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The death of a friend
Winter Quarter: Sacred Gifts and Holy Gatherings
Unit 2: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Sunday school lesson for the week of January 31, 2016
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: John 11:38-44
Background scripture: John 11:1-44
The second lesson from the Gospel of John describes another sign pointing to the glorification of Jesus. Remember, by glorification John means the death and resurrection of Jesus. Calling Lazarus out of the tomb is the precipitating event leading to the cross. Again, lots of layering is described in this ordinary moment of a grief-stricken family.
The family is identified, and we have met them before. The sisters are Mary and Martha. Mary has figured in two events recorded in the Gospel. She upset her sister Martha when she sat listening to Jesus rather than helping in the kitchen preparing food. Mary is also the one, according to John, who poured oil on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus knows and loves this family deeply.
The serious student needs to read the whole of chapter 11 of John, for if the study is limited to those verses listed for the lesson, much will be missed of John’s message. Please take time to read it all! In John, the raising of Lazarus becomes the reason for the plot to arrest, try, and convict Jesus.
In this last sign in the Gospel, again we have an ordinary setting for an extraordinary moment. A good friend has become ill, and his sisters are concerned. They send word to Jesus and ask him to come. They know he has healed others and believe he can make Lazarus well again. Jesus delays!
The reason for the delay is not clear. Jesus says Lazarus’ illness is not serious, yet we know it is. Jesus also hints something far more important is involved. He then says, “Let’s go back to Judea, for our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep.” Like we use euphemisms when we talk about death, Jesus did too!
Immediately, the disciples recognize danger in this journey and try to convince Jesus not to go, but He is determined. Thomas, whom we call the doubter, says “let’s go and die with Him!”
On arrival in Bethany, they discover Lazarus has been dead four days. When Martha heard Jesus was coming, she goes out to meet him but Mary remains in the house. Her first comment to Jesus sounds like a criticism: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.” She replies in the faith of her Hebrew teaching, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
To this testament of faith, Jesus declares: “I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Mary’s response is clear and confirms all the signs Jesus has given, from the wedding in Cana until now: “Yes Lord…You are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world.”
The resurrection becomes personalized in Jesus – He is the resurrection! His use of the words “I am” recalls the words spoken on the mountain by God to Moses. There are several “I am” sayings in John, but none have the power of this word to Martha.
Martha now sends word to Mary Jesus had come, and she rushes out to meet Him. Her friends, who have been grieving with her, go too. She also laments if Jesus had come sooner her brother would not have died. Together they all go to the tomb, a cave with a stone closing the entrance. The emotion is too much even for our Lord! John says, in the shortest verse in scripture, “Jesus wept!”
When Jesus orders the stone rolled away, Martha raises the practical issue of the smell of decay. No doubt about the reality of death here! With a reminder to Martha of their earlier conversation, the stone is rolled away.
Jesus prays. Knowing His relationship to the Father is secure and the line of power is open, He then shouts: “Lazarus, come out!” We love what Ellsworth Kalas says in the Disciple Bible Study: “If Jesus had not called Lazarus by name, everybody in the cemetery would have come to life!” Out comes Lazarus, still wrapped in the grave clothes. Jesus gives His final word: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
The witnesses spread the tale about what has happened. The shocking news reaches the leaders of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council, in Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin convenes, and the decision is made Jesus must die. By the way, these leaders also plot the death of Lazarus, who is too visible a sign of Jesus’ power and needs to be removed permanently.
This episode is filled with levels of meaning for us. First, death is real. There is no pretense that Lazarus is not dead. The death of a loved one brings grief and sometimes anger, like the sisters, when we ask God, “Why?” Moreover, in Jesus’ epic “I am” saying, death is recognized as still part of human physical life. “Even though he die…” Our faith is not an escape from reality.
Secondly, Jesus brings resurrection out of the future into the present. The personal relationship to Christ opens the door to a sustaining faith, which enables the believer to navigate life’s deepest hurts. The emphasis is on the total commitment of the believer. Jesus’ penetrating question to Martha is also addressed to us: “Do you believe?”
Lastly, there is a fellowship of suffering. The fact that Mary and Martha were surrounded by friends reinforces the importance of just being there when someone is walking “through the valley of the shadow of death.” We don’t have to have pat answers and all the right words to be of comfort to the bereaved. Never belittle the simple gift of the ministry of presence in such a time. We cannot raise the dead, but we can bring love to those living; and such love is from Him, Who indeed is “the resurrection and the life.”
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.