“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
Our “Singing through Lent” series concludes with Saint John Chapter 11 and the great Easter hymn, “Thine be the glory”.
As we look at Saint John Chapter 11, it is worth remembering something taught by our lecturer in theological college days. He would always urge us to read Saint John’s Gospel at two levels; to ask two questions when we read each story. The first question to be asked was, “what is taking place?” It dealt with the facts of the situation, those things that were apparent. The second question was, “what is going on?” What meaning was there in the things that could be seen? How did these things fit into the bigger story?
Saint John wrote in Greek and asking those questions helps us to understand Saint John’s use of the Greek word “semeion”. Seventeen times he uses this word: it is a word that may be translated as “miracle” or it may be translated as “sign”; when we translate it as “sign” we get an understanding of what Jesus was trying to do—trying to point people to what was going on behind what was taking place.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign, but for many of the religious leaders it is the sign that they must rid themselves of Jesus, it is a sign that troubles them, they ask, in Chapter 11 Verse 47,”What are we accomplishing? they asked. Here is this man performing many signs”.
Even as Jesus rides into Jerusalem to face the days that would follow, the curiosity aroused by Lazarus being called back from the dead still prompts people to look for Jesus, John writes, in Chapter 12 Verse 18, “Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him”.
The raising of Lazarus is a sign that points to a greater truth. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, but Lazarus will die again—this is not the resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”, says Jesus to Martha; the resurrection life is a life that will last forever. In the middle of the story of Lazarus, Jesus is teaching his friends that those who believe in him may die, but even if they do, they will have a life beyond in which there is no death. What is taking place in the story is that Lazarus is being called from the grave; what is going on is Jesus pointing people the way to eternal life; the miracle, the sign of Lazarus walking from the grave points people toward the life of the world to come.
The hymn, “Thine be the glory” reflects Jesus’ promise that “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. The hymn says, “endless is the victory, thou o’er death hast won”. The victory over death is endless, there will be no dying again, and the victory over death is a victory over an enemy; death is an enemy to be defeated, to be destroyed. In his Canticle of the Sun, Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, “We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape”, I don’t think Jesus would have spoken of “Sister Death”, Saint Paul certainly would not have used such words, he wrote in the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 15 Verse 26, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death”.
“Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away” says “Thine be the glory”, reminding us of the contrast between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus. “So they took away the stone”, Saint John Chapter 11 Verse 41 tells us, as Jesus prepares to call Lazarus back. While, on that first Easter Morning, Saint Matthew Chapter 28 Verse 2 says, “suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it”. The hymn says, “kept the folded grave-clothes where thy body lay”, Saint John Chapter 11:44 Verse 44 tells us that when Lazarus was raised, “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.'” But when Jesus rises from the dead, Saint John Chapter 20 Verses 6-7 tell us, Simon Peter “saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself”. Being raised, Lazarus is still very much part of the material, physical world; being risen, Jesus is part of an endless, glorious world.
The raising of Lazarus does not bring the widespread joy that might have been expected. The chief priests and Pharisees hear the story of what has happened and, says Chapter 11 Verse 53, “from that day on they planned to put him to death”. The reaction prompts Jesus and his friends to seek refuge, Verse 54 says, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples”. The second verse of “Thine be the glory” reminds us that the mood of the disciples becomes very different when they meet with the risen Jesus, “Lo, Jesus meet us, risen from the tomb; lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom”, it captures the feeling of Saint John Chapter 20 Verse 20, “Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord”.
The raising of Lazarus is to be a sign, to point people to the truth behind what is taking place. Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”, and then asks her a question, “Do you believe this?” Martha is very clear in her answer in Chapter 22 Verse 27, “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world'”.
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asks Martha, and she answers him, “Yes, Lord, I believe”. After the resurrection, we are told that Thomas doubted; he would not believe unless he saw for himself. “Thine be the glory” challenges us to have the faith of Martha, “No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life”.
“No more we doubt thee” should remind us that seeing does not necessarily mean believing. Seeing signs might mean that people believe, or it might mean that they do not believe. There are many people in the Gospel story who see, but do not believe. If we read Saint John Chapter 12 Verse 37, we can feel a deep sense of disappointment in John’s words when he notes, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him”.
The words, “No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of Life”, only become really meaningful if we are prepared to be like Martha, to take that leap of faith that she took. Lazarus has not yet been raised, but she is prepared to declare her faith.
“Make us more than conquerors through thy deathless love; bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above”; the hymn concludes with a request to the risen Jesus. Being able to make that request means being able to answer the questions, “what is taking place?” and “what is going on?”
Most people can agree that we have this story, where people disagree is what this story means. Believing is about looking at the story and seeing what is going on. It is so that we might see what is going on, as well as what is taking place, that John writes his Gospel, he says in Saint John Chapter 20 Verse 30-31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.
As Jesus said to Martha, he says to us, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”