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Taking Away the Tombstone and Removing the Graveclothes


John 20:1-10


[1] “What do you think happened back then?”, I am often asked concerning the story in John’s gospel of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, or concerning other stories like it. Frankly more often than not the questioner puts the question to me in such a manner as to suggest that the questioner himself is not seeking enlightenment. More often than not the question is put to me as though I were somehow on trial before the questioner. “Do you believe the story exactly as written? Yes or no!” If I say “yes” the questioner concludes that I am an anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, fundamentalist, obscurantist bible-thumper as gullible as the child who believes in Jack and the Beanstalk. If, on the other hand, I say “no” I am accused of unbelief, of doubting the power of God, of impugning the authority of scripture, of prejudging what God can or cannot do, will or will not do. Nowadays whenever I am asked the question I always question the questioner, “Where are you coming from? what is your agenda? what do you plan to do with my reply?” I have immense sympathy for any of you today who have felt yourself set upon in this way, as though you were on trial before religious inquisitors. I have immense sympathy too for any who are simply puzzled as to what to make of the story.

Let us be sure to understand something that most people overlook: the resuscitation of Lazarus (that is, a corpse reanimated) is not the same as the resurrection of Jesus. The resuscitation of Lazarus (the mere reanimation of his remains) is a sign, but only a sign, of the truth that Jesus Christ has rendered Lazarus alive unto God eternally.

I trust that this talk about resuscitation (or reanimation) versus resurrection has not confused you. If it has, however, please bear with me a while longer. We must always remember that the one thing John, like the other gospel-writers, does not want to do is portray Jesus as a mere wonder-worker, a magician, a tricky circus-performer. Wonder-workers abounded in the ancient world. Each religious group had stories to tell of its larger-than-life figures who performed wonders. Each group thrust its own forward: “Come and see our wonder-worker, since ours is better than yours, and therefore our cult or group or conventicle is more important, more worthy than yours”. P.T. Barnum, the turn-of-the-century circus magnate, made millions bringing people into the big tent to see oddities, freaks, bizarre occurrences, and outright bamboozlers.

Let us not lump Jesus in with such stuff. Let us also remember that tricksterism was the very thing Jesus resisted in his wilderness temptations just because he knew that tricksterism is evil; it is deceitful entertainment followed by heartbreak; it brings no one at all to faith in the Son of God. Let us also remember that Jesus capped his mighty deeds with the stern command, “Don’t tell anyone about it. Don’t utter so much as a peep” — for the last thing Jesus wants is a crowd of shallow sideshow gawkers clamouring for yet more trickster entertainment. The one thing our Lord himself will not permit us to make of the story of the raising of Lazarus is that the event is a sensational spectacle which draws a crowd and makes people more gullible for what Jesus is going to say later.

As a matter of fact the crown of the Lazarus incident, the interpretative key to the incident, is not the resuscitation of Lazarus; it is the truth that Jesus Christ himself is resurrection and life. He, the Son of God, lifts up the spiritually dead before the Father so that they come alive unto God. Declares the master himself, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” The last nine words sum up the message of John’s gospel: “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die”. Never die? Literally never die? Of course not. “Never die” means never be lost to God, never be dead unto God, never be inert before God, never become a spiritual casualty. “Never die” here means to live eternally before God through that liveliness which God lends us out of his own eternal liveliness. While the resuscitation of Lazarus is certainly miracle, it isn’t the miracle of the entire incident. The miracle is that mighty deed of Jesus Christ whereby he vivifies the spiritually moribund and animates the spiritually inert and invigorates the spiritually flaccid. The resuscitation of Lazarus is the sign of this greater miracle.

Think of John’s story of the man born blind. The ultimate point of the story isn’t that a man is rendered able to see trees and hedges and cats and dogs with his new-seeing eyes; the ultimate point is that at the touch of Jesus the man “saw”; that is, discerned, recognized, acknowledged that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God and followed him as an enthusiastic disciple. The granting of physical sight is a subordinate miracle which is the sign of the greater miracle, the ultimate miracle; namely, spiritual sight or conviction or discernment which commits someone to following Jesus on the road of discipleship.

With respect to Lazarus the subordinate deed is that his physical decomposition is undone; this is the sign of the final point in the episode: the Word of God incarnate brings the spiritually dead to life in Christ. The point that John is at such pains to make isn’t that Jesus is a more dazzling wonder-worker than other wonder-workers; it’s that Jesus Christ is the one source and giver of true life, abundant life, eternal life, just because he is one with the Father and Father one with him.

