I was gratified by the expressions of appreciation I received for this sermon. I often find John’s gospel difficult to preach from. So this time, I came clean and was honest about that fact. (Almost) Always the right thing to do! Once I did that, I found that new insights from the text came upon me (from the Holy Spirit, as we believe). For instance, I didn’t see any insight from the commentary I was using as to why Martha and Mary both say the same thing when they find Jesus. It sounds stiff and repetitive. But it came to me that Jesus’ different reactions to the same greeting demonstrate how his demeanor has changed.
Now, I will not claim that the significance I find there was part of John’s “intentions.” In some ways, I am imposing meaning that John would perhaps have intended to avoid. And those with more conservative biblical sensibilities will find my reading a little disturbing. But this is the confusing but refreshing world of interpreting Scripture seriously but not literally and always deferentially. (Consider Paul’s baffling, shocking interpretation of Scripture in Galatians!) I hope all of that does not distract the reader from the point: to focus anew on mending and vivifying our relationships with loved ones.
Romans 8:6-11 ; John 11:1-45
Loving loved ones sounds easy. It’s actually the most difficult and fraught kind of love. It’s usually not too difficult to love a stranger who is in need. I urge you all to practice doing so. It’s both easy and rewarding. And I know that our Board of Missions is looking for opportunities for us to do so, opportunities like Cathedral in the Night, a worship and free meal program for homeless people. It really is easy, and you leave feeling good.
That’s not always how our closest relationships go. Isn’t that surprising? Why would it be harder to love an old friend or family member than a complete stranger? Perhaps because there is so much at stake. Our daily happiness and sense of freedom are bound up thickly with our relationships with parents, children, or spouses. We have so much at stake, personally, in these close relationships. They are part of our past that we can never escape from, and they set the course for our future, as far as we can see. With our past and our future at stake, these relationships threaten to consume us.
A love so essential to who we are can easily feel entrapping, like it is robbing us of our freedom. Perhaps we have all felt that way toward our parents at one time or another. Or we fret about whether the one I love loves me as equally and truly as I love her: perhaps I do not feel as giving as my lover does; or worse, perhaps she doesn’t love me as much as I love her. That’s an anxiety that especially many young lovers have felt. Or what about the heartbreak that clouds the horizon of us parents who experience such an amazing bond of love with a child from the moment of birth. You receive this precious, fragile, cuddly, lovingly dependent life that inspires the noblest feelings of care and nurture in you. Sadly, those precious early years of bonding will be largely forgotten by your child. And so the relationship between parent and child can never be fully mutual. Parents are doomed to watch their children grow more distant, more independent, and subject to all kinds of threats beyond our control, from untrue lovers who will break their hearts, to bad friends who lead them astray—and who knows how our unpredictable economy might fail to bring our children sustenance and opportunity? And then, what if our children do something terribly wrong? / There’s so much at stake. It’s no wonder that parents constantly get it wrong. Out of fear, we are too protective and controlling; our of a desire for mutual love and respect, we are too permissive.
Getting love right, in any of these relationships, seems almost impossible. But perhaps that’s because we have set our minds on the flesh, not on the Spirit. These are the terms Paul uses in our reading, and they are unfriendly terms. They may sound unhelpful. So let me explain them so that they can be helpful. Biblical scholars all agree that for Paul, “Flesh” does not mean the “body,” and “Spirit” does not mean soul or mind. To keep things brief, to set your mind on the flesh is to think only about what I have coming to me; what is mine; what am I going to get out of this? In verse 15 Paul calls this a “spirit of slavery” that makes you “fall back into fear.” When you approach your loved ones with the question: what’s in it for me in this relationship, you will always think first about yourself, and you will live in fear that you will not get what is coming to you. Life and loving relationships for those set on the flesh or on “me” can only bring loss. “To set the mind on the flesh is death.” If you are all about having and possessing, the one thing you know is that you will inevitably lose it all.
But “To set your mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” The Spirit is all about giving, not having. For those in the Spirit, life is a gift and a chance to give in return. God’s grace, given freely, stands behind everything. My loving relationships are not a threat to my possessions, but show me the truth that there is no “me.” Who I am from the very beginning is bound up with others—my parents first of all. I will be entrusted with responsibilities, possessions, and decisions, but these are not ultimate. There is not me without others.
