Everybody likes a good story, and you might think that this morning we have heard two rattling good ones! but you might also be thinking that the stories we have had this today are just a bit too long, especially the Gospel story! We had a long story from John’s Gospel two weeks ago, and another long one last week, but this one is the longest of them all, at least until next week’s reading of the Passion.
John is usually thought of as the most intellectual of the Gospels. His portrayal of Jesus often seems to emphasise the divine side of his nature, as becomes clear from the very beginning, where Jesus first appears not as the baby in the manger in Bethlehem of Luke’s Gospel, nor the preacher in Galilee announcing the Kingdom of God in Mark’s Gospel, but as the eternal Word, who was in the beginning with God and by whom all things were made. And yet, paradoxically, We often find the most human pictures of Jesus in John’s Gospel: the young man enjoying himself at the wedding at Cana, the tired man resting by a well in Samaria and asking a Samaritan woman for a drink and, here, the friend of Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany
This story gives us not only a very human but also a rather puzzling picture of Jesus. Actually, I think the disciples were often puzzled by the things Jesus said or did, but this is perhaps the most puzzling of all for them, and even more puzzling, even worse than puzzling for two other people. This is the first time we hear about the family in Bethany in John’s Gospel. John doesn’t tell us Luke’s story about the supper party where Martha ran around doing all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, but John must have known this, or other stories, for he tells us that Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and yet, when he hears that Lazarus is ill, instead of heading straight off for Bethany, he delays for two days, and when he and his disciples finally arrive, it’s too late; Lazarus is already dead.
The two sisters come separately to berate Jesus for his tardiness, though, if we already have a mental picture of Martha from Luke’s story, we might think of her “if only you had been here” as said with anger, while Mary’s was perhaps a cry of despair. And even if the encounters with the two sisters begin in a similar way, they soon become very different. Jesus treats Martha, as he did the Samaritan woman at the well, as capable of understanding difficult theological concepts. Martha wants Lazarus back today ; Jesus talks in terms of himself as the source of eternal life. How could Martha possibly have understood that? And yet….people often don’t notice that in the course of her conversation with Jesus, a conversation she clearly found very confusing, Martha makes a confession about her belief in Jesus which is almost identical to the one Peter makes in the other Gospels. And yet…. While he speaks to Martha about the meaning of his delay, he almost ignores her grief.
When he speaks to Mary, on the other hand, he responds emotionally to her tears. It is this second conversation with Mary that somehow seems to breaks through that divine outer shell that John has constructed around Jesus, and later, at Lazarus’s tomb, he weeps too. No theological speeches, no talk about knowing this or that. Jesus weeps. It is a profound moment and it leads to joy for the family at Bethany, but also – because John nearly always has more than one meaning to the events in his Gospel – it sets the scene for Jesus’ own death and resurrection to come.
This is the final miracle, of only a very few, Jesus performs in John’s Gospel. Each one of those stories acts as an arrow, pointing to the cross, and this one is the strongest pointer of all. It’s not just an arrow; it’s a great big multi-coloured neon arrow. You have to be confronted with death, Jesus seems to be wanting to say, before you can begin to understand the way to eternal life.
Jesus’ different reactions to the grief of the two sisters are both important. His conversation with Martha is a part of the story that is often used at funerals. And yet… in the course of hundreds of funeral visits, I have found that it is necessary first simply to listen to the grief, as Jesus listened, and responded, to Mary’s grief. By the time the day of the funeral comes, the emotions will still be raw, and yet there seems to be, very often, a need to put on a brave face.
I could not tell you how often I have been asked to read, at a funeral, that little piece by Henry Scott-Holland that declares, “Death is nothing at all.” I know why people want it, and I always read it if asked yet I am often moved to say afterwards, “Death is not nothing at all. Death is real; death is huge. It brings grief; it brings feelings of loss, and so it should, for grief is a sign of love. Even if you have a strong faith and you truly believe that your loved one has only slipped away into the next room, life will never be quite the same again. I like better the little introductory prayer in the Church of England funeral service: “God of all consolation, your Son Jesus Christ was moved to tears at the grave of Lazarus his friend. Look with compassion on your children in our loss; give to troubled hearts the light of hope and strengthen in us the gift of faith, in Jesus Christ our Lord.” Grief comes first, and then hope. The real resolution to the story of Lazarus comes not in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel, but in chapter 20.
In John’s telling of this story, he does it the other way round. He puts the theology of the story of Lazarus into Jesus’ conversation with Martha. At the end of that conversation, Martha claims to understand, and makes an important statement of belief. But John wants this story to show us something else too – to show us a God who weeps in the face of human pain. John cleverly weaves the high theology of his Gospel with lived experience. As Christians we often tread a tricky line between what we know we should believe and the reality of human life.
Soon it will be Holy Week, and if we take care to walk all the way on the road of Holy Week, and if we truly love Jesus, then by Good Friday, we might be feeling like Mary and Martha; we might identify with another emotional utterance Jesus makes, this time from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But, as we have found in this story, it is only when you confront death, that you can begin to understand resurrection and the meaning of eternal life.
In the story of Lazarus and Jesus’ tears we have a glimpse of what is at the heart of our faith – the connection between the omnipotence of God and our own experience. This doesn’t answer all our questions or make it easier to understand why some things happen the way they do, but it does show us something vital: in our ongoing task of understanding how what we believe tallies with what we know, divine love, lofty as it is, can be moved to tears, and God’s otherness can meet with our own, sometimes anguished reality.