Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A
29 March 2020
I did not grow up with the King James Version of the Bible. The version I grew up with was a revision of Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible.
And although I generally favour a translation closer to our modern use of English, there are times when our modern versions are simply not as accurate, as in Romans 5 (v. 9) the NRSV’s addition of a predicative nominative, i.e. speaking of the wrath of God when the Greek text only speaks of wrath without attribution, which makes it more likely that Paul was speaking about our wrath, rather than God’s.
Perhaps the NRSV’s translation of today’s Gospel isn’t as serious a difference to the Greek text. But it is significant nonetheless. When Jesus finally wants to go to the grave of his friend Lazarus and asks people to roll away the stone to the grave, ever practical Martha says, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
The New International Version translates the same as even more palatable for Sunday worship as, “by this time there is a bad odour, for he has been there four days.”
But the King James version (and Luther) translate the same verse as, “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.”
The crassness of the King James Version is the crassness intended by the evangelist. It drives home the fact that Lazarus has died. And people who grieve must not only be careful around corpses, but they experience life as challenging and may want to exclaim, that it stinks.
That, I think, is our experience, if we have come to understand what is going on right now. A pastor friend from Germany left a message on our phone last week, expressing his dismay at cancelled services. He said, “I thought that only the Roman empire banned Christian worship.” (I do not agree with him but understand his frustration).
We may feel the same way about all kinds of things, many of which seem rather trivial. I am not really worried about my membership at the community centre, but I am worried about the complete discontinuity of everything I know. I week ago I saw a great photograph of a single person walking the across the circle design of the Toronto Eaton Centre, a place usually bursting with people.
The same, of course, is true here. Most shopping Centres are deserted. And while I can do without picking up this or that item, I worry about the people working in retail, usually at or near minimum wage and without benefits. What are they doing now? And what will they do in a year’s time? Will things go back to what we know as normal or will things be forever different?
Of course, the list of those who are suffering is long but it won’t help us if we turn it into a litany now, except when we pray for the world and the people in it.
But we may say that it stinks.
On the other hand, there are many examples of people helping each other. Our neighbour across the way was able to get some masks and donated them to Jackie’s work. People call each other up and check in on each other. Deliver groceries, pick up medication, share resources. And if the curve of new infections is coming down now, it is thanks to an act of solidarity with one another. People comply with physical distancing not only out of fear for their own well-being, but also out of care and concern for others. Right now, loving our neighbour means to keep 2 metres apart.
But the reading from John is not only about decay, it is about the love of God revealed in the midst of death and sadness.
The story is of a certain man who was ill and died. This man is Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus does not go right away, but when he does it is an act of love as it comes at great risk to his personal safety, an act of love into which Jesus calls his disciples to follow. Thomas understands what is going on when he replies, “Come along. We might as well die with him.”
When Jesus and the disciples get there it turns out that they are too late, Lazarus has died. There are honest conversations about why Jesus did not hurry, and some say, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
This is a text often read at funerals, for Jesus’ exchange with Martha, where he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” but also for Jesus deep sorrow at the death of his friend. And usually we see Jesus’ grief as a sign of his humanity. He weeps like we weep. He is with us in our grief.
And yet there is more going on here. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann reminds us that Jesus’ tears are not simply human tears but as Jesus is both human and divine, “… His very tears are Divine. Jesus weeps because He contemplates the triumph of death and destruction in the world created by God.”
Jesus weeps for Lazarus. Jesus weeps for his own death, but first of all Jesus weeps for the world.
And Schmemann continues, “The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: ‘and Jesus wept’… We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The power of Resurrection is not a divine ‘power in itself,’ but power of love, or rather love as power. God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life. This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus.”
It has been of great importance to me that we continue to worship in the way we can at this time. That is, that we gather for worship at the same time and as the same community, open to anyone who will join us, but carrying on worshipping the One who is the Resurrection and the Life, the Beginning and the End, who is the love of God.
It is easy for us to become de-centred and lose the ground under our feet as the world we know is shifting. And so it is doubly important to claim our identity as God’s children, God’s beloved, and God’s redeemed. Not only to be who we are called to be in our baptism into Christ, but also to be a non-anxious presence in the world, serving God as we serve our neighbour.
God’s love is revealed in Jesus. It is God’s love that created the world, that saves us, and that gives us life.