The Word: The agent of creation (July 24, 2022)

A uniform lesson for July 24, 2022.

Richard Boyce

Uniform Lesson for July 24, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: John 11:17-27, 38-44

Two lessons ago, we read the story of a little boy whom Jesus healed before death could capture him. This week, we read the story of a man named Lazarus, a close friend of Jesus, who was also battling an illness. In this story, however, Jesus not only delays his response (v. 6), but refuses to heal at a distance. No, this is a story of proximity, close proximity — to suffering, to death, to the stench of the corpse of a dear friend. How does the Word respond to the death of a loved one? Here, the Word once more calls, first to his friend: “Lazarus, come out!” (v. 43). Then, the Word gives an order to the witnesses: “Unbind him, and let him go!” (v. 44). Surely, part of the challenge of this week’s lesson is to decide which of these commands is the most unbelievable and miraculous.

Healing over time

Two lessons ago, we noted that the Word can heal at a distance, but not over time. The storyteller makes it clear that the simultaneity of the speaking and the healing are a necessary part of the miracle (John 4:52-53). But in today’s story, there is ambiguity regarding both death and time. We do not know immediately if Lazarus is dead or sleeping, nor do we know when he will rise again (v. 23). Martha believes that Lazarus will rise again “in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 24) to which Jesus replies, “I
am the resurrection and the life”
(v. 25). Note the tenses here and hold on to the ambiguity. Every time I’ve taught this lesson, someone observes, “Well, Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again. Right?” What do you say?

In the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Common Worship, the presider says these words over the water: “We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. From it we are raised to share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Again, note the tenses. Will the person raised by these waters die again? Yes, you say, obviously. But, in what sense? The liturgy continues: “Pour out your Holy Spirit upon N. that she may have the power to do your will, and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.” Did you catch that? “Continue forever in the risen life of Christ.” You can’t continue something that hasn’t already begun! The PC(USA) Book of Order puts it this way: “Baptism thus connects us with God’s creative purpose, cleansing power, and redemptive promise from generation to generation” (W-3.0402). This is a resurrection that extends over time but begins even now. Is anybody listening — like Martha and like Mary. Like us? What kind of creative Word is this?

Come out!

One thing is for sure: Lazarus was really dead. Jesus weeps over him and is greatly troubled. Martha is more explicit. Prior to the stone being rolled away she said, “already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (v. 39). Resurrection in John is not a metaphor: This is a bodily resurrection. As the Word created life at the beginning of time, the Word can re-create life even four days after death. The kingdom becomes present in Jesus. Death, the enemy, has already lost its sting. Though we will experience the earthly deaths of people we love and thus grieve, we do not grieve as “those who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). No, the Word commands Lazarus to come out. And he does, now, in the present. Jesus is the great “I am.”

Unbind him, and let him go

To say resurrection is not a metaphor does not mean it cannot take on metaphorical dimensions. What persons and communities have we given up on and counted as dead? Whom do we try to keep tied up and bound so that we no longer have to deal with their wounds or hurts, and the stench they cause? Why does the church of Jesus Christ continue to bow down to the powers of death, both at the grave and in our government, in church and in state? Jesus, the Word, shouts out: “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44). Wow! First, we had the resurrection of an individual. Now we have the creation of a new kind of community.

For discussion:

Which command of Jesus is the greatest in this passage — the first or the second?

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