The Word This Weekend – November 3, 2019
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
[When Jesus had finished a prayer of thanksgiving to God], he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:43-44)
This weekend we will observe Reformation Day (10/31) All Saints Day (11/1) and All Saints Sunday (11/3), and the commemoration of the blessed at rest –
So, for anyone in Christ, they are a new creation:
everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:17-18)
This time of year always takes me to a Gospel text from John 11, as we find ourselves at the pinnacle moment in the story of the raising of Lazarus – as Jesus publicly commands the rolling of the burial stone, and the calling forth of the dead brother. I call this final section of the story “Lazarus 2.0,” because clearly the life that emerges from behind the cold stone of the tomb will be radically different than that which had been bathed and anointed, swathed and bound, and placed by grieving loved ones into the dark abyss of “who knows” – as all of us who have buried beloved friends or beloved institutions know all too well.
Before returning to the John 11 episode itself, let’s spend a little time with another of the New Testament witnesses, the snippet I’ve included above from the Apostle Paul. In his second circular letter to the Saints of Corinth, Paulus the evangelist missioner confronts the reality of our mortal being, and sets it in the context of the new creation that awaits behind the stone.
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling — if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Cor 5:1-5)
Apparently Paul has been to the graveyard, has shed some tears at the bier, has confronted the temporality and fragility of human existence. For to be en Christou, “in Christ,” is to live simultaneously in the bondage to our declining and decaying human-ness. Even as we are (to quote the Reformation’s first voice, that of Martin Luther) Simul Justus et Peccator -- at the same time fully ‘Rescued’ and ‘Reprobate’ -- even so we are both mortal and eternal, trapped for now in the shell of our dust while yet in the hope and present-ness of forever in God through Christ’s compassionate and saving gift of life eternal. Paul goes on:
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. (6-10)
It seems clear that, for Paul, our confidence is not rooted in the world’s usual denial of mortality or decay, but springs from the knowledge of this life’s brevity and decline, even as we live proleptically in the timeless, deathless hope of life lived in the Spirit’s hope and commission. He frames this now-and-not-yet hope, as does the apostolic witness across the ages, as a reality lived out in the in-between-ness of human fragility and resurrection expectation, centered in the Christ confessed every time we gather around the breaking of the Bread: “Christ has died (as shall we), Christ is risen (as will all who hope in him), Christ will come again (to gather his redeemed and rescued sheep).”
And this hope is far more than a promise of a far-off journey onto redemption’s “up-escalator.” He continues:
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. (11-15)
For Paul, and for us, the reality of eternal life is a commission to servanthood and witness here in our present reality, in the fervent hope of forever in God. The communal Agapé of the Saints is a mission of love for here, engaged and inspired by the truth that we live not only for ourselves, and not only for the present age. It truly and firmly empowers all that we do, all that we say, all that we promise for and prophesy against, that the human family we companion with today may share in the fullness of the deathless hope of Christ for one and for all.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So, for anyone in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (16-21)
So, back we go to the Bethany graveyard, to the freshly occupied tomb of Lazarus, whose name means “God Helps.” For what Paul proclaims as a theological commentator, the evangelist John captures with surpassing clarity in the narrative of Lazarus’ rising. The new life that emerges from behind the stone, the newly raised brother of Martha and Mary, is truly ‘Lazarus 2.0,’ the same person they had bathed and entombed, yet entirely new and reborn in the light of Christ’s calling to “come forth!”
What he will be we can’t yet know, though we have some scintillating clues in the Fourth Gospel. Lazarus comes under the same threat of assassination as does his friend and benefactor Jesus, sharing his dangerous notoriety even as he shares in his resurrection hope. Ancient Christian tradition establishes Lazarus’ participation in the early testimony to the Risen One. Some modern commentators even identify Lazarus as the mysterious “Beloved Disciple” of the Passion account, and credit him with leading the Jesus community that would in time produce the Gospel we call “John.”
Even so, we can’t know for sure what the “Lazarus 2.0” will precisely look like in our own day and in our own churches. In this present moment of stunning change and realignment, as old enmities fall away and new understandings of personhood and fellowship emerge, the Lazarus Church is surely to seem different to us than the “dear brother” some are working so hard to resuscitate and restore, even as the Bethany brother’s impending death was prayed and striven against, in the mistaken judgment of the diffident delay of his friend the Christ, who came not to reanimate the old dying friend, but rather to raise the death to a new and different being.
As we draw near to the Lazarus tomb on this All Saints Sunday, to hear the sanction and invitation of Christ over death and life, may we hear the conviction of Paul and all the saints, those resting even now in the hope of glory, and those who in our own day press on against the dissolving of our earthly tents – whether personal, institutional or commnunal – and dare to shout into the maw of our temporality, “Christ is Risen! And, because he lives, we too dare to live, today and for all days in his Name and Promise!”
With You in God’s Good Work,