Sermon preached by Revd David Walsh on Sunday 2nd April 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live.’
These words from today’s gospel reading are familiar as the opening sentence of many funeral services.
In the Christian vision, life and death are tightly intermingled. The apostle Paul writes:
‘while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.’ (2 Cor 4. 10-11)
There are echoes of this in familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer: ‘in the midst of life we are in death’.
For Jesus and those who followed him in the adventure of faith, death was an ever-present reality. At the heart of our gospel reading this morning is a death, followed by life. But the possibility of death is present from the start of the story to its end. Before Jesus travels to Bethany, where Lazarus lived and where he has died, his disciples warn him against going there, because it’s just two miles from Jerusalem, and the religious leaders in Jerusalem want Jesus killed.
And our gospel reading has a postscript, which we didn’t hear this morning, in which the religious leaders plan to kill not only Jesus, but also Lazarus, who’s become something of a local celebrity and is drawing large crowds.
This has always struck me as an unintentionally comic moment in John’s Gospel, highlighting the incapacity of the religious leaders to respond to the challenge presented by Jesus. A man has been raised from the dead, an event demonstrating that when Jesus is involved, death is no longer the ultimate sanction or threat. And how do the religious leaders respond? They plan to put the man to death again. Their response simply highlights their impotence and increasing irrelevance. Something new is happening in their sphere of influence and they are not part of it.
Life and death are intermingled in this story, in a way unfamiliar to many of us.
It is as if our brains have two separate compartments, one concerned with ‘life’, the other with ‘death’, and it’s impossible for both to be switched on at the same time.
And yet there is a small group of people whose stories suggest that true life, life lived in the here and now, life lived with passion, commitment and authenticity, isn’t unconnected with awareness of death. These are people living active lives who suddenly discover they may only have months or years left to live. People of course respond in all kinds of ways to this shocking news and understandably the responses can include fear, anger and regret. But there are a significant number of people who end up responding by living in a way they’ve never lived before: recognising what really matters in life and putting to one side the stuff which ultimately doesn’t matter at all. Such people must wonder why they hadn’t done this earlier, why it has taken the imminence of death to show them what life is truly about.
So, death and true life are perhaps not so unconnected.
The prospect of death, the reality of death, can teach us how to live. Some of you will know of Bronnie Ware’s book ‘The Top Five Regrets of the Dying’. Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She writes of the clarity of vision people gain at the end of their lives and how we might learn from their wisdom. ‘When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently,’ she says, ‘common themes surfaced again and again.’
What are the top five regrets of the dying?
First, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.’
Second, ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’
Third, ‘I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.’
Fourth, ‘I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.’
And fifth, ‘I wish that I had let myself be happy.’
So, it can take death, or rather the imminence of death, to reveal to us what life is truly about.
And there are others for whom the possibility of death is wrapped up even more closely with a meaningful life.
Let me read some words from Martin Luther King’s sermon at Selma, Alabama in March 1965:
‘Deep down in our … creed is the conviction there are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life – some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the delayed announcement of an earlier death of the spirit’.
A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.’
50 years later, I’m sure Luther King wouldn’t object if I point out this is equally true for women.
So, here’s the paradox. In order fully to be alive, we need to be ready to die. We need to be unafraid of death, knowing that some things are more important.
The story of Lazarus has had a significance down the centuries far beyond the space it takes up in the New Testament.
It’s believed by quite a few biblical scholars that Lazarus is the man described by the Fourth Gospel as ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ That might be hard to take in if you’ve been told all your life that the disciple whom Jesus loved was John, one of the Twelve. But I think a closer look at the text of the Bible shows it to be quite plausible and I’d be very happy one evening to lead a discussion about this fascinating idea.
If it is true, it identifies Lazarus with the disciple in the gospels least afraid of death and most clear that death is not the end. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one brave enough to be present at the crucifixion and watch Jesus die. The disciple whom Jesus loved was the one who looked into his tomb, and seeing the linen wrappings lying there, understood that he had risen. And the disciple whom Jesus loved was expected by many in the early church never to die.
So, today’s reading possibly had a significance even at the time far beyond the space it takes up in the Gospel. Whether or not that’s so, the story continues to resonate down the centuries. When David Bowie died last year, it was less than a month after the release of his final single, a single in which he clearly reflects on the possibility of death, a single named simply ‘Lazarus’ after our gospel reading today.
We seem to live most fully when instead of allowing our fear of death to shut it out of our thoughts, we accept it and live in the face of its reality, find some way of making it part of our lives, even allowing it to shape our lives.
Engaging with the reality of death whilst we’re still alive isn’t the only way to hold life and death together in our minds. For followers of Jesus, we also do this by engaging, even when death is present in our lives, with the reality of the life God promises us. This vision of resurrection gave Martin Luther King the courage to risk his life for what really mattered. We too need to be people, followers of Jesus, ready to take risks for what matters.
Not just in our individual lives, but also as a church. Churches, like people, experience a kind of death when they become afraid to take risks.
The bones strewn across a valley in our graphic first reading are a picture of God’s people, who have experienced a kind of death. God wants to breathe his life into us and to say to us, as he said to the people of Israel: ‘You shall know that I am the Lord. I will out my spirit within you, and you shall live.’