The Sweet Smell of New Life

The Sweet Smell of New Life

John 11: 32-44

Nov  4, 2012

This is All Saint’s Sunday.  We honor our deceased saints of the past…the witnesses to the resurrection who have gone before us and now live on the other side of the veil.  They are caught up in Christ and part of the new heaven and earth our savior prepares for us even as we gather here today in his name.  On this special day in the church year we affirm the truth John speaks of in Revelation, “See, I am making all things new.”

But in the meantime, loved ones still die, we grieve their passing and the earth looks older and a little more worn day by day.  This past week reminded us once again, as if we needed reminding, that life is fragile.  Now that the storm of the century comes every 10 years or so, the election makes this country feel like it is split right down the middle into opposing camps, and the world feels like we’re sitting on a powder keg …the image of newness sounds very good to us.  And isn’t newness what resurrection is all about?

This passage reads like a rehearsal for resurrection.  We have a tomb. We have a rock in front of the tomb.  We have weeping women.  We have grave clothes.  And we have a dead man walking.  In point of fact though, this is not a resurrection.  This is a resuscitation.   Lazarus has been raised from death, but will eventually die like the rest of us.  But for the time being, this is a wonderful reunion and restoration to his family and friends.

Certainly it was a joyful moment for his sisters.   I’m sure that our members who lost loved ones in the last several years would like to see their dear one’s face once again.  We long for that glimpse even though we have a hope rooted in the gospel that proclaims a victory over death.   God gets the final word, not death.  But a question occurs to me as I read this story.  Did Lazarus welcome coming back to this world of trouble and woe?

In one of my seminary classes someone came in to speak of us about his near death experience.  He was electrocuted in an industrial accident and clinically dead before being brought back to life.  He spoke movingly about floating above his body, visiting his daughter in his home, and finally encountering an angel who told him that it was not yet time for him to die.  This person concluded his talk by saying that it was not his wish to be back from the dead.  What he experienced on the other side was far more real to him than was this life.  He has spent the intervening years trying to come to terms with his desire to go back to that place in the afterlife, and his need to live his earthly life.  It was a very disconcerting testimony.

His point of view is shared by many who describe a near death experience (NDE). But there has also been a lot of research focused on the effect an NDE has on the subject’s life once they are restored to health.   One internet site I consulted said this:  “Kenneth Ring, one of the most prolific researchers and authors of NDE studies, reports a large number of subjects who gain self-confidence and become more extroverted after an experience. One of Ring’s studies quantified changes in subjects’ attitudes toward life. These generally include a sense of purpose in life, an appreciation of life, and increase in compassion, patience and understanding and an overall feeling of personal strength. .. Finally, people who go through NDEs often find that they do not fear death, and feel that a positive experience will be awaiting them when they actually die.”[1]

When Jesus ordered Lazarus out of the tomb, he was raising him to new life in this life.  There is a tremendous message in that for all of us.  Resurrection is not just about what happens after we die.  We always need to be reminded that through our baptism we have been raised to new life in Christ today.  In a very real sense baptism is a rehearsal for resurrection!

Lazarus was unbound from his grave clothes that kept him in the tomb.   And in a real sense Lazarus was then free to experience life in a similar way to that described by those who have had an NDE.  So are we who are baptized into newness into new life through Christ Jesus.

As Cynthia Jarvis points out in her essay on this passage, in seminary “realized eschatology”  is what pastors learn to call this phenomenon.[2]  This is a ten dollar theological term for what is happening in this brilliant passage in John.  But the life to which Lazarus has been raised is one available to all of us.  We live in the midst of sorrow and grief, sadness and want.  But there is still for us great joy because we know that neither life nor death, things present nor things to come, can separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus.

In the gospel of John these stories of miraculous
events—turning water into wine, the feeding of the 5000, a healing of a crippled man by a pool of water—are signs that point to something much greater with a much deeper meaning.  First of all, in these stories Jesus acts according to his own time schedule and not external pressures.  For example, at the wedding feast in Cana Jesus separates himself from his mother before acting to turn the water into wine.  Here, Jesus stays 2 days longer where he was before  responding to the message about Lazarus.  Jesus acts “from above”  and operates according to God’s time (kairos), not our time, chronos.  The primary purpose of the sign is some revelation about the glory of God and life eternal through Jesus Christ.  It’s not just about the particular human need Jesus is fulfilling in the sign such as hunger, blindness, inability to walk, or even death itself.

In the raising of Lazarus, we the readers are alerted to what the sisters and Lazarus do not know.  Fred Craddock suggests this is not about a family crisis in Bethany, but rather about a crisis in the world.  In other words, this is not only the raising of a dead man, but the giving of life to the world.[3]   Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me though they die will live; and everyone who lives in me will never die.”   For us, eternal life begins with belief in the one who has raised us as surely as Jesus raised Lazarus.

Martha said to Jesus as he commanded her to roll away the stone that sealed the tomb, “Lord, there already is a stench!”  The stench of death is not just in the tomb, and not just Lazarus.  As priest and author Rick Morley beautifully writes, we all need to be raised from that stench![4]

While I don’t use the King James Version of the Bible often, I do happen to love its rendering of the raising of Lazarus. Jesus, after weeping and being emotionally moved, commands those around him to open Lazarus’ tomb.

There’s instant protest. Lazarus had been dead for a few days, and everyone knew that rolling that stone away wouldn’t be pretty.

Martha calls out: But Lord, he stinketh!  I love that.  Because we are all Lazarus…bound in the grave clothes which the world lays on us…We stinketh.

Until – until! – Jesus calls us out of the tomb. Until he orders everything that binds us and holds us down, to be stripped off of us and tossed aside. Until he breathes his holy breath into us again and makes us a new creation.

The Body of Christ, the community of the baptized, and the Communion of Saints – we are all Lazarus. In this sense, the raising of Lazarus isn’t just a miracle that Jesus performed thousands of years ago in a land far, far away. It’s the work of Jesus today. 

From the stench of death to the sweet smell of life, how far we have come!  As we come together on this All Saint’s Sunday, surrounded by each other, the saints that have gone before us and the ones who will come after us, we give thanks that we have all been raised into the Body of Christ.  Unbound by our grave cloths nothing owns us except Christ.    Christ is moved by our plight, he weeps when we weep, and he acts to save us.

If resurrection was only about what happens on the other side of the grave, Jesus would not have been born in human form.  He would not have lived like we live, know the life that we know.  He showed us what a life full of God looks like. He showed us how to live a resurrected life today.  Full of hope, full of promise, full of love—we all leave the tomb and our grave clothes behind.  We share that sweet smell of Easter morning with Jesus  not just at the end of our days, but every day.



[2] Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol 4, 240.

[3] “A Twofold Death and Resurrection”, Christian Century, March 21-28 1990, p 299.