Posted by: owizblog | April 6, 2017

Lazarus in John’s Gospel: “Vive la différence!” Une vie différente… : Sermon, Rothesay Trinity, 2 April 2017 (Passion Sunday)

John 11: The Story of Lazarus


Carolyn and I have always liked French cars. There’s something enchantingly quirky about them. One of their charms is that things aren’t quite where you would expect them to be. Years ago, I hired a Renault 4 for my holidays. If you’ve ever driven one, you’ll remember that the gearstick comes straight out of the dashboard. I had to think a bit, every time I went to change gear. But I liked it…

The Citroen 2CV was beloved of Welsh sheep-farmers because you could take out the back seat and get two ewes into it – but if you wanted to change a spark plug, you had to take the wing off. Even though nowadays they conform much more closely to the norms of other marques, French cars can still surprise you, and assert their difference. French cars are the mechanical embodiment of Eric Morecambe’s defence of his performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto to Andre Previn; all the right bits are there, but not necessarily in the right order…

Eventually you get used to this. But for me, there’s always something about a French car that brings the routine of driving to life. There’s an elegant difference – or should I say, difference…?

Vive la difference!


Compared with the other three Gospels, John’s is a bit like that. The Cleansing of the Temple doesn’t happen at the beginning of Holy Week; it’s at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just after the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. It’s almost as though the whole of John’s Gospel is a gigantic Holy Week, the whole of Jesus’ ministry presented as the challenge to the status quo that it couldn’t but react to. All the Gospels agree that when Jesus turned the money-changers’ tables and drove the animals out of the temple, that was the point at which the religious authorities decided that he had to go. It’s just that John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus’ ministry was that from the very beginning.

The other Gospels don’t necessarily disagree with that. It’s just that John’s Gospel has the same bits in a different order.

It’s even more the case with the Last Supper itself. None of the Gospels are as saturated, from beginning to the end, with the language and the imagery of the Last Supper. But there’s no mention anywhere of its institution. What in the other Gospels is “just” the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, John makes into a vast meditation on the Bread of Life, the bread of Communion, Christ’s flesh which must be “munched” – we usually translate the word as “eaten” but the Greek word is trōgōn, which definitely means “chewed”, or “munched.”

What stands, in John’s Gospel, in place of the institution of the Last Supper, is the washing of the disciples’ feet. And at chapter 17, Jesus’ great prayer is clearly something to do with the Communion Prayer which has been spoken over the bread and wine for two millennia since; but of bread, wine, words of institution, there is nothing. Communion itself is nowhere, because it is everywhere, in John’s Gospel.

John’s Gospel is just like a French car. All the same bits, but in different places, and done differently. It brings the Gospel to life in a different way.


We need to look at that before we understand the great eleventh chapter of John, the story of Lazarus. We know Mary and Martha from Luke: the sister who fusses about getting help in the kitchen; the sister who sits and listens to Jesus. A chapter on from here, Jesus and the disciples will return to the house of Mary and Martha – and Lazarus, whom Luke doesn’t mention – and only Mary will realize that this convivial evening is different, that Jesus will not be passing by again, that this is him going to Jerusalem for the last time. Luke tells of a woman of ill-repute who comes weeping to Jesus at the house of the Pharisee, and anoints his feet with costly nard. John has Mary at this – for them last – supper mark the fleeting moment with the lavishing of the costly ointment. Judas, like the others, misses it completely; what a waste of money that could have gone to the poor…

“The poor will always be with you,” says Jesus. This moment will not. Mary saw that. You – all of you – missed it…”

John’s Gospel is like a French car. The same bits are put together in such engagingly, enliveningly different ways…


So it isn’t a big surprise that there isn’t a Transfiguration in John’s Gospel, no story of Jesus shining with an unearthly light on the mountain, and keeping the unearthly company of Moses and Elijah. For that matter, there isn’t a Peter’s Confession, either. That’s important, because in the other three Gospels, Peter’s Confession and the Transfiguration are very closely linked.

In Mark, Peter’s Confession leads straight to the first mention of Jerusalem, and Jesus’ death. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” is followed by a cursory “Well done!” and that first awful mention of the cross, and Peter’s horror: “This shall not happen to you!” and Jesus’ rebuke: “Get thee behind me, Satan! You think as men think, not as God thinks…”

And the disciples are plunged into grief. And then, after a week, comes the Transfiguration. They glimpse Easter; they glimpse the beyond to all of this, to Good Friday itself. They can’t make sense of it from where they are, with all of this still to go through, and the scant, indeterminate, incomprehensible hope that it gives them won’t survive the trauma of Golgotha. They will deny, and they will break, and they will flee. But they have glimpsed something in the Transfiguration that, three days later, begins to make sense…

There’s no Transfiguration in John’s Gospel. Instead, we have the story of the Raising of Lazarus. It, too, is a glimpse forward. That’s how the text of John’s Gospel presents it. It, too, is presented as something that can’t possibly be understood at the time, but which will make sense – and will make sense of much else too – at the appropriate point.

And this is important for us, because for us, that’s what faith is like. Faith gives us glimpses, and insights. And sometimes it comes and sometimes it goes, and we get all hung up on our faith, and whether it’s strong enough.

I’ve heard good people, whose lives reflect Jesus Christ, say “I’m not sure I can call myself a Christian; I’m not sure I have enough faith…” I’ve spoken to people who have agonized about this. And I’ve done something I don’t normally do, with a number of them. I’ve suggested that they read a verse of a particular hymn.

