5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 11:1-45;
DOING GREATER WORKS
About a week or so after raising Lazarus from the dead, on the night of his own death, Jesus said to his disciples,
“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Say what?! You raise from the dead someone who’s been four days in the grave and we are going to do greater works than these? And last week’s story was about healing a man blind from birth. Greater works than these? Com’on, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! How can we do greater works than these?
On the other hand, the only person Jesus raises in John’s Gospel is Lazarus. Millions of people die every day, and Jesus only raised his friend. You and I have no doubt prayed and prayed and prayed for a loved one not to die, only to have that person die. For me, it was Aunt Kay, my favorite aunt, who died of cancer at age 42. And Jesus was not there to raise her back to life. Raising one person back to life, as amazing as that is, is not so great when billions have died.
In John’s Gospel, as a matter of fact, raising Lazarus back to life after four days in the grave, is not even called a miracle. No, in John’s Gospel, it’s called a sign. It’s the seventh and last sign. It began with the wedding at Cana, turning the water in the ritual purification jars into wine. The water for a somber ritual was turned into the wine of a joyful celebration of life. Then, in ch. 4, Jesus heals the son of a royal official – the second sign. In ch. 5, it’s the healing of a lame man at the pool of Bethsaida. Chapter 6, two signs: feeding five thousand and walking on water. We heard the sixth sign last week: healing the man born blind. Today, the seventh and final sign – final, that is, until Easter morning, the eighth sign on the eighth day, the first day of the new week, the first day of a New Creation. In John’s Gospel, these are not miracles. They are signs of the Creation beginning again.
They are signs to help us to believe, signs to signal our entry into the New Creation, signs to help us be faithful by working in the New Creation. And that’s why Jesus is not only sad at Lazarus’s wake, but he’s also troubled in spirit, perhaps even angry. The word used for “troubled” in verses 33 and 38 is translated in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels as being angry or frustrated. Why would Jesus be angry or frustrated at such a sad occasion? Because he is giving them signs to invite them into New Creation, and they aren’t getting it. He has staged this entire event with Lazarus death – staying a couple of extra days on purpose, to make sure that Lazarus would die – and they still aren’t believing that he is all about resurrection and life. They aren’t yet understanding.
What about us, two thousand years later? Do we get it yet? Yes, we believe that God raises us after we die. But like Jesus says to Martha, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. It’s not just happening someday in the future. It’s happening right now, Sister! I’m trying to invite you, empower you, right now on how to live wholly and completely for Life.’ Do we get this still? Do we know how to live completely on the side of life here today, and not just put it off until tomorrow?
Here’s what I mean. Perhaps the most telling conversation in John’s Gospel is between Jesus and the Judean leaders in chapters 7 and 8. Jesus has come to invite them into life, too, but they are such stick in the muds for the Law, for Torah, that they can’t get past Jesus’s healing on the Sabbath. To them, Torah is Life. And as a good Jew, it is for Jesus, too. But then you have to understand how to have Torah lead you wholly and completely into life. The Judean leaders still use it to impede working toward life by following the letter of the law instead of the Spirit of it – like getting on Jesus’s case for healing on the Sabbath. They also use the law to elevate themselves above others, seeing themselves as fit for life and others as not. Jesus had to tell the Pharisee Nicodemus to be born again from above. He had to help him to understand that unless he is able to see every person on this earth as God’s child fit for life, then he was really living for death, not life. And Jesus would go on to tell the leaders point blank (in chapter 7) that they would use the law to kill him. And for good measure, when they bring an adulteress to him, ready to stone, ready to kill, he would halt them in their tracks, telling them, “You who is without sin may cast the first stone.” The law is for Life, never for death, never for killing, never for neglecting others because you think that somehow you are better.
Now do we understand? Are our politics any better than the Pharisees? As our lawmakers, for example, both federal and state, make the laws to fund what we as a people want to do together, is it for the common good? Is our law making wholly and completely on the side of Life? When we elect our lawmakers, when we guide them with our participation in governing ourselves, is it for everyone’s benefit, for everyone’s fullness of life? Do we understand that we can do greater works than Jesus, effecting many more people if we do the work of God’s New Creation as best we can, guided by the Spirit?
If not, Jesus comes here to remind us once again this morning that he is the resurrection and the life right now, here today. This isn’t just about some future life in a far-away place. This is about God’s Creation here and now. He is here in bread and wine to feed us for living wholly and completely for Life, for the sake of the world. He is here to say to us, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I have gone to the Father, so that I may live in you and you in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…” Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 10, 2011