Sunday, April 2, 2017

In the House of Affliction

In the liturgical calendar, today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, marks the beginning of Passiontide, when we shift our attention to Christ’s suffering and death. In the congregations where I have served before, we would mark this day by covering all the crosses in the church with purple veils.  This isn’t your practice here, probably because of the number of yards of purple cloth it would take to cover that cross suspended from the ceiling over the Altar. 

But it remains fitting to grapple with this Gospel text, the story of the raising of Lazarus, on this day.  The Book of Isaiah describes death as “the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.[1]”  Even if there are no cloth veils in the sanctuary, the events of the story we have just heard are shrouded by death’s power. 

Lazarus, is of course, a man destined to die from the beginning of the story, and he will rest in the tomb for four days before Jesus arrives.  His sisters are shattered with grief, and they are surrounded by a crowd of mourning friends, who seem to be trying, without much success to offer comfort.  Even the name of their village, Bethany, gives the measure of things—it means “the house of affliction[2]

But the veil of death also hangs over Jesus and his disciples, as they leave the safety of their Galilean home to head to the capital city, where opponents are already laying plots.  In the first part of the chapter, when Jesus announces their destination, Thomas blurts out to his comrades, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.[3]”  Of the twelve, Thomas seems to have been the impulsive one, and the comment seems a bit out of place in the unfolding story.  Except of course, by following Jesus to Jerusalem the apostles are also signing their own eventual death warrants.

Though the story contains a spectacular miracle, very little commentary follows it.  Instead, John tells us that Jesus’ great display of power has convinced the Jerusalem hierarchy once and for all that He must be eliminated, and Lazarus, the miracle man, along with Him.  The high priest says, with unknowing irony, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people.[4]”  Jesus and His disciples are walking towards their own “house of affliction.”

The miracle that Jesus works is an astounding one, a man raised from death to life again.  Saint John, who is deeply attentive to the Bible’s symbolic language, lists it as Jesus’ seventh sign, the miracle that completely shows the extent of Jesus’ power, and the last one He will perform, until He Himself returns from death at Easter Day. 

Saint John has also recorded a series of “I am” sayings spoken by Jesus, and just before He raises Lazarus, Jesus speaks the last of these: “I am the Resurrection and the Life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”  Jesus is claiming here that He has come to defeat the power of death, to reverse the curse that has hung over humanity since Adam’s sin in the beginning.  He has come to raise humanity to a new kind of fellowship with God, a full and abundant life that endures forever, a life beyond all sorrow and pain.  He has come to deliver us from the “house of affliction,” to tear apart the shroud so the world can be flooded with God’s renewing light.

It’s telling, though, that He has waited to reveal that truth to this moment, when He stands beside the tomb of a dear friend.  He speaks it first to Martha, a woman whose life has been broken with grief, a woman drained and hurting, as each of us is when we lose those we love.  Jesus first miracle, you will remember, was at a marriage feast, making more wine for a merry crowd.  How different from this setting.  Jesus has saved the best for last, you see, but it is a truth that can only be grasped by those prepared to hear it.  Only those who have experienced death’s full power can understand this glorious promise of eternal life.  It’s no accident that Jesus’ words to Mary are the first words spoken in the Burial liturgy.

Methodist theologian Susan Vogel had been teaching at seminaries for decades when her son died in automobile accident.  In her book, And Then Mark Died, she wrote about how the experience profoundly changed her faith and helped her to see new value in these promises of Christ.  In a letter to her old theology professor, she wrote, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.  Now it has to do with the everlasting life of my son, the resurrection of his body to which I first gave birth. It is not now an esoteric exercise in creedal affirmation. It is my fervent mother-hope that my baby, my firstborn child, is not lost forever, is not lost to me forever, is not lost[5]

He who hath not suffered, what doth he know?” asked one of the early church fathers.[6] Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life for all the faithful.  “If Christ is in you,” our Epistle lesson says, “although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.”  That’s a promise that’s good for all of us, from the Baptismal font to the Day of Resurrection. 

But for most of us, that truth will only be fully grasped in the house of affliction, when we have lost what was most precious to us.  When all our other resources have been stripped away, and we sit empty in the darkness, then we are ready to hear Jesus tell us again that He is Resurrection and Life.  These are words that comfort us, but they don’t remove the pain completely.  We will always grieve the one whom death has taken away, the aching loss a testimony to the reality of our love.  We hope in the resurrection, we find strength and peace in that life poured into us from Christ, strength and peace enough to step forward for another day.  But death’s covering is still cast over our world, as it was for those gathered in Bethany that day long ago.

But one day, there will only be light.  Like a sun that shines from one end of the sky to another He will come.  And all those we have known, and loved, and lost will be raised, and us with them.  We will see the King in His beauty,[7] in the land of cloudless day.  His life, offered for us, raised by the Father, will be our own completely, when we are “filled with all the fulness of God.[8]”  We all live now in the house of affliction, in the country of shrouds.  But we who have suffered know this: it will not always be so, because He is the Resurrection and the Life. 

[1] Is. 25:10.
[2] Barnhart, Bruno.  The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center.
[3] John 11:16
[4] John 11:50.
[5] And Then Mark Died: Letters of Grief, Love and Faith, (2003) p. 17, qtd. in John Buchanan, “Enough to Make a Grown Man Cry.” 13 Mar. 2005,
[6] qtd. in McNabb, Vincent.  The Craft of Suffering, (1936), 37.
[7] Is. 33:17.
[8] Eph. 3:19

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