I am the resurrection and the life
The Fifth Sunday of Lent is often called Passion Sunday. It marks the beginning of Passiontide, when our thoughts are drawn to contemplate the drama of Christ’s passion, particularly his trial and crucifixion.
In the Synoptic gospels, a range of reasons for the trial of Jesus are given. For example, for Mark, it is the charge of blasphemy and the hint of insurrection which accompanies the cleansing of the temple. Trouble for the chief priests, trouble for Pilate. And of course, the narrative makes sense - there is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by the cleansing of the temple, the scene is set for conflict between Jesus and his detractors, and so the passion narrative unfolds.
But in John’s gospel there is none of that. He describes a very different sequence of events. The cleansing of the temple provides not the prelude to the passion but stands right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. If there is a prelude to the passion, then John offers us the raising of Lazarus.
Lazarus is raised from the dead and then John says this: ‘Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.’
Lazarus is raised from the dead and Caiaphas prophesies that one man must die for the people. And just to reinforce the point, a few moments later, Jesus comes to the home of Lazarus, where much to the consternation of Judas, Mary anoints Jesus with a costly perfume kept ‘for the day of (his) burial’. John skilfully weaves together these stories about Lazarus, about Mary and Martha, to provide a backdrop for the unfolding of his passion narrative. John records that ‘When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.’
We sometimes miss the significance of John’s account here, and yet it is important to grasp its meaing. Raymond Brown’s classic commentary on John suggests that the sequence of events described by John is ‘another instance of the pedagogical genius of the Fourth Gospel’. While the Synoptics present Jesus’ condemnation as a reaction to his entire public ministry, so that we are told in Luke 19.37, that the people were praising Jesus because ‘of all the mighty miracles they had seen’, ‘the Fourth Gospel is not satisfied with such a generalisation. It is neither sufficiently dramatic not clear-cut to say that all Jesus’ miracles led to enthusiasm on the part of some and hate on the part of others. And so the writer has chosen to take one miracle and to make this the primary representative of all the mighty miracles’ recorded in the other gospels. With extraordinary drama, John gives expression to the true identity of Jesus Christ. He is the resurrection and the life – and that faith and conviction changes everything. And because this forms the prelude to John’s account of the passion, we need to consider carefully the theological significance of this insight. And one of the things that I want to suggest to you this evening is that the Orthodox tradition has grasped something of John’s theological insight that many modern biblical commentators may have missed.
“By raising Lazarus from the dead before Your Passion, You confirmed the universal resurrection, O Christ our God! Like the children with palms of victory, We cry out to You, O Vanquisher of Death; Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!” (Apolytikion, First Tone)
These words come from the Orthodox tradition, and in the orthodox tradition just before the observance of Holy Week, is Lazarus Saturday. Indeed, for the entire week before Holy Week, the Church’s Liturgy makes Lazarus the centre of attention. At Vespers on Monday, we hear ‘Today the sickness of Lazarus appears to Christ as he walk on the other side of the Jordan’. On Tuesday, ‘Yesterday and today Lazarus is sick’, on Wednesday, ‘Today the dead Lazarus is being buried and his relatives weep’, on Thursday, ‘For two days now Lazarus has been dead…’, and finally, on Friday, ‘On the morrow Christ comes…. to raise the dead brother of Martha and Mary…’
The Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, notes that the entire week is spent in the spiritual contemplation of the forthcoming encounter between Christ and Death – first in the person of His friend, Lazarus, then in Christ’s own Death…’ but he goes on to note that the consequence of this remembrance of the resurrection of Lazarus as the prelude to our observance of Holy Week is that our whole observance of Holy Week is suffused with and shaped by our faith in the resurrection. With the assurance of the declaration that Jesus gives life to the dead, we are prepared to enter Holy Week.
And it is important to grasp this as we journey through Holy Week, because I think it reveals the fundamental truth at the heart of John’s description of the identity of Jesus: the glory of God is revealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Western tradition, for some reason, theologians are always trying to break the crucifixion and resurrection apart. Think of all those theologies of atonement that focus on the complex transactions effected on Good Friday without hardly a nod in the direction of Easter Day.
When I was first ordained as a Deacon, I remember having to learn the Exsultet, the Easter Song of Praise, that is sung at the Easter Vigil and marks the beginning of our easter celebration. It takes some practising. And I remember learning it and singing it again and again during Holy Week, determined to get it right. But I also remember feeling slightly awkward – surely I should wait until after Good Friday before singing this Easter Song of Praise. Surely I needed to enter into the depths of the tragedy and dereliction of Good Friday before rushing too quickly to the resurrection. And with the pious intensity of youth, surely what I needed to ensure was that my Holy Week was really grim.
And yet, John the Evangelist subverts all that. Life is sometimes grim enough. Jesus wants us to rise up and to become fully alive. He calls us out of the tomb we carry within us. And he teaches us that being fully alive involves embracing the mystery of self-giving love.
John’s description of the resurrection of Lazarus right at the beginning of his account of the passion reminds us that as we are drawn into the paschal mystery, we are drawn not simply into some event long ago in the dim and distant past. We are brought into an encounter with an eternal reality, the One who was crucified and who has been raised from the dead, Jesus Christ, the One who declares from the very outset, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. Dying and living, he declares God’s love and opens the gate of glory.