Sunday, 27 April 2014

Easter 2: St Thomas and the king's palace

Easter 2 14


I don’t really want to preach a sermon this morning – I’ve done plenty of preaching over the last few weeks, and I’m a bit preached out. But I did want to tell you a story. It is a story of St Thomas, who we heard about in our Gospel reading. He’s not mentioned often in the Bible, and this story we’ve heard today is the one most people tend to know, if they know any at all. He does have something to say for himself a couple of times before this though, the most notable being at the Last Supper.
Jesus tries to tell the disciples  that he is about to die. “Do not be afraid” says Jesus, “I am going before you to prepare a place for you. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places”( or mansions in the old versions of the Bible) “You know the way to the place where I am going.” “We don’t know where you are going,” says Thomas, “so how can we know the way there?” “I am the way,” Jesus answers, “and the truth and the life…”

So what happens to this questioning man after this? We can’t know with any certainty, but very ancient Christian tradition says that Thomas ended up, like most of the other disciples , travelling the world preaching the love of God, but tradition says that while many of them went westwards, into the heartlands of the Roman Empire, which meant that their stories were preserved when Rome eventually adopted Christianity, Thomas went eastwards, to India. For many in the West that meant his story was overlooked in mainstream Western Theology, but to the churches which claim descent from his ministry, very ancient Orthodox Churches in South India, along the old maritime trade routes from Palestine, Thomas is a hero. These churches call themselves the Mar Thoma – St Thomas – churches, and they cherish the memory of Thomas. It is one of those ancient stories I’d like to tell you today.

After the resurrection, after this encounter with Christ that we’ve heard in the Gospel today, the disciples – the word literally means “learners” – became apostles – literally, those who were “sent out”, driven by the wind of the Spirit to spread this message of love. One by one they embarked on their travels, but Thomas was left wondering where he should go. To Rome? To Greece? To North Africa? He didn’t mind, says the story, so long as God didn’t send him to India. Perhaps it was the climate. Perhaps it was the stories he had heard about the people there. Perhaps it just felt so foreign and so far from home. Anywhere but India, he secretly prayed.
While he waited for his mission to become clear , he went back to his old job, as a builder, says the story, working in his workshop in Caesarea.

Then, one night he had a dream, and in his dream he heard God’s voice. “Thomas!” called God. “Yes, God” called Thomas. “I have a mission for you”. “At last” thought Thomas “…only not to India, please.” “Thomas, I want you to go…””Yes, God (not India…)” “I want you to go to India!” Thomas’ heart sank. But he remembered Jesus promise that his way was the way that led to life, so Thomas gathered up his courage and said to God – “your will be done!”

The next day, as he went down into the market in Caesarea looking for building work he came across a man called Abbanes, who was looking for a builder for a big project his master was planning, a very big project indeed, because his master was a very important man. His master was none other than King Gondoforus, ruler of rich territories in what we now call South India. The king wanted a new palace, the palace of his dreams, the most splendid palace in the world, fit for a king as splendid as he was. “Can you build such a palace, Thomas?” asked Abbanes. “I believe I can” said Thomas, and he agreed to go along with him.

So off they sailed to India, and soon Thomas found himself in the presence of the King. The King described what he wanted. A fine processional way. A palace built of marble and studded with precious stones, surrounded by beautiful gardens full of fruiting trees and fragrant plants, a palace better than any which had been seen on earth before. Money was no object, because the king was one of the richest men in the world.  “Can you build such a fine palace, Thomas?” “I believe I can,” said Thomas.
So King Gondoferus gave him the task, and the money to do it with.

And then the king went away on a long journey, leaving Thomas to his work. Two years he was away, and when he came back he was eager to see how his fine palace was coming along. He strolled to the site of the palace, and …there was nothing there. Not a brick, not a stone, not a timber had been raised.

