20 April 2014

Can I Get a Witness?

Matthias Grünewald's "Resurrection,"
 from the Isenheim Altarpiece, 1512-1516.
John 20: 1-18
Resurrection of the Lord/ 20th April 2014

Can I get a witness?  It’s a question often heard in the black church experience.  In the middle of a sermon you might hear the preacher shout, “Can I get a witness?” She’s looking someone to testify, to agree with the message.   The preacher wants to know. Are you there?  Do you agree?  Will you testify?  Can I hear an “Amen!”? Is there someone who’s with me?

The first witness to resurrection was, of course, Mary Magdalene. She was first to the tomb, first to see the stone rolled away.  She was first to go into the tomb; first to meet Jesus, first to say to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).  I have seen—with my eyes.  And she wanted the others to know what she came to know.   She was witness to resurrection.

            Periodically, the elders of the church, the Session, will take time at a meeting, particularly after the end of a season in the church, to ask the question, Where have you seen signs of resurrection in the life of the church?  Or, where have you seen signs of the Holy Spirit?  Where have you witnessed resurrection?  And then we reflect upon what we’ve experienced, what we’ve heard, what we’ve sensed.  We describe, point, share, tell…we don’t try to “prove” what we’re pointing to or sharing, for we trust the witness, the person sharing, and we tell the story:  I have seen the Lord….here and here and here and here.

            Now, this might sound like an odd question to ask: where have you seen signs of resurrection?  On this Easter Sunday resurrection means, first, that the one who was dead for three days has returned in the flesh, with the nail marks and bruises to prove what happened on Friday.  That’s what the Gospels, each in their own way, attest. The resurrection means that the one who has died has come back to life.  Or, we perhaps think of resurrection as something that will occur after we die, that we will be raised, like Jesus, into the dwelling place of God.  Jesus himself promised that in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places and that he will take us there (John 14:2).  That’s what resurrection means for some.  For some, that’s what we’re celebrating today, the promise of eternal life with Jesus because of that empty tomb.  That’s Easter.  But it’s more than that—remember, resurrection of the dead was a tenet within Judaism long before Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

            So what is resurrection? Words are inadequate here. I should really be quiet about it and sit down. A lot of preachers have made fools of themselves for saying things they have no right to say. But since you came here expecting to hear a sermon, I’ll do my best and hopefully won’t make a fool of myself.  I’ll it say again, words are inadequate. 

            Sometimes words get in the way.  In trying to explain, we say too much or explain it away.   The late theologian Alan Lewis wrote “perhaps the greatest threat to the gospel story…is the well-intentioned effort of preachers and theologians to make these scandalous, mysterious happenings comprehensible by suggesting that they mirror the familiar,” offering analogies such as the rhythms of sleep and waking, death and rebirth, which we experience night and morning or the cycle of the seasons, winter into spring….”[1]

            That’s not what the Church gives witness to today.  It’s something far more radical and grand and beautiful and terrifying. When we think of resurrection in terms of cycles, such as winter and spring, it looks like resurrection is something that’s continuous, flowing out of something else.  Winter yielding spring.   If…then.  Cause and effect. There’s a kind of logic at work here. One thing leading to the other.  It’s natural.  But those daffodils in bloom now—finally!—were not dead all winter and the trees in bud throwing off their pollen today—God help us—weren’t dead all summer.  That’s not resurrection. 

            Resurrection is not natural.  It’s not continuous, it’s the opposite of continuous; it’s discontinuous—always discontinuous.  The act itself is not contingent upon what comes before it.  Nothing in creation prepares for resurrection.  It’s is not about logic or what is expected.  Mary Magdalene didn’t go to the tomb expecting resurrection.  It was beyond her frame of imagining.  That’s why, in part, she didn’t recognize Jesus.  He was “not known,” as T. S. Eliot (188-1965) said,” because not looked for.”[2]  What Mary experienced was beyond hope. And yet that’s what the Gospels give witness to.  The poet Wendell Berry said, “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”[3]  Sometimes the facts of the present tell us nothing about tomorrow.  For both Jews and Christian, history is never destiny.  Resurrection is a “horse of a different color,” it’s about a new experience that enters into death and creates something never before imagined.   Resurrection releases a new future. Consider all the facts, nevertheless be joyful. The resurrection, like grace, shatters the cold, if-then logic of our lives.    Dostoevsky (1821-1888) said: 2+2=4=death.[4]  What if 2+2=8?  Resurrection doesn’t add up.  That’s the point.  There is a different math at work in God’s kingdom. 