If you set your mind on the flesh, then your relationships will present your with two choices: either I am going to get what I want, or I am going to sacrifice myself, and this person I love is going to take all that I have. But if you set your mind on the Spirit, then you live in a “we.” When you give, you give to an “us” that includes you and your lover. And when you receive, you receive as a “we” that rejoices with the lover. There are no losers and winners in the Spirit; if you are thinking about who is winning and who is losing, you are in the flesh.
It’s really pretty simple. And Paul’s believes that God shows us in Jesus that the meaning and destiny of everything is in the Spirit, not in the flesh—with the “we,” not with the “me.” Paul is writing this to the church, whose very identity is founded on Jesus, the one who brought life and peace in the Spirit. Our “we” includes above all Jesus, and through Jesus, God’s own eternal being is part of our “we.” God is our loved one; and we are God’s loved ones. Our “we” is boundless.
So the first thing to do, as we practice repentance in our closest relationships, is to set our minds on the Spirit, not the flesh. In other words, your relationships are not your possessions to be managed, but they are life itself. They are your “we.” And they will not be all they can be unless you can enter them with the right intention, understanding, and heart.
But fixing our relationships probably isn’t as simple as just “setting you mind.” For one, we remain inevitably prone to selfishness, it seems. We remain at least a little bit in the flesh. After all, Paul had just said in chapter seven, apparently about himself, “But I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.” This is the reality we confront during Lent. And so every day, we feel or inflict the pain of life in the flesh on our relationships, because as simple as it sounds, we cannot bring ourselves to live wholly as a “we.”
But besides being inevitably at least a little selfish, we are also fragile, bodily creatures, for thus God created us. We cannot overcome our own vulnerability, and neither can our loved ones. Above all we are mortal. If you were here on Ash Wednesday, acknowledging our mortality is what launched this great Lenten journey we are on. Doing so can free us, as it did then, to face our need for repentance and to embrace real life with the time we have. But it also forces us to face the fact that even the “we” that we live, even when we love rightly, for will be taken from us.
That brings us to our reading from the Gospel of John. Now, I will tell you right off that the Gospel of John does not always sit well with me. It contains some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament, no doubt. But sometimes I find the portrayal of Jesus and others to lack credibility. In today’s reading, as he is bringing Lazarus back from the dead, Jesus says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.” That’s lovely. The author of the gospel could have left it at that. But he has Jesus add, “I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” That’s weird. Jesus has to explain—not to God, surely, so apparently to us the readers—that he only thanked God out loud for the sake of the crowd. I guess that John thinks that if Jesus had to thank God, that suggests that Jesus wasn’t absolutely sure from the start that God would come through. Or maybe Jesus and God are so united that they act as one, so thanks would not be appropriate. But either way, I can’t imagine Jesus actually making this announcement (‘of course, I only said that for the crowds’). And indeed, scholars believe that John’s gospel shows at least a few layers of editing; this odd comment of Jesus could come from the hand of a later editor trying to clarify something about Jesus, but in effect messing up the story a little bit. It bothers me. But this detail in the story need not detain us.
Another detail of the story is more relevant to us today, and it also shows something odd about the way Jesus is portrayed in John’s gospel. As I read this story, Jesus is a little bit above the death of Lazarus. Jesus receives a message from his dear friends Mary and Martha, telling him Lazarus, who is also dear to Jesus, is ill. But did you notice this? Jeanie did in Bible Study. Jesus, for no apparent reason, stays where he is for two days, before setting out to the town where Lazarus is. / What becomes clear is that Jesus intentionally waited two days, so that by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Now, what is important about these four days? According to Jewish belief at the time, the soul remains near the body for up to three days after death. It was not unheard of for people of God to bring back to life someone who has recently died. Elijah the prophet does this in 1 Kings chapter 17. Jesus apparently waits for four days so that his raising of Lazarus, even after he had begun to decompose, will stand out as an extraordinary miracle—like the way Jesus gave sight to the man born blind last week, something that was likewise unheard of.
