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Readings: 5th Sunday of Lent

28 March 2014

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5th Sunday of Lent
Passiontide begins

Ezekiel 37.1-14; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45 

Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ 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 our Lord. Amen. 

JUST before Christmas, my brother and I spent four weeks watching and waiting, as our mother died peacefully and gracefully, with wonderful care from the NHS. Death is real.

When working as a hospital chaplain, I will never forget the screams of a young girl, taken by her family to see her father who had just died from a horrible cancer. For people who had seen his suffering, death was a relief, but, for her, a scream of anguish was the only appropriate response. Death is real.

Jesus knew the reality of death, and went to extraordinary lengths to make this clear, not responding on hearing that his friend Lazarus was ill. Only after delaying long enough to ensure Lazarus's death did he suddenly tell his disciples he was heading into the danger zone of Judaea, eliciting in the process Thomas's profound loyalty.

Jesus spelled it out: "Lazarus is dead." Everyone must be absolutely sure of that. When they arrived, he had been buried for four days, and Martha was in no doubt that his body stank. Whatever Jesus was going to do, it was not the resuscitation of a person with any life in him.

Jesus responded differently to Mary's and Martha's identical declarations that, had he been there, their brother would not have died. This suggests that they used very different tones of voice. In the midst of Martha's grief, Jesus had a theological conversation with her about rising from the dead.

This led to her affirmation of faith that Lazarus would rise in the resurrection at the last day. Jesus's response - "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live" - is one of that Gospel's seven statements which embody the Hebrew name for God, "I am." It still left her brother dead, however.

Next, Jesus met Mary, who said exactly the same thing, and yet elicited a totally different response. Jesus wept with her, sharing the pain of death and loss. God has made us for friendship and love ("It is not good for the man to be alone") and, when friendship is severed by death, grief is a natural response. It is not indicative of lack of trust in God, but of bereavement, and bereavement can be a situation where we meet God most profoundly.

Jesus knew the intensity of human loss. Later, through the cross, the Father was bereaved. Nothing we experience is alien to God; even in our loneliest and most forlorn places, we are not beyond God's reach of compassion.

Jesus knew the reality of death. It is not "nothing at all". In God's hands, however, death is the raw material of resurrection. This distinguishes Christianity from all other religions and philosophies.

So Jesus made this dramatic scene at the tomb. Lazarus's emergence must have been unforgettable: bound from head to toe in strips of cloth, hopping out of the tomb, unable to see where he was going. It seems that everyone was paralysed into inaction, and it took Jesus to break the stunned silence with practical instructions.

The Christian gospel does not diminish death. Doing so denies the power of the resurrection. Only Christianity proclaims that God opens graves. Ezekiel had a visionary foretaste of this. While anticipatory, the story of Lazarus is not definitive of Christian belief, because Lazarus was raised from death only to die again.

Jesus himself was to die a cruel death and be buried. But, when God raised him from the dead, and he ascended to God's right hand in glory, he took his humanity into heaven, opening the way for all humanity. This is definitive.

What can we take with us from this story on Passion Sunday, when we brace ourselves to hear again of Jesus's last terrible days? We must not rush the next two weeks, dashing from Palm Sunday's "All glory, laud and honour" to Easter Day's resurrection joy. Without death, there is no resurrection. Death is real but, in Christ, death is conquered, not sidelined. Our Christian hope lies in the fact that God raised Jesus from the dead. We can face our mortality, but not fear it.

Jesus believed in death. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. We believe in the resurrection of the dead. Thanks be to God.

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