            We might not see the dead come back to life, it does happen.  There are near-death experiences.  But that’s not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the experience of resurrection, here and now, in the lives of people who have encountered the Living God, people who experience hope when they have no sound reason to be hopeful, people who trust in the impossible when everyone around them says, be realistic.  There’s nothing realistic about resurrection!  Resurrection happens wherever life emerges from where death reigned for a time.  It happens in people who have new futures given to them.  When people can start again no matter how terrible their lives were in the past or what had been done to them.  Dead ends are not dead—new futures are possible.  I have seen this time and again in the lives of people.  To say we believe in the resurrection is not simply an article of belief about something that happened a long time again that we recite in a creed.  To say we believe in the resurrection means we are witnesses to the present life of Jesus who continues to bring us to life beyond the death-dealing experiences of the past.  Without this possibility, there’s no ground for Christian hope.  Without this possibility we should stop talking about resurrection, because otherwise it doesn’t make much sense.

            It makes sense to Steven Gahigi. Steven Gahigi is a witness to resurrection. He also looked into the face of hell.  When the killing began in Rwanda, twenty years ago last week, he was in Burundi. By the time he made it home the following year, he learned that 52 members of his family were dead.  The mass murder of the Tutsis and Hutus—almost all Christians—left at least 800,000 dead. How do you return to that?  I have good friends, here in the U. S., who lost family members in Rwanda. I can’t even begin to imagine.  In time, Gahigi, faced his reality and soon felt called to go to seminary. And then the Spirit sent him to visit the Rilima Prison, where he met the people who killed his sister.   At first the prisoners thought he was a spy.  They didn’t trust him. Why would this man come to their prison to preach when he knew what they had done? It didn’t make sense.

Gahigi knew that it was possible for perpetrators to be forgiven—in time. He slowly became their pastor; the prisoners attended his services and Bible. Forgiving the unforgivable is possible.  This didn’t come easy or overnight. It was an enormous struggle. 

Then one night Gahigi had a dream about a mob beating Jesus as he hung on the cross.  A voice told him, “Those people beating Jesus are the ones Jesus helped.  They killed your countrymen and your family, but you can help them.”  When he woke up, he was crying.  “I cried all night,” he said, “but when the crying stopped, I felt light and love.”    Gahigi said he came to know that he had the power to forgive and to help others forgive.  He began preaching reconciliation and he sought out the prisoners who killed his family.  Gahigi said, “That was Jesus’ mission.  To forgive the sins of all men.”  

You see, with forgiveness life begins anew, a new future is given where before there was only death.  2+2=8.  It doesn’t add up. This is a witness to resurrection.

            What’s your story?  What do you know?  What did you hear in a dream from the Lord in the middle of the night?  How did the Lord save you from the pit of death?  How is the Lord saving you now from death?  Can I get a witness? 

Don’t withhold what you know.  “I have seen the Lord,” Mary told the disciples.  Say it. Share it.  This doesn’t mean you have become all religious, become a Jesus-freak or something.  We’re Presbyterians after all. 

But for God’s sake don’t be quiet about it.  Say it. Share it. Tell somebody. Embody it. Make it real, tangible. For the love of God let people know that resurrection is possible because you’ve seen it in your life and the lives of others.  It can’t be true only in the Church on Easter morning, it has to be true all the time, just not here, but also out there, wherever people are living and suffering and dying, caught by the past or sin or regret, people who are waiting to know what you know. 

You have no right to withhold it. Why? It’s been given to you to share.  For there are far too many people who have been to tomb after tomb in their lives and have never seen resurrection of any kind, they didn’t know it was possible because no one had ever told them. They’re waiting to know what you know, to hear what you’ve heard, to feel what you feel, to see what you have seen.

        Jesus is saying to you and me, to the Church, “Can I get a witness?” 

What will you say?  Can I get a witness? How about an “Amen”?

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed.

Now, go and tell it.

[1] Alan Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 59.
[2] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
[3] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”
[4] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground.

