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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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Unexpected Graves

    Category: Bishop's Sermons

    Speaker: The Rt Rev Mark D.W. Edington

    John 11:34: “He asked them, ‘Where have you laid him?’”

    Nothing in all of his ministry is nearly as decisive as the moment Jesus stands in the midst of a crowd of people, and shouts into an open tomb,  “Lazarus, come out!”

    Everything about the story—the fact of the friendship that is the backstory of the drama, the seemingly intentional delay of Jesus in responding to news of his friend’s sickness, the grieving of the family, the outrage of the crowd, and in the end the closeup on Jesus weeping over his friend—all of it creates a moment of profound climax. “Lazarus, come out!”

    What will happen?

    There is something reassuring about Lazarus for most of us engaged in the busy world. Lazarus is not only defined by what he is—he is the brother of Mary and Martha, he is a friend of Jesus—but by what he is not; he is not a disciple, he is not one of the twelve.

    He is part of the Jesus movement, certainly; indeed, the text makes it plain that Lazarus is one of those people closest to Jesus. And yet he has his life in Bethany; he has his work, his family, his obligations, his community. Lazarus is a person in the Jesus movement who looks a lot more like us: No churches named after him, no stained-glass windows celebrating him, but a faithful follower—and a friend of Jesus.

    Maybe we won’t ever make it to apostle ranking, but we can at least aspire to be like Lazarus: Still faithful, still close to God, still in the midst of our daily lives.

    Two things about the Lazarus story stand out in this most peculiar, utterly unprecedented moment.

    The first is the suddenness and surprise of it all. Lazarus is a contemporary of Jesus. When he falls ill, it’s a shock and an emergency; a messenger is sent to find Jesus and alert him. By the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus is in a grave—unexpectedly.

    We often hear this story as a prefiguring of Christ’s own resurrection on Easter morning. In John’s gospel, it is the last of the “seven signs” that reveal who Jesus is.

    But this year, we are the ones unexpectedly in the grave. We have been entombed in our own homes—isolated, quarantined, “cut off completely.”  We are alive, and yet we feel dead; meant to be people of hope, and yet filled with dread.

    We are assured that two things will happen because of this. The first is that, like Lazarus, Jesus will come asking: “Where have you laid him?” Or—perhaps more appropriately—“Where have you buried yourself?” Christ the good shepherd comes seeking after us to gather us in.

    And once we have been found, in this spring of our confinement, we need to hear those words being spoken to us through our closed doors: “Come out!”

    Not as a call to disregard the advice of the scientists and the insistence of the authorities, not as an excuse for endangering ourselves or others—but as a reminder that for Christians, the tomb is always temporary. We are not meant to be cut off from each other, from our communities, from the church.

    At least in this moment it is possible to gather together through the means of technology (and if you are reading this, you can join, too). Yes, this is a compromised form of community—but it does in some way make real the notion that God’s love reaches us no matter where we go, even in these unexpected graves of ours.

    The second part of the Lazarus story is usually invisible to us—implied, but not really ever brought to our awareness. And it is simply this: Eventually, offstage and out of view, Lazarus does die. After Jesus is crucified, after Jesus dies, after the Resurrection, after the Ascension, and after Pentecost—after all of that, and (we can hope) after a long and happy life, Lazarus is finally laid in a grave—an end expected of all of us.

    And there, too, in a place we cannot see, comes the familiar voice of his friend saying—“Lazarus, come out.”

    Whether the grave we find ourselves in is expected or unexpected, whether it is the temporary separation of this time of quarantine or the reality of physical death, here is the fundamental, unyielding claim of our faith and the assurance of the gospel we proclaim: Christ comes to call us by name, and to say to us in our own language: “Come out.

    And so we shall. Not only of this momentary incarceration, but of the death that comes to us all. We shall be released, we shall be raised—and when that happens, we shall surely rejoice. Amen.