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Sermon on 2nd April 2017


The Revd Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster, Lancaster Priory


Today the Church in the West begins the season of Passiontide, as we come closer to the Holy Week of the Passion of Our Lord, which begins with our Palm Sunday observance. Ornaments are covered in hessian or purple cloth, just as Christ’s glory is hidden, and we focus on Christ’s love for us all as we prepare our solemn walk with him to Calvary, so that we may rise with him to eternal life.

The Gospel reading we have just heard which is appointed for Passion Sunday is from St John’s Gospel, and comes roughly at the mid-point of the Fourth Gospel, and it is the beginning of the long account of Jesus returning to Jerusalem where he – and only he at that time – knew that it was there that he would suffer and die before God’s great act of raising him from the dead would take place.

Jesus had delayed his journey to see Lazarus – to the consternation of his disciples, and had confused them even more by saying that Lazarus was sleeping, but he would awaken him. To ease their confusion he told them plainly that Lazarus was dead.

Our Gospel begins when Jesus arrives at Bethany, the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Lazarus has already been buried for four days. That is long enough for his soul to depart from his body according to Jewish tradition. Martha comes out to meet Jesus on the way, to tell him, to rebuke him, even: “If you’d come sooner my brother would not have died!” Jesus reassures her by saying that Lazarus will rise again, and assures her that “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” and he asks her if she believes this. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”

She then goes to fetch her sister Mary, and in tears, she says the same thing that Martha had said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” His response to her tears is not in words, but in actions. First of all, in what is famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible, we see the human response of Jesus. John 11.35 “Jesus wept.” Together with the crowd that had gathered, he again chose action over teaching, and went to the tomb in which Lazarus had been laid. Surrounded by a great crowd, he then performs one of his greatest miracles, as he commands the dead man to come out.

We are privileged that the evangelist recorded his words at that moment – “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here so that they might believe that you have sent me.”

On hearing Jesus’ command, Lazarus obeyed the word of his friend and his Lord, and rose up and came to Jesus, and was restored to his sisters and his friends. After just a few more verses, Jesus moves away from Bethany and to Jerusalem, entering the city on the back of a donkey. And next week we will hear what is recorded about that triumphal entry and how the shouts of Hosanna soon turn to cries of “Crucify him!”

But let us first reflect on today’s Gospel, as I believe it helps us to prepare for the season of Passiontide, and it also gives us a sign of the RADICAL, NEW CHRISTIAN INCLUSION of which we have been speaking in the past weeks in our sermons.

Jesus could have sent the crowds away, he could have sent his disciples away. He could even have sent Mary and Martha away, and spoken to Lazarus in the tomb to raise him to a new life. But instead he chose to do this very public act of raising a man from the dead. In public he had cured the blind, those who could not speak, lepers, the crippled, and in one other case, he raised from the dead a widow’s son – as had the prophet Elijah. But the raising of Lazarus is of a different order to all of these, as he publicly invokes the power of God his Father, to do the impossible, in the sight of all the people who had gathered to mourn with the dead man’s sisters, and raise him back to life.

Can you imagine the awe with which the onlookers held their breath to see if Jesus could even raise the dead? And the wonder when he came out of the tomb, restored to life and health? No wonder, then, that many of the Jews came to believe in him, after such a mighty display of his power.

And although it was a mighty act, it was, in fact, no less than what Jesus had promised in his encounter with Martha, when he said that “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.

If we are to look at this event through the eyes of Martha, we can see a different perspective. The feminist theologian Mona West puts it like this,

“Martha is invited to move beyond a mere confession of faith and to accept the radical fullness of Jesus’ grace. Her conversation with him not only forms the theological heart of the story; it is also at the theological heart of the coming out process for Christian lesbians and gay men.”

It is this new openness to the reality of life and faith in Martha which marks her out as the fulcrum of this event. Lazarus is brought to life (though he was to experience physical death for a second time) but it is Martha who is brought to a new level of her faith and discipleship. It can no longer be something which she just knows internally, that Jesus is the Messiah, but it is something which she can no longer hide, even though it will put her and her sister and brother in great danger.