13 April 2014

Holy Anger, Holy Love

Jan van Hemessen (c.1500 - c.1566)
Matthew 21: 1-17

Palm Sunday/ 13th April 2014

Matthew tells us that Jesus entered “the temple courts” (Matthew 21:12).  This Temple that Jesus entered in Jerusalem was not your ordinary house of worship. It was more than a religious institution.  It’s important to get this straight right from the start. 

The structure referenced here is the great Temple built on the site of King Solomon’s (1000-931 BC) original building, rebuilt first by Zerubbabel upon Israel’s return from exile in Babylon and later completed by King Herod (c. 4 BC).  The Temple was enormous.  It was one of the wonders of the ancient world, the holiest site of Judaism, containing the Holy of Holies, the dwelling place of Yahweh. The Temple was the religious center of Jewish life.  But in Jesus’ day it had evolved, devolved into something else. Without knowing something about the Temple it’s easy to miss just how courageous, radical, some might say, foolish Jesus was to do what he did.  Without an awareness of this, which one won’t find in a surface reading of the text, Jesus’ actions—the procession into Jerusalem and his disruption of the Temple—don’t make much sense.  Why, then, is Jesus so angry when he gets to the Temple?

            First, when reading the New Testament we always need to remember that the Judea of Jesus’ day was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. The Romans were cruel, brutal, violent, oppressive rulers who had little to no respect for the Jews or their God.  King Herod, who died when Jesus was about two, was a Jew, a client-king of the emperor, appointed “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate (in 39 or 40 BC); he served at the will of Caesar.  Herod had a fondness for architecture.  He managed construction projects all over Judea, including an expansion of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Herod built an enormous, four-towered fortress built adjacent to the walls of the Temple Mount, which served as a garrison for Roman troops.  It was high enough for the Romans to look over the walls into the precincts of the Temple to keep an eye on the suspicious and curious monotheistic practices of the Jews.  Herod named the fortress Antonia, in honor of his patron Mark Antony (83-30 BC).  After Herod’s death, Rome divided up the kingdom into four territories rules by a governor; they were fearful that he had too much power.

            Second, it’s imperative to remember that Jesus’ disruption of in the Temple was not an attack upon Judaism and its religious practices.  Jesus was born a Jew, lived a Jew, died a Jew, and resurrected a Jew—he didn’t come out of the tomb on Easter morning a Christian. What Jesus was attacking and taking on was the priestly aristocracy that administered the operations of the Temple, a priestly elite who were extremely rich and powerful and who, as Josephus (37-100 AD), the great Jewish historian from the first-century, made clear, were collaborators with Rome, making money off the oppression of the poor.[1] 

            The Temple was a religious center, but also more.  It was “the center of Israel’s political life and power.  At the Temple the high priest held court and presided over the powerful Sanhedrin; the priestly aristocracy obediently represented Roman interests to their own people, at times even collecting taxes to place in Roman hands.” The Temple priests influenced every aspect of Jewish life, in Jerusalem and the countryside.  The Temple was also “the center of Israel’s economy, its central bank and treasury, the depository of immense wealth.  Indeed, so much of the activity of the Temple hinged upon buying and selling various modes of exchange.”[2]

Bible scholar Obery Hendricks (who was in my class at Princeton Seminary) suggests “that it is no exaggeration to say…the Temple was fundamentally an economic institution.”  Jesus’ outrage was directed, not to a group of merchants who happened to set up shop in the Temple precincts the day Jesus came to town; it was “a very public attack aimed at Israel’s center of power….it was,” Hendricks makes clear, “an overtly political act.”  Jesus and his followers shut down the Temple—shut it down; it was a religious-political-economic demonstration that sought to expose the corruption at the heart of the Temple authority.  Why?  “Because despite its veneer of holiness and religiosity, beneath its proclamations of justice and concern, the Temple did not treat the people and their needs as holy.”[3]  As the prophets of Yahweh said for centuries, it’s our responsibilities to care for the needs of the poor.

