Lazarus’ body is in a tomb in Judea, the Southern portion of Israel, in the town of Bethany, a little east of Jerusalem. Before what we read transpired, Jesus and the disciples discuss if they should travel south into Judea. A disciple says to Jesus, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” But Jesus explains to all of them that Lazarus, whom he loved, had died, and so go he must. And so, Jesus and the disciples travel to Judea.
Last week, I mentioned the rise in the West of anti-Semitism, and after the service I was asked what the roots of that anti-Semitism were. Why such visceral hatred for this people group, where does all that anger stem from? As the roots of anti-Semitism can be found right here in the Gospel of John, I thought it would be worth talking about this anti-Semitism, before we go on to explore the passage that was read out more fully. The expression ‘the Jews’ is deployed by John to refer collectively to the Jewish enemies of Jesus. As such, you get statements in the Gospel of John like, ‘‘the Jews’ were looking for a chance to kill him’, or, ‘no one would speak publicly for fear of ‘the Jews’’. And in the Gospel of John, it was ‘the Jews’ who asked Pilate to crucify Jesus. In the other three Gospels, ‘The Jews’ are not all lumped together in this way; the Jewish enemies of Jesus are more specifically referred to, being as they were smaller groups of people - priests, rulers, and Sadducees. Of course, it is odd, because Jesus was a Jew, as were all the other disciples. The reason that the writer of John uses this term in the way that he does, has to do with when he was writing, and who he was writing to.
In the early days of Christianity, Christians were not a distinct, set-apart religion; they were a small sect of individuals with heterodoxical, strange views, within Judaism. Because of this, because they were a sect within Judaism, distinguishing between the various groups within Judaism was far more important to them in the earlier days, which is reflected in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But by the time you get to John, the latest of the Gospels, Christian identity is more established, and those distinctions within Judaism, as a result, matter far less. Hence the stance against the Jews, and the collective guilt that John assigns to all Jewish people, and thus, the slide into anti-Semitism. John does what comes very naturally to emergent groups. As they become more distinct, they increasingly think in terms of ‘us and them’.
One might do this when thinking about people within religions which we are less familiar with. We might fall into the danger of just grouping everyone together. One might not think of Sunnis, Shias, and Sufis - one might just think of Muslims. Or one might not think of Theravada, Mahayana, and Zen, one might just think of Buddhists. Not necessarily a problem, until you start propagating and holding to negative stereotypes. Tarnishing everyone within a particular group or religion with the same brush. And John in very much guilty of this in his Gospel. The disciples say to Jesus, according to the writer of John, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” So, bad use of language, but he’s referring to the Jews of Judea, the Southern portion of Israel, or more specifically to their enemies there, those who have been railed up against Jesus because of his apparent blasphemy.
But Lazarus is too important to Jesus, and so not even the potential threat against Jesus’s life is enough to keep him away. He must go. But even though he must go, he says to the disciples that he is thankful that while Lazaus was dying he was not there to help, for this way, he later on will not be healing someone merely from sickness, he will be healing someone from death. And at this point, with Jesus’ mind made up that he must travel to Judea, a voice pipes up and says… “Let us also go then, that we may die with him.” And that voice is Thomas. It’s an interesting bit of character development for the disciple called Thomas, as he’s most famous to us for being ‘Doubting Thomas’, the one who questions the miraculous. But here Thomas is also ‘Courageous Thomas’, the one willing to go into dangerous territory with Jesus, and that feels very Unitarian to me, the disciple who both doubts and questions, and is courageous too.
And so, all together they go down to the town of Bethany in Judea. And this is where our reading started. Jesus arrives to find everyone sad, particularly Mary, for Lazarus was her brother. And Mary’s sadness moves Jesus himself to sadness. And then, Jesus goes to the tomb which contains Lazarus, and he asks for the stone to be removed, and Martha tells Jesus that it would smell bad in there as the corpse had already been in there for four days. The Mary and Martha being referred to here are the sisters, the same Mary and Martha we find in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus is in the house with Mary and Martha, and we’re told Martha is distracted by the preparations that had to be made, while Mary, on the other hand, had chosen rightly to sit and listen at Jesus’ feet.
This scene is usually depicted in art with a flustered Martha in the kitchen preparing food diligently, and a spellbound Mary listening attentively to Jesus. Martha then complains to Jesus, ‘Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!’ And Jesus says, no. Because Mary has recognised what is more important, she has not allowed herself to become distracted by such meaningless minutiae, all the stuff of the material world. Mary has recognised that in taking this time to sit and to be present with Jesus, and to learn and grow, is of far greater value. Martha is the person who works hard, and so thinks her contribution is important, but really she doesn’t get it at all. And these different personalities are reflected back in the reading we heard. Mary, the one who gets it, the more contemplative, feels the emotional resonance of that place. She taps into it, and she’s thankful that Jesus has now come, because Jesus is, in her words, “the Christ, he who is coming into the world.” Jesus is life, and those who believe in him, shall live. Whereas Martha, what does she do? As soon as Jesus says to roll back the stone, she says, ‘you don’t want to do that, it will smell bad in there’. She is kind of disconnected from the spiritual reality of that moment. Her mind is on something completely different.
So, in my opinion, we are not dealing with an historical account here. As I’ve already said, the writer of John’s Gospel was putting pen to parchment much later, almost hundred years after these events allegedly took place. So what’s important is not whether this stuff actually happened, but the spiritual meaning we can discern from the narrative itself. Jesus enters Bethany, and the people of Bethany are paining. And Jesus responds initially by sharing in that pain. The shortest verse in the King James version of the Bible is actually in this passage. It’s simply read, ‘Jesus wept’. Jesus is suffering in our suffering. A more literal translation of that short passage in Greek would be something more like ‘Jesus shuddered with anguish’. Much more visceral, and much more empathetic. He doesn’t try to downplay or casually sweep away such suffering. It is a very human and natural response to cry and feel that kind of pain. And to simply hold that place of pain, and sit with it, in yourself, or to sit with it in others as they pain, is sometimes the best way for us to bridge the gulfs of loneliness that such anguish can open.
I read somewhere recently an interview that Pope Francis had given, and he said, ‘if you don’t learn how to cry, you can’t be a good Christian.’ I think there’s something to that. We can’t isolate ourselves off from pain, we can’t create ghettos free of suffering. Such anguish perforates us all; we look out into a paining world, we see the pain in other’s faces, and our own hearts echo that suffering. It's very embodied. Like the Emily Dickinson poem we heard, the awareness of pain and death is not separated from us, it is within us, within our consciousness. It is part and parcel of the human experience, and it can’t always be mitigated, it can’t always be helped, sometimes it is an understandable outcome from a necessary course of action.
Take Jesus’ rebuking of Martha as a necessary action. Or in the narrative arc of the Lazarus story itself, what happens to Lazarus. He is dying, and Jesus could have been there to heal him, to help him, but it served a greater purpose (within the narrative) to have Lazarus suffer unto death, and to be laid to rest for four days in a tomb as everyone grieved, before the miraculous could occur. For that way, the figure of Lazarus could foreshadow a ‘Kingdom come’ reality. That in Jesus, or rather in ‘the way’, when we live it out, or in the Kingdom when we manifest it into our presence, that is life. That is renewal. So that in our manifesting of the Kingdom we should not allow our fear of death to overshadow us, for the Kingdom is lived in the now.
All creation is enlivened in that moment when we embrace thy Kingdom come in the now. Spirit of life, we rejoice in the ongoing song of life that is within us and around us. In this renewal of life bursting into song, may our lives reflect the image of your creative power.