“I am the resurrection and the life” (Jo. 11:25).
Some of you may know that many of Tennessee’s bishops are buried at St. John’s Church, Ashwood, in Maury County. The church has not been an active parish for over a hundred years; but early on that part of the state was a center of church life for Episcopalians. At the same time this portion of the state was an integral part of the plantation economy, a system that was sustained by enslaved persons, who also built the church. There’s no doubt it’s a complicated history.
The church yard has many memorial markers, including one for our first Bishop, James Otey, himself a slaveholder. Also buried there are the remains of enslaved persons, whose identities are generally not known, but whose undoubted presence is now commemorated with a marker. Ashwood is a quiet spot, off the beaten track; a place of beauty where prayers for the burial of the dead continue to be said regularly, and where the shadow of history lies heavy.
In another place of burial, Jesus in our Gospel today foreshadows his own resurrection by raising his friend Lazarus to life again. We all know the common human story, the one we all share, of life that ends in death. We know the story of human sin that continues to cast a shadow. That story tracks back to Adam and Eve, and to the primal sin of disobedience and trespass, when death entered the world. As it says in Genesis, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).
John’s Gospel tells us that Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were three of Jesus’ closest friends. We’re told several times in the Gospel account that Jesus loved Lazarus; that he was deeply moved and agitated at the loss of his friend. We hear in the reading that “Jesus wept” (Jo. 12:35): supposedly the shortest verse in the Bible, and also a pithy reminder of the depth of human grief. St. Paul calls death “the final enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26), and here in our Gospel we see Jesus fighting for life itself in the face of our ancient enemy.
In John’s Gospel, signs of Jesus’ identity are gradually revealed, culminating in this scene in the graveyard. It’s John’s Gospel which gives us Jesus as “the light of the world” (Jo. 8:12); it’s John who reveals Jesus as “the bread of life” (Jo. 6:48), “the good shepherd” (Jo. 10:11), and “the lamb of God” (Jo. 1:29). For John, Jesus is the Word of God who becomes flesh (Jo. 1:14). Now, in our Gospel today, Jesus is revealed as “the resurrection and the life” (Jo. 11:25): the one who defeats death. It’s the culminating sign that Jesus is the one sent by God; the foreshadowing of Jesus own resurrection from the dead.
It’s also an invitation to faith. As Lazarus’ sister Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (Jo. 11:27). The reversal of sin and death requires God’s action, and invites our faith in Jesus Christ. For Martha, this invitation takes place at the edge of the grave, at a moment of great grief and deprivation: in extremis, when we are most vulnerable. This is the time when faith is uncovered, discovered within us. The prophecy of Ezekiel asks, at the edge of the grave, “Can these bones live?” (Ezek. 37:3). And faith replies, “I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live” (Ezek. 37:5).
Today, faith finds its voice as well, as we celebrate confirmation and the renewal of baptismal vows. Each of us today reaffirms our faith in the one whom God raised from the dead, destroying the power of death and raising us to new life. The final enemy has been defeated. God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ. Today we discover our own faith, and claim it as our own.
One final word about our Gospel, one small detail that we should take away today. When Jesus invites Lazarus to come out of the grave, he emerges with hands and feet still bound with the graveclothes. This significant detail reminds us that Jesus has risen from the dead, and calls us to new life, but the unbinding of our history demands our time and attention. The wounds are deep in some cases, of evils we have done or endured ourselves, and we all bear the scars of centuries. Jesus calls us, as he called Lazarus, to come out of our graves, and to cast of the shackles that continue to bind us. It’s the work of a lifetime, but the Good News is that the heavy lifting has already been done. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and that means new life for us.