            The priestly aristocracy was enormously wealthy; they took advantage of the poor; instead of trying to alleviate their burdens they made things worse.  For example, priests “received a portion of every Temple sacrifice and offering.”  On high holy days “pilgrims to the city could swell to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands, this represented considerable wealth.”  They received even more income through “seven lucrative classes of prescribed offerings…[essentially] taxes enacted solely for their benefit.  A five-shekel payment for every firstborn child; the foreleg, cheeks, and stomach of every animal slaughtered; even a portion of the proceeds from sheep shearing. These offerings were the priests’ personal income. …the priests profited from ad hoc offerings…such as payment for a man’s consecration after a sinful transgression.”  This could cost as much as fifty shekels.[4]

            The priests, who might even have offered sacrifices in the Temple to Rome, gave their allegiance to Rome. Their collaboration, it was said, was for the good of the people, to help keep the peace.  For their cooperation, “the Romans protected the Temple and its caretakers’ wealth by brutally disposing of anyone the priest identified as threatening their status and power.”  A telling example of the people’s frustration with the Temple was occurred in 66 AD, at the start of the Jewish War against Roman occupation.  The rebels’ first act against the Roman occupation was to destroy the Temple debt archives…all the people that owed them money.  Josephus, a first-hand witness who was on Rome’s payroll, tells us, “They carried the fire to the place where the archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors.”[5]  By 70 AD the Romans had enough.  They brought the war to an end. The Romans sieged Jerusalem and eventually demolished the Temple to Yahweh, stone by stone.  All the treasures of the Temple were then carted off to Rome and thousands of Jews were sent into slavery.  If you go to Rome today and stand inside the Arch of Titus you’ll see a frieze celebrating the sack of Jerusalem, with images of the Romans carting off their spoils of war, including a menorah. All that remains of the Temple today is the Wailing Wall, a holy site to Jews all over the world.

Arch of Titus, Rome.
Hendricks, helpfully, sums up the meaning of Jesus’ protest at the Temple: “it was a repudiation of the Temple and those who ran it, repudiation of their abuse of the people’s trust, their haughty dismissal of the people’s worth, their turning the Temple of God into a profiteering enterprise, their exploitation of the people in the name of God and for the benefit of themselves and the Romans.  It was a prophetic pronouncement to the priestly aristocracy that they must change or be judged by God.”[6]         

            Can you see why Jesus is so angry?  Can you see why he’s furious? Jesus enters Jerusalem to take on systems of power that abuse and oppress the poor.  That’s what the procession of palms is all about—this demonstration that we just reenacted with our children!  Do they know they were reenacting a demonstration?  Do we know that we’re training them to be demonstrators?  What are we getting our children mixed up in telling them such stories?

            Matthew’s account is tame compared to Mark’s account and Luke’s.  In Mark, Jesus entered the temple and drove out those who were selling and buying in the temple, he overturns the money tables. Mark says, “he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (Mark 11:16).  He shouted, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:16-17).  When the chief priests and scribes heard this, Mark tells us, “they kept looking for a way to kill him” (Mark 11:18).  John tells us that Jesus made a “whip of cords”—a whip of cords—and drove the sheep and cattle out of the temple.  He said, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:16).

            What’s on display here is Jesus’ anger.  We might prefer to all it “righteous anger” or “justified anger.”  It’s still anger.  It’s not a temper tantrum or an emotional outburst or a meltdown.  It’s hot. It has heat. It comes from a deep part of his soul, from his gut.  This is not “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” as the old hymn says.[7]  This is Jesus enraged.

            This might not be your image of Jesus, but it’s certainly the New Testament’s image. This image might even scare us or anger us. You might be angry at me for what I’m saying.  

Anger often scares us.  Some think anger is always destructive.  “There’s no use getting angry,” I sometimes hear. We’re afraid of our anger, afraid it might get out of control, get the best of us, cause us to do something, say something we’ll later regret.  So we shut it down.  Or ignore it.[8] 

Christians, I believe, have a particular problem with anger.  We don’t know what to do with it. We have difficulty handling it. We don’t think it has a place.  We often forget that Paul himself said, “Be angry but sin not (Ephesians 4:26).  What we do instead is flip this around, preferring  to “be angry not”—then sinning all over the place, projecting the unacknowledged anger within us “out there” upon the world.  Many Christians shut their anger down.  We won’t access it.  We deny it’s there.  And so we self-medicate.  We repress it.  Sometimes we somatize it, that is, we send it into our bodies.  Or we become apathetic or lethargic.  Many forms of depression are actually caused by one’s inability to access s anger and to be angry.

            The word anger has its origins in an Old Norse word meaning “to grieve.”[9]  This is very helpful to know. Jesus’ anger toward the Temple is in many ways anger as grief:  grief for what it had become, grief for what might have been, the lost opportunities to serve all God’s children, especially the poor.  His anger is rooted in mourning for his people. We might call this holy anger. 