Scandalously, it isn’t in CH4. It’s John Campbell Sharp’s great hymn “Twixt gleams of joy and clouds of doubt, our feelings come and go…” That’s the experience of the disciples in all four Gospels. It reflects the experience of ordinary people struggling with faith and doubt; our experience:
I grasp Thy strength, make it mine own,

My heart with peace is blest;

I lose my hold, and then comes down

Darkness, and cold unrest.

And it’s the second half of the second verse that I urge them to read.

Let me no more my comfort draw

From my frail hold of Thee,

In this alone rejoice with awe–

Thy mighty grasp of me.

The story of Lazarus is the anticipation of the Resurrection in John’s Gospel. It isn’t Jesus transfigured on the mountain. It isn’t actually what we would call a “resurrection.” It’s technically a resuscitation. And that’s a miracle. It’s a miracle every time a defibrillator saves a life, every time someone successfully performs CPR on someone, every time someone who was clinically dead is restored to life. Two thousand years after Jesus Christ, it’s a miracle that’s collapsed into technology, and is performed thousands of times a day, and is no less of a miracle. And we should thank God for that just as we should thank God for all science, all knowledge, all truth.

Lazarus dies, and is returned to life. That’s the story here. He is resuscitated, yes, two thousand years before anyone knew the word “defibrillator,” yes, four days after clinical death, and yes, how else can John’s Gospel present this than as a miracle?

But again, John’s Gospel is different. It doesn’t talk about “miracles,” it talks about “signs.” It talks about events, happenings, that we might not grasp fully, might indeed have problems with – but they point beyond themselves to something vastly bigger. They are transparent, if we look at them the right way, to meaning, and to meaning about God.


Another of the things I miss about CH3 is the way our old hymnbook presented, in italics above the translated hymns, the first line in the original language.

Did you ever notice that about hymn 279, “Thine be the glory…”? Did you ever notice that the Reverend Edmund Budry’s great hymn of faith and hope, written out of the grief of the loss of his wife, in the original French, is “A toi le gloire, O Resuscité!”? For all its beauty and power and force, the French language doesn’t have different words for resurrection and resuscitation.

In the days before defibrillators, that didn’t matter. But suddenly, after two thousand years, we are in a position to see so much more clearly the difference between what happens to Lazarus, and what happens to Jesus on the Third Day. Resurrection is not the return to life as it used to be. Resurrection is transformation. Lazarus, says John, is raised, returned to the life he’d been taken from a few days earlier, lives for a while longer, maybe a long while longer. But then, he dies. And we know this, because if he hadn’t, we would surely know he was still among us!

Lazarus’ resuscitation is a foreshadowing of something vastly greater, and if you’ll permit me a horrible solecism, almost utterly different. Jesus’ resurrection is something of a completely different order. Yet Lazarus’ resuscitation points us to this vastly greater thing, as, potentially, does every resuscitation you hear of round about you today. Has anyone ever experienced resuscitation and not understood life differently from that point on? Have any of their family and friends not? When one is returned to this life, doesn’t death look different? Doesn’t life look different?

And that, whether we realize it or not, points towards Jesus’ resurrection. As Brooke Fosse Westcott, one of the greatest Biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, and a Bishop of Durham very much in the radical tradition of Bishops of Durham, explained, Jesus of Nazareth walked the dusty roads of Galilee, and lived the fully human life you and I lived, and then he died the death that you and I must die. And then the Son rose in the fulness of life that is of God. He lives as God lives. And this is our hope, too. Paul says that. Paul says that “what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body…”

This is no resuscitation. This is Resurrection.

Put it this way: on the one side of this great equation is the utter humanity of Jesus, what in the unity of his being we can call, with Jurgen Moltmann “the Crucified God.” On the other is the transfiguration of our human nature and its presentation to God in him as it should be, and was always meant to be.

We live in fragility, and in vulnerability, and in partial seeing. ‘Twixt gleams of joy and clouds of doubt, our feelings come and go… We live in a world that has fallen away from God, because people have fallen away from God, because we as a human family have fallen away from God. Our world is full of mistrust, and selfishness, and greed, and cruelty, and the root of all these things is fear, which is the opposite of love. Perfect fear casteth out love… But God is love, and perfect love casteth out fear, and God’s love in Christ seeks us and pursues us through the world, and where we lose our grasp, and our faith and our hope, that’s where, in the miasma of the world, and in the fog of living, we glimpse…

The disciples glimpsed. In forgiven people, in healed bodies, in broken bread and shared fish, in abundant wine at a wedding-feast, they glimpsed. In a resuscitation, they glimpsed. And holding on to what was glimpsed was so hard – and is so hard for us.

But in the fog of living, and in the miasma of the world, is God, there in love. There in Jesus Christ. And in him, finally, it all comes together.

Today is Passion Sunday, a day for looking back, and forward, over the whole of our life of faith in the world, just as Jesus, with his anxious, unsettled disciples, approached Jerusalem, contemplating what lay ahead – not passively, but actively, walking steadily towards it –  and looked back over the whole journey that had brought them to this point.

And so do we. We are not in the same place as them. For Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. And if we can’t quite, can’t always grasp that, our faith is that it grasps us, and that we live in its reality, even if we can’t always see it. In all that has brought us to this point, God has been. In all that lies before us is God.

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