Furious, the king summoned Thomas. “Where is my fine palace – and where is the money I gave you to build it?”
“I took your money, O king, and I built something far better than a palace made of marble for you to live in. I gave it to the poorest people of your realm, to the children who needed clothes, and the sick people who needed care, and the hungry who had no food to fill their bellies. My Lord, Jesus, who is God’s Messiah, whose way I follow, said that in doing so we build the kingdom of God, in which all are blessed.”

The king, unsurprisingly was not best pleased by this answer. He was furious, and threw Thomas in jail while he decided what sort of horribly painful death he should inflict on him. How dare he give his money away!?

While Thomas languished in prison though, King Gondoforus’ brother died. As they prepared for his funeral, the King mourned by the body of his brother, laid out ready for the ceremony to begin. He sat by his body for one day, two days, three days, but on the fourth day, to his astonishment, his brother suddenly took a gasping breath and sat up, restored to life. “Ah, Gondoforus,” he said, as the king looked on in amazement. “I have come back because I have a message for you. I died and found myself in heaven, greeted by angels who showed me a palace the like of no other I have ever seen. Its walls were made of precious stones, its paths were of gold. It shone like the sun. Fountains flowed in its gardens, and everywhere people sang with happiness. I asked the angels where this fine palace was, and who it belonged to.

“This is the palace that Thomas has built for your brother by his good deeds and generosity ” they said, “but your brother is not worthy of it – this is not the palace he wanted to build at all. He was happy for the poor to stay hungry while he relaxed in comfort. But if you would like,  you can go back to earth and buy it from him by the goodness of your own acts, if you would like to.”

“So,” said Gondoforus’ brother, “here I am,  come back to ask for the chance to own this palace in heaven, built by acts of love on earth.”

And King Gondoforus realised what Thomas had tried to do for him. And he ran to the prison and released him, begging his forgiveness and the forgiveness of his God. Was there a chance that he could yet be redeemed and change his life? And Thomas forgave him, and assured him of the promise of Jesus that there were many mansions in God’s heaven, space for all, and that both he and his brother could have treasure in heaven, if they treated people right in this world.

And the king and his brother both became followers of the way, and that is why Thomas is so fondly remembered among the Christians of South India to this day, not as doubting Thomas, but as believing Thomas, loving Thomas, Thomas who discovered that living as Jesus had lived was indeed the way that brought life-giving truth to himself, and to all who needed it. And may it be so for us too, in this season of Easter.

Amen

This story comes originally from the 3rd Century “Acts of Thomas” , and was retold in the  Medieval “Golden Legends” of Jacobus Voragine. This is my own re-telling of the story.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday: Dropping your guard


We’ve just heard Matthew’s version of the Resurrection story. It’s a dramatic tale, with an earthquake and an angel appearing like lightning, terrifying the guards who’ve been set to guard the tomb. You can see them in our stained glass window here.

Each of the Gospel writers tells the story of the Resurrection slightly differently. Different numbers of women come to anoint the body, meeting different numbers of angels, or perhaps Jesus himself. Different things happen afterwards. Matthew’s Gospel, though, is the only one that gives us this story of the guards and their dramatic encounter with the angel who rolls the stone away. He goes on to tell us how they report back to the Temple authorities, rather shamefacedly, and are told to hush the story up and insist the disciples stole the body, though how or why they are supposed to have done this isn’t explained.  

It’s not surprising that there are differences between the four Gospel accounts. The Gospels were written between 60 AD and the end of the first century – a generation after the events they describe. None of the writers, as far as we can tell, had ever met Jesus, though they would have known people who had. So can we trust their accounts? In one way, the answer is no, we can’t – not if we want to know what actually happened, minute by minute, in the way we would expect from a news report. We have no idea what we would have seen if TV cameras had been recording the event. But in another sense these accounts are very trustworthy indeed, despite their differences, because each of them was speaking truthfully of the impact the Resurrection had had on those who had been there, and who had passed these stories on to them.