            And Jesus’ ability to mourn, to grieve, is directly related to the depth of his love.  It’s because he loves the people that Jesus mourns—mourns for the Temple, mourns for the leadership of the Temple, mourns for the victims of the Temple, mourns for the Romans who don’t realize that they, too, are oppressed.  It’s holy anger here that is being channeled by holy love—a love that desires the best for God’s holy people, a love that seeks the welfare of all, not just the rich and powerful, a love that seeks justice and wholeness and healing.  It’s his love that causes him to be angry.  It’s love that contains and channels the anger.  It’s love that allows Jesus to use his anger—anger not as an end in itself, not anger for anger’s sake, instead using it by paying attention to his grief and sadness, acknowledging it, honoring it, and then acting from it, doing something creative and healthy and transformative with it.  Anger becomes the fuel required for action.

            Many years ago at a General Assembly I picked up a button that caught my eye. It read: “If you’re not angry you’re not paying attention.” 

Sometimes I wonder if we Christians would be more effective, have a stronger voice, a more positive influence in the world if we were better in touch with our anger, if we allowed ourselves to be angry, allow ourselves to grieve.  The world wants to know from us: Why isn’t the Church angrier over a whole host of issues—gun control, the environment, human trafficking, corporate corruption, sexual exploitation, abuse in the halls of government, violence toward women, toward children, men…? The list is long. What are we grieving over, what do we mourn? 

In Bible Study on Thursday morning one person (and I have his permission to share this) quite candidly, honestly, admitted that living his middle class life here, that he’s complacent.  “I don’t have to care, I don’t have to be involved, I have everything I need.” No need to be bothered.  No need to be angered.  No need to care.  I have everything I need.

            I think Christians need to get in touch with what angers us. We’re not called to be angry, of course.  We’re called to love.  Yet, if we loved more, the kind of agape-love that Jesus showed and which the Spirit offers us—deep, compassionate love—perhaps if we loved more we might be able to get in touch with our anger and then our anger could be placed in the service of love.  Maybe we’re not angry over the injustice in the world, maybe we’re not grieving and mourning enough because we’re not loving enough, or deeply enough, with compassion, with empathy, entering into the pain and grief of the people (starting with the people right here around us) and then doing something about it, either sharing their pain or do something to help alleviate it.  A lot of evil is allowed to emerge in the world because we refuse to be angry, because we refuse to love, refuse to care. 

When our capacity to love is deepened—true love that seeks the best for others—we might find ourselves getting angry, mourning, grieving for our neighbors in new ways.  When our capacity to love is deepened, the things we’re angry about begin to change.  The things that upset us now and worry over, the things we complain about, the things that annoy us, that trouble us will change when we deepen our capacity to experience God’s love. 

As we approach Holy Week perhaps this will be our prayer: that we deepen our capacity to love.  Then, perhaps, this week you can identify one thing that you’re angry about—just one thing—then honor the anger, sit with it, just one thing that causes you to grieve and mourn.  Then offer that anger up to God so that God can do something with it.

            It’s love that drives Jesus.  It’s love that causes him to get angry. It’s his anger—contained, tempered, and channeled by love—that becomes the fuel that drives him to act, that fires him into the world, that causes him to suffer, that causes him to set his face toward Jerusalem—“steadfast he to suffering goes”[10]—knowing full well what he had to do, knowing the consequences, knowing what would happen. 

Holy Love. Holy Anger. Holy Love.  This is the way of Jesus Christ.  Don’t expect anyone to applaud you for living this way.  Don’t expect society to reward you.  Heck, don’t expect the Church to encourage you to live this way. Religious institutions often prefer to stand in God’s way. But for us to say Jesus is Lord, for us to walk with him again through this Holy Week, for us to claim the joy of Easter morning means that his way must also be our way. And this, too, is our way—holy anger, holy love is our road, if we walk with him. A road, if we walk with him, which leads to the truth, a road that leads to life, the way that yields—I promise—resurrection.

