Sermon: Lent 5, Year A – Lazarus

Text: John 11:1-45, St Mary the Virgin, Rowner

In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Live each day, they tell you, as if it was your last – enjoy life and make the most of it. It sounds good, but ultimately has a tinge of hedonism about it, a selfishness which places more on the pursuit of self than a living out of the Gospel. Rather than treat each day as if it was your last, why not treat each day as if it was your first: a new opportunity, a fresh start, the proclaiming of a Gospel of love and redemption, a difference made in the world.

The resurrection is all about us: it is not just about Christ, but about us, for us, and with us, and is the very reason that we are here together in God’s sacred presence. Our Gospel day tells us important things about resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, of Christ and of us: a radical new beginning.

The raising of Lazarus is, for the Evangelist John, the final straw for the Jewish Authorities: a man who walks through the poor villages, proclaiming the imminence of the Kingdom of God, could be written off as an eccentric. A man wo taught with insight and authority can be annoying, but because he comes from the far north and from an artisan family can be sidelined and ignored. A man who heals and draws the crowds to himself as a prophet can be threatening but can be limited and proscribed. However, a man who raises the dead, just before the Passover, who speaks of the resurrection as a reality in the here and now and not just as pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, is a direct challenge not only to the anti-resurrectionist Sadduccee Party, but is a subversive influence within his own Pharisee Party as well – such a man needs to be got rid of, such a man deserves to die. (John 11:50 – Caiaphas: It is better than one man should die, not that the whole nation should perish)

Throughout Scripture, Jesus is shown to be at loggerheads with the Pharisees. He criticises their adherence to the letter of the law and their ignoring of the spirit of it; he rails against their hypocrisy and we have, I suppose, always considered the Pharisee as the enemy. However, close examination of the Scriptures, and especially this pericope or portion of Scripture, will show that Jesus and his closest are committed to Pharisaical beliefs, mos notably the idea of a physical resurrection: John 11:24 – I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.

In the modern Church we have our high church and our low church, our evangelical party and our catholic wing: united on many things, divided on so any others and fighting most fiercely between rather than actually getting on with the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. As a catholic working extensvely with young people where the evangelicals dominate, I am most aware of this. We like to think that this is a later warping of central Gospel truths and that the early church was either completely evangelical (or protestant) or entirely catholic or unambiguously orthodox. Read the letters of Paul, the bickerings of the apostles and see that our interpretation of the Gospel has always been diverse, different, varied by personality, by geography, by teacher (Paul or Apollos) and by practice (circumcise or not, keep kosher or not). For as long as there has been two individuals following Christ there has been two varieties of thought. What matters is not style, or substance, or right or wrong, but the proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord: we are created by God as individuals, and the variety of the Church, even the variety of the Church of England is a tribute to that – and that is why we should resist at all costs the pressure from some for an Anglican Covenant that would seek to exclude, something we in this Church have never sought in the 600 year history of our communion – we are a national and not a confessional communion.

In Jewish religious history there has been similarly a huge variety of practice and party lines. Of particular interest at the time of Christ was the division between the Sadducces and the Pharisees. The rise of these two perspectives comes from the Babylonian Exile in 597BC, where an entire generation was shipped off to slavery in the East where they were to be exposed to all kinds of new religious thinking: most principally an afterlife.

Look at older, pre-exile Psalms and they are quite nihilistic: see Psalm 6:5 For in death there is no remembrance of you: in Sheol who will give you praise? Sheol was a pit of nothingness – death was the end, a separation from God: no afterlife, heaven was the dwelling place of the God of the Living, and the dead were, well, dead. The Sadducees clung to that traditional view and although still prominent, they were a party in decline, much like those opposed to the ordination of women in ur own church; whereas the post-exilic theology of the Pharisees began to understand that there was more to life than this, that The Souls of the Departed are in the Hands of God (Wisdom 3:1) and that for those who are faithful there would not only be the promise of a life lived eternally with God, but also a physical and bodily resurrection. At the end of time, all those in Abraham’s bosom would be physically, corporally raised by God and would live eternally in the remade paradise, a new Eden.

That Christ proclaimed the bodily resurrection, and spoke of the eternity of a Kingdom of God not just in a plane removed from this earthly life, but eternal and ongoing shows that he was a member of the Pharisee Party. Is this a controversial statement? Why all the criticism of the Pharisees throughout the Gospels? You criticise your enemies, but you criticise your friends all the more: you try and show them their errors and bring them back ont the right track. The body on the most holy shroud of Turin (which I personally believe to be genuinely of Christ) particularly on the reverse side, shows a man with long hair, braided in a style most definitivly in the style of a first-century Pharisee – the long-haired touselled look is more 1960’s than 30AD!

The resurrection of Lazarus was therefore a portent, a sign, a prophecy-in-action, an Ezekiel-moment where the dry bones are raised after the third day in the tomb. Modern translations have lost that most vivid of texts: “but he has been in the tomb four days and he hath an odour!” (John 11:39). The physical resurrection of Lazarus was however only a portent, and Lazarus would surely die once more, an older, wiser and more faithful man. The resurrection which this points to is the resurrection of our Lord himself: a resurrection which does not end in death, a resurrection for the last day and a herald of a new reconciliation with God.

My dear friends, it is the resurrection which is at the heart of our faith, the core of our very being. It is Christ’s resurrection which begins our restoration to Eden, and undoes the sin of Adam and all those who follow. The cross is the mechanism through which we access that resurrection; and it is therefore not the be all and end all of our faith – it is a gateway to salvation, the door of which is Christ’s resurrection.

At Lent 5, Passiontide begins and we turn headlong towards Jerusalem and Holy Week. The journey of Holy Week is an important one, and one which I hope you will all engage on. You cannot move from Palm Sunday to Easter Day without having walked through Holy Week, it is like skipping to the last page of the novel to discover whodunnit [hint: it was God whatdunnit in this story – you know the outcome but have no idea how you got there. This year, as part of your walk through Holy Week, we will be holding a Blesséd alternative mass here at St Mary the Virgin, in the evening of Palm Sunday – a creative and innovative eucharist which seeks to explore the holy week journey.

You may have come and received at the morning eucharist, but this mass is a different intention, a mass of the whole of holy week, and therefore one to which I encourage you all to come and participate in, not merely observe, but be immersed in.

It is most definately NOT a kids service, but something which people of all ages might be able to take something from – clearly sacramental, challenging in places and using a creative combination of the traditional and the modern to inspire our Holy Week. Through this, the resurrection is proclaimed and the long night is transformed by the dawn of new life in Christ.

After that, for the first three days of holy week, on the monday, tuesday and wednesday, St Thomas the Apostle will host another modern, challenging take on a traditional devotion: a multimedia Stations of the Cross. Open from 3pm until 9pm each day, you can drop in at anytime, pick up an MP3 player and journey through a multisensory Via Dolorosa – new rituals to bring to life Christ’s Passion. I hope that many, most, all of you will come over the bridge and experience this, and make it an important start to your Holy Week.

Both of these have been written about in this month’s Pompey Chimes (March 2008) and I commend them both to you.

We are a people of the resurrection: in the light of that, all that fuss about catholic or evangelical is irrelevant, all of our party disagreements are petty. We are called by the resurrection of Lazarus to live out the challenge of Christ’s resurrection: he was given a second chance to live out the promises of Christ; and we are too. Live for the new life, change the world that you encounter and make a difference to others as if you were a new Lazarus – you have new life in you, the new life of Christ.

Amen