Christ comes to us where we are, as we are, and walks with us on our path of faith, even in, especially in, our times when the evidence for faith is hard to find. And we find life and hope.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, year A
Text: John 11:1-45
Note: Only verses 1-39 were read at the Gospel, ending with: “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.’” During the sermon, where noted, 39-45 were then read.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
How can you believe enough to follow when your hope is dead, lying in a grave?
When you have to face the awful truth that your beloved brother now smells because he’s been dead for four days?
Martha and Mary have believed in their friend and rabbi, Jesus. But Lazarus is dead, and Jesus is absent, showing up four days too late. There’s nothing to be done now. Thomas thinks Jesus is heading to certain death, and no one can stop him.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” the writer of Hebrews says. (11:1) But how can you believe in Christ Jesus as God’s life for you when you have no hope, and all you do see brings you fear or anger or grief? This is our story, too.
How can you believe enough to follow when you’re so afraid of what’s coming?
Jesus has decided to go south from Galilee to Bethany, but apparently not to rescue his friend Lazarus; Lazarus is dead. And Jesus has received death threats from the religious leaders in the south, in Jerusalem. The disciples try to stop him, but Jesus is determined.
Thomas is as terrified as the others. He’s worried about his Master, uncertain about his ability to be faithful, like the rest. He fears the path ahead now that it looks like real sacrifice, even death.
Exactly like we do. We fear the cost of following Christ. Maybe we don’t think we’ll actually die. But there are sacrifices we’ve resisted, loss of convenience that we hesitate to give up. There is cost to our pride, our self-will, our comfort. It’s not an easy path Christ calls us to follow, much is unknown, and that’s frightening.
But instead of giving the disciples reassurance, Jesus simply says, “Let us go.” He offers no evidence this will end well, only his courage: he’s willing to go. And Thomas picks it up. Thomas claims his faith in the midst of his fear, and stands above his more prominent peers. “Let’s go, too,” he says. “Even if we die.”
How can you believe enough to follow when you’re so angry at God you can’t see straight?
Martha was confident Jesus would come and heal Lazarus. They were his friends. But the messengers returned alone. Her brother died. They had the funeral. They wrapped him in cloths and spices and ointments. And Martha seethed.
When Jesus showed up, four days after the funeral, she ran out of town to meet him on the road in her anger. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she screamed. She held nothing back. God had failed her, and she was angry.
Exactly like we can be. We can rage at God that a friend is dying and nothing can stop it. We can be furious that injustice happens all over the world and God seems to do nothing. We even get angry that Christ calls us to deeper change when we think we’ve done a lot already.
But instead of defending himself to Martha, and without promising to make it right, Jesus stands there and takes her rage. He lets her work out with her words what she feels and believes, without judgment. Then he quietly asks her if she believes he is resurrection life now. Not just at the end time. Now. And Martha realizes she still trusts Jesus with her life.
How can you believe enough to follow when your sadness and grief drown you?
Mary is so unlike her verbal sister. But she feels pain just as deeply. Her grief at Lazarus’ death, at Jesus’ betrayal, knows no bounds.
When Jesus finally came, she couldn’t move. Her tears were drowning her life. When Martha came back, an hour after storming out of the house, and said the Teacher was asking for her, that got her on her feet.
Mary didn’t know what Jesus would say, what excuses he would make. None would help. She could barely get out the words, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” before dissolving into tears. She had nothing to offer except her grief and confusion.
Exactly like us. We, too, have stood at the graves of loved ones with nothing but sadness and pain. We see the suffering of so many children and vulnerable people in this world, in our city, and can only weep. Our grief at our losses, our sadness at the pain of others, sometimes overwhelms us.
To Mary’s surprise, Jesus said nothing. She looked up, and saw that he was crying, too, beginning to sob. She expected teaching, reasons, wisdom from God, what Jesus always gave her. But now he wept with her, and they went to the tomb together. And she realized she still believed in him, trusted him with her life.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Nothing external changed for these three. Thomas still had no idea if he or Jesus would die. Martha still would try to stop Jesus from opening the tomb, and say the horrible words, “there’s a stench already.” Mary still had an enormous, brother-sized hole in her heart.
But receiving nothing but the courage, patience, and compassion of Christ, they find they don’t need everything fixed. They need to know God is with them in Christ, they are not alone. They don’t have to understand everything to believe, or to follow.
John tells his Gospel so that we, too, can believe Jesus is God’s Christ, the Son of God, and believing, have life in his name. John doesn’t say we believe because everything always makes sense, always works out, because there’s no risk we face in following. We can believe and have life in Christ even when it doesn’t make sense or work out, when there’s great risk.
Now that we know this, let’s hear the rest of today’s Gospel reading.
Read verses 39-45.
Listen, this story isn’t about the raising of Lazarus. It’s about our faith in that which we cannot see, our trust in God’s love in Christ in the face of what we fear, what makes us angry, what brings us grief.
Lazarus’ resurrection doesn’t change Thomas’ path. Mary and Martha might still outlive him. These last verses don’t magically make the story better. And none of us have ever experienced a loved one raised from the tomb. But we’ve all been where these three are, and that’s our hope. And like these three, we belong to the One who faced death on the cross and broke its power over us now, not just at the end of our lives here.
There is something critical in these last verses, though. Jesus needs the community involved in this resurrection. He gives Lazarus life. But he needs the people around Lazarus to unbind him and let him go. Mary, Martha, their neighbors, need to unwrap him from his death, open him up to his life.
This is our resurrection story.
The resurrection story of Thomas, Martha, Mary. They witness that, in the absence of evidence of any change, having God with us is life. Even in our fear, our anger, our grief, we are never alone, never dead. Christ meets us, like he did these three, exactly where each of us is, giving us each exactly what we need for faith. The Risen Christ, who has overcome the world, calls to us, “Come out, believe.”
And then Christ gives other Christs to us. To give us courage as we walk into the unknown. To give us patience as we rail in our righteous anger. To share our tears as we weep in the face of loss. Incarnate as God-with-us, Christ now becomes incarnate in each of us. So we can unbind each other, draw each other out of darkness into light. So that we can let each other go from the fear, anger, grief, and death that wrap us so tightly.
That’s enough, these three tell us. And we tell each other, as, filled with resurrection life in Christ, we unbind each other into this newness of life.
In the name of Jesus. Amen