Lessons from John: chapter 11 (cont)

John 11 (cont.) Jesus Wept for Lazarus

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 27, 2007

Craig D. Atwood

Introduction                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. Last Sunday was confirmation, and my daughter’s text came from the Epistle of John. We were afraid that it would come from Tolkien. “Not all who wander are lost” might have been appropriate. We went to see Spiderman this week. One too many villains for my taste, but a good message about revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Perhaps these days, it takes a super hero to teach us basic biblical truths. Today is Pentecost in the church calendar. We have seen that some of the stories in John’s Gospel took place during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. The way this became a Christian festival was because of the story in the Book of Acts in which the Spirit of Christ came upon the Apostles after Jesus had left them. Today is often called the birthday of the Church, but we will see that in John’s perspective, the church began on the cross. Tomorrow is Memorial Day in the Federal calendar. Tomorrow is a day to remember the thousands of men and women who died in uniform in our nation’s many wars. We pray for the mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, wives, and husbands who are grieving. And we pray that our politicians will be wise enough and brave enough to find ways to keep the list of those we remember on Memorial Day from growing any longer. As we look at the graves at Arlington and read names on monuments, we are reminded that war may sometimes be necessary, but it is never good.

Death                        Our lesson for this week takes place in a cemetery. Last week we began the 11th chapter of John and the story of the raising of Lazarus. I mentioned that John has placed this story in a pivotal place in the gospel. The context of the Bible stories gets lost if we rely exclusively on the lectionary. You need to read the gospels straight through from time to time. The disciples warn Jesus that they had just fled from Jerusalem because the priests and Pharisees had tried to stone him during the Hanukah feast. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem, and it would be dangerous for them all if they returned. It would have been very easy for Jesus to reply to Martha’s message by saying that he could not risk coming to the aid of Lazarus.

            After two days, he tells the disciples that it is time to go and wake Lazarus up. The disciples protest and debate, but finally Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This is a poignant moment in the Gospel of John unlike any in the other gospels. Thomas has no illusions of a triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the people crowning Jesus as the King of the Jews. He knows that they had barely escaped death a few weeks before, and now they will be walking back into danger. Like many soldiers through the centuries, Thomas marches with his friend to meet his own death bravely. He does not even have the story of Jesus’ resurrection to give him hope as it did thousands of Christian martyrs, but true courage is the strength to do what one must when all hope is lost.

Thomas Didymus            Thomas has a bad reputation in many churches. He is called Doubting Thomas and treated as such a skeptic that you wonder how he could have been a disciple at all. One scholar wrote that Thomas “is portrayed as a deeply devoted, but somewhat dull, disciple whose lack of understanding provides Jesus an opportunity to disclose the truth more fully; but when he understands, he responds with stubborn loyalty.” (E. P. Blair, IDB, 4:632). That sounds more like Peter to me, but you can make your own conclusions. I disagree with Dr. Blair’s assessment. Thomas is always included in lists of the Twelve. Clearly he was important in the early church, and he was especially important to the church of the Beloved Disciple. John tells us that his name means ‘the Twin.’ It is an odd thing to insert in the story at this point. The Greek word for Twin is Didymus, which was a fairly common Greek name. It appears that Thomas is an Aramaic name – Teoma, which means Twin. John often translates Aramaic terms into Greek, and that is probably what is going on with this statement that Thomas means Didymus.

            The question remains, though, who was Thomas’ Twin? Some of the non-canonical books claim that he was the twin of Jesus – either that he was the physical brother of Jesus or that he looked just like him. Thomas is a major figure in early Christian literature that was not included in the NT. The Gospel of Thomas was discovered decades ago. Though it was probably not written by the Apostle Thomas, it appears to have authentic sayings of Jesus mixed in with Gnostic teachings. There was also a very popular book called the Acts of Thomas that probably originated in Syria in the 3rd century. This is the book that claims that Jesus sent Thomas to be the Apostle to India.

            When English Protestant missionaries arrived in India, they were surprised to find thousands of Christians who claimed that Thomas had founded their church long before the gospel had come to England. Most historians doubt the claim that Thomas himself went to India, but whoever took the gospel to that region apparently saw himself a descendent of Thomas. The Acts of Thomas is filled with fanciful miracle stories and talking animals, but there is one story that you might like. Like Jesus, Thomas was a carpenter, and an Indian king gives him a fortune to build a palace. Thomas took the money and gave it to the poor. Then he told the king that his palace awaited him in heaven.