The point is that the Gospel writers were working backwards. They started where they were, as members of small churches, just handfuls of people gathering together in houses around the Middle East and the Mediterranean. It wasn’t easy for them. There was no power. There was no money, no splendid churches filled with glittering mosaics, no glorious music or marvellous liturgy. There was no sense of respectability or tradition, no status to be gained from throwing in your lot with this new faith. This was no Dan Brown style Da Vinci Code conspiracy. Why on earth would anyone make it up – they had nothing to gain and everything to lose by preaching this message? The early Christians were intermittently persecuted, even killed. Many of them found themselves at odds with the families and communities they had grown up in when they decided to follow Christ. And yet they kept going with their mission and ministry – if they hadn’t have done, we wouldn’t be here today.

So why did they bother? They bothered because this faith, its reality in their lives, had changed them so thoroughly, so deeply and completely that they couldn’t turn their backs on it. It led them to create new communities , loving one another – or at least trying to – across the boundaries of gender, social class and cultural background, caring for those in need, trying to be salt and light to their world. Whatever happened on that first Easter Sunday it had brought them a joy and a confidence that they had never had before. They knew about resurrection because they saw it at work in their own lives.

When the Gospel writers wrote their accounts of that first Easter they weren’t trying to set down what had happened, News24 style – that’s why no one in the early church worried that the stories were different. They weren’t trying to prove that Jesus had risen. They knew Jesus had risen, whatever they understood that to mean. In their Gospels they were trying to explain why it mattered, what difference it made to them, and what difference it might make to us too.

After Jesus died his disciples were frightened, defeated, ready to slink back to their old lives, but on that first Easter Sunday whatever they experienced convinced them that the crucifixion had not been the end of hope, but its beginning. Jesus wasn’t  just another failed, disgraced revolutionary; he’d been blessed by God, honoured by God, raised by God, acclaimed as his own Son. The might of Rome didn't have the last word; armed guards hadn't been able to keep Jesus in that tomb. God had the last word. And that word was hope.  Life was stronger than death, love was stronger than hatred. 

The Gospel writers didn’t know exactly how it had happened. They couldn’t say with any certainty who had been where or seen what. They certainly couldn’t explain it. But they had absolutely no doubt that somehow on that first Easter Sunday, everything had changed.

The way they write their stories, the aspects they choose to focus on, probably reflects the way in which that Good News had changed them and the churches they were a part of.  For Matthew, this dramatic tale of the guards, the earthquake, the terrifying appearance of the angel sums up what he wants to say.

His message is that following Jesus brings liberation. God breaks open the tombs we have been confined in, by the events of our life, the attitudes of others, or by our own fear, and he invites us to step out of them. For Matthew the Resurrection is a moment of explosive disruption. It turns worlds upside down. That can be a wonderful, joyful thing, as it is for the disciples, or a terrifying one as it is for the guards. It all depends on our reaction to it.  

At Messy Church on Good Friday one of our activities was to make the shields which you’ll see in the Lady Chapel propped up against the tomb. The display it’s part of asks us to think about the Resurrection from the guards’ point of view. Their sole aim was to keep that body in the tomb, to make sure the story ended right there and then so that everything could just go back to the way it had been, and I think Matthew means us to have a bit of sympathy for them. New life, new hope - new anything - can feel very threatening and dangerous. We are all “guarded” sometimes in our approach to life, suspicious of anything new, however good it actually is and however much we might need it. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. 

At Messy Church we put scary things and spiky shapes on the shields to remind us of the front we sometimes put up to ward off new life and new opportunities. “It’ll never work. I can never change. People will think I've gone crazy…” we say to ourselves, and that hopeful green shoot is stamped down and killed off. We are afraid it will all go wrong and we will be left out in the cold, unprotected and alone.

