Archive for April, 2011
What a story!
Most stories that we read and hear have a beginning and then an ending, but this gospel story is different; it has an ending followed by a beginning.
It is a human story, a personal story, full of human actions and reactions, containing all our human emotions, from darkest grief to greatest joy. For fifteen verses of the story it is incredibly sad, the Master had died on the cross. There could be no doubt, it was a public event, witnessed by his mother, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Clopas and the disciple whom he loved, thought to be John.
Despite everything that he had said to the disciples, how could he not be dead? Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had prepared Jesus body for burial and laid his body in the garden tomb. What could be more final than that?
In bewilderment, grief and fear the disciples were holed up, keeping a low profile.
As soon as she could have done, alone and in the morning darkness, Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb to lament; it was the custom to wait for three days for the person’s spirit to leave them. She was shocked, and perhaps frightened to find that the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty.
The story gathered pace as she ran to find Peter and the unnamed other disciple to tell them what had happened “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” We can only surmise that Mary thought that the Jewish authorities had seen fit to move Jesus’ body because he had been a troublemaker.
Immediately, Peter and the other disciple set out for the tomb, running as fast as they could. The other disciple looked into the tomb, only to find the linen wrappings and nothing else. Peter arrived and went straight into the tomb to find the same thing. When the other disciple finally entered the tomb we learn that “he saw and believed.”
Perhaps the message that Jesus had tried to drum into the disciples was starting to make sense at last, but the situation was still unresolved. Then the disciples went home! I suppose they felt that there was nothing else they could do at the tomb, or maybe they thought that it could be dangerous hanging around, especially for Peter who had three times publicly denied knowing that he even knew Jesus.
What would we have done? The death of a loved one is painful; we become caught up in grief, consumed by it. Any additional emotional event on top of that is too much to bear, and even more so if it is a strange and threatening event. We know the whole story and it is still beyond understanding, we accept it in faith, but that can still be difficult.
For the disciples, the simple truth was that Jesus was no longer with them and an empty tomb was not going to change that. They had not grasped what Jesus had taught them while he was with them, so why would they suddenly understand without his help? He had left them high and dry.
The disciples had gone, but they left Mary, who had followed them back, at the tomb. Not only had they left her alone, they had left her distraught and weeping. She looked into the tomb as the other had, but she saw two angels sitting where Jesus had lain, but Mary expresses no surprise at this at all.
Angels were not all that common even then, but Mary is intensely focussed on just one thing – she needs to find the body of Jesus, her Lord. The angels might have information and she doesn’t much care where it comes from.
How natural is this, there are times in our own lives, times of crisis, when all the usual protocols and bureaucracy that we might follow are rendered irrelevant. There is no time for idle chat, we will go to straight anyone who can help, ask brutally direct questions and expect direct answers – in the way that children do.
Before she can tackle the angels, they ask her a question, “Woman, why are you weeping.” She responds with the words that she used when she told the other two disciples what she had found, except this time it is a personal mission that she is on. Mary says “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Mary’s pain and distress is in her every word and action, she is blind to anything except finding Jesus’ body.
She is so utterly distraught that she doesn’t even recognise Jesus when he stands before her, asking her the same question that the angels had posed. She thought the man to be a gardener and threw the same question at him; “tell me where you have laid him.” Without waiting for a reply Mary turned away from him, perhaps hoping to find an answer in the tomb.
The story, up to this point has been frantic, Mary and the disciples running to and fro; Mary pleading with whoever she saw.
Sometimes our lives are like that, rushing from pillar to post, too busy to do anything useful. Not allowing peace and calm to interrupt our busyness, forgetting that the answer to a problem might be a prayer away. Panic blots out our rational thinking.
Up to now, the story had all been about an ending, but now we come to the beginning.
The pace of the story slowed to a standstill when Jesus simply said to her “MARY” and the story suddenly and unexpectedly has a beginning. Mary instantly recognised the voice calling her by name; she turned to him and replied “Rabbouni.” From the darkest place of grief and despair comes the light of astonishment and joy; not only had she found Jesus, but he was risen from the dead.
Mary did what anyone would instinctively have done, what anyone here would have done when they find someone who has been lost; she reached out to touch Jesus. Touch is such a basic instinct, such a critical sense for all of us, such a natural thing to do. Jesus told Mary not to hold onto him because he was no longer of this world, but not yet of his Father’s.
Jesus told Mary to take the joyous news of his resurrection to the disciples in the words “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Mary was the first to meet the risen Jesus and now, as Jesus had commanded her, she went to share the message with the other disciples.
She said “I have seen the Lord”
We know the story, we know the ending and we know the beginning; the beginning of the faith handed down to us. We are called to praise, to love and to serve Christ Jesus, but let us never forget that we are called to do what Mary did – to tell the story to others.
Lord Jesus, speak through our tears, call us by our names and give us a new song to sing – that you are alive for evermore!