In other words, Jesus is out to make a point. The raising of Lazarus is to be the last and greatest of Jesus’ seven signs, which are never about the deed itself, they are testimony that leads people to find eternal life in Jesus. Jesus indicates as much at the beginning of the story: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And so when Jesus meets Martha—who scolds him a little, saying that if Jesus had hurried up he could have saved Lazarus—Jesus tries to direct her beyond Lazarus’ dying and rising toward himself as the true life. She confesses, like many Jews at that time, that Lazarus will be raised from the dead at the end of time; this was thought to take place when the Messiah eventually comes and ends the world as we know it. Jesus corrects her a bit: “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.” His point is surely not far from what Paul was saying: to live according to the flesh is to die; to live according to the Spirit is to truly live. And then Jesus asks her, “Do you believe this?” Jesus is trying to raise Martha’s sights beyond just the life of her dear brother Lazarus, a life and love that will remain fragile and mortal; Lazarus will die again. But to believe in Jesus is to transcend death, although I confess it’s not crystal clear what Jesus means when he says, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” When Jesus talks about “eternal life” in John’s gospel, it seems he is not only talking about a life after our death, but something we enjoy here and now. We have eternal life when we live in the presence of Jesus, for God’s eternal being is in this one. He is what allows our “we,” the spirit by which we connect our lives with others, to include not only mortal loved ones, but God’s own being which is eternal. And that is the Spirit that really gives us life and keeps us from falling back into fear, making us children of God and joint heirs with Jesus, as Paul says.
Living out of God’s eternal being, in other words, might prevent us from getting too attached to our Lazaruses, our loved ones. It is possible that the problem in our closest relationships is not just ego, or selfishness—the “flesh.” It’s not always that we haven’t loved enough. The problem can also be that we love too much. There is too much at stake; this one person means too much to me. It is a troubling possibility. You know I never would have predicted this, but there is no question in my mind that if I was ever faced with the choice of giving my life for Silas’—it’s unrealistic, but perhaps for a medical reason, I wouldn’t hesitate one second—the easiest hard decision I would ever have to make. Surely there’s something divine in that, the willingness to give up one’s life. There’s probably also a lot of evolutionary biology in it—our innate drive to reproduce. (And ask me again when he’s a teenager. We’ll see what the score is then.) We are not helplessly egocentric, as the cynics like to claim; we are capable of intense, selfless love, at least for our own. That same intensity of love can utterly break our hearts—that’s what is frightening. But while our human love bears an analogy to the love of God, it is not the same. The New Testament understands Jesus to have given his life for all, not just for his own. So I think Jesus in this story is showing a certain detachment from his love for Lazarus and his sisters, for the eternal life and love of God cannot be completely spent just on one’s family and friends. It expands beyond this, even to our enemies, to the ones we consider sinners, which I suppose is what we all were to God. And so in this spirit of detachment, Jesus is trying to lift up Martha’s vision beyond her grief for Lazarus. This is wise, for we must love our dearest ones without thinking that all of life depends on them, lest our grief break us. Only on God can we say that all of life depends.
Yet what is so touching about this story is to see Jesus also share in the fragility of grief. His character’s confident detachment holds sway, until Martha’s sister Mary comes out to see him. I think Jesus was closest with Mary; it is Mary who anoints his feet with her hair. And when he sees this dear friend weeping over the death of her brother, and hears her disappointment that he did not arrive in time, and when he sees the crowd who came to pay their respects moved to tears by Mary’s weeping, Jesus’ confident detachment, with its sights set high on God’s eternal glory, fails him. We are told that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and greatly moved.” It is as if Mary and even the crowd of strangers who were so powerfully affected by her, remind him—or remind us the readers—of his humanity, for Jesus is fully human. He breaks down and weeps. He does this in front of the crowd of “Jews”—a problematic term we talked about last week—this crowd who are generally depicted by John as not to be trusted. “The Jews” are often Jesus’ skeptics and enemies in this gospel. But here is a rare moment when he is vulnerable in front of them, and they are moved by his love. Jesus is changed by all of this particular human attachment, that of both Mary and the Jews. The change is marked by the fact that, even though Mary greets Jesus in exactly the same way as Martha did, Jesus does not insist on correcting her and raising her sights beyond Lazarus. He simply asks, “Where have you laid him?” and gets on with it. /
We are called to love everyone, as God has loved all. We are not to restrict our love just for those who love us: our children, parents, lovers, spouses, friends. There is a time and place to detach from our loved ones and to say, as Jesus elsewhere says, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” But even Jesus could not help but be moved by his love for his dearest friends. Let us not imagine that we must forsake our dearest ones, but let us love them truly in the Spirit. Your Lenten discipline card offers some guidance to doing that this week.