This post is something different than I’ve done before.  What follows are the notes I took as I dialogued with the John 11 text about the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Although I am not preaching on this text right now, it’s an example of how I would begin to study a text for preaching.  It is the prequel to the post I wrote earlier this week entitled “Lazarus was unbound, are we?

John 11:32 When 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.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 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.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 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.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 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.”

John 11 includes the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. There is no suspense or surprise about the outcome of this story.  Most of us know how the story ends, but the various theological assumptions revealed by how people respond to Lazarus’ death are worth careful examination.  (NRSV) 

The passage opens with Mary scolding Jesus for not being there sooner to keep her brother from dying, just as her sister Martha had done in verse 21.  We are not ever told Lazarus’ cause of death, but Martha and Mary apparently believes in a God who won’t let bad things happen to good people.  Earlier in the chapter John makes a point of telling us what a faithful disciple she was by reminding us that Mary has been in charge of the church kitchen for as long as anyone can remember. (Actually it says “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” 11:2).  Mary’s complaint is more confusing because we know from the early part of this chapter that Jesus has said Lazarus will not die, but his illness is “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Vs. 4). 

Does that sound a bit self-centered for Jesus?  It does to me.  John tells us repeatedly how much Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and yet he uses their suffering for his own glorification?  In fact John tells us in verse 6 that “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”  And it gets worse.  It isn’t that Jesus doesn’t understand the severity of Lazarus’ condition.  After using the euphemism of sleep to describe Lazarus’ conditions, he learns that, as usual, the disciples don’t get it, “then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead.’”  (Vs. 14).  

All of that is back story and laden with John’s own theological perspective on the divinity of Jesus.  Ironically this passage also is most famous for the shortest verse in the Bible, in some translations, that shows Jesus in one of the most human moments in the Gospels.  Jesus weeps over the death of his dear friend and John tells us twice to be sure we get it that Jesus was “greatly disturbed.”  Even that quite natural emotion in the presence of death gets interpreted differently through two theological lenses.   Some of the spectators see Jesus’ tears as a sign of how much he loved Lazarus while the critics murmur that Jesus who has a great track record of miracles really could have saved Lazarus if he chose to.  

Speaking of theological lenses, John makes sure to let us insider readers of his Gospel know what the real subtext of this whole scene is.  There is a large stone in front of the tomb where Lazarus has been for four days.  Wouldn’t 3 days have been a better analogy to Jesus time in the tomb?  And yes, Martha reminds that the body is going to stink because he is really dead.  And then after John inserts an aside between Jesus and God to be sure we all understand this is all done for the glory of God, Jesus shifts to the imperative tone.  He says in a voice so loud the dead can hear it, “Lazarus, come out!”  

And then he does the second imperative: “Unbind him and let him go!”

What do we need to be unbound from to really come alive?  That question can take those who hear it in many different directions— materialism, nationalism, self-centered ness….

Emptiness – letting go, being unbound from striving for meaning –unbound from fear, doubt, anger, things that don’t satisfy the soul.  For those of us forced to let go of so many things in old age it can be anger, frustration, hopelessness, resentment, or mistrust. 

Lazarus’ resurrection led some to believe and some to go to Caiaphas and start plotting the crucifixion of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb to save the nation.  What rationalization do I use to justify my own selfish desires?  

Resurrection Flowers: Eastertide Week 4


Surveying the lush green of new life this morning I was reminded of a profound theological discussion I had with my then 3-year old daughter Joy some 40 years ago about this time of year. She was out in the yard with me on a warm April afternoon. She was enjoying some outdoor freedom after a long Ohio winter of indoor captivity. I was fighting the perennial and hopeless battle with an army of yellow weeds again invading my lawn.

As I dug each dandelion from my lawn by hand, trying to pry their persistent roots from the soil, Joy stopped me in my tracks with a childlike innocent question. She said, “Daddy, why don’t you like the pretty yellow flowers?” Offering the lame explanation that someone had arbitrarily decided to label this part of God’s creation a “weed” did nothing to satisfy her curiosity, but her question got me thinking and wrestling with issues that resurface as regularly as the pretty yellow flowers.

How often do we label other people or other parts of God’s creation “weeds” that need to be controlled or eliminated? What is the collateral damage to others and to ourselves when we waste time and energy or poison relationships or the environment with pesticides and herbicides to make our lawns and our lives conform to the expectations of the world instead of to God’s vision?

