Sharing one of my Sermons:
A few years ago, on a very hot summer weekend in Cambridge I was out enjoying the sunshine with friends. I noticed however that there were an awful lot of flies by my garden fence, behind which lay a playing field. After a fun day out at Strawberry Fair, I came back to the house and noticed there was a strange smell in the garden, but thought nothing more of it. Early the next morning however, the flies had returned and increased in number and the smell was stronger. So I tentatively looked over the fence and saw what I thought was someone sleeping propped up against it. However, given the smell and flies, I felt that something wasn’t right and decided in the early morning light, to summon up the courage to go into the field with my friend.
Sadly we discovered that the person was not indeed asleep but in fact had died. I won’t go into more detail but as I said it was a very hot weekend, and the man who I described to the Police to be about 50, I was shocked to discover later was in his early 20’s.
One of the things that many people often misunderstand about the Bible and the stories within it, is they assume that it is purely dealing with heavenly things. The reality is very different. God in bodily form as Jesus meets us in our suffering and deals with the crudeness of life and indeed death.
The most powerful foretelling of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection is in the story of Lazarus. (‘But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’)
But as well as being rich in theology, it is a story of relationships, suffering and grief of close friends and family. As a friend of Jesus, Mary was soon to offer a huge act of love in anointing his feet with expensive perfume and John gives us this ‘spoiler’ now to show us both the depth of love and emotion bound up in these friendships but also as another thread to Jesus’ own destiny.
The faith and love of both sisters is evident; Martha expresses her grief and frustration “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died” but in her anger is also hope “but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him “.
Jesus response is astonishing : “I am the resurrection and the life “ “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. The sisters grief and faith are of equal depth; Martha says that she believes Jesus is the Son of God but as was the doctrine of her faith, doesn’t see that her brother will rise before the last day.
But in all this theology- which after all which in one sense is simply the language of our relationship to God- , is love. Or to put it another way the actions and the words are about relationships.
I’ve spent this last week having many conversations with our stall holders in the market. I’ve tried to explain that my role is about relationships. But humans and relationships are messy. This evening’s reading is also full of messy relationships: hurt, incrimination, passion, anger and guilt. There is also no shying away in the story from the reality of death in a middle eastern climate. There is a directness where Jesus is urged not to enter the closed tomb of a man who has been dead for four days in extreme heat. He is bluntly told, don’t go in as there will be a stench of an already decomposing body. As I was reflecting and reading this, I was reminded of my own experience of the grim discovery of the body of a young man, on a hot summer weekend, in a field just steps away from my own home.
The sisters in the story were conflicted, they believed in Jesus and had a sense of his true nature and yet it was that very insight that deepened their frustration that he stayed 2 miles away from their home, whilst their dear brother was dying and then waited 4 days after he had been laid in the tomb. They thought he was there now to share in their grief and offer his friendship, but he was going to do so much more than that.
As with the sisters, Jesus meets us in the messiness of our lives. He understands and feels our emotions. In this passage we are told he was moved, some translations of the greek see this as being profoundly disturbed and prompt Vs 35, the shortest verse in the Bible; Jesus wept.
What follows is the echo of his own death, taking fully and bodily the excruciating pain of crucifixion and burial in a borrowed tomb. Jesus demonstrates the power to transform the corporal as well as the emotional, and in contrast to his own neatly folded grave clothes , his friend walks still bound in the clothes of burial, still wrapped in the darkness of the trappings of the grave , but nevertheless blinking into the light.
In this evening’s passage, we witness the reality and cost of love and its transformative power. I wonder where God is calling each one of us to be alongside someone else’s suffering? In our university , our work , our homes , our market ? Where are we asked to weep and share another’s pain? When in the next week and beyond will we take the costly opportunity to offer the transforming love of the resurrection? How will our living as people of Easter breathe life and light in to the tomb of somebody else’s darkness?