Fifth Sunday in Lent
“So from that day on,” John’s Gospel tells us, “they planned to put Jesus to death” (John 11:53). “They,” being the chief priest and Pharisees. “From that day”—the day they convened an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin to answer the question, “What are we to do?” (Jn. 11:47). Do about what? Do about Jesus and what he did just outside Jerusalem, in Bethany, about raising Lazarus from the dead. If the religious authorities were furious over the healing of the man born blind (Jn. 9), which they were, with the raising of Lazarus they’re apoplectic. Not only are they seething toward Jesus and scheming to kill him, the chief priests are also planning to put Lazarus to death (Jn. 12:10). They want to remove any evidence of Jesus and his miraculous signs, because people were beginning to trust Jesus, they we starting to see with their own eyes and believe him when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).
In John’s Gospel, the raising of Lazarus is the catalytic event that leads to the crucifixion. We’re told that after raising Lazarus, Jesus “no longer walked about openly..., but went out from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with his disciples” (Jn. 11:54). He “no longer walked about openly.” It was too risky.
Raising Lazarus was an enormous risk for Jesus—and he knew it. His claim about being resurrection and life provoked his death. His use of power, his enactment of resurrection, of life, led directly to his death.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is fully in command of the situation; there’s intentionality around everything he says, everything he does. He’s driving the narrative. Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. And in this story, and throughout John’s Gospel, it’s Jesus’s love that’s guiding his every step.
Love permeates this story. Jesus loves Lazarus and even though Jesus delays his visit to Bethany for two days, it’s love that determines his decision to stay behind. Love leads him to Mary and Martha, lost in grief. He appears on a scene drowning in tears and sorrow. Lazarus is dead. It’s been four days. In Jesus’s time, the dead were buried immediately. The mourners came later. And Jewish belief held that the soul hovered near the body for three days and then departed. John tells us, twice, that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days, so there’s no chance of resuscitation. Lazarus is truly dead.
Martha is the first to see Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”! Why did you not come sooner? Jesus assures her, “Your brother will rise again.” Listen carefully to what Martha says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” In other words, Yes, I believe in the resurrection, but that’s no consolation for me, now, today, in my grief, for my brother is dead. And what does Jesus say in response? “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Yes, Jesus agrees with Martha about a future resurrection of the dead. But he’s also pointing to something else. Claiming for himself the divine name I AM, first revealed to Moses in Exodus (3;14), Jesus says, “I am”—not I will be, I am—“the resurrection and the life.” He is resurrection, now, not in some far-off future. His entire life embodies resurrection. And resurrection is available to us—now—in him.
What is resurrection? Yes, it refers to renewed life, life where once was death, physical death. But resurrection also means more than this for Jesus. Just as there was more than physical healing going on in the story of the man born blind (Jn. 9), so, too, here there’s more going on here than bodily resurrection. The physical resurrection is affirmed, but the physical is an entrée to something beyond the physical, which includes the physical.
It is significant that Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” “Life” here is zōē, one of the most important theological words in John’s Gospel. He uses it thirty-six times. The verb form zaō occurs seventeen times. In the previous chapter of John we find Jesus saying, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). This life, zōē, is full life, meaningful life, purposeful existence; it’s about more than breathing. John tells us, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people” (Jn. 1:4). Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). This zōē-life is God’s life embodied in Jesus. He is full life, brimming with life that is here and now infused with God’s love. And this what John means by “eternal life”—it’s not only experienced in some far-off distant future, but also here and now. “Eternal life” refers to a quality of life, life touched by eternity. This is resurrection—everything that calls us to zōē-life!
Martha leaves Jesus and then Mary arrives. She falls at his feet exhausted from grief. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus sees her weeping. He sees the others also weeping. Jesus allows himself to be affected, to be touched by their grief. The Greek here is very strong. Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He’s deeply troubled, to his core. The Greek suggests that Jesus was shuddering, shaking with grief.
“Where have you laid him?” he asks. “Lord, come and see.” Then Jesus begins to weep. And the mourners say, “See how much he loved him!”
Nowhere else in scripture do we see Jesus so emotional, vulnerable, so human. The place where he is most vulnerable, overcome by grief, is exactly the place where the crowd sees his love. And what happens next is the strongest expression of his love, and its power. Then he acts.
“Roll away the stone.” In, with, and through love, Jesus confronts death and cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man comes out.
“Unbind him,” Jesus says, “and let him go.”
Resurrection. Life. Love. They’re almost synonymous. Jesus’s life, like God’s life, is the outflow of love. Love flows into life, which generates life, new life where life had been lost or absent, yielding resurrection. Resurrection is both an event and a force; it’s an experience that flows from the depths of God’s love.
And, this isn’t sentimental love—there’s nothing sentimental about this story. Neither is it romantic love. This love is more than a feeling. It’s a force and it’s fierce and it’s strong. This is how the Mexican priest in Graham Greene’s (1904-1991) novel, The Power and the Glory, talks about God’s love. It is often unrecognizable, he says, “it might even look like hate, it would be enough to scare us—God’s love. It set fire to a bush in the desert, didn’t it, and smashed open graves and set the dead walking in the dark.” And it’s powerful. It’s unsettling. It’s disturbing. It’s never what we expect. “Love is as strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Stronger, even. In the strength of this love, Jesus cries with a loud voice, yells into death, into non-existence, into nothingness; Jesus shouts into the void itself and commands: “Lazarus, come out!” And then the “dead man came out”.
Poet Maya Angelou (1927-201) once said, “Love liberates. It doesn't just hold—that's ego. Love liberates. It doesn't bind.” She knows. That’s what God’s love looks like in our lives.
God’s love confronts death. This love speaks life into dark places, places of deterioration and decay. Love speaks into death itself and forces it to yield life, to yield resurrection. God’s love summons us into life. Love liberates. It sets us free. It releases us. This love doesn’t hold on, doesn’t possess. It doesn’t limit and narrowly define. God’s love is not confining. It doesn’t bind. Instead, this love unbinds us from that which seeks to destroy and obliterate us. This love unbinds us from the hold of death, from all that is lifeless in us. God’s love releases us from the past, from events of the past that bind and hold us. Just as love unraveled the strips of burial cloth inviting a dead man to walk out from death, alive and free, God’s love continues to unravel that which binds us, that holds us, which holds us back, setting us free and giving us life.
Love liberates Lazarus. Love liberates Mary and Martha. Love even liberates Jesus from his grief. This love is fierce and strong. It’s often unsettling, disturbing, because it has the power to conquer death. Then, why is it such a threat? Because there are plenty of forces and individuals and ideas and even religious communities that want to keep people wrapped up, bound in lifeless tombs.
Love liberates us! This is the gospel. This is the good news! And we are called to share the good news by liberating one another. Jesus says to the crowd, to the community around him witnessing resurrection, you (plural), or better, y’all, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn. 11:44). It’s our task as a community to do the unbinding. We are here to unbind one another. We are called to release one another from that which binds us, so that we can walk free and unbounded into God’s light and life. This is what God’s love continues to do in us and through us.
As we move closer to Holy Week:
Where is God calling you out by name?
What’s needing liberation, unbinding in your life?
What’s needing liberation, unbinding in this church?
Who do you need to unbind?
Who needs freeing to walk out into God’s light and life?
Image: Raising of Lazarus, twelfth century, Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.
 I am grateful to Jaime Clark-Soles for this insight in Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 77ff.