Unbind Us and Set Us Free
The Raising of Lazarus from the dead. “Unbind him and set him free,” says Jesus. The lectionary stops the reading short, however, of what Paul Harvey used to call, “The rest of the story.” The very next verse, v.46, begins the tale of how the Pharisees and chief priests conspire to have Jesus killed – and Lazarus as well for refusing to stay dead! As Kurt Vonnegut preached one Palm Sunday, “Leave it to a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”
So death is in the air. This is why when we read the Fourth Gospel we need to remind ourselves how it all begins: Jesus, the Logos, the Word, capital W, was with God and is God, and through the Word all things were made that were made, including the earth and everything and everyone that dwells therein. (John 1:1-3, Psalm 124) For John’s community, God is love. That is, we come from Love, we return to Love, and Love is all around. John begins with the beginning of life, all life, springing from God’s eternal Word – the Word that became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood - Jesus.
“To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace - shalom,” says Paul to the Church in Rome.(Romans 8:6) This Spirit rises up within us like a spring of living water “gushing up to eternal life,” as we heard last Sunday (John 4:14) It is already in us – given by the Word.
Lent is a time set apart to stop and contemplate and connect with this Spirit within. Like the Samaritan Woman, however, there is often within us, hidden below our surface lives, places of loneliness, fear, alienation, insecurity and brokenness. Combined with our addictions and various idolatries fed to us by an obsessed consumer driven culture to which we turn to cover over this brokenness, we lose sight – and we lose sight of any tangible connection to this Spirit within.
If I have learned anything teaching world religions these past five years, almost all religions share with Jesus the idea that there is something within us that must die before we are reborn into new life with God. Jesus repeatedly makes the case that one needs to lose one’s self to find one’s self. We often mistaken this for things of our body so we give up things thinking the spiritual self will magically arise, which only allows us to avoid the real problem. The Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr writes about this: “What really has to die is our false self created by our own mind, ego, and culture. It is a pretense, a bogus identity, a passing fad, a psychological construct that gets in the way of who we are and always were – in God. This is our objective and metaphysically True Self.” (Yes, And, p.272 - Franciscan Media, Cincinnati:2013)
A dear colleague and friend in Christ once likened this all to sailing on a ship. These hidden fears and not so hidden idolatries, this false self, act very much like the rudder on a ship - set deep beneath the surface of our lives unseen, where these insecurities and idolatries can direct the ship of our life without our even being aware that they are there. In one sense, Lazarus can represent the death of the Life of the Spirit within us, which separates us from our life in God, what Jesus in John calls true life, and peace, or the shalom of God - a peace that includes justice and peace for all people and respecting the dignity of every human being - to which we need to add every creature and every thing in all of creation, which creation we have suddenly come to realize, in historic and cosmic terms, we have seriously mistreated.
Simply put, there is a disconnect. We are bound by these inner demons and idolatries which disconnect us from the Love of God and the Love of others - all others. This is when we need to remind ourselves that We Come from Love, We Return to Love, and Love is All Around. Jesus comes to remind us of this simple truth.
When we do take time to contemplate all of this, we no doubt begin to feel like Mary and Martha: Why hasn’t he come yet! We called for him, he says he loves the three of us, why isn’t he here. Jesus’s willful and chosen delay in coming is baffling. Although as the disciples point out, going any closer to Jerusalem, which Bethany surely is, would be dangerous since the community and religious authorities have already been threatening to kill him. As we know from our perspective, however, as those who know the rest of the story, that is not Jesus’s concern!
Perhaps, I have been thinking, he delays because he knows that to do the work he has come to do, connect people to the Spirit within and lead us to New Life, we first have to die - death is a prerequisite to resurrection. Dying to the hidden fears and insecurities and idolatries that we do such a good job of tamping down as far and as deep below the surface of our lives as possible, dying to our false self is a prerequisite to healing, to unbinding, to resurrection, to New Life.
Perhaps we need to feel the pain of Jesus’s delay to see, as Martha does, that he is Life and he IS and still is and always will be Resurrection! “Yes, Lord, I believe,” declares Martha. As with the Samaritan Woman, perhaps the most broken woman in all of the Bible, Martha becomes the first to declare Jesus is the Christ, God’s Anointed, God’s Messiah. Not the disciples, not Nicodemus, not the chief priests and Pharisees, but a broken, hurt, grieving and quite frankly angry woman is the first to make this declaration in John’s Gospel! That is astonishing in and of itself! It is as astonishing as the Samaritan Woman becoming the first evangelist! It is as astonishing as shepherds being the first witnesses and proclaimers of the Incarnation, the birth of God in flesh and blood in a manger!
I am sometimes afraid that we have lost all capacity to be astonished by this tale, this story that holds the key to eternal life here and now with the God who is the Word, the God through whose word brings all things into Being, who with a word gives light. Not just to the world but to the entire Universe and quite likely, as we are now learning, to ALL Universes! It is, we are told, a light which shines in the darkness of our waiting like Martha and Mary. A light which shines in the darkness like that of the Samaritan Woman. A light that shines in the darkness of the night in which Nicodemus sneaks in to ask a few questions of Jesus so as not to be seen and subject to the kind of trouble that lies ahead for Lazarus and Jesus. A light which shines in darkness and which, according to Saint John the Evangelist, the darkness has not and cannot overcome.
As Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?”
Martha is one of the first to learn that Jesus waits for us to die so that he may then come and unbind us forever from all the demons that lurk beneath the surface once and for all. It is he that can unbind us from a life devoted to the false self. This death, then, is the good news. As Paul might put it, dying is life if it unbinds me once and for all from my false self and connects me to God’s Spirit within “gushing up to eternal life!”
We come from Love, we return to Love and Love is all around. We have only forty days to contemplate what all of this means for us as individuals and as members of a community of Christians, as citizens of a nation and as citizens of the world. Forty days. Not, in the overall scheme of things, that long - just a blip on the cosmic scale of time. But it is enough and more than enough if we let Jesus come to us in his own time to unbind us and set us free! Amen.