FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” John 11:45.
So many, in fact, that the religious establishment in Jerusalem was becoming alarmed. Jesus was no longer simply a false teacher, a breaker of religious taboos and a bad moral influence. He was becoming a threat to national security. Jesus’ popularity was drawing the attention of Judea’s Roman overlords. According to John the Evangelist, this unwanted attention was a direct result of his raising Lazarus from death. Caiaphas, the high priest, is well schooled in realpolitik. Caiaphas understands the threat Jesus poses to his fragile arrangement with the world’s only superpower under which his people are permitted to exist. As distasteful as it might be, killing Jesus and Lazarus is a small price to pay for sparing the whole nation the wrath of Rome’s legions. John 11:45-53. So let us not be too hard on Caiaphas and his associates. After all, decisions like these are made by law enforcement bodies, intelligence agencies and chiefs of military staff every day.
These verses following Sunday’s gospel lesson are important because they frame the context for this final miracle of Jesus. It is, according to John the Evangelist, the straw that broke the camel’s back, the sign that made equivocally clear to the rulers in Jerusalem that Jesus must die. As such, it is an intensely political act, a frontal assault on the empire, a bold assertion that Rome’s threats of war, torture and death are finally empty. The last word belongs to life. That is a word no empire can bear to hear. How can a nation hope to rule through violence and terror when its most fearsome threat of raw, violent power-the cross-is transformed into a symbol of victory? When a people no longer fears death, how can a tyrant hope to retain control of them? The raising of Lazarus, and more so the Resurrection of Jesus, is deeply political. The reign of kingdoms, empires and nation states with their bogus claims of sovereignty, their machinery of oppression and police power is over. Be afraid Caesar; be afraid mother Russia; be afraid Uncle Sam; be very afraid.
Understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with government per se. To the contrary, government is one of God’s good gifts. It is the means by which neighbors exercise love for one another by making provision for the health of our common life together. But every gift of God is a potential idol. It becomes so when it usurps divine prerogatives. In this regard, all modern states, regardless their form of governance, have one thing in common: they all claim the sole legitimate authority to take human life. The state, unlike the rest of us, has the legal right to employ lethal force to enforce its laws, protect its commercial interests and make war on its enemies. The assumption here is that the state-like Caiaphas-employs violence in the service of some higher moral good that justifies it. Thus, when all other means of persuasion fail, there is always the national guard, the armed forces, the gallows or lethal injection. The state, every state, relies on the power to kill. Without it, the state cannot survive.
By raising Lazarus, Jesus puts the lie to the assumption underlying the state’s blasphemous claim to power over life and death. In so doing, it pulls the rug out from under all assertions of national security, sovereignty, territorial integrity, border security and all the other poor excuses nation states make for killing people. A human being created in God’s image is sacrosanct. However distorted that image might become, the human form is God’s temple. As such, oppression, poverty, violence and death must not be allowed to deface it. God alone rightfully determines its end.
The same cannot be said of nation states. “The nations,” says the prophet Isaiah, “are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dost on the scales.” Isaiah 40:15. The great empires of the world are, as Shakespeare would say, a “walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.” Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome are now ruins and dust. Someday the United States of America will join them-as will all who give to nations and kingdoms the allegiance belonging to God alone.
Let us then put aside the heroic and patriotic rhetoric surrounding the cult of the warrior and acknowledge the carnage taking place around the world for what it truly is: a massive sacrificial holocaust of human flesh to the false gods of nation, blood and soil. Let us boldly assert that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism into the one holy, catholic and apostolic church made up of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues.” Revelation 7:9-10. Thus, to take up arms against any person on behalf of any nation is to defile God’s holy temple, betray God’s holy church and deny the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is the one who offers only life and redemption, even to his enemies. Jesus is the man who chose endurance of suffering and death over inflicting it upon others. Jesus is the only begotten Son of the God who shows no favoritism and knows none of the distinctions we make among ourselves. Jesus raised Lazarus to show Mary, Martha, his own people and all nations that this God’s fierce love for all people cannot be killed.
Here is a poem by Henry Colman reflecting on the gospel lesson for this Sunday.
On Lazarus Raised from Death
Where am I, or how came I here, hath death
Bereaved me of my breath,
Or do I dream?
Nor can that be, for sure I am
These are no ensigns of a living man,
Beside, the stream
Of life did fly
From hence, and my blessed soul did sour on high,
And well remember I,
My friends or either hand
I weeping stand
To see me die;
Most certain then it is my soul was fled
Forth of my clay, and I am buried.
These linens plainly show this cave did keep
My flesh in its dead sleep,
And yet a noise
Me-thought I heard, of such strange force
As would have raised to life the dullest corse,
So sweet a voice
As spite of death
Distilled through every vein a living breath,
And sure I heard it charge
Me by my name, even thus
Come forth at large,
And so nought hinders, I will straightaway then
Appear, (though thus dressed) ere it call again.
Was’t my Redeemer called, no marvel then
Though dead, I live again,
His word alone
Can raise a soul, though dead in sin,
Ready the grace of hell to tumble in
High as the Throne;
In all things he
Is the true powerful Eternity:
Since thou has pleased to raise
My body then, let my spirit
And the praise.
And let thy miracle upon my clay
Prepare, and fit me ‘gainst the reckoning day.
This poem is in the public domain and reprinted in Chapter into Verse, an anthology of English poetry inspired by scripture edited by Robert Atwan and Laurance Wieder, (c. 2000 by the editors; pub. by Oxford University Press). I have been unable to secure any information concerning Henry Colman, though he may have been the prominent New England clergyman of that name born 1785 in Boston. If you have any further information, I would appreciate your sharing it with me.