Read: John 11:17-38

Martha Grieving                        When Jesus and his disciples arrived in Bethany, they learned that Lazarus had already been laid in a tomb. It is Jewish custom to bury the dead within 24 hours, no doubt because of the climate of Palestine. Mourning takes place after the funeral, and so many people had gathered to console the sisters. If you want to translate this scene for our culture, picture friends, neighbors, and church members bringing food to Martha and Mary. Word reaches Martha that Jesus is walking into the village. Contrary to custom, Martha goes out to meet him. She should have been sitting Shiva for a month and not left the house, but she wanted to see Jesus.

            John is too good a dramatist to give us the entire conversation between Martha and Jesus. We jump right to the burning issue in Martha’s mind. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This statement has often been read as a rebuke by Martha because Jesus had abandoned her family in a moment of great need. We are all too familiar with this kind of statement given to doctors, police officers, military commanders, parents, and other authorities. If you had been attentive, if you had been aware, if you had been using your power and authority wisely, this person would still be alive.

Martha’s Faith            But this is more than a cry of grief. Notice that it is a statement of faith as well. Martha believed that Jesus had the power to save her brother from death. She was a disciple and a believer who rushes out to talk to Jesus. It is only because she believes in him that she can say these things. This remains true for us today. The question of why bad things happen to good people is only a question for those of us who believe in a God who created the world. If you believe that this world is a cosmic accident and that humans are nothing more than animals who adapted to their environment, then the question of why bad things happen to good people is nonsense. Bad things happen because the universe itself is an accident. It has no moral purpose, according to people like Richard Dawkins. Such people think that belief in God gets in the way of our development and happiness.

            It is only those who believe in a good and loving heavenly father who worry about the justice of the universe. It is only people of faith who can lift their eyes to heaven and say, “if you were here, Lord, this person would not have died.” It is only people of faith who can look up and ask, “Why?” It is only Martha the disciple who can say, “if only you had been here.” We do not know what Martha wanted Jesus to do, but we know that she ran to him, trusting in his help. We can learn something about prayer from Martha. She was honest in her faith and her grief and she turned to the Lord for help without knowing what the result would be.

Resurrection                        Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. This must have sounded like the kind of cliché that you always hear in times of trouble. Martha believed that Lazarus would rise when the Messiah returned, just as the Pharisees taught. Early Christianity retained the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the dead rather than adopting the Greek idea that the soul is immortal. Later Christian theology tried to combine those two ideas, but they are quite different. Jews had difficulty understanding how a soul could exist without a body. The breath without a body is just wind. The ancient Jews believed that you must have a body to be truly human. In this, they were not so far from the perspective of most biologists today. Socrates, on the other hand, believed that spiritual reality is more real than the visible reality. The mind or soul of a person is more real than the body and can exist without a physical body. Socrates taught that the soul is immortal. It is neither born nor dies. The courage of Socrates drinking the hemlock was a testament to his belief that death is merely a way to free the soul from the dying body. Martha did not believe that her brother had passed from life to life. He was dead, but she hoped that he would rise again at the end of time.

            Jesus does not try to convince Martha that Lazarus’ soul is immortal. He acknowledges that death is real, but he goes further and gives a teaching that is at the heart of the Christian proclamation: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Many scholars believe that this is a statement about Jesus made by the church after Easter. John has placed here in the Lazarus story to turn the miracle into a revelation of the nature of Jesus. For the early church, the resurrection of Jesus was proof that the Lord has power over life and death, but Martha does not know this yet. No one knows that Jesus will rise again except Jesus. John knows, and he places this statement before the resurrection of Lazarus to make the point that the resurrection is not simply a future event at the end of history, nor was a single miraculous event in the life of Jesus: Jesus himself is the Resurrection. By placing one’s life entirely in the hands of Jesus, one can experience complete salvation. All who have faith can experience the passage from death to life. Once again, we see that the faith in Jesus is life-giving and life-affirming.

            Jesus goes further in his teaching to Martha. Not only is he the agent of God’s salvation in the world, he is the source of divine life in this world and the next. Those who believe and yet die in the body will still live in the resurrection. Those who believe and do not die in the body will never experience eternal death. This is part of the Moravian Easter Litany. “I shall never taste death but shall attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” This does not mean that our bodies do not die. It means that we can face physical death knowing that we will be passing from death into complete life. According to John’s Gospel, our souls become immortal only through faith in Jesus. This passage says nothing about those who die and do not believe. John’s gospel is not interested in abstract metaphysics; it is written that you may believe and enter into the full life of God through Christ.

