Passion Sunday - 9th March 2008

Holy Eucharist – Address

Preached by Lay Leader David Fuller

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Collect for Passion Sunday
MOST merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of thy Son Jesus Christ hast delivered and saved the world:
grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross we may triumph in the power of his victory;
through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.       Amen.

Collect for Lent (Ash Wednesday)
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent:
create and make in us new and contrite hearts that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord,
who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.      Amen.

Old Testament lesson: Ezekiel 37, Vv 1-14
Epistle: Romans 8, Vv 6-11
Holy Gospel: St John 11, Vv 1-45

Today’s Gospel is the wonderful story, told us by Saint John, of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus, with Mary and Martha, were perhaps the nearest thing Jesus had during his ministry to a welcoming, earthly family. He moved out of his home in Nazareth and initially made the headquarters of his mission at Capernaum, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We know that he found little success in Nazareth – he was reported as saying, ‘A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house.’

   We know little about Lazarus. There are only two sets of references to him, both in Saint John’s Gospel, in the eleventh and twelfth chapters. There is also the story of another Lazarus – Lazarus the beggar, but that is only told us in Saint Luke’s Gospel.

   Our Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead comes from the eleventh chapter of Saint John. There is what appears to be a small anomaly in the story. It starts by telling us that Lazarus was ill. He is described as, ‘a man of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.’ Our story goes on to add further clarification by saying, ‘Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.’ Mary is referred to as Lazarus’ sister. Later Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ We may assume that there were close family ties between Lazarus, Martha and Mary although we must remember that, in the times when the gospels were written, the words brother and sister could include other close family members, such as first cousins. What is the anomaly? Our story of the raising of Lazarus appears in the eleventh chapter of John. The story of Mary pouring the precious ointment on Jesus’ feet, to which our story refers, does not appear in the gospel until chapter twelve!

   When Lazarus fell ill Jesus was in Perea in Trans-Jordan on the eastern side of the Dead Sea – he was several days’ walk from Bethany. On hearing the news about his friend, Jesus appeared to disregard it. ‘The illness does not lead to death,’ he said. Then rather cryptically he added, ‘rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ He stayed where he was for two more days. Then Jesus changed his mind and suggested to the disciples that they should go to Judaea again. The disciples were aghast. ‘Rabbi, the Jews are just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ We then get this strange comment about the hours in the day. Jesus was telling his closest followers that as long as God had work for him to do he had no fear death. He then told them that Lazarus had ‘fallen asleep’ and he was going to awaken him. The disciples took him at his word and said, ‘if he has only fallen asleep then he will be all right.’ Jesus, of course, knew that Lazarus was dead. To clear the air he told them plainly that Lazarus was dead. Then he said, ‘For your sake I am glad I was not there.’ If he had been in Bethany at the time of the illness he would surely have intervened and the miracle to follow could not have happened. Thomas Didimus, or Thomas the twin, understood more fully than most the real dangers of going back towards Jerusalem. He said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ We generally think of Thomas as Doubting Thomas – you will remember that after the Resurrection it was Thomas who would not believe until he had placed his hands in Our Lord’s wounds. This earlier statement sets him in quite a different and much more positive light.

   When Jesus eventually got to Bethany, having made the steep climb from the Jordan valley, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. In the hot climate of Palestine the dead were buried very promptly, as is still the case today. However, the funeral wake, as we should probably call it, was still going on. The Evangelist tells us that many Jews had come from Jerusalem to console Martha and Mary at the time of their sad loss. Martha, the more staid, domesticated of the sisters went out to meet Jesus when she heard that he was approaching. She told him that he was too late, but that had he been there earlier the tragic death would not have happened. Knowing the earthly power of Jesus she added, ‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus told her that her brother would rise again. Martha assumed that Jesus meant the rising at the Resurrection on the last day. Jesus then gave one of those absolutely clear statements of who he was – there could have been no doubt in the minds of all who heard him, and one can appreciate the turmoil, resentment and anger it caused in the ears of many devout Jews and among the Jewish hierarchy. ‘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.’ These words have given comfort to the bereaved and the dying down the centuries. They are words without which no Christian funeral service is complete; words which cannot be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Jesus then asked Martha if she believes this. ‘Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

   Our story continued with Martha calling Mary and she joined Jesus, still outside the village. Several of the funeral visitors followed behind and when Jesus saw the two sisters and others weeping he was, ‘greatly disturbed of spirit and deeply moved.’ However, Jesus went to Bethany on this occasion to demonstrate the absolute power that he had over death, and to demonstrate this power to his disciples. He returned to more mundane matters and asked, ‘where have you laid him?’ As they moved towards the tomb Jesus was so overcome that he wept also. We learn this from the shortest verse in the whole Bible, verse 35, certainly in the Authorised Version has just two words, ‘Jesus wept.’

