Preached at St Paul’s in Brighton, MI on the Feast of All Saints, November 1, 2015. The Gospel was John 11:32-44 and we used Marianne Williamson’s famous quote from A Return to Love as one of the readings.
Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
In our story, Jesus has arrived at the tomb of his beloved friend Lazarus. He’s visibly shaken, weeping. His friends Mary and Martha are upset. Mary, blaming him for not being there in time. Martha, intractable and calmly fixed on the fact of death. A scene from any family when death claims a member.
But it gets weird. Even for the Bible, it gets weird. Because Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And this is where people try, desperately, to make sense of what Jesus does – focusing on Jesus instead of what Jesus is revealing to us. Which is what usually happens with miracle stories – we get focused on the question of, “how did he do that?” instead of the question, “what does it mean?” So, what is John trying to help us understand in this story? There are a few things about this scene that I think might help us.
First, Jesus and Lazarus are not alone. So, this isn’t about Jesus and Lazarus. Not only are Martha and Mary present, but the community of Jews is with them. And they are not just bystanders in this drama, they are players. They came out to greet Jesus with Mary. They are weeping. They lead Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. They share opinions about why Jesus weeps. They take away the stone. And they unbind Lazarus.
Another noteworthy piece is that Lazarus isn’t resurrected because of his faith. Lazarus is resurrected because of the community’s faith, as articulated by Martha earlier on in the chapter. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’” Jesus doesn’t come to the tomb because of Lazarus’ faith. He comes because the community believes and seeks his help. And Lazarus is healed, he is brought back to the community, because of the faith of the community, not because of anything Lazarus has done or said.
Finally, Jesus isn’t claiming credit here. After the tomb is opened, Jesus prays to God. Jesus thanks God, he praises God. And he says, “I want them to believe that you sent me.” Jesus wants them to believe so they know that this is about God, not him.
It’s the community. And it’s God. Jesus’ role here is to reveal the power of both – the power of believing and the power that is the glory of God.
Jesus says to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
What does it mean to “believe?” Does it mean that if we truly believe, Jesus will save us? If we truly believe, we’ll get into heaven when we die? If we truly believe, God will give us what we want? What does it mean to believe?
Belief is a tricky word. It can refer to a statement or a doctrine – a belief we have or profess, such as a creed – the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, or a little later when we renew our baptismal vows we will say corporately what it is we believe. These are statements or affirmations of what we take to be true about how God works in our lives. So, they are about what we acknowledge as truth.
Which is close to another definition of belief – assertions of that which we know to be real or known to us in some way. We believe in the existence of something or in the power of something to have an impact in our lives. I believe in love. I believe in Santa Claus. I believe I shall have some more chocolate. Belief is a way of hoping, of anticipating an experience of something or someone.
There’s still another definition of “belief” and it has to do with Glory. Have you ever said to someone else, “I believe in you.”? Or has someone else said that to you? “I believe in you.” It’s a powerful thing to say and it’s a powerful thing to hear someone saying it to you.
“I believe in you.”
It fills the hearer with a confidence, a poise. When someone says that to us, we feel connected to another. We don’t feel alone anymore. We feel a part of something. We belong because someone sees us. Someone has taken the time to know us.
So, what are we saying when we say, “I believe in you.”?
It’s more than trust. It’s more than confidence in getting something done.
It’s about recognizing someone’s belovedness, someone’s Glory, asserting someone’s inherent magnificence. And when we do so, we’re recognizing God’s Glory as manifest in this beautiful person in front of us, affirming this person as a beloved child of God.
It’s similar to the Hindu greeting, “Namaste”, which roughly translated means “The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you.” Glory acknowledges Glory. It’s a way of praising God and the word of God in this child of God.
And it’s a way of conquering death. When we recognize someone’s inherent Glory, it’s as if they borrow our belief in them. They believe in themselves and take themselves to be real. And they begin to move and think from a place of their own goodness and their own wholeness and they recognize the goodness and wholeness of others, inviting them to see God’s Glory too. And we become one another’s saints – living beyond our own death.
Take a moment. Think about a time when you were really seen for who you are. Think about that person who told you that they believed in you… even if they didn’t use the exact words, “I believe in you” but you knew from what they did and what they said that they did believe in you, possibly when you needed to hear it most. Think about them for a few moments.
This person will never die. Their belief in you will never die because it is the very part of them that animated you, that brought you to life. You carry that life and you pass that life along by believing in another. This how we bear witness to the Glory of God. This is the Communion of Saints.
Jesus doesn’t raise Lazarus so that Lazarus will live in his physical body forever. Lazarus will die again. His body will cease to breathe. His heart will cease to beat. Just like every other body – including Jesus’.
Jesus raises Lazarus so that the community might come to understand God’s Glory in the incarnate creation. And this Glory comes through the Love of the community who bring God’s presence to Lazarus. These people love Lazarus. Jesus loves Lazarus because God loves Lazarus.
It is because this community loves that it knows eternal life.
It is because this community believes in one another that it calls forth God’s Glory in one another.
It is because this community lives, truly lives, that God’s Hope is made manifest and the Incarnation is real.
When Marianne Williamson says , “Your playing small does not serve the world.” it’s not some happy-clappy, boost in the arm to make us feel better, like that Saturday Night Live sketch with Stewart Smalley where he says in the mirror, “I’m good enough and doggone it, people like me.” It’s not that because you can tell that the character doesn’t really know his true Glory. He’s grasping, as if he’s trying not to die.
When Williamson says, “Your playing small does not serve the world,” she is making a profound theological statement – perhaps the most important piece of Christian theology and, therefore, one of the most central Christian lessons we could ever hope to impart.
And that is: You are a beloved child of God created and designed for no other reason than to show forth God’s Glory. You are God’s holy creation. The Incarnation is real.
When we say “I believe in you,” when we offer that to one another, when we believe in one another, when we show that belief…
We offer the freedom of eternal life because we remind one another that no matter what we have done or how bad or wrong or useless or helpless we think we are, there are no boundaries to God’s Love.
There are no borders that Jesus cannot cross. There is no way to contain God’s Holy Spirit. We are, quite simply, bearers of God’s Glory. We are luminous, beloved creatures who belong wholly to God.
This, more than anything else, is the mark of Christian community. This love, this belief, this freedom is what makes us Christian and it’s what makes us saints – a Communion of Saints. Jesus is already always present in the community that loves and calls forth God’s Glory in one another.
And we need this community because we get lost from time to time. We get lost in our own pain. We get caught in the snare of our own false belief of unworthiness. We get bound up in our own disdain and fear. We forget our Glory and the Glory of others.
And so we do as Jesus commands in the midst of that community.
We remove the stone, the barriers to life, and we unbind them.
Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” “Unbind her, and let her go.”
I love this gospel story. I really love it. But sometimes I think it’s troublesome because we deflect the miracle onto Jesus rather than understand that Jesus is revealing the miracle of belief.
We tend to focus on Jesus as the “do-er” and the miracle maker. We think so much of Jesus that we believe God’s Glory is only limited to his embodiment, his person. But what Jesus is always trying to teach us is that we are integral to the story we tell about God’s Reign. We are the Body of Christ.
We have the power to remind one another.
We have the authority to say, “I believe in you.”
We have the responsibility to liberate one another, to unbind one another. And we do this by acknowledging and honoring God’s Glory made manifest in ourselves and in one another.
This is what it means to be a saint – to believe in the Incarnation. And offer the miracle of saying, “I believe in you.”
And so Jesus is talking to us just as much as he’s talking to Martha when he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”