Son of God            And Martha responds in faith. She is the first person in John’s Gospel to proclaim that she believes that Jesus is both Messiah and the Son of God who has come into the world. There is no doubt that the title “Son of God” here means that Jesus came from God into the world. Martha here affirms the teaching of the prologue of John. Her confession is the equivalent of Peter’s famous confession in the Synoptic Gospels. Unlike Peter, Jesus doesn’t turn around and call her Satan a few moments later. This is one of the indications that Peter was not as exalted in the church of the Beloved Disciple as he was in Matthew’s community. We should pause and consider the fact that a simple woman rather than one of the Twelve is given this honor in John’s Gospel. Some commentators diminish the significance of Martha’s witness (Brown, 433), but that is wrong. For John, faith transcends the barriers of gender and class and race and even church hierarchies. Martha is passing from death into life even before her brother leaves his tomb.

Mary’s Question            Then Mary appears and asks the same question Martha asked. This has led many scholars to speculate that either the Martha or Mary scene was added by a later editor. Some say that Mary’s appearance is an afterthought and adds nothing to the text. I disagree. Mary repeats what Martha said precisely because that is the question all believers ask of God. The question did not go away just because Jesus told Martha that he is the Resurrection and the Life. Grief and doubt are not so easily swept away. This time, Jesus does not engage in theological dialog. The time for teaching is past. All has been said, and yet Lazarus lies dead and the women are wailing. Jesus sees Mary weeping and is moved.

Jesus is Angry            We now come to the most difficult part of this chapter. For nearly two thousand years theologians, preachers, and translators have struggled over verse 33. The most popular modern English translations are not quite accurate when they say that Jesus was “deeply moved” or “troubled.” One of the Greek words used in verse 33 always has the connotation of deep anger, not compassion (O’Day, 690). It could be translated as “Jesus was deeply indignant,” which seems to be an odd response to Mary weeping. The second verb means deeply agitated, troubled, or disturbed. According to a literal reading of the Greek text, Jesus is angry and upset when he sees Mary and the other mourners crying.

            For centuries scholars have debated the question of what Jesus was angry at? Some have suggested that he was angry at Mary because she questioned him. Some say he was angry because in Mary’s grief he saw the grief that his own mother would experience at his death. It could be that Jesus was angry at himself because he had delayed two days, or angry at God for making things so hard. Still others have proposed that Jesus is suddenly overcome with anger at death and its power to unmake human beings, including those who are left behind. Many commentators have said that Jesus was not angry at Mary, but at the people with her. Their belief in the resurrection had been no comfort in a time of death. There are even those who say Jesus was angry because unbelievers would be witnesses to this great miracle.

            There is no easy answer here, and perhaps there is not meant to be one. Easy answers fail to answer our deepest questions. Jesus’ anger, like our anger, was complex. Up to this point in the story, he has been the confident teacher who knows what the right answer is. But when he sees his close friends weeping for the brother they love, it is Jesus who is temporarily undone. Here, in this scene of Jesus standing before the sealed tomb in the presence of weeping women and jeering on-lookers we witness the mystery of the Incarnation. “See how he loved him!” people remarked, but others criticized him for not having saved Lazarus from the cruelty of the grave. “See how he loved him!” And Jesus wept.

            Was it the man Jesus who was overcome with love and grief at this moment? Was it the man Jesus feeling all of the raw emotions we feel standing by the grave of a brother or sister? Was this not God Incarnate, the Word of God made flesh, shedding sacred tears in the face of death? Was this not the turning point in the history of God’s dealings with humankind? Here the creator felt what his creatures feel. Was Jesus not both God and man when he wept? Love is stronger than death, the Scripture says. God is love. We know this because God wept.               

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Jacob Thomas  On June 1, 2008 at 11:39 pm

    The tradition of Thomas in India points to his martyrdom in Chennain near a famous temple in Mylapore . Also there are references to Churches established by Thomas in Kerala, some churches are situated close to temple premises. Thomas tradition exists only in India. When Syrian immigrants came to India in the 4th and eightth centuries there were already some Hindu Christians in Kerala. Hence there is no valid reason to doubt Thomas arrival in India, which had a strong Jewish trading community in Kerala, ever since the time of King Solomon, who imported gold, ivory, and spices from India, as some refrence in the BIble indicate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: