John 11: 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
As I work on sermons, each week I try to keep the following questions in mind: 1) What does this passage say? 2) What do we need to hear? 3) What do I think I hear God telling us to understand from this passage, beginning with myself? And 4) What do I think I hear God telling us to do about this passage, beginning with myself?
First of all, what today’s passage says: My sister Maria has always been a great wordsmith. She often combines words and concepts in surprising and striking ways. She was only four or five years old when she asked me, “Do you realize that when you’re dead, you’re dead for the rest of your life?” Even at her young age she recognized the humor in that.
In that same vein, we could say that “When you’re alive in Christ, you’re alive for the rest of your death.” Which won’t be long. Or, as Jesus put it, “Whoever believes in me, even though he die, yet shall he live.” But Jesus not only spoke of his power to conquer death and to give life anew, he demonstrated such power when he raised Lazarus from the dead. He did this in advance of his own death, at the risk of death, because he raised Lazarus from the dead right under the nose of his enemies in Judah and Jerusalem. And, oddly enough, it was that death-defying act of raising a man from the dead that convinced them that they had to kill Jesus. Go figure.
As for what we need to hear: Death and taxes are said to be the two most dependable realities we ever have to face. The closer we get to April 15, the less sure I am which one is scarier. Most of the year, however, I’d wager on death. Death is the unknown yet unavoidable force that stalks our hopes, makes a mockery of our plans, and breaks so brutally our most treasured and beautiful relationships. It is the fear and force by which tyrants hold their subjects captive and extort from them tribute and obedience at the cost of their consciences and character. The dignity of even kings and queens is mocked when bodies can no longer attend to themselves and decay. Few of us are strangers to the tears and grief of Mary, Martha and Jesus in today’s passage. People hope and pray and look longingly for some sign of a crack, some glimmer of light shining through the death’s dark wall of separation and humiliation, for some sign of life, some hope of reunion, on the other side.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he provided a real break in the wall of death, and let in that light of life and that hope of reunion we have so long sought through the veil of death. Then he sealed the deal with his own resurrection. Those were death-defying acts that declared the death of death. As John Donne said in a poem of his some five hundred years ago, “Death, thou shall die.” That’s the hope with which I lead every funeral service.
That’s what this passage calls us to understand. But not all—there’s more. Martha shared the belief of many Jews at that time, that there would eventually be a resurrection of the dead, such as her recently-deceased brother Lazarus. “I know he will rise again at the resurrection at the last day,” Martha said to Jesus.
Jesus evidently found her confession true, but lacking. There was more that Martha needed to know, and so do we. So Jesus told her: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though he die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” The words “I am” are heavily loaded: they recall God speaking to Moses through the burning bush, and his answer to Moses’ question, “Who shall I tell them has sent me?” [to Egypt]. “Tell them,” God replied, “that I AM has sent you.” Whenever Jesus says “I am the bread of life,” or “I am the Good Shepherd, or “I Am the Light of the World,” or, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” or “I Am the resurrection and the life,” he is claiming to be every bit as much the revelation of God as what Moses received through the burning bush. So let’s hear, with Martha, that Jesus not only has the power to give resurrection to the dead, he IS the power of resurrection from the dead. Indeed, Jesus is that light of hope, healing and reunion shining through the dark wall of death that bounds all our lives and relationships. Our deliverance from death is not mechanical; it is personal and relational.
Another thing Jesus wants Martha and us to understand is that this resurrection life does not have to wait until after death. It is available even now, before death. Jesus offers Mary, Martha and us not only eternal life after death, but eternal life before death as well. That’s how I understand his words, “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
We typically ask, “Is there life after death?” And when we share our faith, we sometimes ask, “Do you want to go to heaven after you die?” But the more I read the Bible, the more convinced I am that God’s great Re-creation project, called the kingdom of God, is as much about bringing heaven to us, now, as it is about bringing us to heaven, later. The Bible ends not with people going up to heaven, but with heaven coming down to us in the New Jerusalem. God’s great Re-creation and Reunion project is going on even now, so that we might know something of eternal life and experience it before we die, even before the New Jerusalem descends. For this life and this world count as much to God as do the next ones.
So, Jesus offers eternal life before death, not just an eternal quantity of life, but an eternal quality of life that we can know even now, as he dwells in us, so that eternal life after death does not come as a shock.
What do I mean by an eternal quality of life? I got to hold something with a nearly eternal quality once: a three hundred year old violin. During a concert of my college orchestra, a string on my violin blew out. My violin teacher was sitting in the chair behind me, and she quickly offered me her violin in exchange for mine, which I accepted. Whenever she was supposed to play on the missing string, she simply shifted up and down on the remaining strings, she was that good. As soon as I started playing on her instrument, I immediately marveled at the difference between my adequate, seventy-year-old workhorse of a violin, good, but not great, and the sterling quality of her three hundred year old violin. Her ancient violin was so superb that playing it was like the difference between eating an old, cold sandwich from a vending machine and a gourmet meal in a five star French restaurant.
