The body would have begun decomposing very soon after death, both because the Jews did not practice embalming, and because of the Middle Eastern heat. The normal practice was to wash, then anoint the body with spices, including myrrh and aloes, to mask the smell of death. Then the body would have been wrapped, head to toe, with linen swaths and finally, the body shrouded with a linen garment before it was placed in the tomb. But nothing could mask the grief, then as now: the sadness, the tears, the questions without answers. All of this would have gone on during the visitation at the grave, where they rolled the stone away. I’m not speaking here about Jesus’ death; rather the death of Lazarus – Jesus’ beloved friend, brother to Mary and Martha. Jesus visits the tomb of Lazarus, and it is Jesus who weeps.1
This story of the death Lazarus is told in the Gospel according to John not that long before the story recording Jesus’ own death. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus looks into the tomb and proclaims with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And you may remember what happens: there’s a resurrection. Lazarus is brought back to life!
This story in John’s gospel about Lazarus’ resurrection is like a dress rehearsal for the resurrection story about Jesus, and for several reasons. For one, we know the burial customs in Jesus’ day. What was done with Lazarus’ body would have been done with Jesus’ body. Secondly, this Gospel story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, followed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, are both reported to us in the Gospel according to John. But this is not like CNN live coverage. The death stories about Lazarus, then Jesus, were remembered stories, passed down by word of mouth for about 60 years before they were ever written down. When it comes to the passage of time, some details of history may fade in time; however perspective increases in the time. And in time it became clear to the community that eventually produced the Gospel according to John that these two resurrection stories – the resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus – had a lot in common.
There’s one fascinating detail in the Lazarus story that begs a question in the story of Jesus’ resurrection. There at Lazarus’ grave, the stone is rolled away. Jesus looks into the tomb and shouts, “Lazarus, come out.” And he does. But what a sight! He’s up and alive, yet he’s still bound in these linen death wrappings, head to foot. If the scene weren’t so miraculous, it could almost be comical, Lazarus’ squirming helplessly in the linen wrappings. What needs to happen? Jesus says to the visitors at the tomb, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus, who is now very much again alive, is now set free.
So I have a question for you about the visitation to the tomb. Now I’m talking about the visitation to Jesus’ tomb. Once more, in John’s gospel, we’re told of the linen death wrappings. We read, “The cloth that had been on Jesus’ head [was] not lying with the [other] linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”2 Here is my question for you: Who unbound Jesus? Even if his poor hands had not been pierced and broken by nails, Jesus could not have unbound himself. Who unbound Jesus? I’ll come back to that question.
We gather here this morning to remember Jesus’ resurrection. Our memory fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only as a past event that we are celebrating this morning. The church has this turn of phrase: “resurrection power.” There is power in Jesus’ resurrection only if it has a quality of “now” and not just “then.” For this memory to be real, and not just archival, Jesus’ resurrection must show its presence and power today. We will sing at the end of our liturgy the great Easter hymn, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today…” How do you know that Jesus Christ is risen today? Our memory fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only in terms of “then” and not also in terms of “now.” We are not reenacting Jesus’ resurrection; we are reappropriating Jesus’ resurrection power.
And secondly, our memory of Jesus’ resurrection fails us if we think of Jesus’ resurrection only in terms of “them” and not also in terms of “us.” If there is “resurrection power,” we need to know this power not just behind us (in the past), or around us (in others), but within us, in our own lives, now. You are teeming with that resurrection power, and you need to claim it and unleash it as clearly as Jesus’ followers in first-century Palestine.
And thirdly, our memory of Jesus’ resurrection fails us if we only understand his resurrection as a miracle. Jesus’ resurrection was indeed a miracle; however Jesus’ resurrection needs to be more than a miracle. It’s needs to be normal… every day… how we live and breathe: with resurrection power.
Back to my question. Who unbound Jesus? Jesus, like Lazarus, was brought back to life, still bound head-to-foot in linen wrappings, alive and trapped in his death garments. Who unbound Jesus? Historically, we don’t know. We’ve not been told who. Someone did. But what about now? Who unbinds Jesus’ resurrection power today? You do. You unbind Jesus. We hear Jesus say elsewhere in the Gospel, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”3 Jesus is alive today in us: his hands as our hands; his voice as our voice; his sacred heart as our sacred heart. Momentarily we will be invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer. We say the words, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are helping build that kingdom, on earth as it shall be in heaven. It’s heaven all the way. Who unbinds Jesus? We all do. How? How do you do it? I’m not going to say. That’s your story line, for you and God to work out. Just make the miracles normal. Make what someone else would call “a miracle” the normal way you go about living and breathing… which is why God has breathed life into each one of us in this new day.
“God Has a Dream.” These are the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “‘I have a dream,’ God says. ‘Please help Me to realize it. It is a dream of a world whose ugliness and squalor and poverty, its war and hostility, its greed and harsh competitiveness, its alienation and disharmony are changed into their glorious counterparts, when there will be more laughter, joy, and peace, where there will be justice and goodness and compassion and love and caring and sharing. . . My children will know that they are members of one family, the human family, God’s family, My family.’”4 “I have a dream,” God says. Dear friends in Christ: unleash Jesus’ resurrection power in your life. Believe that Jesus is alive and at work within you and through you. It’s true. Make the miracles normal. It is what Jesus is praying for in each of us. We are the answer to Jesus’ prayer.
3 In the Gospel according to Matthew (25:34-40), we hear Jesus say: “…The king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
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