Sunday, April 2, 2017

Phil Kniss: Toward death, toward life

Lent 5: We breathe
John 11:1-45; Romans 8:6-11

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It’s just an embarrassment of riches, for me as a preacher
to get all three of these wonderful long Gospel stories from John
to preach on three weeks in a row.

This set of three stories—
first the story of the Samaritan woman at the well,
and then Jesus’ Sabbath Day healing of the man born blind,
and today, the raising of Lazarus from the dead—
they come around in the lectionary just once every three years.

All three are wonderfully told narratives
full of pathos and political intrigue and religious conflict,
and they’re all three fun and interesting and easy to preach from.

The fact that I got all three of them this year
has nothing to do with the fact that I plan the preaching schedule.
It’s just the way it worked out.
Sorry about that, Moriah and Barbara.

Now, I don’t want to imply the finished sermons just drop into my lap.
Some work is involved.
Especially with today’s text,
the work involves trying to see what relevance for our lives today,
can possibly be found in this one-of-a-kind story
of Jesus raising his friend from the dead,
after four days in the tomb.

This is not the stuff of everyday discipleship, is it?
I mean, I don’t generally waken in the morning
wondering what earth-shaking miracle
I am going to be called on to perform
as someone who is trying to follow Jesus in life.

I would not say any-thing is impossible,
if God is truly in it.
But resurrection of someone four days dead
is not something we are likely to encounter as a disciple of Jesus.
So I don’t think learning how to do that
is the take-away lesson for this Gospel story.
No, but there is an important, and relevant lesson for us, nonetheless.

Before we get to that,
let’s dig a little deeper into the context
behind the words and actions of this story.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha,
lived in Bethany—right outside Jerusalem—a suburb, almost.
They were closer to Jerusalem,
than we are right now to downtown Harrisonburg.

Jerusalem, and its immediate environs,
were the center of the organized resistance to Jesus.
Jesus was mostly adored out in the rural areas.
In Jerusalem, not so much.

We learn, if we read the previous chapter, John 10,
that just a few days earlier Jesus was in Jerusalem,
where the crowds accused him of being demon-possessed,
then accused him of blasphemy,
then tried to stone him to death.

Jesus immediately made a very sensible decision.
He and his disciples escaped to the other side of the Jordan River.
They crossed over to the far east side, and stayed put.
I think the disciples appreciated that decision.
They were safe there.
They let people come to them,
instead of going out to the people
and running into more trouble.

When the message was sent to Jesus, in ch. 11, that Lazarus was ill,
Jesus decided to stay put anyway.
I can imagine all his disciples saying, “Whew! Thank you, Jesus.”
At least, that’s what I would have said.

But two days later, v. 7, Jesus changed his mind.
“Time to go to Jerusalem.”
Back to the war zone. We’re done with R&R.
The disciples tried their best to stop him.
“Rabbi, they were just trying to stone you.”

Jesus said, “Oh, but our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.
And I’m going to wake him up.”

One of the disciples, apparently a little slow on the uptake,
said, “Well, then, if he’s asleep, he’ll be fine.
He can wake up by himself.”
So Jesus spelled it out.
Or, as John put it, he “told them plainly.”
“I was using a figure of speech.
Lazarus is dead. Let’s go.”

Then Thomas—you know the one, “Doubting Thomas,”
make a statement full of faith and courage,
and one that I want us hear clearly today.
He said to the other disciples, v. 16,
“Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Thomas knew, they all knew.
Walking to Bethany meant walking toward death.
Not just Lazarus’ death, but their own death.

We usually read that line almost in passing.
I want us to grasp its significance.

They were in a place of safety,
having narrowing escaped being stoned to death by a mob.
But they were now, while the tensions were still high,
walking right back into the center of the resistance.

What does it take for you? What does it take for me?
What does it take to choose, consciously, to walk toward death?
If Michael J. Sharp were still alive, we could ask him.
We could ask any number of other persons who were killed
because of conscious choices they made
to walk in a direction that they knew could lead toward death,
but might also result in resurrection.

We could ask Martin Luther King, Jr.
We could ask Archbishop Oscar Romero.
We could ask my 11th-great-grandfather, Hans Landis,
A 70-year-old Swiss Anabaptist farmer-pastor
beheaded because he chose not to leave town,
even when given plenty of chances to do so.
We could ask courageous men and women of faith—
all kinds of faith, in every age.
What does it take to walk toward death?

Why did Jesus go to Bethany, and expect his disciples to follow?
And why were they willing to follow?

I have a hunch they had some insight into a deeper truth
than the fact they were walking toward death.
They knew they were also walking toward the Spirit of Life.
They had been with Jesus and witnessed
healing, restoration, reconciliation, in the face of resistance.
They had seen lepers restored to health, and to their communities.
They had seen women and children,
prostitutes and tax cheaters,
Samaritans and Roman soldiers,
and all other manner of people typically ignored or despised,
given back their dignity,
shown compassion,
and restored to right relationship.

They knew, somehow, despite their misgivings,
that if Jesus was called in that direction,
they were willing to go along,
because usually, something good came of it.
And even if it didn’t this time, they were still with Jesus.

Obviously, they had no idea at this stage
that this was a journey leading to the cross,
to crucifixion for Jesus,
and what sort of meaning might be found in that.
But I think there must have been some indefinable sense,
even inarticulate sense—nothing they could put words to—
that even if Jesus was walking toward suffering, toward death,
if he was walking this purposefully,
and with this much resolve and determination,
they were willing to walk this way with him.