The development in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel which we are probing today was anticipated in the fifth chapter of John’s gospel. There Jesus had said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

A Christian is nothing more than, nothing less than, nothing other than someone who, spiritually dead like all humankind in the wake of the fall, has while yet dead paradoxically heard the voice of the Son of God; and in hearing this Word has found herself quickened, rendered alive unto God.

Let us be clear on something crucial. It takes a miracle to bring anyone to faith in Jesus Christ, nothing less than a miracle. Why should we assume that spiritual restoration is any less difficult to effect than physical restoration? Then think of all the inducements to unbelief. Think of the countless pressures, some subtle and some frontal, which bend people into the deformity of unbelief. Think of the sheer difficulty and discouragement with which life unfolds for many. Think of stresses and distresses, distractions and disasters, large and small, known and unknown, individual and corporate, which add up to a weight so suffocating that faith is going to remain forever stifled. Forever stifled, that is, if faith is something we are left having to generate for ourselves. Faith is never humanly possible; yet faith arises and thrives just because — and only because — Jesus Christ himself still speaks to you and me as he spoke to Lazarus. And in the mysterious working of God’s grace even the dead are enabled to hear and believe, arise and follow. It takes a miracle to bring anyone to faith in Jesus Christ, in any era. It is the voice of the Son of God himself which unleashes the miracle as the dead come forth, praise God for their life in him, and leap to follow ever after.


[2] I find the story of Lazarus fascinating and endlessly challenging. One aspect of it which always fascinates and challenges me is compressed into four words which Jesus speaks: “Take away the stone”. Jesus addresses these words to his disciples who have accompanied him to the village of Bethany and the home of Lazarus and his sisters. “Take away the stone”, says Jesus to those who are already disciples themselves. In view of the miracle which Jesus is going to work in the next minute or two he easily could have removed the tombstone himself. Instead he asked his followers to remove that stone which would permit the newly-raised Lazarus to step forth.

I have said many times today that since a miracle is needed for anyone to come to faith the unique power of God is needed. In other words Jesus Christ alone can quicken confidence in him. Nevertheless, there is something the Christian fellowship must do if the Christ-quickened person is to step forth, emerge from the realm of the dead, and be seen to be the beneficiary of the life-giving Word. There is something the Christian fellowship must do. What is it that we must do? What must our congregation do if those whom our Lord summons to life in him are to emerge in our midst? Help me! We need to put our heads and hearts together and help each other, help each other to take away the stone!

And then there is another aspect of the Lazarus story which fascinates and challenges me. This aspect is compressed into six words which Jesus speaks: “Unbind him, and let him go”. He who has just brought the dead to life could free Lazarus from his graveclothes in an instant. But he doesn’t. Instead he directs his disciples, those who are followers already and have accompanied him to Bethany, “Unbind him, and let him go; turn him loose”. Once again it is plain there is something the Christian fellowship must do if the Christ-quickened person is to give expression to his newly-granted life. In other words, there is something the Christian fellowship must do in assisting newer disciples to be salt and light and leaven amidst a world which is corrupt and dark and deflated. What is it the congregation must provide in order to help believers give concrete expression, concrete embodiment to their faith?

Let me say it again. Only our Lord himself can raise the dead; only our Lord can move anyone out of spiritual inertia and render that person alive unto God. The congregation does not do this because it cannot. Nonetheless, the congregation does have a two-fold responsibility in its service of that work which is always Christ’s alone: the congregation must take away the stone, thus permitting enlivened people to step forth, at the same time as the congregation must turn these people loose for service in church and world.

All of which brings me to my next point. There isn’t a precise distinction between which sort of activity is taking away the stone and which sort of activity is turning people loose, unbinding them and letting them go. There isn’t a precise distinction between what permits faith to emerge and what gives concrete expression to faith. Think for a minute of the two, six-week Sunday morning bible studies we held here a year and a half ago. When I planned the first one I thought that ten people would get up early for it. Ten would have pleased me, and I should certainly have operated the class for five. We averaged thirty-five! Plainly there was a hunger for it. Now which sort of activity is the bible study? Is it taking away the stone or is it removing graveclothes? That is, does it help people come to faith in Jesus Christ or is it a vehicle for the expression of their faith? I think it is likely both, depending on where we are in our faith-venture.

Consider something as simple as hospitality. I think hospitality is both taking away the stone and turning people loose, depending on where we are. For hospitality-givers hospitality is a concrete expression of their discipleship; it is something people do as they are turned loose. For hospitality-receivers, however, it is likely more akin to taking away the stone. After all, it is in the context of hospitality that people who are looking for faith come to share the faith of those who are believers already as they come to share the food of those who are believers already.

