The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:44
We Christians believe some wild things. I skim through the familiar passage without fully registering the weight of the miracle. The resurrection of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus. Lazarus, who is stone-cold four-days dead.
We are familiar with the story: how Jesus was only a short journey away, how he mysteriously waits – despite his love for Lazarus and his sisters – how he comes to Bethany too late. By the time Jesus and his disciples arrive, Lazarus’ disease has so overtaken him that he is sealed up in death, shut off from his family, from his community, from his life.
I read this and don’t have to wonder long what prisons there might be in my own soul. I know them well, these rotten places I’ve long sealed off to keep the stench at bay.
“Take away the stone,” Jesus says to the bystanders, the ones who are grieving the loss of their friend. What does it mean to let others roll the stone away from our sealed off hearts? The thought makes me nervous.
I’m willing for Jesus to see what’s in there. He already knows. But others? My friends and family? I think about that kind of vulnerability, and I cringe: Lord, but it will smell!
You see, somewhere along the way, I’ve bought the lie, the one that says I can be competent and together. The one that works hard to be competent and feels shame over the ways I fall short. Whatever we say in our creeds, we secretly believe that we can be good and not-a-mess. I know this, because we do just about anything to keep people from finding out otherwise.
Christians, it should not be so. My deadness should not be a shocking revelation. The fact that you aren’t a Good Person should not be gossip-worthy news. That sin you’ve labeled with capital letters? The one you gasp and shake your head over? It’s just a slightly different hue of death.
It’s laughable to think of a zombie playing at the game of keeping-up-appearances. The only thing more absurd is a crowd of zombies posturing in front of each other. We are talking about opportunities for resurrection. The hope of healing. The doorway out of death and into life. There’s no room for corpses to tsk their tongue at someone else’s rottenness. There’s only room for love and the prayerful footsteps that dare to approach the door of another’s pain. It’s hallowed ground, this sacred space of someone’s encounter with Jesus.
Besides, we should have learned by now that our expectations are all off-kilter. I’m beginning to see that isolation is really an illusion. I guarantee you: whatever tomb you are in, whatever disease besets you today, whatever threatens to choke the life out of you – you are not the only one.
If we can bravely walk into the light, we might not find a community holding their noses and retching. We might find other once-corpses who also know the bitterness of death. We might find friends and family, ones who have grieved over our suffering, ones who cheer at our struggle for transformation. We might find someone who looks us in the eyes and shares a knowing glance: “You, too? You’ve worn that grave-cloth? Alas! I’ve known the inside of that tomb well.”
Because we all are the once-dead. Whether in this moment you lie trapped with Lazarus or stand questioning with grieving Mary – you can’t escape the reality of death, the utter hopelessness of our situation.
“If only you had been here, Lord,” we say, crouched low in the rubble of our broken world. “If only you had been there, he would not have died.” The groaning of the world is too great for us to bear. “If only you had been here, Lord. I would not have died. My pain, my deadness, my illness, my depression, my besetting addiction, my you-fill-in-the-blank would not have crushed the life out of me.”
Jesus does not tell Mary and Martha why he waited. Why the few mile walk took two full days. Why he knew Lazarus was sick but didn’t heal him.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” he says instead. “Do you believe it?”
What a question. Do I believe? In the darkness of the tomb, face to face with the living death of my own sin and the bitter poison of sin done me, do I believe that I can yet see the glory of God?
Is it possible? Can his glory manifest in such a rotten, dying place? Can good come from seemingly-needless suffering? From tragic sudden loss and circumstances that flay us with their “if only’s”? From the endless evil that hounds the most vulnerable?
We lie paralyzed in the tomb. We stand grieving outside it. In this dark and seeming-hopeless moment, Christ is who he is. He is life. At his Word, death is overcome.
Lazarus comes forth, but his hands and his feet are bound. Unable to create or to go, he cannot be fully human, until, at the command of Christ, he is completely loosed.
He cannot be fully known until, at the command of Christ, his face is unmasked.
I wonder if in that moment Lazarus felt a flicker of fear. Casting off death requires one to truly live. Or perhaps he was so hungry for life that his reborn fingers ripped those last shreds of linen off his face.
Perhaps he was, like me, sick to death of death – eager to be rid of the paralyzing bonds. I like to think that in the darkness of the tomb, his eyes fluttered open. His heart quickened, stronger than before, his newly reborn blood pumping hard in his chest. Nerves tingled, ones that were long asleep now quickening, and then. Then, there was the voice. The one he knew so well. Full of life and joy and delight.
I think Lazarus didn’t wait a moment. Bound up like that, he must have been unsteady. Tottering. Hopping and crawling, perhaps, until he had escaped from death into the presence of Resurrection himself. I see his eyes, blinking at the brightness as the rags come off. His gaze fixed on Jesus. Can you sense the breeze? I feel it stirring even here among us. That whisper of fresh air that blows away the stench of death. It smells good. It smells like Life.