Of course caution is sometimes appropriate, and it can be hard to trust in new beginnings, especially if we’ve been hurt or let down, but sometimes our “guardedness” means that we never actually get around to living at all. The gifts that God longs us to enjoy go untouched, the voice that calls us to live differently goes unanswered, the steps into the future that he wants for us remain untaken. We stay in the tomb, behind the shields, safe, but dead.

In a moment we’ll be baptising Susie. We can't know what her future will be like, what challenges she will have to face and deal with. We can't know what opportunities she'll have. But we can pray for her on this Day of Resurrection, that she will learn to have the courage and the trust in God to take them, and not be held back by the "guardedness" that springs from fear.  We want her to grow up knowing that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We want her to grow up knowing that there is a fountain of love and forgiveness available for her when it all goes wrong. I’ll just pour a tiny bit of water on her head in a moment, but that’s a symbol of the unstoppable flood of God’s grace, there to cleanse us whenever we come to that moment when we look in the mirror and wonder “how did it come to this? How did I get into such a mess, again?" Most of all we want her to grow up knowing that she is a child of God, and that nothing can separate her from his love - not even death. 

Knowing those things will equip her with the courage she will need to get out from behind the shields, that defensive caution that diminishes us, and live the life she has been given as a celebration, full of thanksgiving and joy.

I’d like to finish with a poem by Stewart Henderson*, which celebrates that Resurrection energy which we are invited to share in today.


There was no

There was no grave grave enough
to ground me
to mound me
I broke the balm then slit the shroud
wound round me
that bound me

There was no death dead enough
to dull me
to cull me
I snapped the snake and waned his war
to lull me
to null me

there was no cross cross enough
to nil me
to still me
I hung as gold that bled, and bloomed
A rose that rose and prised the tomb
away from Satan’s wilful doom
There was no cross, death, grave
or room
to hold me.

Amen



*Stewart Henderson
20th Century: From The Lion Christian Poetry Collection
compiled by Mary Batchelor 1995

Friday, 18 April 2014

Good Friday: Is it nothing to you?


In a few minutes the choir are going to sing an anthem which might be familiar to many of you, The Appeal of the Crucified, from Stainer’s Crucifixion. “From the Throne of his Cross, the King of Grief cries out to a world of unbelief. “O men and women, afar and nigh, is it nothing to you, all you that pass by?”

Stainer’s oratorio is a traditional part of Good Friday for many people. Written in 1887, with words by W.J. Sparrow Simpson , it has fallen from popularity somewhat – it is very much of its time. But it can still have quite an impact. It’s based on traditional words for Good Friday, words from the book of Lamentations in which the prophet Jeremiah is mourning over the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Does no one care? he cries “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…”

The other influence on the the anthem comes from words known traditionally as the Reproaches in which God calls to his people, shaking them out of their apathy.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Saviour to the cross.

I’ve used the Reproaches sometimes in this service for Good Friday, and my experience is that they aren’t comfortable words to read, or to hear. “It wasn’t my fault that Jesus died”, I want to protest, and of course, in a way that’s right. I wasn’t there back in the first century when Christ was crucified – neither were you. But the point is that if we had been, would we have acted any better than those who were? At best, like his friends, we might have looked on from a distance. At worst we might have been baying for his blood. More likely we would have just kept our heads down,  turned away and tried to get on with our own lives. Perhaps we’d have done so with a shudder of fear or even disapproval. It could have been us pinned up there on the cross if we had stepped out of line the way Jesus did.

Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? asks Jesus from the cross.

Stainer’s anthem isn’t really about what happened 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. It is about how we react to suffering and need today. All too often we turn away. It is nothing to us, nothing to do with us. They’ve probably brought it on themselves by their own fecklessness or recklessness. If only they’d done this, or hadn’t done that, all would be well. After all, we’ve managed our lives ok, haven’t  we?

