Lent 5 • 2 April 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

Rev. Chris Udy

On the Communion Table today
I’ve put two crosses.
One we’re fairly familiar with
because almost all Reformed and Protestant Churches
have them somewhere in or on their buildings -
but the other one’s a little unusual - for us.
Where we tend to use a plain cross,
sometimes called the Resurrection cross,
as a symbol for our faith and our community,
Congregations of Roman Catholic
and Orthodox traditions
more often use a crucifix -
a cross with a ‘corpus’ - or a body - fixed to it.

The difference between the two is striking -
especially when, as usually happens,
the body on the cross is realistic,
and we’re confronted with an image
of both violent brutality and powerless suffering.
The resurrection cross - the plain cross -
is a much more abstract symbol -
It could just as easily be mathematical as religious.
All traces of blood and pain have been removed,
and all we’re really left with
is an idea.
But a crucifix always reminds us
that someone ended up nailed to that idea.
A real human being - a man of flesh and blood -
was so committed to - so attached to
the ideas we associate with the cross
that he stayed with it until it took his life -
and then beyond.
The crucifix confronts us with the cost -
the fearful, painful, raw and bloody price
that turned an idea -
an idea of redemption, of salvation, of resurrection -
into a transforming experience and a living truth.

At its simplest, most abstract level,
a cross is where things come together:
a horizontal line connects with a vertical.
But like all signs,
this one points beyond itself
to something bigger, and deeper, and more complex.
When things come together, something happens.
Both are affected; both are changed
by coming into contact;
they’re no longer what they were in isolation -
together they’re something different, something new.
So bringing things together
needs to be done with care and with respect -
and meeting places need to be seen
as having significance - often sacredness.

Over the last few weeks
we’ve been reading stories from John’s Gospel.
After reading an account of the Temptations -
as we always do
on the first Sunday in Lent -
we then heard about Nicodemus
meeting Jesus in the middle of the night;
then the Samaritan woman
meeting Jesus at the well,
and, last week, we read about the man born blind
who, for the first time, was able to see
because of his meeting with Jesus.

Each of those stories
involves a meeting, and a conversation,
and some kind of transformation.
The stories are part of a section in John’s gospel
that many believe really do come directly from John,
the man described in the Gospel
as ‘the beloved disciple’.
This section is called the ‘Book of Signs’,
and it describes seven signs -
or seven miraculous revelations -
starting with the wedding in Cana,
where Jesus turned water into wine,
and culminating in the story we read today -
the raising of Lazarus.

Like all signs,
each of the signs in John’s gospel
points beyond itself:
so the first sign - the wedding -
is a little foretaste of heaven,
the celebration of the Kingdom of God -
and the last sign - Lazarus rising -
points to the death and resurrection
of Jesus himself.
Scattered through the book of signs
there are also a number of “I am” statements,
spoken in the Gospel by Jesus,
all of them echoes of the name God used in Exodus
when he introduced himself to Moses:
Yahweh - “I am” or “I am who I am”.
These ‘I am’ statements do two things:
first, they make a claim about Jesus;
they say that Jesus and God
can be called by the same name - ‘I am’
and, second, they also say something
about the character of God -
God’s essential nature,
God’s mind and heart.
Jesus is - and God is -
light, bread, the good shepherd, the vine,
the way, the Truth, Resurrection and Life.
So the ‘Book of Signs’ -
the central core of John’s Gospel -
brings together these statements and signs
into a central idea - a central affirmation.
It says: in Jesus, we meet God,
and Jesus is, himself, a meeting place,
a point where God and humanity come together.

That idea is beautiful;
it’s neat and clean and simple -
like our resurrection cross -
but bringing things together
needs to be done with care and respect,
and meeting places have transforming significance.
When things come together
they change each other,
and while change can bring
the promise of something bigger, or deeper, or better,
change can also bring conflict,
and always brings grief.

Mary and Martha of Bethany
sent a message to Jesus:
“Lord, he whom you love - (their brother Lazarus) - is ill.”
But instead of going immediately to Bethany
Jesus waited two days -
and it was only on the third day
that he told the disciples it was time to move.
Quite often in John’s gospel
we come across these strange little conversations
that don’t, on the surface, make sense.
Here it seems a bit pointless - even a little bit cruel -
that Jesus should wait until the third day
before he sets out for Bethany.
Surely he understands the anguish and distress
that waiting those three days would cause
to Martha and Mary - let alone to Lazarus -
and turning the experience
into some kind of divine demonstration
seems a bit tacky -
something ‘Today Tonight’ might dream up -
but when we remember
that this story describes a sign,
and that Jesus, like Lazarus,
was also raised on the third day,
bells ring, and we start looking
a little bit deeper.