I regard few things more important in church life than hospitality and visiting. (Hospitality and visiting are so close to each other that I regard them as two sides of the same coin.) I don’t mean that hospitality/visiting are important for the sake of keeping the institution solvent and the grass cut; I mean important for the sake of the faith of individuals and the health of the entire congregation.

In 1786 John Wesley was travelling from northwest England to northeast Scotland. As he moved into northeast Scotland he passed through Edinburgh, Dundee, Arbroath (a delightful town on the east coast of Scotland constantly freshened by invigorating North Sea winds) and on to Aberdeen (where Maureen and Catherine and I lived for part of my graduate studies). Wesley was now eighty-three years old. As an itinerant preacher he had travelled hundreds of thousands of miles, speaking everywhere throughout the British Isles. Yet the always-on-the-move evangelist had the heart of a pastor; he never ceased probing what would help people come to faith and what would help them give expression to the faith they had come to. In May, 1786, he wrote his tract, “On Visiting the Sick”. By “sick” Wesley included “all such as are in a state of affliction, whether of mind or body; and that whether they are good or bad, whether they fear God or not”. (Plainly all of us are “sick” in some respect, according to Wesley’s definition, since all of us are in some affliction, of either body or mind.) Then Wesley said something shocking for an Anglican: he said that visiting (or hospitality) is a means of grace. No tradition-steeped Anglican should have said such a thing. After all, holy communion and baptism and scripture-reading are means of grace, means whereby God gives himself to us and strengthens our faith. Hospitality or visiting are but good deeds. But the eighty-three year old would not budge: insofar as we visit someone else our life in Christ is strengthened and matured and rendered more useful. What about Christians who don’t visit or extend hospitality? Wesley spoke of these people as believers “who were once strong in faith [and] are now weak and feeble-minded”. They don’t know how their faith came to be weak and their Christian understanding feeble; after all they worship, pray, read, attend holy communion, don’t they? The old man insisted that when our hearts and hands and homes are not open to others, believers or not, our own faith is going to shrivel. In fact Wesley insisted there are four curses attached to ignoring this “means of grace”: our own faith shrivels, our empathy with suffering people is diminished, opportunities for doing good are choked off, and the community-at-large is weakened.

Wesley startled the Anglicans of his day by insisting that hospitality/visitation was a means of grace for those who did it. He also insisted that it was a means of grace for those who received it. “In administering to them the grace of God you give them more than all this world is worth… and while you minister to others, how many blessings may redound into your own bosom.”

Let’s think about other aspects of church-life. The Sunday School, for instance. We have one of the largest Sunday Schools in the entire denomination. We have superb leadership in our superintendent, Pat Major. The ability and mood and morale of the teachers are wonderful. The Sunday School teachers of this congregation cherish and support and encourage each other in a way I have seen nowhere else. Several times per year they have a party. I go to them all, since these parties are among the best I get to. We must never undervalue what happens in Sunday School. Precisely what happens at the confluence of teacher and youngster and Holy Spirit we cannot calculate or control. Yet it cannot be doubted that something happens. It was while in Sunday School that I became aware of the provision God had made for me in the cross; while in Sunday School that the seeds of my vocation to the ministry were sown.

Pastoral Care, Outreach, Property: the work of every last one of these committees is both the means of taking away the stone and removing the graveclothes; both an activity which fosters faith and an activity which expresses our faith on behalf of the wider world.


[3] My last point. Next Saturday we are gathering in Auditorium “B” in honour of Lazarus. (The name “Lazarus” is a shortened version of the name “Eleazar”, “God is my helper”.) God is our helper, the helper of all of us. He is going to help us grasp what we need to do in congregational life to take away the stone and what we need to do to turn people loose. You must come — all of you must come — and tell us of your dream or vision or aspiration or inspiration. You must not think it silly or simpleminded or impractical or anything else. What matters is that it is yours, you have held it close to your mind and heart for a long time, and now it is going to be taken seriously.

What would you like to see in worship? How do you feel about adult Christian Education? What would you like to see done to the building and grounds? How should pastoral care be exercised? You must come along next Saturday, for you and I are among the disciples who accompany Jesus to Bethany, who witness the miracle of the birth of faith as our Lord himself does what only he can do. But like the disciples of old we are more than mere witnesses of the miracle; we are part of the miracle itself — because we, and only we, can take away the stone and remove the graveclothes. Next Saturday we want to share with each other how we might be of even greater service to the master as he continues to call forth from the dead those who will follow him for the rest of their lives.


                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd
October, 1993