Life

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. . . .Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ . . . Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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 11:17, 23-27, 39-44

This particular story from John’s gospel serves as a useful précis of most of the major themes from that gospel. As such, this story offers insight into what we might possibly claim is the “good news” according to Lazarus. More specifically, for John, these themes frequently come as pairs of oppositions. In this narrative segment, we see John’s use of darkness and light to contrast ideas of both ignorance and separation with insight and connection. We witness John’s exploiting the tension between death and life in the motif of tomb and resurrection, a motif drawn out through dialogues on future hope and realized grace. Nevertheless, in the end, all of these conversations for John are really but a diversity of ways to talk about one thing: the incarnation.

For John, the incarnation is the pivotal theological and practical mass around which everything else revolves. We see this from the very beginning of John’s narrative, couched in narrative remembrances of divine creation and the coming of the Word-made-flesh. Incarnation begins, permeates, and ends John’s gospel.

Often when we read this particular story from John’s gospel, our attention is wrapped up in the dramatic confrontation between Jesus as the womb of creative life and a stone tomb separating him from his beloved friend. And, for good reason. This story is the stuff of Hollywood.

In reading this story, we invariably ask ourselves the question: Is it just the creative offerings of gospel storytellers, or did it happen? Did Jesus really call Lazarus from death into life? The answer to that question is less a matter of historicity or forensics and more a matter of faith. By that I mean to say that the answer to the question of did this really happen is not actually an issue for John as much as this story is a narrative confirmation of the character of the God in whom one has chosen to believe. In other words, this story is not a story that creates faith but creates a character profile of the one in whom you already have faith. The intentional juxtaposition of Jesus’ confrontation with “the Jews” and death and a tomb and resurrection in a town just outside of Jerusalem and immediately before his final entrance into that town is not happenstance. This event, in many ways, is meant to foreshadow Jesus’ own imminent confrontation with death and to prepare the reader to expect the appropriate outcome: clearly, when the Lord of Life is present, death steps aside and life emerges.

Therefore, in many respects, this story from John’s gospel is a story not about Lazarus’ remarkable recovery but a story about incarnated life as the ultimate answer to all questions regarding death. The incarnation brings God’s creative life into our midst to obliterate the barriers between life and death, heaven and earth, God and us. Resurrection, as it turns out, is the final, appropriate effect to incarnation. The presence of the source of all life draws life away from death.

In the end, this story is a story about resurrection over death, just not Lazarus’. For Lazarus, in particular, this story is not about his resurrection because he was not resurrected but resuscitated. Death remains in his future. The resurrection found in the story is the foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection to come, here, materially embodied in the person of Jesus—the Word of Life.

To further impress this point in his readers’ minds and, then, to extend the life-generating reality embodied in the Word’s presence into their lives, John uses a literary device. Embodiment of life in the Word of Life is echoed in a prayer found in this passage. That prayer seems to tie this story and its declaration of incarnate life to a practice of the church, a practice John’s readers would know all too well.

Just prior to Jesus’ calling Lazarus from the grave, he calls to heaven: ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me . . .” Jesus begins his prayer to God with a familiar word, eucharisto.

In Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving, John links his community’s imaginings about this text to their worshipful imaginations shaped in their common gathering around a table for prayer and a simple meal. Like the radical recalibrating of reality that results from the incarnation’s in-breaking into the world, this choice of words, as reported by John, extracts the story of Jesus’ declaration of resurrected life out of the fictive ether of a story or the abstract distance of theological speculation or the ridged recesses of the past and injects the Word into the living, breathing body that is the body of Christ. John seems to be reminding his readers that each time they participate in the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, that they, too, experience the same life-giving, death-denying, world-altering interruption that drove Lazarus from the dark of a tomb into the light of life. And, not only does John’s community experience that incarnation of life, they become it. They, the living church of Christ, are the resurrection-life-made-present for the world. In that eucharistic prayer, the church recites:

Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here,
and on these gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ . . . .

For John, resurrection and its promise of new life is not some interesting possibility but an incarnational reality made present each time the community gathers, themselves becoming the Word of God. And, like the Word of God witnessed in this story, their lives—as John understands it—should declare life, bring life, and embody life.

Such a realization seems all too significant as we approach another All Saints’ Day, a day on which we remember those from our communion who have died since the last remembrance. On such an occasion, Johns’ story of Lazarus’ resuscitation proves a necessary reminder that life is the dominant reality despite the lingering presence of death. Such “good news” becomes comforting as we remember those whom we love but see no more. Yet, this “good news,” also, pricks our conscience, resuscitating our own lifeless notions of incarnation. Our notions of the incarnation and the presence of life-giving, death-removing reality seem all too often the muse for stories from scripture and the province of some past divine encounter, more dead tales of something and someone from another time and another place. However, this text and its very particular prayer remind us of our role in embodying life for those around us.

This reminder leads us to ask, how do we become life in a world patently full of death? How do we become good news for those who legitimacy morn and suffer and who find their lives without meaning, hope, purpose, certainty, and stability? In a world where young men and women take their lives because they are told they are not good enough to be loved as they have been made, how do we offer life? In a world where life for some seems so easy and for others it gets harder and harder, how do we promise to resuscitate their lives, not in some spiritualized sense but in a concrete, material way? In a world where life is sometimes devalued, dismissed, and displace, how do we value life anew and return and replace dignity to all life, at all stages?

To these questions, I do not have simple or even clear answers nor do I think John supplies them, either. Rather, what I think this passage offers are not so much solutions as reminders as to where to begin and the truth of our real life-affirming vocations. Our beginning is in worship, gathered around a table with others committed to struggle as living witnesses to life and light when and where death and darkness persist. Our truth is that we are not so much a witness to what is to come but the incarnated presence of a renewal of life that is already washing over the world, a life that must creatively imagine how to bring that renewal of life in concrete, material ways.

Have a great All Saints’ Day.

Be life.

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