Proper 26B (All Saints Day), November 1, 2015

November 2, 2015

Unbounded Life
John 11:32-44

32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”

I don’t have many memories prior to when I was 7 years old. But we moved from one house to another house when I was 7, so I know that anything that happened in or around that first house happened during those first seven years. I don’t have many memories from that place, but the memories I have are pretty vivid. One of the earliest memories I have of that house took place out in the yard. I remember the day I learned that it takes more than a superman cape to fly. I was an avid Superman fan when I was a child, and my parents had gotten me a superman outfit. I felt pretty empowered by that outfit, and I have a distinct memory of trying to fly over a short hedge. That was the day I learned what it feels like to get the breath knocked out of you.

It’s interesting for me to think about what kind of mind I was working with back in those days. The boundary between reality and imagination wasn’t fully established. I wish I could remember what it feels like to think that a red cape could enable you to fly. And of course even then I’m sure my 5 yr-old mind knew I couldn’t just fly on demand, but the way I remember the situation I was running away from someone and I just got caught up in the moment. The boundary between what is and what if got cloudy, and I launched myself in a prone position over that hedge.

I actually found that superman outfit when I was going through stuff at my parent’s house after my father died, but the cape was missing. I don’t know if I wore it out or if my parents took it away from me out of fear that I might try to use it’s power again. I don’t remember getting caught up in another such moment when I tested my capacity to fly, but that episode reminds me of what a remarkable thing a child’s mind can be.

The story we are looking at this morning is an account that requires an unusual mind to comprehend. It’s a story that challenges our view of reality. It’s unique in a number of ways. The story portrays a very supernatural event. This is not like some other gospel stories where someone who has just died comes back to life. You could argue those were situations where the person might not have fully slipped over to the other side before they were revived. But in this story there’s no doubt that Lazarus was dead. He had been in the tomb for four days and deterioration had begun. There are some unique elements to this story. But it’s also unique in the sense that John is the only gospel writer who recorded this story.

We only read twelve verses of this story, but this story takes up the first 53 verses of this 11th chapter of the Book of John. The story begins with Mary and Martha asking Jesus to come to their house because their brother is sick, it reveals the way in which Jesus was in no hurry to get to their home, it describes the various people that were on hand when Jesus arrived and who all witnessed the moment Lazarus stepped out of the tomb. The whole story is a very thorough description of what went on before, during, and after this remarkable event.

The story reads a lot like a scene from a play or something. John tells this story as if he was standing right next to all of these different people in different places. The details that he reveals are remarkable. It’s a compelling story, and while it’s possible to take it at face value, I don’t think it unreasonable for us to wonder about it and to ponder what exactly John was wanting us to understand.

Is this the actual story of a real man who died and was raised from the dead after his body had been deteriorating for four days? Is this simply the account of a moment when Jesus exercised the most extraordinary deed of power that a man has ever displayed?

And if it is, I have to wonder why none of the other gospel writers chose to mention this significant moment in the life of Jesus Christ. Our memories are funny things. I can hardly remember yesterday, but I do remember the day I tried to fly over that hedge fifty-something years ago. We remember significant things, and it seems like such a public portrayal of power would have been one of the things every gospel writer would have documented if this had happened as John reported it. This is a significant story, but I’m inclined to think this story reveals something other than one remarkable thing that happened on the way to Jerusalem. I believe John told this story the way he did to portray the miraculous possibility for new life that Jesus can offer to anyone on any day.

In order for us to see what John was revealing I think it’s helpful for us to know where this gospel writer was coming from. John wrote his account of Jesus about seventy years after Jesus had been crucified. John was connected to a community of Jews who had experienced new life through the resurrected Christ, and he wanted to share his understanding of the way in which he and his community had found their way to God by looking to Jesus. John was a true believer among other true believers, and they were surrounded by people who had no use for what they believed.

Scholars believe the writer of the Book of John was a Jewish follower of Jesus, but it was unacceptable within the dominant Jewish community of their day to believe in Jesus, and life for these Jewish Jesus followers was torturous. They weren’t just frowned upon – they had been evicted from the Jewish community. And they had lost so much of what they cherished: their families, their homes, their friends, their traditions, and their livelihoods – some had even lost their lives. But they had found something as well. Jesus had enabled those who followed him to find their way in to true life, and they were overjoyed to have this new life that he had given them. What Jesus provided for them was the ability to see beyond the surface of life. Their allegiance to Christ put them at terrible odds with people who refused to believe, and it cost them dearly, but it was worth it! It was as if they had been released from the tomb.

I’m reminded of the way in which a child can put on a uniform and see the world in an entirely different way. I’m not saying that following Christ is an exercise in childish imagination, but I do believe that when we put on the cloak of Christ we come to see the world in an entirely different way. The enemies of Christ weren’t people who didn’t believe in God, but their unwavering allegiance to the way their faith was structured caused them to become unwelcome to the new message that Christ brought them. They not only refused to see and hear what Jesus was teaching they hated him for what he did and they hated anyone who joined him. They were blinded by their animosity. Raising a man from the dead wasn’t good enough for these people – it only increased their resolve to put him to death.

I don’t believe the most essential message of this text is the remarkable power of Jesus to raise an actual dead man from the tomb. I believe what John is wanting us to understand is how powerful it is for us when we reject the religiously dead practices of our day and embrace the fresh spirit of the living Christ. This is what I think it means to put on the cloak of Christ. And true life is the gift that comes to us when we become unbound from the rags of dead traditions.

Now I don’t think the enemy of Christ is what you might call traditional religion. I don’t think our problem is that we worship God in much the same way they worshiped God a few decades ago. I’m not one who believes that the answer to church decline is to simply incorporate new technology in to worship. Contemporary worship is not the solution to dead religion.

The problem we face is much more subtle than the problem that the earliest Christians faced. Their problem was that they couldn’t even mention the name of Jesus without getting thrown out of the building. Our problem is that we speak of Jesus as if we already know what he wants us to be doing and that we’ve already got it covered. I’m not saying we aren’t doing the work of Christ in some significant ways, but I am saying that we are probably playing it pretty safe.

I can testify that a superman cape will not provide you with the kind of lift you need to fly over a short hedge and to land softly. But what would it mean for us if we were to put on that cloak of Christ and to test it’s ability to guide us in to abundant life. I think this story we have in our scripture lesson today is about the two possibilities that religious practice can provide for us. We can become overly enamoured with our own faith traditions and by doing so we can become dangerously blind to the work of God to redeem the world through Jesus Christ. Or, it can enable us to hear the voice of Christ calling us out of the tomb. It can release us from petty bindings and free us for abundant life.

That’s what I’m wanting. And that’s what I think Jesus Christ can provide for us. It’s not easy to see what’s binding us, but I believe it’s easy to get caught up in deadly agendas. I believe it takes work for us to break out of unhealthy religious understandings, and I believe Jesus is calling us to do that very thing.

With prayer, with courage, and with diligent desire to put on the true cloak of Christ I believe we can join the saints that have gone before us and soar in some remarkable ways. I believe Jesus Christ does have the power to release us from deathly patterns of existence, but Jesus never made anyone listen to what he was saying. It takes willingness on our part, and it will take consistent effort, but I believe there is such a thing as abundant life and I hope to stay in touch with it. I hope you share my desire for unbounded life, and I hope that together we really will learn to fly over the short hedges of life and in to the kingdom of God.

Thanks be to God.


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