After the concert was over, she said, “Okay, you can give me back my fiddle now.” To which I replied, “Unh-hon—and “Later, please?” From playing on her timeless violin, I realized that this is why people go deep into debt to study at world class conservatories where they complete like race horses and work like draft horses, why they go in hock to buy million dollar instruments, and work ungodly schedules in orchestras and ensembles to pay it off.
I did give her back her violin, by the way.
If the people who play such instruments do their best to sustain them and maintain them, and play them, those instrument can practically live forever. Her violin has already outlived several violinists and will hopefully outlive even more. People can enjoy playing and hearing it for centuries to come. And each year, the sound will only get sweeter and more resonant. The closer it comes to being an eternal instrument, the more it has an eternal quality of sound.
I’ve run across some people who remind me of that violin, people in whom I have sensed something eternal and death-defying. And I’m not the only one to meet them. In the documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit, no less than a self-described agnostic said that she hugged an older woman and sensed in her something as solid and enduring as a giant old oak tree. The woman she had hugged was a French Protestant peasant woman in Le Chambon Sur Lignon, France, one of many Protestants in that community who hid Jews during the Nazi occupation.
The woman who hugged her was the daughter of one of the Jewish people whom this older woman had sheltered and saved from the death camps in Germany. She was alive because of what this older woman had done for her parents. They met each other out in the older woman’s garden, while she was hoeing weeds. No angels were visible, descending or ascending, no light beamed down from above through the clouds while choirs of thousands sang oooh and ahhhh. Yet in thanking and hugging this simple elderly French Protestant peasant woman, the younger woman sensed something solid, ageless and eternal. That certain solid and enduring something, that was revealed in her courage and compassion, I would say is that eternal quality of life of which Jesus spoke when he said, “whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”
Now that I’ve said the two things I think we need to hear from this passage, 1) that Jesus is the person and the power of our eternal lives, and 2) that this eternal life is not just an eternal quantity of life for the future but an eternal quality of life for the here and now, what does this passage call us to do? It calls us to do death-defying things, like what Jesus did.
The first of those death-defying things is belief, to have faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Jesus Christ is a death-defying act. Sometimes its a death-defying act because the cost of believing in Jesus is death. It nearly was for that French Protestant woman whose faith called her to hide that Jewish woman’s parents. It often is for new Christians in some parts of India, or in some countries like Iran and Pakistan, where conversion runs afoul of Hindu radicalism or Muslim laws.
But even apart from persecution, to choose love and loyalty to Jesus Christ is to defy the tyranny of death and to dare to live with him and each other, and to love each other, as though we will never be separated, as though we will do so for keeps. For that is what we expect. Some people portray the Christian hope of eternal life as a cowardly denial of death. But I think of that hope as courageous embrace of life and love. Getting born the first time required no courage on our parts; I don’t remember anyone asking me if I wanted to enter the world. But God gives us the choice to be born again and to accept or reject eternal life with him and others. No one should say Yes to that choice without the courage to fight for life, love and compassion.
Because that choice of trust in Christ will bring in its wake other choices that also require death-defying courage, such as the death-defying courage of that French woman whose spirit felt like a tree. So when Jesus said to Martha, “Whoever lives by believing in me will never die,” and when he asked her, “Do you believe this?” he was not just fishing for an affirmation of faith. He was asking, in effect, “Are you with me?” and “Are you going to hang in there with me whenever you must make the difficult choice and take the courageous step of trusting me to be your life forever, and acting like you trust me to be your life forever?”
Like people in Liberia who are now hosting war refugees from Ivory Coast, sheltering and feeding them even though they’re having to cook up next year’s rice and corn seeds. If you should ask them why they take that risk, I think they would say “Its the least we can do, especially since so many of us were sheltered by the Ivoirians during our civil war.” And they might add what I heard so many people say in Africa last month, “By the grace of God we are here today, and we’re trusting God for tomorrow.”
And its the faith of V.J. Smith and his friends with MADDADS who are out on the streets many nights of the week looking for gang members, drug dealers and aimless youth, trying to keep them out of trouble. Each time they lead vigils at the places where shootings have gone down, they do so knowing it could have been them, and that one dark night it could be them, if they get in the wrong person’s face.
But an eternal quality of life is not only about risk and cost. We can also know this eternal quality of life through the love we give and receive, through the assurance we have of God’s love for us, through our assurance of salvation, and through the joy and confidence we can have, that God is working toward our eternal good, whatever our circumstances. Over time we may come to take such things for granted. But they are gifts, even our spiritual birthright, that God gives us even now. They are signs that Jesus is already our life, and soon to be our resurrection.
Those blessings, and the risks I’ve mentioned, are the fruits of a death-defying faith, the kind that Jesus asked of Mary and Martha, and what he asks yet of us today. Its the faith to trust him through life and death and beyond, and the faith to live and to love in such trust. Whenever we trust and obey him, we experience something of eternal life here and now, not just for the future, an eternal quality of life, as well as an eternal quantity of life.