The disciple Thomas, who legend has it,
was lacking in the faith department,
issues one of the most profound statements of faith
uttered by a disciple, ever.
He said, in so many words,
“Even if following you leads to my death,
I will go with you.”

Even though he did not understand everything Jesus stood for,
he knew that what Jesus stood for was more true,
more just,
more God-breathed,
than anything the opposition stood for.
And even if the opposition was stronger,
even if the resistance had on their side
all the powers that be in Jerusalem,
with the full support of Rome behind them,
even then,
Thomas would stay with what was true, and right,
and consistent with God’s purposes.
Thomas would stay with Jesus.

And Thomas appealed to his fellow disciples to do the same.
And they all did.
At least for now.
They walked toward death,
expecting to find some sign of life there as well.

Yes, we know this determination faltered, a few weeks later.
When all hell broke loose, literally.
When the powers were at their most threatening,
the disciples ran away.
But later they came back, and stayed.
And for now, they are staying.
So we can give them that.

And we can draw inspiration from that for our lives today.

Briefly, let’s review what happened in Bethany.
When they arrived, the crowd of mourners were there,
staying close by Mary and Martha, wailing, as was the custom.
The sisters both met Jesus and in emotional torment said,
“If you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
And then Jesus, as the story points out specifically,
joined in the wailing.
“Jesus wept.”

I grew up knowing this piece of King James Bible trivia—
that John 11:35 was the shortest verse in the Bible.
It is short, but not insignificant.
It doesn’t say Jesus had some moisture build up
at the corners of his eye sockets,
and a little bit of that rolled down his cheek,
as he swallowed hard,
and very manfully kept his composure.
No, it says he wept.
And in the context of a first-century Jewish village in Palestine,
during a public community mourning,
I think it’s clear that weeping means weeping—
loudly and openly and with bitter anguish.
So much so, that the other mourners remarked,
“Wow, see how much he loved him.”
Further, v. 33 says,
“he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”
Jesus crumpled in grief.
I expect he sincerely regretted waiting two days.

But then, as if he suddenly remembered his identity and purpose,
that God was all about giving life to what was dead,
and that he was there as a representative of God’s agenda,
Jesus took control of the situation.
Started issuing orders.
Take me to the tomb.
Take away the stone.
Lazarus, come out!
Unbind him, and let him go.
And there was a resurrection of someone four days dead.

Now, I’m not making a point about historic or scientific accuracy
of this and other accounts of human bodily resurrection.
Believe what you will about the science and biology of it.
But also believe the Gospel—
the good news narrative contained here,
and throughout the Gospels.
The dead man lived.
Death is transformed to life.

This one victory over death and its power,
was just a preview of the death-defying drama 
about to unfold.
This act of Jesus—
prompted by his willingness, and that of his disciples
to walk boldly toward death,
increased his popular support,
and the resistance by the death-dealing powers
dug in even more.

Today, we need not expound on where we know Jesus is heading,
and the meaning of his walk to the cross,
his suffering, death, and resurrection.
We have a whole week coming up—soon—
to hear that story again,
to reflect on those themes,
and to worship together as we do so.

For now, I invite us to reflect on who we are
living in a world of death,
but having identified with the Spirit of life.

Jesus and his disciples were given a choice in this story.
They, the living, could try to escape from death,
stay in hiding, as far away as possible,
or they could approach it,
purposefully walk toward it,
led by the one who represented life wherever he went.

Isn’t that the same choice we have today,
in a world that tries its best to knock the breath out of us?
We can run and hide from the darkness and death that threatens,
or we can claim our identity as people of the Spirit,
people of the breath of God,
people who have the life-wind of God
blowing among us and through us.
As Paul said in Romans 8:11,
in one of today’s lectionary texts we didn’t read,
If the breath of him who raised Jesus from the dead
is in you, he who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also
through his Spirit-breath that dwells in you.

As disciples of Jesus,
we are not strangers to the breath of God.
It is now blowing into and through us,
filling our lungs, and our whole being with life.
And it’s the  same Spirit-breath, the same life force
that won the battle over death in Bethany,
won it later in Jerusalem,
won it later in many other places where death-dealing powers
thought they had things under control.
From the heart of the Roman Empire for early Christians,
to the town council of Zurich Switzerland
for Felix Manz and early Anabaptists,
to the halls of Congress and the White House,
for us today . . . even today.

It’s a predictable result.
In a death and life struggle
when God is involved in it (as God always is),
the victory goes to life.
The Spirit-breath of life, which is God’s Spirit-breath,
which is blowing in us,
cannot be snuffed out.

Life belongs to God.
Now . . . the victory of life over death
does not unfold in ways we can manage and predict.
It may not even look like victory, in real time.
But the breath of God, the wind of God, will lead us to life,
if we keep leaning into that wind,
and not into false promises offered by false powers.

As long as the wind is blowing,
as long as there is God’s Spirit-breath in us,
death is not going to have the last word.

As death threatens in our world,
let us not stay in safety, hiding on the far side of the Jordan,
let us, with Jesus,
welcome the wind and breathe deeply,
and walk toward that which threatens us,
believing that God’s purposes are trustworthy,
and will lead us toward life.
Let us lean into the wind of the Spirit of life.

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