[1] See Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What theGospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Last Days in Jerusalem (HarperOne, 2007).
[2] My description of the Temple throughout the sermon relies heavily on the scholarship of Obery Hendricks, The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering theTrue Revolutionary nature of the Teachings of Jesus and How They Have BeenCorrupted (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 114.
[3] Hendricks, 114-115.
[4] Hendricks, 115-116.
[5] Cited in Hendricks, 119.  For a full, detail account of see Josephus, The Jewish Wars (75AD).
[6] Hendricks, 122.
[7] “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild” written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788), Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1742
[8] See Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger: Essays on a SometimesDeadly Sin (Jossey-Bass, 2002).
[9] I’m grateful to Alisa Glassman of the Industrial Areas Foundation for this reference, from a conversation this past week.
[10] From the hymn “My Song Is LoveUnknown,” text by Samuel Crossman, 1644.

06 April 2014

Unraveling the Past

John 11: (1-16) 17-44 (45-53)

Fifth Sunday in Lent/ 6th April 2014 

Sacrament of Holy Communion

“The past is never dead,” William Faulkner (1897-1962) once wrote. “It’s not even past.”[1]  He’s right, of course.  We know it’s true.  The past haunts us.[2]  Try as we might to escape it the past is never far away—just seconds away, actually.  Traces of memories, images, feelings, experiences, people—their presence—linger within the depths of our psyches, sometimes remembered but always known in the deepest recesses of our hearts and minds.  

We’re swimming in pools of time. Like water, time is fluid as we move from the present to the past and imagine the future; from the future to the present to the past.  It’s all fluid.  Past actions inform present circumstances.  Your body can be here, but your mind can be years away.  Your body can also remember things your mind has forgot. The past is never dead.  It’s not even past. 

The past is “alive” in an odd sort of way.   This is both a blessing and a burden.  It’s fine when the “living” past fills our days with smiles, joy, with warm memories, gratitude.  It’s a burden when the “living” past weighs us down with sorrow and sadness, when it crushes us with dark, gut-wrenching grief—when the one who was once alive is now no longer and we are stuck in that moment, stuck in that time in the past when you lost her, fixed in that moment when he left you.

The sense of time is extremely fluid here in John 11.  Present sorrow. Dwelling on the “if onlys” of the past. Imagining a future, what could have been had Jesus arrived earlier.  Anticipating resurrection at the end of time.  Jesus arrives in the midst of human grief.  Past, present, future are all involved in this text.  Lazarus, the one Jesus loved, is dead. It’s been four days.  Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their sorrow and sadness, surrounded by mourners.  When he sees their pain Jesus is greatly disturbed in his spirit, deeply moved, deep in his gut.  And then he bursts into tears.  He cares for his friends in their pain.  He’s deeply troubled.  Again, John tells us that Jesus is “greatly disturbed” by what he sees and experiences.

“I am the resurrection,” Jesus said, “and the life.”

Resurrection, we know what that is.  We’re heading toward Easter.  We know—or think we know—about resurrection.  But here Jesus links resurrection with life.  And as I shared several weeks ago, this life that Jesus is talking about here and offering is not simply biological life, breathing, heart pumping, brain functioning. This life, in the Greek, is zōē (ζωὴ), which is similar to the ruach, the breath of God breathing life into dead, dry bones in Ezekiel (Ezekiel 37: 1-14), bringing them to life; zōē is vitalizing, animating action, that yields something new, that creates something new.  That’s what Jesus claims for himself.  That’s what is pouring through him, the zōē-life. That’s what he offers. It’s God’s Life alive in him that brings us to life, which yields resurrection, which yields new possibilities, a new future. 

Resurrection means the dead are raised, spiritually and physically.  We know this.  And this story, the so-called “raising of Lazarus” is a demonstration of resurrection, but it’s not only this.  It’s not just about the biological resuscitation, it’s about more than getting the heart pumping and the synapses of the brain firing again.  Yes, all of this is implied in the word resurrection.  

However, this is not a resurrection like Jesus’ resurrection.  It’s similar, but not the same. Why?  Because when Lazarus walked out of the tomb, as the text clearly says, he was still dead or on the way toward life. The text says, “the dead man came” walking.  The “dead man came out, his hands and feet still bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth” (John 11:44).  There’s almost a zombie-like aspect to the telling of the story.  A dead man walking.   Past and present are combined. Time is fluid. A dead man—present tense, implying one who was once alive, in the past; walking—present tense, yet implying the future, present walking into tomorrow.  The past is taken up by the present calling forth a new future.  

