Sermon by Rev. Combs 2/10/19
No book has a higher Christology, the study of Christ, than the Gospel of John. His persistent focus on divinity is evident throughout: instead of being born to Mother Mary, Christ existed eternally; upon meeting someone for the first time, he knows their thoughts before they do; face-to-face with his execution, he’s the one in control; on the cross his life isn’t taken, he freely gives it away. Although he located in time and space, Christ hovers just above the fray in his perfection, his feet never quite touching the ground of embodied experience.
Except in chapter 11. At the zenith of his narrative, John tells a story with an uncharacteristically low Christology. Jesus has gotten word that one of his best friends is nearing the end. By the time he arrives in Bethany a few days later, Mary and Martha meet him outside the cemetery with the news: Lazarus is dead. Through the iron gates and past the surrounding headstones adorned with plastic bouquets, down to where the green tent is set up over a hole in the ground, Jesus falls to his knees overcome with the loss.
In the shortest and, arguably, most profound verse in scripture, Jesus wept. With such emphasis on Christ everywhere else, why does John include this story about Jesus in his Gospel?
John 11:32-44When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Death gets redefined as physical sleep that has no power over eternal life.
Models friendship between Jesus, Mary, and Martha.
Other people’s liberation requires our participation.
There’s one call you dread most as a chaplain. I was doing an overnight shift that Friday, the only minister in the entire hospital. The beeping vibration of the pager beside my pillow woke me, and I stumbled over to the phone and called the flashing number back. “Pediatric Emergency Room,” the voice on the other end said, “Come immediately.” I tucked in my shirt, affixed my I.D. badge, and tried to look presentable at 3 in the morning. Arriving at the children’s hospital across the street, I walked through the pastel waiting room with the animal mural on one wall and by the garage where the ambulance still had its lights flashing. In the O.R., half a dozen doctors and twice as many nurses huddled over a small boy. There was a fury of activity until there wasn’t. The surgeon checked the clock on the wall and pronounced the time of death. A few words of condolence were offered and then I was asked to take over. Before opening the door to the private waiting room, I could hear a violent commotion, primal shrieks, and anguished pauses. Inside, the aunts and cousins were sitting shell shocked, their bodies numb to the news. But the mother was face down, her arms and legs flailing, colliding with furniture and wall, convulsing and screaming, “My son! My son! My son!” Hearing the uproar, a hospital administrator barged in and started giving the bereaved orders, “Get up off the floor… Sit in the chair… Drink some water… Calm down… You’ve got to control yourself.” Unsure of my role after only a few weeks on the job, I remembered from seminary that pastoral care at its most basic requires empathizing with suffering. Crawling under a table, I laid down beside the mother as she cried.
While I never had a chance to process what happened with that administrator, I wonder if she, like so many of us, was unknowingly influenced by Stoicism. We remember from Greek history, the Stoics believed a blank stare and stiff upper lip was the only response to hardship. With a detached submission to every situation, reactions are reserved, feelings are avoided, and emotions are repressed.
When Jesus showed up at Lazarus’ tomb, just like he has at every other graveside since, he was anything but stoic. Knees quivering, stomach piercing, nose running, eyes blurring, and face buried in his hands, he falls apart. And in losing it, he models for the rest of us the snotty messiness of losing a loved one.
John includes this story because, here more than any other place in the entire Bible, Jesus humanizes grief.
As long as sorrow remains, the Church doesn’t need any more Christians, students of Christ refusing to emote on their way to heaven. Instead, the Gospel calls us to be followers of Jesus, practitioners who love with such intimacy and vulnerability that our hearts will be broken a billion times over.
There, collapsed on the ground in the fetal position, remember that the Word became flesh because there’s nothing more holy than being fully human.