As the suffering in Nepal filled the news and the pain of injustice boiled over again in the streets of Baltimore this week I had to fight the despair echoed at least 16 times where the Psalmists ask, “How long, O Lord?” “How long, will you forget me forever? How long must I bear a pain in my soul?” (13:1-2). “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?” (79:5). “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” (89:46). That litany is summed up most powerfully in Psalm 22:1 in the words Jesus’ quotes on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

We’ve all been there and done that. Despair about personal pain or social injustice and unrest is another powerful enemy of resurrection living. Our Easter faith is often as fragile as the Easter lilies that decorate our sanctuaries on Easter morning. I worked for a florist when I was in college and learned how delicate and tempermental lilies are. We had to keep them at just the right temperature before Easter so they wouldn’t bloom too soon or too late. Not so the mighty dandelion. When the snow melts after a long harsh winter, dandelions not only rise up from their slumber as temperatures rise, there are often a few yellow heads already in bloom that emerge from under the snow.

We have an entire industry we employ to declare war every year on the pesky weeds, but even as they die they put forth thousands of fluffy white seeds that are scattered everywhere by the wind, and a la the Arnold, they mock us with their dying words, “We’ll be back!” And they always are. That’s why the pretty yellow flowers are a better symbol of resurrection than the fragile, short-lived lily.

So each time I behold another hardy, resilient dandelion, I am reminded of the power of resurrection. Death and despair, pain and injustice, hate and violence may seem to be victorious, in the short run, but the ultimate, eternal victory belongs to the God of justice, peace and love.

The logical, rational realm of prose is inadequate to capture the power of resurrection. So it is better experienced in a pretty yellow flower or in poetic imagery like these from “Hymn of Promise” by Natalie Sleeth:

“In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

In our end is our beginning; in our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing; in our life, eternity,
In our death a resurrection; at the last a victory,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

dandelion seeds


As I continue to ponder what it is that keeps me from living into the power of resurrection, fear and doubt keep bubbling to the top of my list. And the Gospel post-resurrection stories speak directly to both of those experiences. John 20:18-31 is perhaps the best example of how fear and doubt can be transformed into faith and belief.

Fear and doubt are like the proverbial chicken and egg question; it’s hard to decide which comes first, but the two certainly seem to usually come in tandem. John’s Gospel tells us that the disciples are hiding in a locked room on the night of Jesus’ resurrection because they are afraid. Earlier in Chapter 20 Peter and John have seen the empty tomb, but we get conflicting reports about what that experience meant to them: “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.” (20:8-10). Verse 8 says they believed, 9 says they didn’t understand; and 10 says they were so unmoved they simply go back home.

But Mary Magdalene, who was the first one at the tomb remains behind and personally encounters the risen Christ (vs. 11-17), and in verse 18 she goes to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” They must not have believed Mary’s tall tale. Women are still often ignored as being overly emotional in such situations. So that evening all the fearful disciples (except Thomas), even though they heard the amazing news of the resurrection, are still locked away in a self-imposed prison of doubt and fear. Jesus comes to them, brings them the peace of the Holy Spirit, shows them the proof of his scarred hands and side, and they see, believe and rejoice.

My friend and colleague, Mebane McMahon, pointed out in last Sunday’s sermon that even though “Doubting Thomas” gets a bad rap for his lack of faith, at least he was out somewhere in Jerusalem while the other ten were in hiding. There’s some evidence of Thomas’ bravery earlier in John (11:16) when Jesus puts his own life in even more danger from his powerful enemies by raising Lazarus from the dead. It is Thomas who says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

But courage is not the same as faith. When told by his friends later that they have seen and touched the risen Christ, Thomas says, “Sorry guys, unless I see this with my own eyes I cannot believe this impossible story.” His rational doubt is stronger than his hope, bolder than his experience of seeing Lazarus resurrected. He, like us, wants evidence, tangible take-to-the bank proof.

Don’t we all? In life’s darkest moments don’t we want certainty? When I was a very naïve college student a co-worker of mine learned of my decision to finally accept my call to ministry. Thinking that one small step gave me insider theological information, she asked me a tough question one day at lunch. Her husband of many years had died suddenly several years before, and even though she seemed to be getting along well as a widow, she was still troubled by something that her pastor had said to her when her husband died. She had asked the pastor an honest doubting question, namely would she see her husband again in heaven. Like all of us, no matter how strong our faith, she wanted some assurance about what happens when we die. The pastor gave her an equally honest answer which was, “I don’t know.” I’m sure he said some other words to comfort her, words of hope and faith in what he believed the answer to her question was, but what she heard and remembered was the doubt.

