Life After Death.

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized


Life After Death.

John 11: 1-45

2nd April 2017


The story of the raising of Lazarus brings us back to the overarching question – can there be life again in stale, barren places? In all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, can hope live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? We note that this is an intriguing story that brings Jesus face to face with a very personal grief. In the gospel stories, the only individuals who are singled out as ‘loved by Jesus’ are the family in Bethany, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’.

This is not to claim that Jesus did not personalize faith because there is no doubt that, Jesus ‘loved his own’, had compassion on the crowds and called his followers to love each other, but here is a more intimate scene. He endures a personal grief in the death of Lazarus.

The story begins with Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus who was weak. He was unwell. And they inform Jesus by saying “Lord, you know who you love is weak.”   You know who you love is the key to the personal relationship that exists between Jesus and the family, and Jesus responds by saying, “This weakness is not to death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” Jesus’s response is pastoral, comforting and supportive of their plight. Jesus was loving Martha and her sister and Lazarus and he remained with them for two days.

Jesus’ response to the message is reminiscent of what he said about the man born blind in chapter 9.  In that case, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  In the case of Lazarus, his sickness is for “the glory of God, so that the Son of God might be glorified through it.” In the sisters’ message, they had referred to Lazarus as “he whom you love.”  The word is phileis–“friendship love.”  The narrator informs us in verse 5 that Jesus “loved” the three siblings.  The word here is egapa–unconditional love.  Jesus loves Lazarus more than his sisters know.  (This is odd:  Here, Mary is the one who is referred to indirectly–Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”)

Even more odd, Jesus hangs around for another two days “in the place where he was”–presumably, “across the Jordan.”  No two ways about it, this seems cold.  On the other hand, we’ve already been told that Jesus loves Lazarus unconditionally.  Even though he seems to delay unnecessarily for two days, he also seems unperturbed, and also seems to know exactly what he is going to do.  The reader’s trust level in Jesus is, somewhat paradoxically, enhanced.

Another supporting claim for the intimacy of the relationship and for the claim for Jesus being the outsider as he was in the woman at the well story, the word “Lazarus” comes from the Hebrew eleazer.  “Lazarus” is believed to be a Galilean pronunciation of Eleazar, indicating that Lazarus and his sisters were likely “Galileans.”  We also remind ourselves here that to be a Galilean in the fourth gospel was not determined solely by geography.  To be a Galilean means to share a “Galilean” frame of mind. Here we have the basis for many Jews to see Jesus as the crazy Galilean with an affinity for Samaritans.  Thus the fourth gospel can be said to be an argument between a Galilean and Judean worldview.  The Judean view represents that of the empire, what Walter Wink calls “the powers.”  I would suggest that part of the problem is that the Judean view had to deal with the merger of empire with temple and thus the Galilean point of view is that exemplified by Jesus–a new world of equality, mercy, justice, and true life. Part of our problem is that here was also the seeds for the anti- Jewish sentiment that Christendom was later to become corrupted with.

We note here also the continuing argument for the sacredness of the everyday. Like the claim a couple of weeks ago that it is the ordinary, everyday water, the water we take for granted that is the living sacred water. We find that the fourth gospel uses two words for “life.”  One is bios.  Bios is day-to-day physical life—or “the phenomenon of life in its outward manifestation,” according to John Sanford.  The current way of life is bios.  The empire is bios.  Bios life dies.

The other word is Zoe and Zoe is “saved” life, God’s life–with both an inner, mystical element, and an outward connection to Life itself.  Zoe is Jesus, according to the fourth gospel.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” he will say in today’s lection.

Here we have the clear setting of the scene which is the debate at one level between the meaning of words and at the other level, the everyday life that is at the same time spiritual and sacred. Lazarus, we are told, is sick.  The word is astheneo.  In psychology, the word “asthenia” has the sense of lassitude, without energy–“weakness,” defined broadly.  The word had this same sense in the first century.  It appears five times in the first six verses.

Another thing to note here is that we have not yet been introduced to Mary, yet she is referred to here as if we already knew the story that comes in the following chapter.  In chapter twelve, Mary of Bethany applied an extravagant ointment to Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. What about Martha, her sister, Is she being placed in a slightly secondary position to Mary?  Their home, Bethany, is described as the “village of Mary and her sister Martha.”

In the chapter previous to this one, Jesus had been in Jerusalem, but, under threat of arrest, Jesus left Jerusalem and hid out “across the Jordan” (10:40).  Jesus’ specific location is not mentioned, but Mary and Martha seem to know where he is.  Underground movements often have their own methods of communication.  They send a message to Jesus in which they tell Jesus that Lazarus is sick.  They make no request, however, for him to come to Bethany, perhaps because Bethany is only two miles outside of Jerusalem.  Bethany is in the heart of Judea–a place which, for Jesus, is very dangerous.

Then after this, he was saying to the disciples, “We may go into Judea again.”  The disciples are saying to him, “Rabbi, just now the Judeans were seeking to stone you, and again you are going there?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day?  If a certain one might walk around in the day, that one is not stumbling, for that one sees the light of this world.  But if a certain one might walk in the night, that one stumbles, for the light is not in them.”

These things, he said, and after this, he was saying to them, “Lazarus, our friend, has been sleeping, but I go so that I wake him.”  Then his disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved.”  But Jesus answered concerning his death, but they seemed he is speaking concerning the rest of sleep.  Then Jesus said to them openly, “Lazarus is dead, and I rejoice through you so that you might trust.  But we go to him.” Then Thomas, the one called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “We go, and you, so that we may die with him.”