Christ is Risen
Jesus Comes First
Jesus knew Mary, Martha and Lazarus very well and he loved to spend time with them, as we know from Luke’s gospel. They were a happy household and lived at Bethany, just a couple of miles from Jerusalem. When Lazarus fell seriously ill, his sisters sent a message to Jesus – “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” They simply told Jesus of the problem, of their worry, they didn’t ask him to come or give any other instructions; rather like his Mother who simply told him “they have no wine” at the wedding in Cana; his first sign, or miracle.
When we pray, it is not easy to simply lay our troubles and worries in Jesus’ hands; it is so easy for us to carry on and to tell God what needs to be done, or, more accurately, what we want to have done!
Jesus’ reaction to the sister’s message is surprising; he states that Lazarus’ illness is not fatal, but, “for God’s glory.” Jesus’ words signify that Lazarus’ illness will not end with his death but be a catalyst for Jesus’ death. John then states that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, but that despite that, and their message, he stayed where he was for another two days.
If we receive a message telling us that somebody that we loved was ill, by implication very ill, most of us would rush straight to them, and yet Jesus delays. Perhaps this was to foreshadow his own three days in the tomb, or that he could not change the situation by returning so soon. He would have known that he would raise Lazarus. Jesus was taking his own initiative, in his own time and acts when he is ready, however hard it is for us to understand this. When someone we love is ill, can we find the courage to tell God about them, and then to be patient when nothing seems to happen.
After that time he told the disciples that they were going to return to Judea, the disciples were very unhappy about this because that was where the Jews had tried to stone Jesus to death; they had only just escaped from there. Now Jesus was going to take them all back into danger again.
Jesus told the disciples why they were going back, why they had to go back. He said – “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” Just as we use different euphemisms such as ‘passed on’ or ‘no longer with us’, to talk about death; to avoid the harsh words of death; Jesus too uses such language with the disciples. The disciples take his words literally and still did not grasp why they needed to go back to Bethany. Jesus then told them that Lazarus was dead and that they had to go to him. Thomas then displayed his strength of faith and courage; he took the lead and said that all the disciples had to go “that we may die with him.” We too easily forget this aspect of Thomas; the Thomas prepared to die with Jesus. We remember Thomas as the man who asked Jesus to show him his wounds, known for all time as ‘doubting’ Thomas.
Perhaps we remember Thomas in his remembered role more easily because he identifies with what we may well have done in his shoes. His role as a leader, immediately prepared to die with Jesus, does not sit easily with what we might have done.
The role of Martha in this miracle story should not be overlooked or undervalued. Martha is such a very close representation of what we can easily be like, she has things sorted out very clearly; she knows that God will do anything for Jesus. She believes that Lazarus, and everybody else, will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. She believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Yet when she stood outside Lazarus’ tomb, and Jesus said “Take away the stone” that seals the tomb, what did Martha say? “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days”.
Martha found it easy to put her faith in Jesus for what he would eventually do on the final day, when he came again in glory. She found it much harder to put her faith in Jesus face to face. She found it much harder to believe that Jesus would do anything miraculous in front of her.
Martha told Mary the news of Jesus’ arrival and, together with many other Jews; they took Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus at his request. Jesus had wept for and with the sisters at their deep sorrow. At the tomb, Jesus commanded that the stone closing the tomb should be taken away. Jesus’ words to God – “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.” – indicate that he knew it was time to reveal his divinity publicly.
Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, and so he did, wrapped in his grave clothes, the strips of cloth.
We learn a lot about Thomas, Martha and Mary in this seventh ‘sign’ or miracle in John’s Gospel. Thomas’ words and actions reveal a man of purpose and courage, prepared to put himself in the front line. Where do we stand when push comes to shove for the sake of Jesus?
The busy Martha who rushed out to meet Jesus in Bethany confessed her faith in Jesus as the Son of God, the Messiah but found it hard to accept that he was able to carry out miracles during her life. We profess our faith in Christ Jesus in our worship every week, but do we expect miracles from the Jesus who is with us every day, or are miracles from history or the future?
The spiritual Mary had waited in the family home, and when she saw Jesus, she rebuked Jesus in the same words that her sister had used – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But she knelt at Jesus feet in respect and love as she spoke, and wept. In her shoes, would we have been able to stem our anger in the way that it seems that Mary did?
In this miracle Jesus revealed himself completely as Human and Divine. As human he wept with sorrow with his friends and as divine he raised Lazarus from the dead. He also talks to God as Father. Jesus’ ministry on earth was drawing to an end and this miracle foretells his own Passion.
Jesus’ actions throughout this longest narrative of a miracle are unexpected and difficult to us to grasp. In particular, his delay in returning to Bethany must have tested his loving friendship with Martha and Mary to the very edge but Jesus had (and has) a different relationship with time to them (or us). His purpose is broader than ours. He will respond to our prayers, but not always in the way we expect or in the time that we hope for.
Let us look beyond the miracle of Lazarus to the humanity of Thomas, Martha, Mary and Jesus. Let us learn to expect, and accept, the unexpected during our journey of faith.