“Exploring the ‘I Am’ Sayings of Jesus: I Am the Resurrection and the Life”
John 11: 17-27~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ May 12, 2019
It has been a long day. You have walked and walked and walked on your trek. Your muscles are tired and sore. Your lips are dry and chapped and you are thirsty. You can tell from the sky that nightfall is coming and you come to a fork in the road. You need to make a decision…you need to decide to either go to the left or to follow the fork to the right. Which one should you choose? Taking the left path seems shady and offers a gentle incline; however, the path to the right seems open and inviting as well. You stop and you ponder and you make your decision and follow the path that seems right. The journey continues forward…
In this morning’s text, there is an underlying decision that is being called upon from the listener by John. And before we go too far, it is helpful for us to examine what was underlying in their minds. Jesus refers to himself as being “life”. In the Greek language, there was not one but rather two distinct words, and thereby understandings for the word the English word renders as “life”. Life refers either to ‘bios’ or to ‘zoe’. And the two words are quite different. Bios is the phenomena of life in all of its outward manifestations. A flower blooms and later dies; our flesh gives us life for the years we enjoy and we later die a natural death. Bio is that understanding that feature all the entities of life in their richness and beauty; however, that ultimately impermanent…the ‘bio’ form of life ultimately is that which does come to cease and die. ‘Zoe’ is another form of life. It is the living principal of life that refers to the intangible, spiritual sense of life. An entity with zoe ~ life has the capacity for immortality because it partakes of an immortal, life-giving principle. To be infused with zoe was understood to be a necessary prelude to participate in the matters of an eternal life. The soul dies when it lives in a darkness. Yet life lived through the light of Christ brings spiritual enlightenment in which both consciousness and conscience are strengthened. And there was this deep understanding, and debate, about which direction ~ which form of life ~ the soul was taking. The complex life of the soul lives continuously poised between, on the one hand the opposites of life, of light, of consciousness and, on the other the hand of death, of darkness, and of the separation of all that is sin. Just as the weary traveler must choose one fork in the road, we also must choose what focus of life we follow; what fork in the road; what life means for us and follow that way that we deem as life giving. While there is, perhaps no absolute either / or in one’s choosing between zoe and bios forms of life, there is a polarity in which the person inevitably must choose in terms of how they choose life.
Moving further into the text, the narrative of the story presents Jesus as coming onto the scene after the death of Lazarus. The text begins with the regrets of Martha. “Lord if only you had been here, my brother would not have died”. There is that sense of wishing that different decisions had been made, different paths had been followed, different choices made. If a different emphasis in one’s life had been made, then we would not be in this situation right now. Who cannot relate to this opening of the story? This beginning address to Jesus summarizes all the regrets that we might often feel at various points in our life’s journey and we say ‘if only I hadn’t made that one decision’… ‘if only I hadn’t taken that one fork in the road’ … ‘if only…’ Scholars note that with John being the oldest gospel, it is often a commentary on previous gospel versions found in the previous three. Yet, in this case there is no story of the raising of Lazarus in Matthew, Mark or Luke. There are certainly other stories of Jesus restoring life after death, such as in the case of the raising of Jairus’ daughter. What many believe is that this story of the raising of Lazarus is a commentary on the parable of the rich man and the poor man in Luke 16 (see Lk 16:19-31). In this story, there are two characters: the rich man who feasted in luxury and Lazarus ~ a poor man who was covered with sores and forced to eat the crumbs falling to the floor from the rich man’s table. When the rich man died and was being tormented in Hades, he begged that Lazarus would be sent back from the dead to warn the rich man’s brothers to lead a more charitable life, lest they fall with the same fate that he was experiencing. The “if only…” is that same kind of sentiment that is being voiced in the gospel teaching in John. “Lord, if only you had been here…” If Jesus’ presence had been here, things would be different. Isn’t this how we so often feel when we see some of the modern day ills and pains in our society? If Jesus’ presence had only been here, this would not be the kind of world that it has become? If Jesus’ Way had only been here, there would not be the poverty? If Jesus’ Way had only been here there would not be the separations among people? If you had only been here… If only… If only…
There, of course, is a long history in these choices that we make. Going all the way back to the Pentateuch ~ the Torah ~ where in Deuteronomy God speaks to Moses saying: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt. 30:19) That challenge of choosing life…of choosing all matters that lead to life is as old as time and as critical as the air which we breathe. King Solomon had an interesting way of understanding this choice of life as he presented the eternal wisdom of God in the personification of ‘Sophia’. He writes that “for whoever finds me finds life and obtains the favour of Yahweh”. In it’s most harsh form, the choice of death over life is presented in that challenging reading presented in Luke’s gospel: “Leave the dead to bury their dead; your duty is to go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:50). This is a harsh reading to hear as it seems to go against the important component of care that we hold so critical after the loss of one’s loved one; gathering together for a funeral ritual. Held in this light; however, it becomes a corrective in which we are challenged to hold onto the enduring, eternal matters of life ~ the zoe matters of life…rather than ONLY embracing the matters of life which are temporary.
This decision becomes even more significant, when we are reminded that at the time of Jesus, there was a strong belief in a future resurrection (for example see Daniel 12); there was a belief that people would find new life after their physical death. However, Jesus’ Way was about a resurrection that was occurring now, a resurrection that was available now; a resurrection that was coming now through one’s faith. Jesus Way…Jesus’ life was about bringing new life, about bringing resurrection into the present moment. When Jesus said “I am the resurrection and the life” he is speaking to a present moment availability of new life in the here and now. This is what we hear represented in Martha’s faith as she is speaking with Jesus. To her misunderstanding of Jesus’ words “Your brother will rise again”, she speaks the understanding that was common in the day: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”. And then Jesus speaks this new liberating truth: “I am the resurrection and the life”. My way brings life from death…now; my liberating presence offers hope…now; I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus’ Way is birthing a new world, yet it does not happen automatically. It must be embraced and followed. The federal election occurs this fall and while church’s are non-partisan organizations, it is good for us to be asking the spiritual questions of all the candidates. How will each party tend to life for this generation and the generations to come? How will they care for those in need? How will they create space for family life? For community life? For life? These will be important spiritual considerations for us to begin to form and ask of the respective parties.
What kind of life do you live? What matters of life do you spend your energy upon? Bios or zoe? We only have so much energy and time to spend…. How shall we do it? Now I do not want us to walk away thinking this will ever be an either/or decision. Of course, we need to spend some of our time and energy on the matters of bios…on the matters of the flesh. The question that is being asked in this text this morning is ‘are you finding room for the spiritual life that Jesus offers?’ Are you finding room for zoe life too?’ This is an increasingly challenging call for us today as we have diminishing amounts of time available than we did just a few generations ago. An inclusion in zoe-life would be an argument for more time spent in prayer and meditation and less time in front of a screen; it is an argument for more time spent with others deeply listening and less time wasted. It is an argument for a well-worn Bible, for a well-used tea-pot, for worn out hiking boots. It is an invitation to behold the sacred moments as we see them: a choral anthem, a sunrise, or a loved-one’s smile and to be-held with the God’s presence at that that moment. Jesus’ Way is a call to embrace the bios-life amidst the zoe-life. In Bonnie Wrare’s book The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying, she reflects on the regrets of many as they prepared to die. The top 5 regrets were: I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. I wish I didn’t work so hard. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Jesus says: “I am the life and the resurrection”. Our third Easter gift.