BIBLE READING:† John 11: 1-45
The Fifth Sunday in Lent has been known traditionally as Passion Sunday. On this day the church focuses on the passion of Jesus Christ. Passion means suffering, but not just passive suffering. It means suffering that is connected to devotion for a particular cause. It isnít so much to do with a personal experience of pain, but rather with the anguish of caring deeply about others.
Letís look at the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Word comes that Lazarus is extremely ill. Jesus deliberately waits two days before setting out for Bethany. By the time he and the disciples arrive, Lazarus is dead. Martha and then her sister Mary greet Jesus with the sharp criticism, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Jesus goes to the tomb, prays, and then calls for Lazarus to come out. Lazarus does, and the strips of cloth binding him are removed. As a result, many people believe in Jesus.
Although itís an impressive story, where is the passion in it? Where is there strong feeling as a result of Jesus' devotion to a cause? Where is there suffering on the part of Jesus as he devotes himself to raising Lazarus from the dead?
The answer is that the passion is buried in the weak, inadequate English translations of the Greek text. The passion is there in the words John wrote. But when you hear the story in English, the passion all but disappears.
In verse 33 it says that when Jesus saw Mary and her friends weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. The Greek word translated "deeply disturbed" means "snorting like a horse in anger." And the word translated "spirit" is a direct reference to breathing. What the text actually says is that Jesus' nostrils flared and he snorted audibly like an angry horse. This isn't just heavy breathing. It is loud and frightening. In other words, itís passion.
Then Jesus asks where they have laid Lazarus, and the people offer to take him to the tomb. At that point Jesus begins to cry. But the word in Greek for Jesus' crying is a different word from the word used to describe the weeping of Martha and Mary. In fact, it is the only time this word ever appears in the New Testament. Jesus is crying in a different way than anyone else. What the text seems to indicate is that this crying is connected to the audible snorting of Jesus that has just happened. Perhaps it is only tears welling up in his eyes in connection with his snorting. But it may be a kind of compassionate sobbing infinitely deeper than mournful weeping. All we can be certain of is that Jesus' crying at this point expresses passion, and that it is unique.
Then Jesus goes to the tomb, and as he goes, the heavy snorting resumes. It is not a matter of Jesus being out of breath from walking quickly. It is loud and awesome breathing that comes from deep passion.
Standing before the tomb, he offers a prayer of gratitude to God. Then he cries out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" Here again the English translation is weak. The Greek word translated ďcried outĒ means shouted. It is the same word John uses elsewhere in his gospel to describe the Palm Sunday crowds shouting their Hosannas and then a few days later the Good Friday crowds shouting for Jesus' death. It wasn't, "Lazarus, come out!" It was LAZARUS, COME OUT!
It would be tempting at this point to try to explain Jesus' passion. But that is a temptation we are going to resist. Society today seeks to avoid genuine emotion by trying to explain it away. Try walking around with a smile on your face. Someone is sure to come up and challenge you, "Why are you smiling?" It is as if people can't stand for you to feel happy - they have to puncture your happiness by making you justify your feeling. Try snorting sometime. People often find it hard to accept the fact that you have a feeling. They will want to know what the feeling is, and what caused it, and why you have it, and what you're going to do about it.
It would be a mistake then for us to seek to explain Jesus' passion in today's gospel. It is enough for us to know that it is there - to know that Jesus obviously feels strongly about Lazarus' death, his sisters' grief, and the disciples' doubt. It is enough for us to be awed by Jesus snorting like a horse, weeping, and then crying out at the top of his lungs for Lazarus to come out. We don't have to push his passion away from us by using a whole lot of words to explain it. Instead, we need to encounter and receive it with all the impact with which he expresses it in the story.
But while it is not for us to explain Jesus' passion, it is appropriate for us to consider what it means. But in exploring its meaning, we are not to avoid it in any way, but to reflect on its significance for us today.
First of all, we can see that Jesus was very concerned about the death of another person named Lazarus. By contrast, he did not express the same sort of passion when he faced his own death. Not one gospel writer tells us that Jesus snorted like an angry horse when he was arrested, tortured, ridiculed, or put to death. Neither did he weep. And just before he died on the cross, he spoke the words, "It is finished." He did not cry them out. On Good Friday Jesus' passion was evident in his quiet obedience to God. But at Bethany his passion was evident in his wild emotional behaviour. Clearly, Jesus' passion for others far exceeded his passion for himself. And his passion for others was not bound up in words of explanation, but was free to run its course in the way in which he breathed and wept and shouted.
Second, we can see in this story that Jesus has not only the authority but also the will to raise people from the dead. It is not only Lazarus who receives life again, but also Martha and Mary and the people who believe. Lazarus' death was their death also, in a way. Now they are raised again into life, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus' passion for life is everywhere evident in this story.
Third and finally, there is a strong implication that all who follow Jesus will share his passion. Like Jesus, their passion will not be for their own self-preservation, but for others. They will suffer strong, powerful feelings as they seek to promote life instead of death. They will snort like angry and impatient horses when confronted by people wallowing in their victim-hood. They will weep. And they will shout for the comfortable dead around them to come out into the light and life of day. They will not only bind up the wounded and the dead. They will also unbind those whom Jesus has called into life again.
The immediacy and depth of their passion will defy a rational and rationalising society that demands that everything be explained, a society that often prefers words to action. But if society is like this, so also is the church in many ways. It is strange and sad that in all of church history, heresy trials have always been about what people think and not what they do or neglect to do. Heretics have been put to death for wrong ideas about theology, but never has anyone even been accused of heresy for neglecting the poor, for refusing to feed the hungry, or for being unkind to strangers. For the historic church faith is essentially a head trip, and not a matter of action or passion. For that reason those who truly follow Christ and duplicate his passion will often be at odds with a religious establishment which seeks to distance and protect itself from its mission by means of verbal explanation and brain-numbing doctrine.
Jesus' passion for Lazarus and Martha and Mary is also his passion for every one of us and for all the world. He wills that all of us have life, not only after death but also before. He summons us to come out of the safe tombs of our victim hood and re-enter the daylight of life in community with others. Then he calls us to take up our cross and follow him in demonstrating godly passion for others in his name.