And perhaps we have – until misfortune or illness strikes us, of course. It’s only when we find ourselves on the other side of the fence that we realise how wounding those attitudes can be. Often the misfortune or illness is the least of the problems. It is the feelings of isolation, humiliation and helplessness and the the sense of being judged which really hurt.

That is why the crucifixion is so challenging, and so important. Jesus is no superman. His terror in Gethsemane, knowing his death is coming is no less than ours would be. His pain is no less as he dies on the cross. There is no golden glow that proclaims it will be all right in the end. We look back on the crucifixion with the gift of hindsight, but at the time it was just one more squalid death, like so many others.

And yet somehow those who saw it up close knew that there was something holy about this man, something holy about this death. “Surely this man was the Son of God “ the soldiers who crucify him say in wonder, and a squalid death becomes a glorious proclamation of the love of God, shown in Jesus by his refusal to turn back from his message, even when it cost him his life. And in him we see that the deepest human suffering can be transformed. What looks like the end is a new beginning. What looks like a place of death and loss becomes a fountain of life.  

Stainer’s anthem begins with the words “From the throne of his cross”. In the kingdom of God it is love not power that counts. And that means that crosses can be thrones, and the place of suffering can also be a place of blessing.

The picture I've put on your service sheets has stirred up opposition in some places where it’s been displayed.  Timothy Shmaltz’s “Homeless Jesus” is a life size statue of a sleeping figure on a park bench, apparently so lifelike that some people have thought it was a real person and called the police to come and move him on. It’s only on closer inspection that you realise that the feet poking out of the end of the blanket have nail marks in them.

Even then, though, some people have objected to having the statue in their neighbourhood. One woman put her objection in a nutshell. “Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help…” she said. “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy”
Somehow, though she sounds as if she’d call herself a Christian, I can’t help feeling she’s missed the point. On the cross Jesus is indeed helpless. There are no miracles on offer, no last minute rescue. But the truth is even better. God is with him and in him just as he is, suffering and dying. God is working in the darkness, as well as in the light. And his promise is that he can with us in our darkness and helplessness too.

Timothy Schmaltz very deliberately made the bench on which his homeless Jesus lies a bit longer than the figure itself. He wanted to leave enough space for people to come and sit on it, next to the sleeping figure, perhaps to pray for others in need, perhaps to pray for themselves. In doing so, he hoped that they would discover that the God who walked with Jesus through the pain of death to the glory of resurrection, would never desert them either. Pray God that we should find this truth as well.

Amen














Maundy Thursday: The trouble with feet

Maundy Thursday 14


Feet. Both our readings mention them. The Gospel centres on Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet, of course, but the Old Testament reading included feet as well. The Israelites were told on their last night in Egypt to eat the Passover with their shoes on – they were going to have to leave in a hurry when the Angel of Death passed over the land with that final deadly plague which killed the firstborn of Egypt. Their escape had been a long time coming and they were only going to get one shot at it.

Feet matter. They get us to where we want to be. They support us. They are a symbol of our independence. We learn to “stand on our own two feet” as we grow up. We “find our feet” in new situations.

Feet are the things which keep us in contact with the ground on which we stand, with the reality of life. We need to have our “feet on the ground”, not our “heads in the clouds”, if we are to live our lives consciously and well.

But feet can take a real battering. They bear heavy loads – us, and all that we carry. When something goes wrong with your feet, you really know it. Even a small thing – an ingrowing toenail, a bruised toe, can make it painful, or impossible to walk. If our feet don’t work properly, it affects our whole lives.
Yet we expect them keep on going, day after day, no matter what the terrain. No wonder they ache sometimes at the end of the day. No wonder we are glad to kick our shoes off and put our feet up.

But despite their importance people often don’t like their feet much. They’re a long way away from our heads, for a start, which often seem like the most important bits of us, where all the decisions are made and the clever ideas thought up. And after a lifetime of walking about they aren’t always pretty to look at.