Of course, unless one has had a near-death experience, “I don’t know” is the only honest answer to that question, and I admire that pastor for his honesty. I do, however, have serious questions about whether he picked the most teachable or pastoral moment to demythologize my friend’s concept of heaven. But the point of the story is that knowledge cannot be the solution to theological doubt. Knowledge about God is important, but living into the power of resurrection requires more than facts to empower a leap of faith.

I am still learning that lesson. I remember walking into my first intro theology class in seminary many years ago thinking, “Finally, I am going to know the answers to all my nagging questions about God!” Remember I said I was even more naïve back then. I had been educated in a system where there was always a 1:1 ratio between questions and answers, not in the mysterious realm of theology where ambiguity is the normal state of being. I wanted concrete answers and instead was taught to seek a faith in things unseen. I felt like Einstein’s teacher the day she asked him “what letter comes after ‘A?’“ His reply was not the “correct” answer she expected. He said, “They all do.”

Like that teacher we want one correct answer to our faith questions. We want faith to eliminate our doubt, but in this life we must learn to be content and trust God when we barely “see in a mirror dimly.” (I Cor. 13:12). Part of our humanity is living with the paradox expressed by the man whose son was healed by Jesus and proclaims, “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Jesus has his moment of doubt on the cross, Peter’s doubt sinks him when he tries to walk on the water; the women at the end of Mark’s Gospel are scared into silence about the resurrection. So how do we live in the power of resurrection, even when doubt threatens to overwhelm us in fearful situations? Is the answer information and education and knowledge, or is it faith and belief? Is it a matter for the head or the heart?

It is, of course, both/and. From the perspective of 68 years of life experience, I am now much more afraid of dogmatic certainty than honest ambiguity. Dogmatic religious certainty in any form results in the kind of bloody conflicts we see all around us today between Sunnis and Shiites, Jews and Palestinians, and yes, the ideological wars between different factions within Christianity. Dogmatism declares exclusion for those with different perspectives and experiences of God, and that exclusion threatens the security and survival of the human race. Paul O’Neill, former Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush, described that danger by comparing philosophy with ideology. The former he said is open to dialogue, change and growth, but ideology is impenetrable by new ideas or facts. Questions of faith belong in the realm of philosophy, but we too often turn them into matters of ideology.

Frederick Buechner says, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith,” it is what keeps us alive and growing. Faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. As good as certainty may appear as a cure for doubt, the reality is that it also kills faith. As Buechner also says, it is not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church each week but the absence, the need for assurance to balance our doubt.

But here’s the good news. When it appears that doubt and fear have the upper hand, resurrection comes to the rescue. God breaks through whatever barriers we have created, appearing in a locked room, not once but twice. The second time is a full week later but notice Thomas is still there – his doubt has not driven him away, nor has it excluded him from the Christian community. And Jesus comes right to Thomas and offers him the same peace and power he gave to the 10 a week before.

Does our search for information, for knowledge about resurrection keep us from experiencing it? One of my personal problems with spending much of my adult life in academic settings is that intellectual pursuits can become doors that lock God’s mystery and ambiguity out. Heavy doses of education can make one suspicious of simple childlike faith. When we sing the great old hymn, “In the Garden,” it’s comforting to walk and talk with Jesus, but then it says, “He tells me I am His own,” and my degreed self cries out, “No, I don’t want to belong to anyone, I am my own person. I can think and reason things out for myself.”

I value my education highly, but I also know the limitations of the human intellect. Jesus doesn’t send Thomas off to seminary or grad school to resolve his doubt, but neither does he send him to an extremely dogmatic faith community on the emotional end of the religious spectrum. Jesus knows Thomas. He accepts him and his inquiring mind that is not afraid to ask hard questions. He has experienced Thomas’ doubts before. In the famous “farewell discourse” in John 14, after Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and you know the way,” it is honest Thomas who raises his hand and says, “Wait a minute, Jesus. We don’t know the way.” And Jesus, to paraphrase, perhaps showing a little frustration says, “How long have I been with you? How many parables have I taught you? How many signs and miracles have I given you? But you do know the way Thomas because you know me, and I am the way.”

