John 11 – Let us also go, that we may die with him.

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, April 6, 2014 - 9:30am

 

When we celebrated Christmas, we celebrated a light coming into the world, and did so to the sound of John’s stirring words from the beginning of his gospel:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.’

This word ‘comprehended’ is a beautiful word because it carries the meaning both of understanding, and overcoming. The opposing powers of darkness could neither come to grips with Jesus Christ- they could not grasp or accept who he was, nor could they defeat him, for all their rage and spite. What we heard described at Christmastime begins to come to a head today as we enter Passiontide with the story of the raising of Lazarus.

 

Now, my first instinct as I turned afresh to this episode in Jesus’ life was that there was something of the Greek tragedy about the way in which Jesus’ end was played out. In a classical tragedy the hero is drawn inexorably by malign fate towards his doom. No matter how he struggles against it, somehow everything conspires to draw him towards the play’s inevitable and bitter conclusion.

 

Take for example the tragedy of Oedipus, who learns from the oracle at Delphi that he is destined to murder his father and wed his mother. Disgusted by the thought he flees far from home, but in doing so he becomes involved in a violent incident on the road, and sets in train the very course of events he hoped to avoid.

 

Likewise, through the course of John’s gospel, we watch Jesus being drawn continually into conflict with the Judeans, and in particular with the Pharisees, the guardians of Jewish religious purity. Each time, he is drawn back into danger, back towards Jerusalem, like a moth towards a flame, and with each sign that he does, he places himself in greater peril. The more he heals and feeds and teaches, the greater the offence he causes. The brighter the light shines, the more bitterly the darkness seeks to snuff it out.

 

Yet the more we think about it, the less Jesus’ story fits the classical model of tragedy. First of all, the tragic hero is flawed. He is brought down by a defect in his character, or a bad choice that he makes. Yet Jesus is not, it is his uncompromising goodness and truthfulness that challenges the comfortable hypocrisy of the status quo. Likewise the hero is typically ignorant of what is to come, whereas Jesus seems to be the only one who is aware of where his actions will ultimately lead.  Furthermore the tragic hero struggles against the disaster in store for him, but Jesus gives himself over entirely to the Father’s will.

 

It is Jesus’ disciples who respond with amazement when he turns back to Judea for Bethany. ‘Rabbi!’ they say ‘the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going back there again?’ Yet he knows what must be done. Resignedly they shake their heads:

‘Let us also go,’ they say ‘that we may die with him.’

 

He arrives to another scene in which his friends have resigned themselves to death, this time the death of Lazarus. Mary and Martha knew that while their brother was ill, there was hope that Jesus could heal him. Now, however, he had been dead and buried for four days. What could Jesus do? Their response is almost reproachful: ‘If only you had been here…’ they say…

 

Jesus’ friends are still reading an old script- a tragic script it will be hard for them to leave behind. Though Mary confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, his significance, as far as she is concerned, relates to some airy and undefined time in the future.

‘This is how the world works.’ Everybody seems to say.

‘It is sad, but this is how it has to be. We can bend the rules, but we can’t break them. It’s too late. Even Jesus can’t save him now.’

 

And Jesus wept. But were they tears of grief or tears of frustration? Were they perhaps angry, mocking tears shed against those who still refused to grasp what he had tried to show them? Had it now become clear that the world would never grasp what God was offering them until it was violently ripped away? That they would always imagine limits to the love of God until Jesus had given them everything.

 

‘Tell me and I will forget’ says the proverb

‘Show me and I will remember’

‘Involve me and I will understand.’

 

Lazarus rises from the dead, and those who see are ready to remember, but maybe not to understand. Jesus drags the resurrection of the dead into the present. He offers another glimpse of God’s kingdom coming into the world. Lazarus comes blinking out into the daylight, and some will see and believe, breaking cover and coming out into the light. Others, though, are hardened in their resolve against him.

 

Jesus course has become clear. His destiny on Golgotha draws ever closer. People are forced to choose sides.

 

Whose side are we on? As we walk in the shadow of the cross this Holy Week, what does it demand of us? Have we accepted for ourselves the life that Jesus offers us or are we hedging our bets?  Do we really trust him enough to stake everything on him, or do we hold something back, on the grounds that we are being hard-headed and realistic?

 

We can, if we wish, allow our lives to be a tragedy ending in defeat. They may be noble insofar as we follow the track the world lays out for us,  but they will be noble failures. Or we can carry our cross with Christ. We can swallow the taunts that it is childish and unrealistic, wrong-headed or foolish, and risk everything on the promise of life, trusting that Jesus will show us the way.