Three Kinds of Resurrection
A Sermon preached by the Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for this sermon: John 11.1-45
One of the major changes in education in the last generation is the greater awareness of various learning styles. Diversity isn’t just about identity and conviction; it includes the way we learn. The educationalist Howard Gardner devised a sevenfold scheme known as the multiple intelligence theory. He speaks of visual learners, who tend to go into engineering or design; then aural learners, who are good with speech and music; then verbal learners, who go for journalism or politics; physical learners, who go for PE or emergency services; logical learners, who find numbers easy and head to accountancy or computer programming; social learners, who head towards HR or coaching; and solitary learners, who become authors or researchers. There’s a huge discourse of people questioning aspects of these distinctions or the whole theory. But the point is, a given lesson in a classroom or presentation at a conference is going to suit some people more than others, and we each have to adapt to gain knowledge and understanding through the routes that work best for us. It would be dull if we were all the same, and we can help each other with complementary learning styles.
If that’s how our intellect works, how much more our emotions. Our emotions aren’t shaped just by dispositions of our heart and soul; they’re conditioned by our life experience. When we enter a new situation, we judge it by its merits: but we also quickly assess whether it reminds us of a scenario we’ve been in before. Sometimes this assessment is subconscious, and it’s only much later we realise why we found a person’s voice frightening or flinched when we saw a cat. Some of our reactions are down to personality, but many are derived from conscious or unconscious memories of good or bad encounters in our past. There’s way more than seven kinds of experiences, so no one’s seriously tried to map out the range of different reactions people can have to the same situation. But you’ll have cried all the way through a film while your companion remained utterly unmoved. And when you heard a person cry out in the street you’ll have leapt down the steps to help while your companion remained rooted to the spot. It could be because you’re compassionate while your companion is heartless. More likely it’s something rooted in your respective memories.
And that connects to what we’ve been witnessing in the last week, as our national life has changed beyond description. In a lot of ways we’re all in the same boat – not just in Britain but across the world. But what being in that boat means to us differs in myriad ways. Because some of us are anxious about our health, others distraught about our finances, others again angry about being deprived of a much looked-forward-to event or much prepared-for exam, others terrified about being cooped up with people they don’t trust, others getting in touch with profound fears about being alone, isolated, forgotten, abandoned. And we react in different ways – some hyperactive, organising everything and everyone, ordering or buying vast supplies for a two-year lockdown; others passive, mesmerised by graphs of death-rates in European countries or hoping a magic fairy will make it all go away.
I want to look at the story of the raising of Lazarus in the light of this sense that our respective emotional and experiential make-up is different, and we react in different ways to the same things. The story has a background and a foreground. In the background of the story lie the disciples. Their reactions provide the context of Jesus’ actions. They have three kinds of reactions. The first is fear. Jesus says, ‘Ok guys, we’re heading back to Judaea.’ The disciples reply, ‘Last time we were there they were trying to stone you: you can’t be serious about there again!’ Then they move from fear to complacency. Jesus says, ‘I’m going to wake Lazarus up.’ The disciples respond, ‘If he’s asleep, he’ll be fine.’ Then from complacency they move to martyrdom. Jesus says, ‘We’re going, like it or not.’ Thomas says, ‘Let’s go and die with him.’ Again, see how these three reactions map onto the emotions stirred by the virus these last two weeks. Fear, complacency and courage. Some are paralysed by fear; others are blasé and can’t see how the problem affects them. Others are heading towards the problem, going daily into hospitals, putting their own safety to one side, just wanting to be of help and support to the sick and dying. That’s the background.
But in the foreground we have two figures, Martha and Mary, who react to Jesus in very different ways. I want to look closely at how their reactions to their brother’s death can mirror but also guide our own reactions to the virus.
Let’s start with Martha. Remember the previous chapter, John 12, has been about Mary pouring precious ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. But this chapter is quick to point out Jesus loves both sisters equally. It refers to Martha and her sister the other way round, just to restore the balance. Quickly Martha asserts herself as the outgoing, proactive member of the family. She goes out to meet Jesus as he comes to Bethany. You can see how conflicted she is.
