the body, then we might as well just forget the whole thing. And just to be clear, we believe in that bodily resurrection no matter what condition our body is here on earth. One of the historic arguments against cremation was that you needed a body to be resurrected. But I am certain that God can raise up anyone, even those whose bodies are burned in an explosion or lost at sea.
Though we confess it and believe in the resurrection, that doesn’t mean that we necessarily understand it. But as with other statements that we have looked at, we understand that it is in our relationship with Jesus that we have the promise that, even though we die, we have the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Martha doesn’t respond to Jesus by saying, yes I believe in the resurrection – she had already affirmed that. Her response was “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
While we await that final resurrection, whenever we encounter Jesus we can encounter something new; little glimpses of resurrection in the here and now. John was writing to a community, a church, that was marginalized and seemingly on the road to being wiped out. But they believed that their belief that Jesus was the Messiah gave them life, new life, and liberation as they remained attached to the true vine. The blind man of John 9 had mud put on his eyes and recognized that he was a sheep in the fold of the true shepherd. Lazarus heard his name called and came out of the darkness of the tomb to continue to share with Jesus.
And we could go on. One of the stories told at the MC Canada Assembly was of a congregation that felt as though they were on their death bed, dwindling in numbers. And then they began to see Jesus in their neighbours and began opening their doors to the people who lived around the church and found new life. Sometime, in fact, it takes a death in order for there to be a resurrection.
As Karoline Lewis puts it in a commentary on this passage, “This is the heart of the story of Lazarus. Resurrection is not a confession. Resurrection is not a theory. Resurrection is not some sort of ambiguous promise. No, resurrection is real. Resurrection is relationship with God. Resurrection is now.”
In the words of the prayer that I’m sure many of you have heard me use at funerals, and which I used earlier,
“We sorrow, but not as those who have no hope.
We grieve, but not as those who center their thoughts on death.”
So, just as we experience death in many ways, whether through the physical death of a loved one or through the death of relationships, dreams, or community, so we experience resurrection in many ways, not only as a future hope, but as a reality as we walk with the one who says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”