Chaplains Column - September 2000
John invites belief
There is a beautiful integrity to the awesome story in the heart of John's Gospel. The story of the raising of Lazarus. We have been listening to the reading of it in assembly this term. I've noticed things that I hadn't seen before and been challenged anew by its message.
Jesus was deeply moved at his friend's grave. John points this out by using a peculiar word to describe Jesus' emotions. Not for him the 'Death is Nothing at All' of Henry Scott Holland. The good Canon of St Paul's Cathedral was seeking to capture a truth. That death is not the end. But there is another truth: death is unquestionably an end. An end to communion with loved ones, a blow against life and joy and hope.
Dylan Thomas seems to have caught the anger and indignation John has put into his description of Jesus' deep emotion Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. Jesus faced death as an enemy. Renowned Presbyterian commentator BB Warfield remarks 'Tears of sympathy may fill his eyes, but this is incidental. His soul is held by rage, and he advances to the tomb, in Calvin's words "as a champion who prepares for conflict"'.
Martha is so beautifully earthy and consistent at every appearing in John's gospel. She is absolutely downright candid. Four days after Lazarus' interment her stark words jar 'there will be a bad smell'. How very up to date she is. It's right here that Jesus offers more than ever before. 'Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?' (John 11:40)
Does the story of the raising of Lazarus from death correlate with anything in our reality? As the student insists 'But did it happen sir?' This is precisely what John wants to confront us with! We only have two options. Yes or No! It happened or it didn't. We may honestly say we cannot believe this could happen - just like the locals John mentions. This is normal, I've never seen a dead person rise though I've been to many a graveside - or we may have come to believe that with God all things are possible.
The Jesus Seminar are in the 'no' group. They don't believe. 'No, the raising of Lazarus couldn't actually happen'. Thus they approach the text. It is discussed in a learned and rarified atmosphere. Robert Funk was in Australia recently to publicise 'The Gospel of Jesus'. A stripped down text with a stripped down Jesus. It's Jesus for the new millennium. He's wholly human, with a radical message and an ugly death. You can listen in on their scholarly discussions at their website: http://www.westarinstitute.org/Jesus_Seminar/jesus_seminar.html
Believing sees differently. In the 'yes' group you will find plenty of company. Take the view of one notable Australian, the Rev John Flynn. In a sermon he said 'men have tried to explain away the literal-ness of the resurrection, but it will not be so easily removed. The claim of Jesus to supreme authority over death is so intricately woven into the fibre of scripture (that) questionings have never beaten down the power of its constraining faith'.
How did faith constrain Flynn? In 1912, after a seven week visit to Port Augusta, Port Hedland, Broome, Darwin and the Red Centre he proposed to the Presbyterian Church that a mantle of safety be cast across the Inland and set up the Australian Inland Mission. He brought together aviation, medicine and radio to establish the Flying Doctor Service. He was constrained to serve 'Christ and the Continent'.
I was privileged to know an old man who was a friend of Flynn. He told me in 1980 that in the waistcoat of Flynn's three-piece suit he always carried a screwdriver or two. He was Martha earthy. Why is earthiness so important to John? He wants us to see, like he does, that 'the word became flesh'. In the weakness and the frailty of loving humanity the glory of God is revealed.
In Jesus we discover God's glory. He is with us in life and joy and gladness. In every celebration. But he has revealed at the grave of Lazarus that he is with us also in pain and suffering and in death. In every sorrow. In believing you begin to glimpse the glory of God revealed in human flesh. Life will never be the same.