The disciples are unnerved at the idea of returning to Judea.  They had only recently escaped Judea by the skin of their teeth, and now Jesus wants to go back?  John again plays with the darkness and light motif when in chapter 9, he has Jesus say that, while he is in the world, he is the “light of the world” (9: 5).  This indicates that there will be a time when he is not “in the world.”  This will be “night.”  Staying faithful will be difficult in that circumstance.  But, for now, he is “in the world.”  His followers are able to follow him, even into treacherous situations, while he is with them.

Jesus identifies Lazarus as “our friend.”  This, incidentally, is the first indication that the disciples even knew who Lazarus is.  Lazarus has “fallen asleep.”  The disciples make the common-sense point that, if all he is asleep, “he will be all right.”

It could as well–and perhaps better–be translated this way:  “Lord, if he has been sleeping, he will be saved.”  The word is sothesetaisozo, in its future passive form.  In the fourth gospel, sozo, when used by Jesus, means spiritual salvation.  Here, however, it is used by the disciples, and seems to indicate a recovery from illness.  Both uses of the word are acceptable, although its usage here is an indication that, as per usual in the fourth gospel, Jesus is speaking on one level, where everybody else is thinking more concretely. Asleep means not awake verses asleep means dead.

We note also here that prior to the resurrection of Jesus, there are seven “signs” in the fourth gospel.  If the number seven is the number of God–the number of completion and wholeness–then the seven signs of the fourth gospel, taken together, give us a complete picture of Jesus.  (After Easter, there is an additional sign, the eighth one, which is a sign of the new creation.)

The first sign is the wedding at Cana where Jesus revealed his “glory” and his disciples “faithed” in him.  The story of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh “sign.”  In this seventh “sign,” God is “glorified” and the disciples will “faith.”  The seven “signs” begin and end in “glory” and “faith.”

The disciples had resisted going back to Judea.  Thomas says that, yes, they will go with him, but, rather fatalistically, expects the journey not to end well.  In fact, he supposes that all of them will die with Jesus, a not unreasonable assumption.  As the story progresses, however, there is no mention of the disciples actually being with him as he goes to Bethany, and, indeed, they appear not to have gone.  The next time we see the disciples, it is verse 54, and they are “out in the wilderness.”

Back to our story and we find that when Jesus arrives, he is told that Lazarus has been dead–“in the tomb”–for four days.  He is thoroughly dead, in other words.  Moreover, Judeans are at the home of Martha and Mary.  The Judeans are professional mourners who were hired to come in and do the job of mourning with the family.  These Judeans are “the death people,” you might say.

Martha goes out to meet Jesus.  This would seem to say, somewhat contrary to verse 17, that Jesus wasn’t all the way in to Bethany.  We are not told how Martha knows that Jesus is in the vicinity.  Nor are we told why Martha goes to meet him while Mary stayed home.  One wonders:  Is Jesus’ visit a secret?  Does he not want the Judeans to know where he is?  Is Mary staying at home with the mourners in order to provide cover for Martha to leave?  Does Mary even know that Jesus is near?

Jesus’ conversation with Martha is also odd.  Martha expresses faith is Jesus’ ability to ask God for special favours.  Jesus replies that Lazarus–“your brother”–will rise again, most likely an indication of what he is about to do.  The fourth gospel has already told us that “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out (5: 28-9).”  Martha, however, responds with a statement of belief in the general resurrection “on the last day,” a rather typical pharisaic belief of the time.  What about Jesus’ ability to raise someone right now?

Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one trusting into me, if that one might die, that one will live, and anyone living and trusting into me might surely not die forever.  Do you trust this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I have trusted that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  Jesus responds with the divine name–ego eimi, “I am.”  “I am the resurrection and the life”–zoe life. He goes on to explicate both resurrection and life.  Those who “trust” (pisteuein) will live again even if they die, and those who “live” and “trust” will not die at all.  Zoe life is not only “life eternal,” but true life–the essence of life, the Life Principle itself–right now.

At the same time, death literally hangs in the air in this text.  Lazarus is already dead, the “death people” are wailing, but Martha has somehow freed herself from that process, that which is expected of her for a time in order to be with Jesus.  The fourth gospel is again raising the pressure in the confrontation between death and life.

For the Johannine community reading this text, c. AD 90 or later, the persecution of Christians had already begun.  It was sporadic and localized, yes, but also brutal.  The Emperor, Nero c. AD 65, had used Christians as human torches, after all, and Emperor Domitian would soon ratchet up these persecutions another notch.  Trusting in the Lord’s ability to bring life out of death would have been a crucial aspect of discipleship for a beleaguered religious minority.

Can there be life again in stale, barren places? In all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, can hope live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? We who follow Jesus would like to think that is true and say that all the texts we know off in some way speak to that call to be an embodiment of hope in stale or scary places, to hear the cries of our brothers and sisters, to breathe life into the body of Christ by living fully like Jesus did.

There is a story I want to leave you with that I think speaks in to the place between the spiritual and the concrete, that perhaps approached the question of how the Jesus of thousands of years ago can speak to us today. It is a story of the parents who, angling for a bit more time with their coffee and papers, offered their young daughter a puzzle to put together. On one side of an insert of the paper was a current map of the world, so they cut it up and told her they would go out for a walk as soon as she’d put the puzzle together. Fairly happy with themselves, they settled down with their second cup. Two minutes later she came back and said the puzzle was finished. ‘How did you manage that so quick?’ they said. ‘It was easy she said. There was a person on the other side of the page, so I put the person together and the world followed.’


Life begins with relationships – listening, waiting with each other, realising that we are part of something so much bigger. If we are to bring life, justice, healing – hope, then we need to begin with ourselves and the possibilities our changed lives may bring to the world. Yes, there can be life again in stale, barren places? Yes, in all the death and dryness that sometimes surrounds us, hope can live and breathe and resurrect through Jesus Christ? Amen.

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