I remember saying to a passionate colleague years ago, ‘Your emails always charge in right in the middle of your stream of thought, saying “We can’t let so and so treat us like this – we’ve got to tell her to back off.” How about starting a message by saying “I hope you’re well. I’m imagining this is a busy time for you,” or some way of recognising the person reading the message isn’t immediately in the same place you are.’ Martha sounds like my former colleague. She plunges in. ‘Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.’ Just ploughs in, taking for granted her agenda is everyone’s agenda, full of reproach that Jesus wasn’t to hand when needed. And then she stops herself, realises she’s in a conversation, and changes tune. ‘But I know God will give you whatever you ask.’ Feel the passive-aggression in that. ‘You couldn’t be bothered to be here. And now you could fix all this if you were interested. But I know you won’t. Because you aren’t.’ We say the cruellest things to those we love; especially when they have gifts we know we’ll never have. Martha’s devastated. What she can’t see is how anyone could feel differently from her.
Jesus pulls rank. ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’ Then he challenges Martha. ‘Are you on board with this or not?’ Martha says, finally, ‘Yes, Lord. Everything I believe about God has come true in you.’ See what’s happening here. Faith can mean belief, that’s to say convictions held in the head. But it can also mean trust, a relationship that involves the heart. Martha first articulates belief, but then speaks words of trust. ‘It’s you – all this has become true in you.’ Then Martha has one more challenge. She’s moved from head to heart. But she hasn’t yet got to hand. Jesus says, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha’s revolted. The horror overwhelms her. Jesus asks, ‘Do you want to see the glory or don’t you?’ Finally Martha acquiesces. She wants to see the glory. Whatever it takes.
Let’s turn to Mary. Bereavement turns Martha to activity. But it turns Mary to depression. Mary doesn’t come out to greet Jesus. That’s not an accidental detail. That’s a sign that Mary’s in a really dark place. Losing her brother is means she’s lost her household income overnight. There’s no government support for small businesses whose boss just died. She’s facing poverty. Martha comes back to get some sense into Mary. ‘Jesus is here and wants to talk to you.’ Mary comes to Jesus and parrots exactly the same words as Martha’s just said. ‘Lord, if you’d been here, my brother would not have died.’ But unlike Martha, Mary doesn’t correct herself. It’s like she’s said these words to herself over and over, and now she says them out loud. That’s actually the only thing she says in the whole story. Her silence speaks louder than any words. She’s speechless with sorrow.
Martha and Mary both exhibit signs of profound grief. Martha’s angry, demanding answers, eager to be active but still with her no-go areas. Mary’s depressed, incapable of finding words. Maybe we recognise either Martha or Mary, or a bit of both, in ourselves and in those with whom we’ve spent the last ten days, domestically or virtually. But see how both sisters, and their dead brother, are swept up into the glory of God by what happens at the end of this story. Martha, who feels let down by Jesus, and demands more, finds far more than she’d imagined. Mary, who’d lost all hope, finds that Jesus will come to meet her deepest need even though she’s got no energy to respond. And Lazarus, who’s the other side of the stone in the stench-filled tomb, has the greatest transformation of all. The plight of all three siblings is real, and at the start of the chapter seems irreversible. But Jesus changes everything, assertively for Martha; gently and compassionately for Mary; decisively and miraculously for Lazarus. See how there are three resurrections in this story. Resurrection from a broken relationship; resurrection from depression; and resurrection from death. What they have in common is this: Jesus changes everything.
Whatever our learning style, we all love a good story. And this is the greatest story of them all. We’re like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus – troubled, lost, and dying. God seems so far away. Jesus comes to us, at immense risk to himself. He meets us, whether we’re angry or depressed. He comes to our place of greatest fear, grief, and fragility. He faces that place with simplicity, compassion, and strength. And he raises us for new life with him, now and forever. That’s John chapter 11. That’s the gospel. That’s the whole Bible.
Wherever we’ve been this week, beyond Judaea, feeling far away from the action, in Bethany, amid the tears and grief, or at the tomb, facing the stone of our horror and terror, we’ve got a place in this story. It’s true almost all of this story is made up of distress and despair. But just look how it ends. Just look how it ends.
It’s how our story will end too.