Reflections on Lazarus Saturday - “Lazarus, Come Out!”
Sermon preached by Teva Regule on Saturday, April 4, 2015
Epistle – Hb. 12:28–29, 13:1–8; Gospel – Jn. 11: 1–45
These three words summarize the feast that we celebrate today. They point to the raising of Lazarus from the dead and are a harbinger of Jesus’ own death and resurrection, foreshadowing the in breaking of God’s reign into history. We believe they also prefigure our own resurrection. The story of the raising of Lazarus is found in the Gospel of John (11:1–45). According to this account, the event most likely took place sometime during the latter part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. The Church has continued to remember it from the earliest times. We know that She has celebrated this event since at least the fourth century and its celebration was closely tied to the feast of Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.[i] It marked the end of lent and was and still is part of a two-day festal interlude prior to what we now call Holy or Great Week. In Constantinople, Lazarus Saturday was a popular baptismal day, one of the four ancient baptismal days in the Church. In some places, it remains so. Today, we continue to sing, “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” as the Trisagion hymn for the day to remind us of this association. This morning, I would like to focus on the feast from this perspective. What can the story tell us about how we understand baptism—our baptism? What can the words “Lazarus, Come Out!” tell us about our entry into the life of Christ? I would like to explore them from what they tell us about (1) the one who calls, (2) the ones who hear His words, and (3) the ones who continue to hear and respond to these words—the ones who are baptized into Christ.
The One who Calls
The Gospel of John is written more thematically than the other gospel accounts. It is especially known for including a number of “symia” or signs of Jesus’ divinity by the acts of his humanity. The Gospel account includes seven of these of which the story of the raising of Lazarus is the seventh and last, marking the climax of Jesus’ ministry.[ii] In addition to telling us about the work of Jesus, the Gospel of John also tells us about who He is. It begins to flesh out the answer to the question that Moses posed to God at the Burning Bush (Ex. 3) when he asked God for a name and God answered, “I am.” According to John’s Gospel, Jesus begins to complete that sentence, identifying Himself with the God of Moses. He does so in seven different ways. In the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus proclaims, “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn. 11:25).[iii]
In the Johannine narrative, signs look forward and backward. Later signs resume themes already seen previously and point to themes to come. In order to understand more fully who it is who calls, “Lazarus, Come Out!” it is helpful to look at the narrative immediately prior to this event.
In Chapter 10 of John, Jesus also identifies himself as the Shepherd who cares for and gives Life to his flock. He is the shepherd of the sheep (10:2), the one who calls His own sheep by name and leads them out of the gate (10:3). This implies that He knows His sheep and has a relationship with them. The sheep follow because they know His voice (10:4). Further in the story, Jesus identifies Himself not only as the shepherd, but as the Gate, itself, saying, “I am Gate for the sheep” (10:7), proclaiming that those who enter by Him will be saved (10:9). He emphasizes that He came to give life and give it abundantly (10:10). He then builds on this identity with the God of Moses, claiming that He is not only the Gate, but the “Good Shepherd” who lays down his life for His sheep (10:11).
Seen through this lens, the story of Lazarus becomes an exemplar of the relationship of the Shepherd and His sheep. To summarize, when Jesus receives the news of Lazarus’ illness, he does not immediately leave to attend to his friend. In fact, He proclaims that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death, but be for God’s glory (11:4). When he finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for four days. This small detail is important as it reflects the Jewish belief that the soul, which stays with the body for three days after death, has left. Lazarus is fully dead, not just in a coma or other type of near-death state. When Martha professes that if He had been there, her brother would not have died, He assures her that her brother will rise again. It is here that He proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live.” He is not only the Gate to the Father for His sheep, but their path to Life. In the story, Jesus is greatly moved by Mary’s tears for her brother and after He prays to the Father, He calls out Lazarus by name, “Lazarus, Come Out!” He calls His sheep by name and leads him out. He is the “Good Shepherd” who cares for His sheep and later will lay down His own life for them with the power to take it up again (10:18). He is the “owner of life” as we profess in the Hymn of the 1st Ode in Orthros, “Today Bethany proclaims beforehand the Resurrection of Christ, the owner of Life, and it rejoices at the rising of Lazarus.”
The Ones who hear His words
What can this story tell us about the ones who hear His words? We know from the narrative that Lazarus’ sisters cared for their brother and when he was ill, sent word to Jesus. They had faith in His healing powers. For example, in v. 21, Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Furthermore, Martha confesses her belief that Jesus is related to the God of Moses. He is “the Messiah (i.e. Christ/the “Anointed One”), the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). So, when they heard Jesus command, “Lazarus, Come Out!” they were filled with hope.
