Eternal Life Now
Some thoughts on the gospel text for this Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent. That passage is John 11: 1 – 45, the raising of Lazarus. It is the last of this series of four lengthy, very dramatic, readings for this Lent from the ever-strange Gospel of John.
One of the reasons that Gospel of John is strange, and may jar upon the ears and hearts of we who hear, is that the miracles of Jesus in John — which John calls “signs” rather than “miracles” — are so clearly not driven by compassion. If in the other gospels, Jesus “looked upon the crowds with compassion,” because they were both hungry and like sheep without a shepherd, here in John the signs are not about compassion, but revelation. The point is not simply to say that Jesus feels our pain, though he does, but that the narrative points to something deeper, to the truth of God.
This miracle/ sign being about revelation more than compassion is made clear by a couple parts of the story that may puzzle us and seem, well, “wrong.” (I used to encourage preaching students to ask, “What’s wrong with this story?” as a way into a text.)
First, when Jesus hears that Lazarus has fallen ill, he sits tight. No 911 response here. He doesn’t rush to the scene of the trouble, but waits until Lazarus is dead and in his tomb. Which perplexes the disciples. And angers Lazarus’s sisters, Martha and Mary. “Lord, if you had been here,” says Martha, “my brother would not have died.”
If Jesus’ compassion were the point, he would have rushed to be there. But he doesn’t. To paraphrase Fred Craddock, this isn’t a story about a family crisis; it is a story about the crisis of the world. Does death’s power reign supreme, the final word? Or is Jesus the Lord of life and death?
So the drama heightens as Jesus waits until Lazarus is good and dead . . . just as Jesus himself will soon be. And as we too shall one day be.
The heart of it comes when Jesus finally heads toward Bethany and Martha intercepts him with her “if you’d been here” rebuke. What ensues is very reminiscent of the encounter with the Samaritan woman two weeks ago. Both she and Martha believe in some future happening. For the woman at the well, “I believe the Messiah is coming.” For Martha, it is belief in “resurrection at the last day,” a belief shared by the Pharisees.
But Jesus short circuits the “someday, one-day.” To Martha, as to the Samaritan woman, it is and he is here and now. To Martha he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Right here, right now. Present not future only.
The difference says something crucial about what we call “eternal life.” By that we usually mean, whether we believe in it or not, a quantity of life. Life that goes on after death. Something that starts after we die. But what Jesus is talking about is not quantity of life, but a quality of life. Eternal life starts when we believe, when we trust in him, in his power and presence. Note the verb tense of his words. Not “I will be the resurrection and the life,” but “I am.”
Many folks, many Christians, who entertain or “believe” in eternal life, only believe in an extension of this life which somehow happens after death. Just the other day in the locker room at the health club where I go, a man (a Jehovah’s Witness I believe) asked me, “Do you know what heaven will be like? Aren’t you curious?” He was hoping that I was, because he was prepared to tell me what heaven would be like and how I could get there. I have to hand it to that man for being brave, or brazen, enough to pose such a question to a stranger. I should perhaps add that we had been chatting amiably when he shifted to these questions. But again, the emphasis is all future, down-the-road and what happens after I die. “Where will you be? In heaven or the other place?”
For Jesus, and this is especially evident in the Gospel of John, eternal life is not a quantity of life that begins at the grave, it is a quality of life that begins here and now, when we trust in him. By faith, we pass from death to life, here and now, in this life. We pass from a life that is lived in fear of Death’s power and with Sin’s grip upon us, to a life of abundance (which has little, if anything, to do with worldly wealth). “I came,” said Jesus, “that you may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10: 10). A life lived in and by God’s grace is an abundant life.
Another compelling part of this story, which actually lies outside of the bounds of the reading for tomorrow, takes place when in response to the raising of Lazarus the religious authorities determine that this latest sign is simply too much and that Jesus must be done away with (verses 46 – 53). In the council of those authorities, the high priest, Caiphas, explains, “You do not understand that is is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” The ends justify the means, any means!
Caiphas is saying, “Jesus is rocking the boat, the people are going nuts, the Romans will slap us all down. Better to off Jesus than get us all in trouble.” But — again John’s irony at work — Caiphas actually speaks the truth though he means something quite different. That truth is that death of Jesus will save the whole world. In his death, the power of death is destroyed.
But this world operates, then and now, on people’s fear of death, the fear that the powers-that-be count on to terrify us into submission to their rule.