“Transmitters of Life”
My annotated Bible says that the raising of Lazarus is the “crowning miracle” revealing Jesus as the giver of life.” For some of us this is a true statement. We believe in the physical bodily resurrection, without question. If John says that Jesus called Lazarus to come out of the grave, he did. For others of us the idea of Lazarus coming out of the grave is incomprehensible. We don’t believe it and no amount of arguing will get us to think otherwise.
Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited, “I belong to a generation that finds very little that is meaningful or intelligent in the teachings of the church concerning Jesus Christ. It is a generation largely in revolt because of the general impression that Christianity is essentially an other-worldly religion” (p. 29). He is speaking for those of us who do not find the story of Jesus and Lazarus meaningful or intelligent. It is not a “crowning miracle.”
Once we frame the question in this way, do we believe it happened or not, we are stuck. It’s a “yes” “no” question. We cannot say, “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.” There is no middle ground and no amount of arguing or fact finding is going to move anyone from one camp to the other. But I think when we ask “do you believe this?” “Could this possibly have happened the way that John describes?’ When we approach the text with this question in mind, we are asking the wrong question. I think that Christians living in the first or second century of the common era did not think about this question. They did not try to prove the existence of God or the reality of miracles.
I think the gospels were written as teaching manuals. The purpose of the gospels was to introduce people to the Christian faith and to teach them, and now to teach us, about discipleship. So the question we ought to ask ourselves is not “did this really happen?” But what does the raising of Lazarus teach us about discipleship? What does it mean for us to be followers of the Way of Jesus?
Toanswer this question we have to turn to the beginning of the Gospel of John where we read, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” That’s poetic language. And in chapter 1 verse 14, John says, “the Word became a human being and dwelt among us full of grace the truth.” This is a radical statement. It is an affirmation of the worth and dignity of our personhood, our humanity. Whatever we may think about the raising of Lazarus, what happens here is a powerful affirmation that he is loved by Jesus and by his sisters. Death is not the end of their love for him.
The sad truth is that we live in a society that seems to be intent on denying the worth and value of the “Other” person if that person does not conform to the “father knows best” world of the 1950’s. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other research groups tell us that there is a rise in hate crimes against Blacks, LGBTQ people, Transgender people and their parents, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, the list goes on. People who are members of what we call racial-ethnic-gender minorities are targeted by legislation and hate groups. There is what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death.” While in his encyclical he focused attention on abortion and euthanasia, and I don’t agree with him on either point, I do agree with his challenge for Christians to become ambassadors, craftsmen and craftswomen of a new society. I think that is what the story of Lazarus is really about. When confronted with a culture of death, we are summoned to be stewards of life. Howard Thurman says that the “high water mark” of Christianity is the affirmation that God cares for me. Paul says in Romans chapter 8, “There is nothing in the world as it is or as it shall be, nothing in the height or depth of all creation, that can separate us from the love of God.”
The question for us is, “Can we still believe that the Word of God became a human being and dwelt among us full of grace and truth?” Can we believe that by the grace of God we are summoned to love one another? We cannot love one another if we deny the moral worth and value of the other.
To go back to the 11th chapter of John, Lazarus is dead. He has been dead for four days. Jesus weeps for him. Mary weeps. Their sorrow is real. Then Jesus goes to the tomb and calls Lazarus by name and commands him to come out. When Lazarus appears something very interesting happens. Jesus tells the people who are gathered to unbind him. The community needs to be present and to participate before this act of Jesus can be complete. Life is more than escaping the grave, Lazarus will die again. But he cannot live without being part of a community that welcomes him and supports him and unbinds him.
I wasn’t sure how I wanted to end this sermon. I think I will share a personal story. When I met with DOC clergy this week, it was my turn to be the program. So I told those present that I wanted to use my time to introduce myself. I said that I am part of an international family–we are Turkish, French, Canadian, and US citizens. I am part of an interreligious family–atheist, none, Muslim, and Christian. I am part of an interracial family–black and white. And I am part of a transgender family. When I look at the social and political landscape of the United States today, it is not a friendly place for a family like mine. That is one reason why I stay in the church–for all its faults and shortcomings, the church seeks to be and tries to promote a culture of life.
As I read the 11th Chapter of John, I find a challenge. Rather than waiting to see what God is going to do, it seems to me that the passage focuses on us. In the midst of a culture of death, there are opportunities to embrace life and affirm the worth and dignity of our neighbors. In one of my favorite poems, D. H. Lawrence calls us “transmitters of life.” He says, “
as we live we are transmitters of life. And if we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us…
If, as we work, we can transmit life into our work, life, still more life, rushes into us
To compensate, to be ready and we ripple with life through the days
Even if it is a woman making an apple dumpling, or a man a stool,
If life goes the pudding, good is the pudding, good is the stool
Content is the woman, with fresh life rippling into her
Content is the man
Give and it shall be given unto you is still the truth about life…
It means kindling the life-quality where it is not,
Even if it is only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.
Today you are a transmitter of life. Thanks be to God.