The Ultimate Question
Grace United Methodist Church
July 26, 2009
John 11: 17-27
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This Scripture passage from the gospel of John has been my most favorite Bible passage since I was in the seventh grade. I have chosen to share it with you this morning and to reflect on it with you because I love this passage so much, and I thought by sharing it with you that you might learn a bit more about me in these still early days of my appointment to Grace; not to mention the fact that this passage brings before us an important revelation about who God is and asks a tough question of our faith. I am not sure that I could have told you when I was in the seventh grade why this passage was so appealing to me; perhaps it was that clear affirmation of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” I don’t really know. But even today, this passage from John is still one of my favorites, and now I can tell you why. Though Jesus’ affirmation, “I am the resurrection and the life,” is a powerful and important statement, I like this passage more because of the question that follows that statement, “Do you believe this?” This is the question I ask myself each morning; it is the question that helps keep me focused on Jesus and on Jesus’ intentions for my life. This is the question that is before each of us today; and in essence, it is the underlying question of the Christian faith. “Do you believe this?” Do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? Answering this question means more than just assenting to the words Jesus has said, it means shaping our lives according to the affirmation that Jesus has made.
There is a big difference between answering a question, and really answering a question. I think most of us can relate to the well-known after school conversation. A child gets home after a day at school, or the parent walks in after a day at work. The parent asks the child, “How was school today?” “Fine,” says the youngster. “Well, did you do anything fun?” “Not really.” The parent presses again, “What exactly did you do?” And then the ever popular answer, “Nothing.” The “conversation” could go on like that for a bit, but we all know the child isn’t really answering the parents’ questions. To really answer the question, the child would tell the parent that he had a great day at school because there was an extra long recess, or he got a good grade on an assignment, or got to do a special art project or lab experiment. In the same way, if we are to answer Jesus’ question, it means more than just saying, “Yes” and affirming what Jesus has said. We also must have faith that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.
Martha seems to have lost faith. She is certain that Jesus has missed his opportunity for a miracle and her brother Lazarus is gone for good. Jesus assures Martha that her brother will rise again, but Martha does not seem to find much hope in this. Her response to Jesus is almost curt, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” It’s as if she is saying to Jesus, “what’s the big deal, lots of people will be resurrected.” This was part of Jewish belief, even during that time. Martha, it seems, has blindly accepted this message of eternal life, she finds no real hope or encouragement in Jesus’ words that Lazarus will rise again. Sometimes, blind acceptance of the Gospel means that we never expect to see its promises carried out. Martha did not have any faith or hope that Jesus meant what he had just said in a very real sense; she was just answering the question the way it was “supposed” to be answered. To Martha, Jesus’ words were not a present reality, they were just some prediction of a distant future.
Often, it is very difficult to look at the present situation and see a different reality; it’s easier to put our expectations in the future. This is exactly what Martha did when she responded to Jesus that she knew Lazarus would be raised in the resurrection on the last day; she set the promise in the remote distance where it was somehow easier to fathom. It’s kind of like looking through a telescope that’s turned the wrong way. You know how telescopes work, they are amazing things. You hold your eye up to one small end and through glass lenses, objects appear much closer. When I was growing up, my Dad had a telescope, and we would often go out in our backyard on a clear night and look at the moon or the stars. I even remember looking at Halley’s Comet when it last came through in 1986. Looking at the sky through the telescope made it seem as if I could reach out and grab the stars, or touch the moon. But when you turn the telescope around backwards, and look through the other end, it makes everything seem terribly far away; suddenly, Halley’s Comet just looks like another star in the sky. This is what Martha did with Jesus’ words, looking at them as some far distant possibility, not a reality of the here and now.
If we are able to truly say that we believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, then we will have a faith that goes beyond just hearing Jesus’ words and imagining a different future. When Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again,” we will know that to be true even now. And in answer to the question, “Do you believe this?” we will offer a resounding, “Yes!” To believe in the resurrection and the life now is to believe that wars and violence will cease, poverty and disease will be eradicated, jails will be empty, addictions will be overcome, and love and life in the name of Jesus Christ will prevail the world over. Is it hard to believe these things are possible? Sure it is, but in Christ all things are possible. And as God’s resurrected people, we are called to be a part of this reality, to bring about the change that God desires for this world. We seem to be living in a world of zombies. We are surrounded by the “walking dead;” people who just go through the motions each day with no sense of life. But there is resurrection and life, and if we believe this, it will affect how we interact with others. We will be out in the world inviting others to church, sharing this message of love, and reviving the “dry bones.”