This “coming out” of the tomb, Mona West boldly compares to the coming out process for LGBT people, and there are many similarities. Coming out, either as gay or as a Christian, means a refusal to hide a part of who you are, your sexuality or your faith – which is fundamental to who you are as a person, even though an explicit admission of faith or sexuality would be enough in some cultures to elicit hatred and even murder.

Jesus’ love of Lazarus impels him to bring him back from the dead; but as Lazarus comes out of the tomb, he is also coming out of a darkness in which he can declare publicly something that will make him vulnerable to the crowds who had been his friends and supporters. His now publicly declared faith that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who has shown that he has power over life and even death itself, puts him at odds with the religious fundamentalists of the day, the Pharisees, who seek to kill him as a potent, living symbol of the divine power of Jesus. According to tradition, he is forced to leave Judaea, and the Eastern tradition has it that he eventually settles in Cyprus along with his sisters, where Paul and Barnabas installed him as Bishop of Kition (modern Larnaca). The Western tradition tells that they sailed as far as Marseilles in France, where he became Bishop, leading to the cult of Saint Lazare in France.

But to return to the significance of the story for us today, we need to look again at the encounter between Jesus and Martha, and in particular, the words of Jesus when he said, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

These words form a part of the funeral service, which we use regularly as a sign of the comfort which faith in Christ brings to us. EVERYONE who lives and believes …. will never die.

This is what theologians call “realized eschatology”, meaning that since eternal life is present in the life of the believer, physical death can never affect them.

But I want to focus on one word of that sentence which Jesus spoke. “Everyone” – it is more clearly defined in the next chapter when Jesus says to his disciples, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.” This clearly reveals the will of Christ to bring about universal salvation through his saving death. As Desmond Tutu has said,

When Jesus said, “I, if I am lifted up, will draw . . .” Did he say, “I will draw some”? “I will draw some, and tough luck for the others”? He said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all.” All! All! All! – Black, white, yellow; rich, poor; clever, not so clever; beautiful, not so beautiful. All! All! It is radical. All! Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Bush – all! All! All are to be held in this incredible embrace. Gay, lesbian, so-called “straight;” all! All! All are to be held in the incredible embrace of the love that won’t let us go.

He points out the shocking, indiscriminate, outrageous love for all which is Jesus’ meaning behind this statement. Radical inclusion, it certainly is!

I was present at the General Synod when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, at the end of the contentious debate on human sexuality, said that what was needed was a “radical, new, Christian inclusion”. Along with many others, I was pleased to hear him say that.

There is only one word in that list, to which I would take exception. And that is “New”. There is nothing new about true Christian inclusion, it started with Christ, and it should have been a sign of our Christian faith throughout all of the years of the Christian faith – that Christ’s inclusion should have been translated into the Church’s inclusion – if the Church were truly Christ-like. But let’s be honest – the Church has not reflected that gospel of equality and inclusion which runs through all of Jesus’ teaching. It has discriminated against women (and still does) although Jesus spoke with and taught women, such as Martha, and encouraged them as his disciples and companions throughout his earthly ministry. It has colluded with the practice of slavery, as we heard last week in the excellent Priory Lecture. So perhaps, Archbishop Justin is right to say that Inclusion is to be a new mark of how the Church is to be seen; and if that is so, then it is warmly to be welcomed.

A New inclusion which recognizes the radical fullness of Christ’s grace in the lives of all Christians would be the witness the world needs now – more Christ-like than has been perceived in the past; a more radical Christianity, returning to its roots in Jesus Christ, the most radical preacher, teacher, and mediator of God’s love the world has ever seen, reaching out with the extended loving arms of Jesus to ALL, ALL, ALL – of God’s people, whoever, wherever they may be, and whatever their current situation may be, to call them as beloved members of his family, the Church. And we need to take our lead from him, and love as he has loved us. There’s nothing new about that, except that each day brings a new challenge to do just that!

And may God’s Spirit give us the grace to be that welcoming family to all who need God’s love into their lives.




Chris Newlands