   When they came to the tomb he asked for the stone to be removed. Martha was horrified. Lazarus had been buried for four days. ‘Lord, already there is a stench.’ Jesus reminded her that she must believe if she is to see the glory of God. Such was Martha’s faith that the stone was removed. Jesus looked upwards, as if to heaven, and thanked God for hearing him. He reminded God the Father that he always hears his Son but that he wanted the watching crowd to see that the actions he was anticipating were the work of the Father, operating through the Son. With that he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ or, as the Authorised Version has it, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ And, behold, the dead man appeared. The evangelist reported that his hands and feet were bound with strips of cloth and his face was wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said, ‘unbind him and let him go.’ Our story ended with the statement that many Jews saw and believed. Had we read on a few more verses we would have seen that some of them, however, went to the Chief Priests and told them what had happened. This led to a meeting of the Council and ultimately to those infamous words of Caiaphas that, ‘it is better for one man to die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’

   I think we can safely say that Jesus openly flirted with danger and possibly assassination when he decided to give his disciples this important lesson of God’s power over life and death, given to his Son. This incident led almost immediately to the days before the Passion, trials and crucifixion. Lazarus had to go into hiding. We read in chapter 12 that on Jesus’ next visit to Bethany, the occasion when Mary poured the spikenard ointment over his head and feet, many Jews turned up to see both Jesus and Lazarus – word had gone round that this was he who had been raised from the dead. The Chief Priests were working out how they might also put Lazarus to death, undoubtedly because he was attracting so much attention.

   What points should we note in particular in today’s gospel? First we get this wonderful example of the joint and equal divinity and manhood of Our Blessed Lord. On the one hand he was the Son of God and he had power on earth to raise the dead to life; on the other he was a totally human son of man and, as such, had earthly feelings of sadness and bereavement. The evangelist tells us that he was, ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,’ when he heard of his friend’s death.

   Secondly, you will remember that, upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus said that it would not lead to death. Yet, Lazarus died. It can thus be argued that the death of Lazarus was allowed to happen just so that Jesus’ power in raising him back to life could be demonstrated. Jesus said, you will remember, that Lazarus sickness (and eventual death, as we have seen) were ‘for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Jesus was prepared to let his friend die and his sisters and others to suffer sadness and loss so that he might clearly show the glory of the Father. We often find in the world today that much good comes out of events that might first appear tragic and earth shattering. Many of us will know, perhaps first hand, of occasions where good has come out of evil.

   Thirdly, Jesus used the death of his friend as a teaching exercise for his disciples. We must remember that not long after this event Jesus would be dead, nailed to a tree; dead in the most ignominious way imaginable; dead in a way that appeared to the casual observer to represent abject failure; dead, so as to cause those very disciples to flee to the four winds in panic and confusion. Jesus had to convince them that he had power over death and in his mind there was nothing better that a practical demonstration to do this. After the Ascension these devoted followers would be the very nucleus of the church – indeed, they would have the power over death that Jesus had. He would give them this authority, just as his Father had given it to him.

   Fourthly, Jesus showed his disciples that he was directly in the succession of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, both of whom were reported to have raised the dead to life. This link back to the earlier history of the Jewish nation sets Christ truly within that great tradition. He is not apart from Judaism he is very much the Messiah, promised by the prophets of old. As Saint Matthew reports him saying, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.’ The raising of Lazarus was just one of a number of similar events. You will remember that Jesus also raised from the dead the daughter of Jairus and the son of the widow of Nain. All of these miracles link Jesus back to his historic roots.

   Fifthly and finally: down the Christian ages men and women have been greatly comforted by those words of Our Lord – ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ In our earthly lives, be they long or short, happy or sad, rich or poor, we have the supreme comfort of knowing that death is not the end, that the grave does not represent finality. Just as Lazarus was told, ‘Come forth,’ so we believe that we shall get the same call at the time of our own deaths. Our belief in a new life beyond the grave will not, of course, stop us from grieving over the loss of family and friend. We know that we ought to rejoice but we are human and fallible. And Jesus gave us an example – he was, ‘disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,’ and he wept at the death of his friend.

   Let us then thank Almighty God for the promise of eternal life brought us by his Son. Let us pray that one day we may hear those wonderful words of comfort, ‘Come forth – I am the resurrection and the life.’

Copyright © David Fuller 2008

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