29th March 2020
I never imagined that I would one day be sat at home writing a sermon that would in effect never get preached. It may of course get read, and I hope it will. But it will not get preached. There will be ideas that I might steal away for another Passion Sunday down the line in a few years, and there may well be nuggets that I retrieve for a future date. But sermons are things that occupy that space of time called the “Present” – they speak in the present moment. The readings that they dwell on may occur next year or the year after – but it will be no good to dig into the files of my word documents and just press print in the hope that what is written here might be relevant in Lent 2021 – it won’t.
In some ways that is a good thing – a good thing because I hope that by Lent 2021 that the words Coronavirus and Covid 19 will be things of our past, things that we talk about, lament about and grieve about but also as a moment that has gone. What is perhaps more clear is that this bug, this thing, this pandemic, epidemic, virus laden days and weeks that have consumed God’s earth in the last few months will have changed us. The world will be different. We don’t know yet how different, or even what different but it will be different. The Church will be different. We will be different.
Today is Passion Sunday. It is the start of the church season called Passiontide. It signals the ever increasing creep towards Holy Week, time when the Christians around the world take part in God’s Passion – Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem. His last days with his friends and then his death on a cross. At the end of which we wait patiently for the next day, a day when as the darkness falls on the earth late on Holy Saturday people gather around a fire to tell once again the stories of the Old Testament, to remember the voices from our Jewish ancestors (Passion is taken from the word Pesach – Passover) and join them with the gospel news of Jesus’s resurrection. Passion Sunday collides into Palm Sunday which draws us deeper into the mystery of the Cross of Good Friday and the resurrection of Easter Day. It is possibly the most holy and solemn and poignant of Christian festivals. And it is one that for this year of 2020 we will not be able to gather for as we have previously.
The gospel that we are asked to reflect on today (John 11:1-45) is that of Lazarus. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus and the brother of Mary and Martha. Lazarus dies and Jesus is not there. In fact Jesus had known his friend was ill and he remained away. By the time Jesus arrives in Bethany his friend has been dead a number of days. At that point Jesus comes to the tomb and calls Lazarus to come out. His dead friend emerges from his burial place, with his raised flesh still covered in the bandages that he was wrapped in when he died.
It is a wonderful gospel to read. Unusual and graphic in its imagery. It has crammed into it a whole lot of stuff about faith and death and hope and life. It reads more like a dramatic story. And it pre-empts Jesus’s own death and resurrection. I think what I have found interesting is that it also combines the themes of darkness and light that have been emerging through the rest of John’s gospel readings in Lent. We had a couple of weeks ago the story of Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) who meets Jesus in the dark, at night. We then hear of Jesus encounter with the Samaritan Women at the well, in the glare of bright daylight. (John 4:1-42) And we arrive at this point with Lazarus with those themes of darkness and light crashing around.
The darkness of Lazarus’s sickness. The fear and mourning of his family and friends around him. The literal stench of death.
And yet there are then shards of light. The faith of Mary and Martha, the confidence of Jesus prayers to God as he beckons Lazarus out of his tomb, the astonishment and faith of the people who witness this. And we will follow these themes of darkness and light all the way to Jerusalem to the cross at Golgotha and to the Easter Garden.
This moment in our own history feels very much of darkness and light. The closing down of our world and the shutting of the churches is unprecedented. No one of any living generation has seen this before. The sickness, the isolation and the death feels at times completely overwhelming. Around the world and here in the UK this week as we adjust to a new way of being with each other – which is ironically to “not be with each other”. Words such as Zoom (a new ecclesiastical word is born!) and social distancing are now part of our vocabulary in a way that they were not a few weeks ago. People walk around each other, there is a sense of foreboding and an unknown about this time. There is darkness.
And yet – there are also shards of light. The way in which communities have rallied together, that neighbours have created WhatsApp groups, the notes through doors from strangers offering help, the smile of a person across the park because there is a sense of togetherness, even if we are separated at the moment. The emergence of many different social media outlets and places to say hello – there are “Houseparties” going on my phone! The time to do nothing, to slow down. The pictures of fish in the canals of Venice, the sound of birdsong in the morning, the roads with limited traffic. There are shards of light that are being beamed to us every day despite the darkness.
One of the hard and challenging parts for me, and I would think for most, is the lack of physical contact. The Christian story is one so wrapped up in the physical – everything we do is tied to something of the flesh and the way that is expressed in worship is also tangible. Be it water poured at a baptism, oil used to anoint a person, rings which are blessed for marriage. We use touch to share the peace and we ultimately bless and break bread – we physically eat together in order to understand something of the mystery of God in Jesus Christ. And Jesus story follows the same physical story. He is born of flesh, a person, a real human. He is raised and fed by his family, he walks past the fishermen on the Lake and he speaks and eats with his friends. He weeps at the grave of Lazarus his friend. His body is broken on the cross and it is his body which is raised again. We are a people of flesh and we worship a God who celebrates our “fleshiness”.
So this is hard. Because everything about this virus needs us to retreat from that physical world in which we understand a little more of the spiritual.
However, the gospel story, the good news story is one that offers shards of light in the darkness. We are an Easter People, even if at the moment it feels that is a long way off. Hope is at the centre of the Christian faith. It is not a mere fancy, or a slight wish but a concrete knowledge of a God of Love who makes things right.
Some suggest that Jesus motivation for calling Lazarus from the dead, is to show the crowds of his power and his identity – surely Jesus must be God if he can raise the dead?
However, it has been suggested that was not Jesus’ primary motivation at all in the good news that we hear today. It is suggested that his motivation was love.
Jesus loved his friend. Jesus in love called his name. It was the power of God’s love for the world that raised Lazarus from his grave. It is that same power that makes us an Easter People. May we look to the day when that will come with courage and strength and hope.
Yours as ever with prayer