It’s amazing what the gift of love and forgiveness can do. My Mom often tells me the story of her interaction a few years ago with a man on death row in the highest security prison in Virginia. This man was a killer. He had brutally murdered a young woman. As Mom knelt down on the floor of the prison and listened to this man’s story through the food portal in a thick prison door, what struck her about the man’s account was not the story of the brutal murder he had committed, but the story of forgiveness that followed. The man told of the day that woman’s mother had visited him in that very prison, several years after the murder of her daughter. She had come to tell this murderer that she had forgiven him for killing her daughter and that she hoped he would seek Jesus’ forgiveness. The man was so stunned by the woman’s offer of forgiveness that he said he could not help but seek the forgiveness of Jesus as she had suggested. As the man finished his story with tears in his eyes, all he said was, my life was completely changed. My circumstances will never change because of what I did, but I now know forgiveness and hope and life in Jesus Christ.
We are part of the resurrection kingdom, and one person at a time, we have to help people learn to get along and love and forgive one another just as God in Jesus Christ does. When we encounter people who hunger and thirst in the face of addictions, we must share with them the feast of the Lord and guide them to the stream of living water. We have to beat the swords into plowshares and work for reconciliation among all the people of this world. It is a seemingly impossible task, but as those who believe in Jesus the resurrection and the life, we all have to work together and learn how to share this planet in peace; so that it is not just earth, but the living, eternal kingdom of God. Resurrection is now. Jesus, the life, is here.
I was having a conversation with a young child not too long ago. We were telling stories; some of the stories were real, and some of them were make-believe. We were at the beginning of a story that started with something along the lines of, “a long time ago….” And the young child interrupts and asks, “When I was with Jesus?” I chuckled a bit and responded, “Yes, when you were with Jesus, and I might have been with Jesus then too.” The child then asked, “Why didn’t I see you?” What a lesson of child-like faith. This young child seemed to grasp something that our over-filled, legalistic adult minds seem to miss; eternal life is offered by Christ even now because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Yet, to live in God, we must know Christ, and to have life to the fullest we must put our whole trust in the promise of resurrection and life, we must find it all in Christ. Faith is the only channel by which we can draw from Jesus Christ our life, and our lives should be shaped by that faith in Christ. So the question is not only, “Do we believe?” But also, “Do our lives show evidence that we are taking Jesus at his word, that we do indeed believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?”
This is why I love this passage so much. The question of belief that Jesus puts before Martha here is about more than just an academic assent to Jesus’ statement that he is the resurrection and the life. This question is about our whole lives being shaped by this promise and this reality of who Jesus Christ is. As I mentioned before, Jesus’ question to Martha is a question I ask myself each morning. “Clair, do you believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life?” This is a seminal question in and of itself, but more importantly is the next question I ask myself, “Are you living your life like you believe Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life?” For me and where I am in my walk of faith, this is the question that keeps me focused. The offer that Jesus puts before Martha and puts before us is life-changing, and our lives should reflect that change. We should be hungry for more of God, we should be voraciously seeking opportunities to serve God in the world, we should desire nothing more than that the body of Christ would grow as more and more people learn of the love of Jesus Christ!
Jesus loves us so much that he died on a cross so that we can live forever with God. And we can know that offer of life is real because three days after he died, Jesus was resurrected. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in him, though they die, will live. And everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. This life was given to us by God in love. And in love, God offers to us eternal life. If we are to know that love and that life, we must place our reliance totally in God’s hands. We must surrender our sins, we must put aside our selfishness, and we must seek God first in everything in our lives. And when Jesus asks that question of us that he asked of Martha, “Do you believe this?” We must be prepared to say yes not only with our words, but also with our minds, our hearts, and our whole lives!