It’s no surprise that human beings eventually came up with the bright idea of covering their feet in shoes. Originally we just wanted to protect them, wrapping them in animal skins to keep them warm and stop them being cut by stones and thorns. In some parts of the world shoes are still a lifesaver, protecting their wearers against infections and parasites they might pick up from the soil.

But shoes themselves have sometimes become the problem. Whenever I was taken shoe shopping as a child I would be told the cautionary tale of great-grandma who had ruined her feet by wearing unsuitable shoes when she was young. This was supposed to make me feel better about the sensible, flat Clarks shoes which were what I was going to get…Of course, my mother was right, but good sense never stopped anyone wanting the glamorous, impractical shoes too from time to time at least, the ones which look good, but put you through hell to wear. In some city centres, local churches have set up teams of Street Pastors who are on hand late at night to help deal with young people who get into trouble after a night out clubbing. One of the most important bits of kit they carry are free flip flops to give out to young women who have found that they just can’t get home in those vertiginous shoes which looked wonderful when they first put them on, but who are now picking their way barefoot along the pavements because they’ll never get home in those heels and they’ve missed the last bus. It’s not just women who put vanity above comfort either – otherwise men would have long ago protested about the fashion rules that make them wear closed in shoes with formal suits all through the hot summer weather!

The problem is that we often use shoes to cover up the truth, or to distract from it by projecting an image of the people we’d like to be. Top shoe designers can charge hundreds or even thousands of pounds for shoes which will proclaim to those in the know that their wearers have the money to buy them.  It’s often said that you can tell a lot about people by their shoes. Being “down at heel” or “on your uppers” with the soles of your shoes worn through, is something to be avoided if you want to dress to impress. And you’d certainly never go to an interview barefoot. But the message our shoes send out doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth – who we really are, where we have been and what loads we might be bearing. It takes the naked foot to reveal that.

They might be grimy or sweaty, scarred or battered from the journeys they’ve had to make and maybe that is why we find it so hard to let others see them as they are, let alone wash them. Maybe that’s what lies behind the disciples’ reluctance to let Jesus wash their feet on the night before he dies.

There are only really two categories of people who we will normally allow to provide intimate care – and somehow foot washing seems to come into that category. The first are paid carers who, in our society, are often low-paid and regarded as low status. In the ancient world it was servants or slaves who would wash feet. These are people who are often treated as invisible, anonymous – as if they don’t matter. We prefer it that way. If they don’t matter, then their thoughts on our feet don’t matter either.  The second category is those who are nearest and dearest to us, who already know us through and through anyway so there’s no point pretending, people who we don’t mind seeing us as we really are, bunions and all.

The struggle the disciples feel is that Jesus is neither of these things.  They know Jesus too well, and respect him far too much, to let him be their servant, but they aren’t completely at ease with the idea of letting him come this close as a friend. It’s one thing to follow him around, to discuss theology, to help with his ministry, to feel they are part of a band of brothers who are on an important mission. It is quite another to acknowledge their vulnerability, their need, their mess, and to accept the love and tenderness he wants to give them.

Peter, who is first to object to having his feet washed, is also first to get why it matters, though. If being part of Jesus’ mission means doing this, then he is literally all for it. Wash the rest of me too! he says. Jesus doesn’t need to do that, but Peter has at least got the message. Following Christ, being part of the kingdom of God, isn’t just about being strong and clever and brave. It is also about being tired, wounded and helpless, and yet finding God within that helplessness.

Jesus’ own feet will be pierced with nails when he is crucified, and the wounds will still be there when he is raised. His followers will find that their journeys will not be a short triumphant victory march either as they struggle to lead the early church. It will more often be a faltering, stumbling, painful, costly path as they struggle to build a new sort of community together. Their feet will ache – spiritually as well as literally – as they try to carve out a new path, take the wrong roads, have to back track and try again.

It is no different for us now. Life is often spoken of as a pilgrimage, a journey, and often we come to a point when we feel the end of the journey is no closer, that we are going round in circles, and that our feet just won’t get us there.


