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).


Richard Micklos said...

This is one of your most insightful, most powerful,and beautifully expressed sermons.

Kenneth Kovacs said...

Many thanks, Ricard. Peace.