Why wait to die for a resurrection?
A sermon on John 11:1-45, by Jill Friebel 13 March 2005

Last Wednesday I stood alongside my aunty, cousins and their families watching Uncle Hec being lowered out of sight at the Necropolis.

Death had come faster than anyone had anticipated – he had kept saying right up to the last moment that he would beat this cancer. He was really angry when they had taken him to Charitas Christie and he was adamant that he was going home again. Two days later he died. Now he was gone – his body lay lifeless in the casket and within a few hours he would be reduced to ashes. We were there to remember his life and mourn his death.

Lazarus was dead and had been for 3 full days when Jesus and the disciples arrived. One doesn’t need much imagination to know the state of the body by now especially in a hot climate with no refrigeration.

This story of Lazarus comes almost as a climax on the teaching that has gone before it about life and death. John has been making comparisons between life and death, light and darkness and we can miss the point of what he is saying because we don’t have words that do justice to his original meanings. When John speaks about life he uses more specific words that differentiate between different types of life. He uses a word “bios” when talking about the outer physical manifestation of life which is our physical bodies. (The word biology comes from this word.) Then he has another word “zoe” which is the living principle of life and is used for the inward mystical sense with reference to the spiritual life. An entity that has “bios” will certainly die, but John tells us that an entity that has “zoe” is the life that infuses and participates in eternal life. However “zoe” doesn’t begin at physical death but is the spiritual life and state in which we can begin to participate in the here and now in this earthly existence. It is the life that Christ infuses into us, the one we experience when we are born from above in the ‘spirit’.

In much the same way death doesn’t only happen when “bios” the body dies but we can be dying on the inside a little bit every day. In any given moment we are moving either toward spiritual life or toward spiritual death. Life is a gift that we are given, but we have the choice as to how freely we want to live into this life. We can be as the living dead. When we remain ignorant and participate in evil we remain in darkness and our soul begins to die. In contrast the life lived through the Christ brings a spiritual enlightenment in which both consciousness and conscience are strengthened. This means our soul lives continually poised between the opposites of life-light-consciousness and death-darkness-sin. This is the last Sunday when we pray with the catechumens that they would renounce evil and turn from it and hide themselves in Christ. Will this now be the end of their struggle against evil? Why do we need to do this three times, wouldn’t one be adequate. Realistically and truthfully we all need to do it every day. Why is this such a constant struggle for us?

Lets take a little baby. Here we see the beauty of a new life. But if this little life never grew and developed, what was beautiful at first would become a great sadness. For all the potential and beauty and promise would die. She would never mature and develop into an independent creative and loving person. The more secure and safe her environment the more chance she has of discovering her gifts and moving freely into them becoming confident and secure. She needs to be tenderly cared for, taught good things, loved, and the gift of life hopefully will blossom.

In the same manner this spiritual life of “zoe” is a gift from God of everlasting life that reveals our true life in the here and now. It is our true self, and just as a baby has all the potential of life and gifting and extraordinary achievements given the right environment, love and nurture, so our lives of “zoe” have all the same potential in Christ of growing and developing into extraordinarily beautiful and gifted people that will live for ever. “The glory of God is the man or woman who is truly alive in God.”

This gift of “zoe” has all the potential of blossoming, but it isn’t a given for there are many things that can stunt the fulfilment of this growth in Christ. Ignorance and darkness and lack of awareness, being controlled by things we just aren’t aware of which inhibit our freedom.

When Martha hears that Jesus is coming she runs along the road to meet him. “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died”. Jesus says to her that her brother will rise again. Martha says she knows he will rise at the resurrection which at least shows that a general belief in life after death existed among many of the Jews at the time. But it didn’t console her. Perhaps it was too remote and uncertain in her mind.

Jesus then makes a pronouncement that we hear at every Christian funeral.

“You don’t have to wait for the End. I AM, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” Martha replies that does, but just what she believes in is getting bigger and mightier than she could possible imagine.

In this pronouncement which we hear so often Jesus uses another specific phrase which we don’t really hear. When he says “I AM, right now, Resurrection and Life,” he is using the same name used when God spoke to Moses at the burning bush. Tell Pharaoh “I AM” sent you. It is saying “I AM the One who IS”. It is much stronger than just “I am the resurrection and the life”. It is Yahweh the Holy Name of God that Jews were far too respectful to utter. It is hard for us to realise how awe-inspiring or how blasphemous (depending on your point of view) it must have been to hear a human speak such words.

Jesus speaks of Resurrection as a state of being here, much more than a single event. The word he uses for life is “zoe”. I AM right now Resurrection and the living principle of life and “whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. The expression ‘in me’ also has a strong emphasis meaning “lives into or within.” There is no death if one is contained in the reality of Christ – the One who is so great that words cannot describe. It doesn’t mean that the physical body does not die, but it does mean that if we participate in “zoe” the soul and the spiritual body do not die. The condition is of trust and belief which is not a matter of affirming creeds and performing rituals but of total dependence and putting one’s energies into moving towards God in day to day faith. Back to the nitty gritty of making choices, between what is good for you and what is bad. Asking what takes you toward God, what takes you away. What is life giving and what is life denying. We are moving one way or the other every moment of the day. We are either growing into freedom or experiencing less freedom.

What did Jesus achieve by raising Lazarus on that day, because he only died again. His body was raised only to be buried at a later date. It is a powerful story where Jesus identified with being human, he was exhausted and wept and all along was asking them to listen and watch carefully and understand more fully just who he really was. He was fully human, but he was also revealing he was fully God. Through this event he was inviting them to trust him more completely, to live into his life more dangerously for not even physical death would threaten the life he offered.

As he moved towards the tomb of Lazarus some say that Jesus experienced a build-up of the power of God within him. The power needed to do this work as enormous. Even his system groaned under it. His words were even shorter and sharper than usual. It says literally that “he snorted in the spirit”. Jesus was passing through a time of severe tension and his groaning could well refer to this intensity of feeling rather than grief, and indignation rather than sorrow. When the power had passed and Lazarus was resurrected, he gave the order to remove the stone, and relaxed into a lovely simple prayer knowing that the job was done.

One week later Jesus was dead and soon to be resurrected. But there were differences which are important to note.

Lazarus had to have the grave-wrappings taken off. Jesus left them behind.
Lazarus was there for all to see. Jesus was only seen by chosen witnesses.
Lazarus continued with his day-today life. Jesus only appeared at times.
Lazarus was back to normal. Jesus could move through space and time materialising in Jerusalem, in Galilee and then vanishing. He could move through walls.
Lazarus was resuscitated – in a very powerful way.
Jesus was resurrected – whatever that means for it is a great mystery we cannot really get our heads around.

When Jesus spoke with the disciples shortly before he died, he told them it was vital that they believe in him, so that his work in the world may go on.

“For the sake of that great work, will you get it into your heads that the Father and I are ONE. The Son is the very image of the Father and does the Father’s work, and this work that I have been doing, you are to go on doing, and you are to do greater work than I ever did.”

The disciples just gaped – they simply didn’t get it.

Perhaps one day the truth will actually dawn on Philip, on Peter, on Thomas…on you, on me.


The love of God will at last pour through our broken hearts,
The power of God will finally radiate through our wounds
We shall know that we are on the Way,
And the whole of creation will sing for joy. 1

1 Ian Cowie Jesus’ Healing works and ours. Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications; 2000