The promise of this story is that we follow a saviour who knows that, and, if we will let him, is ready to kneel down and ease off our shoes – whether they are sensible or ridiculous, worn for comfort or for show – so he can bathe our aching feet and give us the strength to carry on. The challenge of this story is that he calls us to do the same for all whose feet are aching. Amen 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lazarus, come out! Lent 5 14



In his word is my hope…said the Psalmist to God. In his word is my hope. As he sits in whatever deep and dark place he is in, as he waits for a morning that seems to be a long time coming, he knows that what he needs is a word, but not any word, a word of God. He needs to hear what God is saying to him. That’s what will pull him up out of these depths he has fallen into. Words can do that. Words can change the world, if they are the right words, from the right person, at the right moment.

There are a lot of words in our readings today. I don’t just mean that they were long, though they were, but that they are full of messages and conversations, full of people saying things to one another. But often those words seem to bring more confusion than clarity.

“Can these dry bones live?” says God to Ezekiel in a vision. Ezekiel looks around at the scene, an ancient battlefield scattered with the bleached, dried out remains of a fallen army of people. What kind of silly question is this? Can these dry bones live?  No, of course they can’t. I’m sure that’s what Ezekiel thinks, just as we all would. But he hedges his bets, suspecting that there is more to this question than meets the eye. “O Lord God, you know”. Ezekiel really doesn’t have a clue what is going on, and every step along the way as this vision unfolds is a new challenge for his faith. It isn’t till the end that the reason behind God’s bizarre command to prophesy to the bones becomes clear. This is a message of hope to the exiled and hopeless people of Israel. They may feel like dry bones, but God hasn’t finished with them yet.

The Gospel reading is equally baffling to those caught up in its story. It is full of misunderstandings.
Is Lazarus seriously ill?
“Yes, but it won’t lead to death,” says Jesus.
He’s right – in a sense. At the end of this story no one is dead.  But the disciples take him literally. It’s a relief. They didn’t really want to have to go dashing off back to Judea anyway. They’ve only just managed to escape from Jesus’ opponents there who wanted to stone him.
So they are a bit dumbfounded when, two days later, Jesus suddenly announces that they are heading for Lazarus’ house after all.
Has he taken a turn for the worse?
“He has fallen asleep,” says Jesus.
“Well, that’s all right then. He’ll wake up again. We don’t need to put ourselves in danger” they say.

So Jesus has to spell it out – Lazarus is dead.
Now, why didn’t he say that in the first place?
While they’re still trying to take this in, to add insult to injury, Jesus starts telling them that this delay is part of God’s plan , that he is using it to build up their faith. No wonder Thomas seems to give up even trying to understand at this point. Death seems simpler than all this confusion.

When they get to Bethany, things don’t really improve much. Martha and Mary both greet Jesus with identical words. “If you had been here my brother would not have died.”
It’s a pointed and painful comment. Jesus has healed all sorts of other people, often complete strangers to him. Why could he not have prevented the death of this very special friend, the one whom he loved?

Jesus may know what he’s up to, but he doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of communicating it. But if we feel aggrieved on behalf of Martha, Mary and the disciples, if we feel sorry for Ezekiel, faced with that unanswerable question from God, then I think that’s because we are meant to.

Of course, for all these people, the end of the story is a happy one, but they don’t know that at the outset. Ezekiel’s vision ends with those scattered bones being brought together, clothed in flesh and given back their lives. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, trailing his grave clothes, and is restored to his family. But there is no reason why Ezekiel, or the disciples, or Martha and Mary should have expected that to happen.

The idea that the dead could rise again wasn’t quite as unthinkable to ancient people as it might be to us. They believed God could raise the dead, but they didn’t think he would do unless there was some exceptional reason. They expected and assumed,  like us, that death was final and irrevocable. Whatever they thought came after it, there was no way back.

