Trinity Church, Yazoo City, MS—John 11:1-44
When I was growing up, there was a great interest among church people in what is called in academic circles “Christian apologetics.” Christian apologetics is the art and science of persuading skeptical non-believers that Christian faith is plausible and intelligible. It’s a way of answering the various objections, the “hard questions,” that lead some to suppose that the only way to be a Christian is to check your brain at the door of the church and completely turn your back on rationality and common sense. A Christian apologist seeks to demonstrate the truth of Christianity.
I wonder, however, whether, in our own time, the apologetic task is altogether different. There is a body of concrete evidence to suggest that the cry of the non-believer today is not “show me that it’s true!” but, rather, “show me that it matters!” Show me that it means anything. Show me that whether or not I am a believing, practicing Christian actually makes a tangible difference—to me or to anyone else. To many of us—and I say “us” because I suspect that many church members, as well as most of the unchurched, fall into this category—to many of us, Christian faith is a sort of ethereal “pie in the sky bye and bye,” you know . . . “eternal life.” If I live right and say an occasional prayer, I’ll go to heaven when I die.
When I die.
This is just too far removed from the world of our ordinary experience to be of much interest or concern. Jesus offers me eternal life. That will be very nice, I’m sure, when I need it. But in the meantime, I’ve got to make the house payment, drive the kids to piano lessons and soccer practice, get ready for an important meeting, close another sale, and lose twenty pounds. Talk to me when I’ve done all that and maybe I’ll sign up for eternal life. Right now, I haven’t got the time.
This is not a difficult move to make. People you and I know—maybe sometimes we ourselves—make such a move every day. We don’t look on Christianity with scorn, as a falsehood, but with benign apathy, as an irrelevancy. We understand the promise of eternal life to be not yet applicable, because we understand eternal life itself to be essentially the continuation, the extension, of spiritual life even after the event of physical death. When we die, we’ll need eternal life; before then, we don’t.
So if Christian faith is about eternal life, and we don’t yet need eternal life, then Christian faith is, understandably, of marginal interest. It’s like the spare tire in my trunk. I’m glad to know it’s there if I have a flat, and a couple of times a year, maybe around Christmas and Easter, I may get sentimental about the joys of tire irons and lug nuts, but it really isn’t in the forefront of my consciousness during my daily routine of driving around town.
This is one case when it pays to look deeper than the face value meaning of the words themselves. When Jesus speaks of eternal like, he’s talking about something much more profound, much richer in meaning, than the mere continuation of existence after the death of the body. And what Jesus did in response to the death of a friend of his named Lazarus, in the village of Bethany, stands as a beacon, a sign, of the richness and the profundity with which Jesus uses the term “eternal life.” As John the Evangelist tells the story, this incident takes place just before Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem to be tried and crucified. (So it’s appropriate that we’re observing it liturgically the week before Palm Sunday.) It represents the climax to this point of his mission which will be completed only on the cross, the mission of confronting and defeating the evil powers of this universe which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, the evil powers of this universe which blind us to who we really are by filling our lives with suffering and pain, the evil powers of this universe which cause us to think so little of ourselves that we look for affirmation in all the wrong places and engage in a thousand forms of self-destructive behavior, the evil powers of this universe which rob us of any sense of meaning and purpose for our lives by constantly drawing us away from the love of God.
This mission began in the desert, four weeks ago for us in liturgical time, where Jesus wrestled with the tempter, who invited him to take matters into his own hands rather than obey the will of his Father. It continued in his nocturnal conversation with Nicodemus, three weeks ago, in which Jesus revealed that the only route to peace with God and victory over these evil powers is not through our own efforts at moral perfection, but through new birth and transformation from within. It continued still two weeks ago in his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, where he proclaimed that God’s grace, God’s favorable disposition towards us, is like living water, all around us, ready to renew our spirits, wash away that which doesn’t belong, and sustain our lives in the face of the evil powers which we confront. Jesus’s mission continued still just last Sunday in his gift of sight to the man born blind, a gift which demonstrated his desire and ability to illuminate our lives, to enable us to see what we need to see in the clear light of day, and remove us from vulnerability to the forces of darkness. And now, at last, Jesus confronts the ultimate expression of the power of evil—death itself. In a way, it’s a warm-up round, an exhibition match, between Jesus and death, for despite Jesus’s victory on this occasion, they will meet again, and death will have Jesus himself in its jaws.
As Jesus enters the outskirts of the village of Bethany, he is met by Lazarus’s sister Martha. “Jesus, if you’d only been here, my brother would not have died!” This is an emotionally-charged situation! Lazarus was Jesus’s friend. Martha and her sister Mary were Jesus’s friends. There’s a good chance that Jesus habitually lodged with them whenever he visited the Jerusalem area. Martha is grieving and Jesus is deeply moved by her sorrow, and he says, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” It would be only natural for Jesus to comfort Martha with some words of reassurance, and this is exactly how Martha hears Jesus’s statement, “your brother will rise again.” He was comforting her with the hope that was then common among many pious Jews that on the coming “day of the Lord” the dead would be raised and the community of Israel would be made whole, as in Ezekiel’s vision of the Lord re-assembling the dry bones and re-clothing them with living, breathing flesh. “Thank-you, Jesus,” she might have said, “that’s an inspiring thought. I know that Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. It’s very sweet of you to remind me of that.”
But was Martha really comforted? Did the idea of a general resurrection of the dead on some distant day of the Lord fill the gaping hole in her heart left by the death of her brother? Who can say? But, for what it’s worth, it appears that Jesus didn’t think so. His response says, in effect, “Martha, you’ve missed my point. I am resurrection and I am life.” Notice the present tense here. Jesus does not say, “I will be resurrection and I will be life.” I am resurrection, I am life.
Jesus then proceeds to call Lazarus, alive and well, grave clothes and all, out from the tomb which his decomposing body had inhabited for four days. That death-conquering act is a sign to us—a blazing, unmistakably visible sign—that eternal life is not only “then and there”, but also “here and now.” Eternal Life is a reality that is available to us presently, an experience that is relevant to our lives as we live them minute by minute, hour by hour, and day by day. The eternal life that Jesus offers us supplies meaning for our lives in a time when it is very easy to believe that life is meaningless. It tells us that we are unique creatures made in the very image of God, and meant to enjoy a relationship with Him. Eternal Life gives us a sense of direction in a time when there seems to be an absence of trustworthy compasses, gyroscopes, and direction-finders. Eternal Life rescues us from the fatalistic observation that life is simply “nasty, brutish, and short” by putting all our suffering—from the irritation of a moment, to the deep pain of a lifetime—in the redeeming context of God’s ubiquitous grace.
Eternal Life supplies us with purpose, in a time when it is all too easy to assume that our lives have no purpose: our purpose is to be torches—torches by which the light of Christ proclaims to a world besieged by darkness that morning indeed will come.
Eternal life assures us that our faith in Christ, and our practice of Christian religion, is as relevant to our lives as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the blood that flows through our veins. In particular, it assures us that it is good that we are here today, doing what we’re doing, remembering and celebrating in word and sacrament the awe-ful mystery that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life to those who dwell in the tomb, whether that tomb holds a corpse with a heart that no longer beats and lungs that no longer breathe, or a corpse that lives and breathes but is devoid of meaning, purpose, and hope.
Eternal Life assures us that when we come together next week for more “church”—and more intense “church”—than any self-respecting Episcopalian is comfortable with, we will be re-connecting with and drawing sustenance from the bracingly, refreshingly, and presently relevant gospel of Jesus Christ. To him be all glory throughout all ages.