Lazarus, whose name is a Hellenized form of “el-iazar” or the one who “God has helped” is the one immediately affected by Jesus’ actions. From the story, we can surmise that he had a prior relationship with Jesus as the sisters’ notice to Jesus emphasized, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (11:3). Upon hearing Jesus’ words, “Lazarus, Come Out!” Lazarus responds. He knows the voice of his Shepherd. He is “released” and given new life. Although he is still under the power of Death until the Last Day, he is given Life in Christ NOW, the opportunity to live more abundantly.
The Ones who continue to hear and respond to the Words of the Shepherd
What can this story tell us about the ones who continue to hear and respond to the words of the Shepherd, the ones who are baptized into new Life in Christ? We are reminded in the Epistle from today when the reading quotes from Psalm 117/8:6, that we are still the ones who need to be helped and who the Lord helps—“The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid…” Like Lazarus, those baptized into Christ are called by name. We are not afraid, as the Lord who creates, forms, and redeems us has called us by name, saying, “you are mine.” (Is. 43:1) We are His; we are marked for Christ. Like his friends, we trust in our friend and are incorporated into a community who has faith in Him. Like Martha, we confess our belief in Jesus as the Anointed One and are anointed similarly. He is our Good Shepherd, the one who lays down his life for His sheep so that we might be saved. We continue to profess this as we sing the Kontakion for the feast, “Christ, the joy of all, the truth, the light, the resurrection of the world, in [Your] love [You] appeared to those on earth and became the pattern of our resurrection, granting divine forgiveness to all.” Through baptism, we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ. Like Lazarus, we are born anew, given the opportunity to have Life and experience it more abundantly now.
What might this look like? From the biblical narrative, we do not know much about the life of Lazarus after this event, but like anyone who has been given a new lease of life, one can imagine that he might have looked at the world differently. He had experienced a glimpse of the power of Resurrection. His life was now imbued with a new perspective of a life in Christ. Perhaps, he let go of any grudge he had been carrying with him, encouraging us to do likewise. Perhaps he devoted his time and energies to the things he enjoyed in life that he had long neglected, talents that he thought had been dead and buried. Perhaps, he worked to repair a broken relationship. Although Lazarus’ resurrection is qualitatively different from Christ’s, it was still not just “resuscitation.” He was called not just to repeat the same patterns in his relationships with others, but to move beyond them, repairing and transfiguring them. Perhaps, we could look at our own relationships in such a light. Finally, we can assume that like him, we are given hope, not only in the power of the resurrection that we can experience now, but in the ultimate resurrection on the Last Day.
I would like to conclude with a short vignette written by our friend, Sarah Byrne-Martelli. A few years ago, she posted a blog entry about an interaction she had had with one of the young theologians in our midst, one Elias Orlovsky, on Pascha night of that year. As the canon of Pascha echoed joyfully through the brightly lit sanctuary and the bells were ringing with everyone greeting the other with the Paschal Kiss, proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!,” Elias approached her, smiling and waving his candle. She greeted him with “Christ is Risen!” and instead of responding with “Truly, He is Risen!” with a high five, he yelled, “YOU TOO!” To this bit of wisdom, she responded, “Exactly!”
[i] In the 1884, parts of a diary of a Spanish pilgrim, now known as “Egeria,” were found in a monastery in Arezzo, Italy. In it, she details her travels for three years in and around the Holy Land in the late fourth century (~381–384). Her narrative includes rich descriptions of the geography and various places in and around the Holy Land at the time, accounts of encounters with holy men and women with whom she meets, some information about the status of women in her day, and substantial information about the life of the Church in fourth century Jerusalem. She speaks about her experience as a pilgrim in Jerusalem during lent and Holy Week, and witnesses the celebration of the raising of Lazarus on the Saturday before Palm Sunday. (John Wilkinson, trans., Egeria’s Travels to the Holy Land (Jerusalem: Ariel Publishing House, 1981), 102–3.)
[ii] The other six “signs” are (1) changing water to wine (Jn. 2:1–11), (2) Curing the noble man’s son (Jn. 4: 46–54), (3) Healing of the paralytic (Jn. 5: 1–15), (4) Feeding of the 5000 (Jn. 6:1–14), (5) Walking on Water (Jn. 6:15–21), and (6) Giving sight to the blind (Jn. 9: 1–41).
[iii] Jesus identifies himself with God is seven ways in the Gospel. Proclaiming that He is (1) the Bread of Life (Jn. 6:35), (2) Light of the World (Jn. 8:12), (3) Gate of the Sheep (Jn. 10:7), (4) Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:14), (5) Resurrection and the Life (Jn. 11:25), (6) The Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn. 14:6), and (7) The True Vine (Jn. 15:1).