Jesus doesn’t want or need disciples who just know about him; he needs followers who know him so personally that we are willing to be like him, resurrected people who embrace fear and doubt and are not crippled by them. Academics would say faith is not simply about epistemology (knowledge) but about ontology (Being). God’s response to fear and doubt is not an on-line course in theology. God doesn’t text us the answers to life’s hard questions. God inserts God’s self into the very midst of our doubting, fearful world to transform our whole being—body, mind and spirit, to resurrect the church, the body of Christ, and through us to transform the world.

God’s peace in Christ finds us, not vice versa, in the midst of our doubt and fear, not after all doubts are resolved. That peace finds us behind locked doors, in classrooms, factories, offices, in churches and seminaries, and even sometimes in the halls of Congress.

But here’s the catch – God’s peace comes only in surrender and relationship with God, to the power of Being itself. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (Vs. 21-22). Peace and faith come only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. That’s really close. But we don’t like anyone invading our personal space, not even and maybe especially Jesus. I sometimes wonder if the disciples were hiding not just from the Jews that day but also from Jesus.

If Jesus gets close to us, really close, there’s a good chance we will never be the same again. They say that a child dies from poverty and hunger somewhere in the world every 3 seconds. 700-800 children have died in the time it takes to read these few pages. If Jesus gets too close to me I might have to actually do something about that, about those 20 that died in the last minute!

If Jesus gets close enough to breathe on us we might have to get out of our heads and into our hearts and out into the world. Faith is a very personal issue, not an intellectual one. It is not what we know but who we know and who knows us. It is who we allow to know us, doubts and all. And if we let Jesus get close enough to get into our hearts, faith trumps doubt and even we who have not seen but still believe can proclaim as Thomas does, “My Lord and My God!”

Good News from Good Friday Zombies?

Sometimes God opens our ears to hear something we’ve missed dozens of times before. Last Sunday morning our church choir’s cantata included part of the Good Friday narrative from Matthew 27 and I heard words from verse 52 that I do not remember hearing before. Matthew describes three world-changing signs at the moment of Jesus’ death, and for some reason the second one has escaped my notice for all of these sixty plus years I have been observing Holy Week.

That verse says, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” That seems like a rather significant event for me to overlook, but I feel better after discovering that none of the other three gospels mention it either. My next thought was, “Why would anyone be surprised that Jesus arose from the dead on Sunday if all these other people had already done it on Friday?” Matthew answers that question for us in verse 53: “After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.” The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary explains that this way: “Since Matthew wants to connect the raising of the Israelite saints with the death of Jesus… but also wants Jesus’ own resurrection to be primary this results in the peculiar picture of the saints’ being resurrected on Good Friday but remaining in their tombs (or in the open country) until after the Easter appearances of Jesus. That we have theology in narrative form, and not in bare historical reporting is clear.” (Vol. VIII, p.493)

I have not had time to do any other serious research on this, but since I wanted to share it on Good Friday, here are my thoughts about this on the day when Christians remember the gruesome death and suffering of the Christ and reflect on what his life, death and resurrection mean for us today.

First, I have to move beyond the literal, historical filter my mind wants to use to understand this story. If a lot of once dead Jewish saints were walking the streets of Jerusalem, I’m sure someone would have made a zombie movie about it by now. So, there must be a deeper, symbolic meaning to this startling detail that only Matthew includes.

The other two signs Matthew describes before and after the tombs being opened may help; so here’s the three in context:
“51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The curtain of the temple refers to the barrier in the temple that separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple. This imagery foreshadows the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE which Matthew would have known about by the time these words were written. Symbolically they show how the death and resurrection of Christ destroy the barriers of the law and religiosity that separate the omnipresent spirit of God from human kind. God is not confined to the temple but is everywhere and always available to us all. The opening of the tombs shows that not even the final barrier of death itself can stop the life-giving eternal power of God.

And then, the more familiar third sign is the conversion of the Roman Centurion, the part of this narrative that is included in Mark and Luke’s gospels as well. That this Gentile is the first Christian believer to be liberated, not just by Christ’s sacrificial death, but by the faithful, calm, confident way he accepted and overcame his cross tells us that no false human barriers of race, creed, ethnicity, ideology or lifestyle can stop the love and power of God.

Jesus lived and taught and died and lives for all of God’s children. No matter what exactly happened on that hill far away 2000 years ago, the spirit of grace, love and mercy for us all lives and reigns for any and all who hear, see, and feel the power of resurrection and believe.

May whatever barriers are holding you back this day, whatever walls divide you from God or from your fellow human beings be blown away this Good Friday.