Jesus finally arrived in Bethany,
and found Lazarus dead and in the tomb,
but even then, before he went
to the place where his friend was buried,
he first met Martha, and then Mary.
Each of them said to him, in turn,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.” -
a poignant declaration of grief and faith and love.
With Martha, Jesus then had
one of John’s trademark conversations.
“Your brother will rise again.” he says.
“Yes Lord, I know that he will rise
in resurrection on the final day” - she replies -
and that’s exactly
what most Jewish people then believed.
But, again, as in many
of these conversations in John’s Gospel,
Martha doesn’t really understand.
She’s responding automatically -
she’s giving a pat response to his statement.
She can’t really see who Jesus is -
she’s missed the sign.
So Jesus says plainly:
“I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me,
even though they die,
yet will they live -
and everyone who lives and believes in me
will never die.
Do you believe this?”
Martha’s almost there - she almost sees it -
and her answer is as close to the truth
as anyone will offer
before Jesus himself is raised from death -
but it’s still couched in her orthodox language:
“Yes Lord,
I believe that you are Messiah,
the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”

What Martha says is almost there;
she almost sees the sign,
but it will be Thomas,
who, you’ll remember, has also come here
to Bethany with Jesus,
who takes it the rest of the way.
He was the one who said to the other disciples
when Jesus said he was going to Judea:
“Let us also go,
that we may die with him.”
Thomas is another one,
who, at first, just doesn’t get it -
but it will be Thomas, after the resurrection,
who finally sees who Jesus is
and says “My Lord and my God”.

Almost everyone in John’s gospel
misunderstands the signs.
Almost everyone gets confused
in conversation with Jesus -
and almost everyone misses out
on something Jesus could teach them,
or give them, or show them,
because they don’t quite get it.

But there is one person in John’s gospel
who gets it every time.
There’s one disciple who understands,
who sees what’s happening,
who knows who Jesus is,
and who calls and responds to Jesus
in exactly the right way.
Everybody else
gets caught up in ideas and arguments
and puzzling conversations -
and they never - before he dies -
entirely trust - they never entirely believe.

There’s only one disciple who does -
and it’s not one of the Twelve;
the one disciple who sees and believes -
the true disciple - is Mary.
Later, you’ll remember,
she’ll bring perfume
to prepare the body of Jesus for burial -
and she’ll be ridiculed for it
by everyone but Jesus.
Then, on Easter morning
she’ll be the first, in John’s Gospel,
to find him raised to life,
and she’ll be the first to proclaim the resurrection:
she’ll be the apostle to the apostles -
but now she comes when Martha calls her
and falls at his feet, weeping,
as she says “Lord, if you’d been here,
my brother would not have died.”

The difference between Martha and Mary
is as striking as the difference in those crosses.
With Martha there’s that abstract conversation -
a neat theological discussion
that doesn’t seem to move beyond her head.
But what happens with Mary is different.
“Lord,” she said, openly weeping,
if you had been here
my brother would not have died.”
This time there’s no abstract discussion.
Jesus looks at Mary weeping,
and, the story says,
“he was greatly disturbed in spirit
and deeply moved”.

“Where have you laid him?” Jesus asked,
and Mary and the others led him to the tomb.
“Come and see”.

This is where John writes what would become
the shortest, and maybe the most important,
verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” -
and it’s while he’s still weeping
and ‘greatly disturbed’ as John describes it,
that he orders the sealing stone
removed from the tomb.
Over Martha’s strong objections over the smell -
Jesus then calls Lazarus out of death to life.
Jesus weeps; God weeps -
and it’s out of that deep feeling
that comes the resurrection and life.

Real life and real faith
are not about abstract arguments
and pat answers and neat symbols -
real life and real faith
are risky and costly -
and messy, and sometimes smelly! -
more like a crucifix
than a resurrection cross.

When we believe in someone or something;
when we trust something or someone;
when we live with love,
we make a connection -
and in that connection,
we expose ourselves to disappointment and loss.
Every deep and honest relationship
changes those who are in it -
and sometimes that ‘deeply disturbs’ us -
it hurts and grieves us.
Believing Jesus, trusting in resurrection
doesn’t mean avoiding pain and loss;
“Jesus wept” - he felt that grief,
it “deeply disturbed his spirit”.

And it’s because of that deep feeling -
it’s because the connections
we make in faith and love
are honest and costly and real,
that they are also the way
to redemption, and salvation, and resurrection.

God has met us in Jesus.
He’s taken on the cross.
He’s attached himself to us;
he’s committed himself to us,
and God will stay with us,
through whatever it takes -
whatever it takes -
to lead us from death to life.