Sermon at St Margaret’s, Budapest (2023.03.26) Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year A Readings: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45 “Unbind him and let him go!” My youngest son, Ágoston, is named after St. Augustine of Hippo, who lived in North Africa in the 4th and 5th centuries and was arguably the greatest Christian theologian after perhaps Saint Paul himself. Augustine once commented that the resurrection of Lazarus we see in today’s reading from the Gospel of John was so important that it holds a “prime place in preaching”.1 Why? Because not only is it a sign of the Final Resurrection, but like Lazarus, Jesus calls us to come out of the tomb; through confessing our sins in genuine contrition, to be free from the foul- smelling bandages and burial cloths that have bound and entangled us. Furthermore, not uncoincidentally given the approach of Easter, all the readings today engage the same central theme. The story of the Valley of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel shares the unforgettable image of desiccated bones being resurrected back to life through the Spirit. The Psalmist’s patient waiting on the Lord – who is merciful and will redeem us from sin – is also spoken from the depths of human existence, De Profundis, as the Psalm is called in Latin. And Paul’s proclamation of new life for our mortal bodies, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in all who belong to Christ, further strengthens this theme of new life. Easter, like Christmas, holds a dual meaning. While Advent and Christmas commemorate the historical nativity of Jesus, they also anticipate his Second Coming. So too with Easter, which commemorates the historical death and resurrection of Jesus, but also anticipates the Final Resurrection at the end of time. The historical (the this-worldly) and the eschatological (the next world, at the end of time), quite literally bleed together. That is the mystery of faith: Christ was dead; Christ has risen; Christ will come again. But back to the main point before I get lost in the mystery between the “now” and the “not yet”: Like Lazarus, Jesus calls us to come out of the tomb; through confessing our sins in genuine contrition, to be free from the foul-smelling bandages and burial cloths that have bound and entangled us. This isn’t a popular message today, given the erosion of the concept of sin in recent centuries. But new isn’t always better, and while Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT are developments that have the potential to radically reshape society, there is also wisdom to be gleaned from our pre-internet grandparents, or for that matter, the ancient Christian tradition. The challenge is making sense of it, looking through spectacles shaped by a culture two millennia removed. Whether that is reassuring or depressing, depends on the person. One thing is clear, the problem isn’t unique to us. In this encounter between Jesus and his followers at the Raising of Lazarus, he spoke opaquely, even equivocally. The meaning of his words and actions only became clear later. When Jesus said that Lazarus was ‘asleep’ or that he will rise again, what exactly did he mean? 1 Tractates on the Gospel of John, 49.1
Awaken from sleep? Rise at the final judgment? And what exactly is the final resurrection? Martha and the other disciples did not – could not – fully understand what he was saying. In many ways, we’re in that same boat. This past Wednesday after Evening Prayer, we were discussing how incomprehensible life after death is. Christians typically fall into one of two camps regarding the Kingdom of God, either emphasizing its this-worldly nature, or on the opposite side, its other-worldly nature. My own guess is that it probably includes both. At the end of the day, it will probably remain unclear until the Resurrection itself. But Jesus doesn’t care so much about Martha’s, or our, understanding of how it will all play out. He simply asks if she believes in him. Second, given their recent trouble in Judea, the disciples were not keen to go back there. Indeed, Thomas’ exasperation boils over as he mutters under his breath to the others: “Let’s go too so that we can die with him.” Interestingly, conventional wisdom takes the ‘him’ who is dying to refer to Jesus, but the grammar of the Greek favours its reference to Lazarus.2 Who knows, maybe the disciples were worried about catching an early version of Covid-19 from Lazarus. In either case, Thomas’ response stems from unbelief and despair, whereas Martha’s response is the opposite. After Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, and then goes on to promise life after death to those who believe in him, Martha confesses: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Echoing Peter’s confession of Christ in the other Gospels, her words are almost identical to what John later states is the very purpose of his Gospel: “These [words] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31) Third, Lazarus is resuscitated, not resurrected. As Fr Frank pointed out, Lazarus has not been seen in centuries so we can probably assume that he died again at some point. I love the Orthodox icons depicting this scene. Everyone standing next to the tomb and covering their noses with their clothes, expecting the foul stench when the stone is rolled away. But there is a deeper meaning at play in this passage as well. Many of the Early Church Fathers understood the raising of Lazarus as a metaphor for sin and a guilty conscience. It is like we are lying in a tomb of sin. Yet God in his abundant grace calls us to come out – enabling us to repent and confess our sin, and thus be healed and delivered from our bondage. That is the De Profundis of Psalm 130. The only way to get from this life – from the here and now of sin and shame – to the life to come, is the path of repentance and faith. It would be great if our response to the vagaries and vicissitudes of life mirrored that of Martha, but I’m guessing it often resembles Thomas – there together with Jesus’ disciples, but inwardly full of anxiety and doubt. In fact, it seems to be a pattern for him. On the other hand, Judas Iscariot, starting from a similar place, responds even worse. While I was in Rome, I decided to ‘try out’ the sacrament of confession. While it is also part of the Anglican tradition, it was never part of my experience, and like C.S. Lewis, I found taking that step enormously difficult. While I still haven’t completely worked out what I think about confession, I can say without hesitation, that through it, something changed in me. I felt clean in a way that is hard to put into words; like I was reborn. Perhaps Lazarus had a similar experience. 2 Michaels, J. Ramsey, The Gospel of John. NICOT. Accordance electronic edn., 2010.
This week, whether you go to confession or not, I encourage you to give some time reflecting on your response to Jesus. Does Christ attract you? Do you like him and are excited to follow him, to become more like him? A great way to prepare for confession is to ask: “What have I thought, felt, said, done, or been that has brought him joy or pain?” Next week is Palm Sunday, the day people – we – proclaimed Jesus as Saviour, and yet crucified him a week later. An appropriate occasion to take stock of what is going on inside our heart with respect to who Jesus is. The season of Lent is a gift from the Church that has been handed down through the ages. An invitation for some Spring cleaning. To put ashes on our forehead and examine our hearts, so that on Easter morning, with Martha, we too can proclaim, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe...’ Amen Ordinand John Wilson