This, then, might be one way to talk theologically about resurrection: the past taken up by the present calling forth a new future. It’s about more than the resurrection of a body, as miraculous as this is.  It includes this, but there’s something more.  I’m not trying to discount the significance of the resurrection.  I believe and trust in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  But this story, it seems to me, is also about something more than Jesus bringing new life to dead and decaying bodies. We can read this literally and stop there or we can move beyond the literal.  When we move beyond the literal, we’ll find another level of meaning at work here.

What do I mean?  What if Lazarus is you and me—the women and men whom Jesus loves.  When Jesus asks to see the place where he died he wants to find the places where we, too, have died. You see, there are other forms of death, beside biological death.[3]  Jesus wants to see our tombs; he wants to see those places in our past that represent death, not necessarily physical death, but death of a different kind.

The place in our souls that died a very long time ago.  

The place where we are trapped by a past that is not dead—because we relive daily.  

It’s the tomb that harbors the dark places in our past, in our memories, which haven’t seen the light of day in ages.  

Jesus wants to see that place. 

 Jesus wants to go to that place, to the tombs that contain “death,” although not really dead because they’re still alive.  And so they entrap us, they entomb us. 

Jesus wants to go to that place, that place covered by a stone that we rolled in place to hide from our pain and sorrow, where we placed a stone to cover over the pain, in order to protect ourselves. Or maybe someone else roll the stone in place and that’s where we’ve so-called “lived” ever since.  Lazarus’ tomb is the tomb of the past that continues to shape our lives and the lives of the people all around us.  And when Jesus hears, when Jesus knows, when Jesus sees that we’re on the other side of that stone, he, too, is greatly disturbed. Jesus, too, burst into tears.

Because, as Jesus himself said, “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). It’s for life that Jesus was born.  And so Jesus says to the mourners: “Take away the stone!” Remove the stone! Take it away! (John 11:39)

I believe with all my heart that when Jesus cried out to Lazarus he shouted with a loud voice and commanded death to yield to the Lord of Life. I believe with all my heart that when Jesus cried out he commanded the past and all that occurred there to yield to the Lord of Life.  Jesus speaks into our tombs, into our experience of death and pain and sorrow; he speaks into our past, the past that wraps itself like grave clothes around us, that keeps us stuck where we are, bound, unable to walk. 
Come out, Lazarus, from the past, from the world of the deadCome out!  Deuro! in Greek.  But it’s stronger than, Come out!  It’s actually more like:  Here!  Outside! Now! 

And then the past, the world of the dead, releases Lazarus.  Then, slowly, dead-yet-coming-alive, he arrives “here,” emerging into the present, into now.  Still bound with strips of cloth, still bound by his grave clothes, remnants of a past that is now truly, dead, over.  Death has died and something new is forming, taking shape.  Jesus sets him free into a new future, a new life, profoundly captured in these astonishing words:  “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

Unbind him! That’s what resurrection looks like, feels like, sounds like.  It’s an unbinding. That’s what God’s Life looks like, feels like, sounds like.  That’s what the Holy Spirit desires to do with and for and through our human spirits. When we say in the Apostles’ Creed that we believe in the resurrection we affirm Jesus’ bodily resurrection.  But confessing belief in the resurrection also means this:

it’s the new life that God desires for us and offers us,

it’s the unraveling of the past that binds us, 

the undoing of the forces of death,

the release of everything held captive within us, bound by grief or trauma or suffering or pain or circumstances of the past; 

and it’s an invitation, a call, a summons to step out and walk into a new future. 

All this is possible.  This is true.  I’ve seen in it in my own life time and again.  As a pastor, I’ve seen it in countless lives, in your stories, in people who know that Jesus is resurrection and life—not as an article of belief about something that happened long ago, but as witness to the present reality of Jesus Christ who continues to bring us to life beyond the death-dealing experiences of the past.  Without this as a possibility there’s no ground for Christian hope. Without this possibility Christians should then stop talking about hope; without this possibility Christians should then stop talking about resurrection, because it doesn’t make any sense otherwise.

It’s the Lord of Life who summons us out of the dead past, who invites us again and again to meet him here, now, at this Table, in this meal, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of a cup, participating now in the life-giving presence of the Lord.  For this, my friends, is the Table of resurrection and the Table of Life.  Come!

[1] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1950).
[2] On this theme, I highly recommend the recent work by Jungian analyst James Hollis, Hauntings:Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives (Chiron Publications, 2013).
[3] James E. Loder,The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1989).