And just like us, they didn’t want to die, and didn’t even want to think about dying if they could avoid it. Who would? But the thought of death has a way of intruding into our lives at some point anyway. A car screeches to a halt with inches to spare as we step off the curb without looking. A suspicious symptom turns out to be nothing, but might not have been, or maybe a serious illness is caught just in time. That could have been it, we think.  Someone close to us, our own age, dies in some random accident. That could have been me. Suddenly it comes home to us that we are fragile, mortal creatures and that in the end the battle for life is one we will all lose.

If that thought makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company.  Most people are scared of death to some extent. Even if we believe in an afterlife, we don’t want to lose the life we have and know. Some fear the process of dying. Some fear the thought of leaving their loved ones behind. Others simply struggle with the thought that they won’t be part of this world any more, part of the events of life, as if they are being snatched away early from a party they were really rather enjoying.

Martha, Mary and Jesus’ other disciples don’t want to think about death, any more than we do. They don’t want it to acknowledge that it is going happen to them, or to their friend Lazarus. They want Jesus to stop it, wave a magic wand or prescribe a magic potion.  

They won’t want Jesus to die either when the moment comes, which it very soon will do, and that is what this story is really pointing forward to.  He has told them clearly that it is inevitable that he will be killed because of the message he preaches, but they  will try as hard as they can for as long as they can to hold that thought at bay. They’ll pretend it can’t happen and won’t happen. We’ll protect you, Peter will say.  God won’t let you die.
As Jesus is arrested and crucified they’ll look to the skies for God’s angels to swoop  down and rescue Jesus, to spirit him away from his captors, to enable him to leap from the cross. When that doesn’t happen and his body lies cold in the tomb, they’ll be baffled and angry, convinced that all their hopes have died with him.

Martha and Mary say to Jesus “If you had been here our brother wouldn’t have died”.
After Jesus’ death the disciples will echo those words in their own minds.  “If God had been there, Jesus wouldn’t have died…”  How could this man be God’s Messiah if God had let this happen? It is only when he rises from death that the question is answered for them, but it isn’t answered in the way they expected. Instead of avoiding death, Jesus has gone through it and come out of the other side.

For the early Christians this wasn’t just a miracle. It was also, and more importantly, a vindication. It told them that  God had been with Jesus, even as he suffered and was humiliated and died. And it made all the difference to them in their own lives, because if God could be with Jesus even when he was suffering and everything seemed to be going wrong, God could be with them too.  
Many of them would die violent and squalid deaths too. They would look – and maybe feel - like failures. But the death and resurrection of Jesus convinced them that this wasn’t the case. Death didn’t mean that God had deserted you or judged you and found you wanting.  What mattered wasn’t that they died, or how they’d died, but whether they had walked in the way of Christ, loving those around them, living with integrity. Dying or living, succeeding or failing in the world’s eyes, they were still held securely in God’s hands. Neither their living or their dying was in vain.

That’s something we need to know too, not just as we face our physical deaths, but also as we face the myriad small deaths that come before it; the moments when we realise that we aren’t the all-powerful, self-sufficient, all-knowing, sorted out people we’d like to think we are. We can’t avoid death or failure - they are part of being human - but we can discover God’s presence and God’s blessing within them and when we do that they start to lose their power to terrify us.

Death shouts loudly at us sometimes, but the word of God, the word of life can cut through the noise if we will pay attention. Yes, it says, the human life we know in this world is limited in all sorts of ways, including in its length, but what joy and blessing there can be within it, for us and for others, if we have the courage to live it fully, wisely and lovingly, not constricted by the grave clothes of fear, but clothed in the love of God which is eternal.

In God’s word is my hope, said the Psalmist. For all the confusing words in our readings today, at the end the words that really matter are crystal clear. “Lazarus, come out!” shouts Jesus. Come out and live. Come out and love. Come out and walk in the way of Christ.


Amen.