Do You Believe This?

Lent 5A

Most of us, when we think about this morning’s Gospel reading, will remember it as the story of the raising of Lazarus. After all, that is the most spectacular part of the story. A man, dead for four days, wrapped in cloth and laid in a tomb is called forth from the tomb by Jesus, unbound by his friends and neighbors, and lives.  That is one heck of a story. And, for most of us, it is a story that leads us to a single question, “Did it really happen?”  It’s only logical to ask, I think, because most – if not all – of us, wonder about the resurrection, wonder, more specifically, about life after death.  For whatever reason, even for those of us who can get our heads around the mind-blowing idea that Jesus who was laid to rest in a tomb after his crucifixion was raised up on the third day, still stumble a bit when it comes to this story about Lazarus.  But sometimes the questions we struggle with the most are the ones that ultimately we must live with the longest; because neither I nor anyone else I know of, has an answer for whether or not this event actually took place as it is described in John’s Gospel. 
What we do know is that in the middle of today’s story, Jesus offers a promise: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”[1] And he ends this promise with a question: “Do you believe this?”[2]  Jesus asks this question of Martha; but I believe it is a question for all of us today.
During the season of Lent we have been and continue to prepare for the renewal of our baptismal vows at the Great Vigil of Easter.  It has been and continues to be a season in which we turn away from the powers of sin and death and turn to Jesus Christ as our only Lord and Savior.  Each Sunday we have begun our worship with a time of confession which begins with Scott’s invitation to
“ask God to bring to light the things now hidden in darkness, and to disclose to us the secret purpose of our hearts. And most especially, let us remember the covenant of our baptism and test our hearts and conscience to know how faithfully we have fulfilled our baptismal vows.”[3]
And when we do, in fact, renew those vows at the vigil, the first questions we will be asked to respond to are questions of belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?,” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” and “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?.”[4] They are the question that Jesus asks Martha – do you believe this?  And at the time of our baptism and every time we renew those promises, we answer, “I believe. . . I believe. . . I believe. . .”[5]  And those statements of belief require us to take a leap of faith each and every day. To paraphrase the Choristers’ prayer – a leap of faith that asks God to grant that what we may say “with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives.”[6]  It is a prayer that acknowledges both the ongoing work of believing and the importance of living out of that faith in our daily living.
The Rev. Broderick Greer, Curate at Grace-St Luke’s Episcopal Church and School in Memphis, published an article this week called, “How Ferguson and Michael Brown Helped Me Understand My Baptismal Vows.”  In it he describes his understanding of baptism as the root of his desire to go to Ferguson in August 2014 immediately after Michael Brown’s death.  Greer describes the desire for justice which he encountered in the men and women who were protesting alongside him to be the very same justice that is called forth from our baptism – a justice that demands our “participation in a cosmic drama that comes to bear in the here and now, especially among people experiencing life’s many crucifixions and resurrections.”[7]  And this article reminded me of our passage today.  It reminded me of the brief exchange that Jesus has with the disciples before they travel to Judea.  The disciples say to Jesus, “you can’t be serious about going to Judea. Don’t you remember, last time we were there, they tried to stone you?”  But Jesus insists on going.  Thomas, one of the disciples, then says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”[8]  Thomas understands the risk; although it is unclear at this point if he truly understands the nature of the death Jesus will die.  Thomas understands the risk; but, perhaps also understands that the risk is what discipleship demands.  Going into the places where God’s people are experiencing life’s crucifixions.  Little does Thomas know that he is about to experience life’s resurrection as well.  But, my point and the point Greer makes in his article is this:  “Baptism is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It is the ticket that gets us in trouble in the first place.”[9] 
Just a few verses before our reading begins this morning, John’s Gospel says, [Jesus] went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.”  In order to return to Judea – to be with Mary and Martha and to raise Lazarus from the dead - Jesus and his disciples cross the Jordan River again.  This is an important detail.  Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan.  And his baptism leads him into life’s crucifixions and resurrections.  In this case, his own.  Because the raising of Lazarus – a resurrection in its own right - is, according to John’s gospel, the reason that the High Priest  and the Council give for putting Jesus to death.  Jesus’ baptism is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. It is the ticket that gets him in trouble in the first place. 
When you and I are baptized – we profess our belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God the Holy Spirit.  And in that profession of belief we ready ourselves for the trouble to come.  We ready ourselves to participate in the cosmic drama that comes to bear in the here and now, especially among people experiencing life’s many crucifixions and resurrections. 
  • We ready ourselves and walk right into the trouble that comes when we “persevere in resisting evil” by standing with our city officials and police officers in Evanston who uphold the City of Evanston as a sanctuary city even when, especially when, Attorney General Jeff Sessions just this week renewed his threat “to cut off U.S. Justice Department grants to cities that fail to assist federal immigration authorities.”[10] 
  • We ready ourselves and we participate in the cosmic drama when we “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” by putting food on the table for hungry neighbors or opening our doors to several addiction recovery groups each week.
  • We ready ourselves and walk right into the trouble that comes when we “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves” by learning how to be “upstanders” in the community through practicing the 5 D’s of directing, distracting, delegating, delaying and documenting – training and role-playing practice will take place this Tuesday evening at 7 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church here in Evanston
  • We ready ourselves and we participate in the cosmic drama whenever we “strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being”[11] whenever we stand up for those who are oppressed in our community, our nation or the world.
So, yes, today’s story is about the raising of Lazarus. It is a story about Jesus and his disciples walking right into the trouble that will come.  It is about Jesus being the Good News of new resurrection life in the here and the now and in the age to come.  It is about Jesus invitation to believe and participate in that resurrection life in the here and the now.  And it is about Jesus’ promise that “those who believe in him, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die.” And it is about the lifetime or longer that it will take for us to completely understand what that means.  All of this is the risk that being a follower of Jesus demands.  Do you believe this?

[1] John 11:25b-26a.
[2] John 11:26b.
[3] from “Sample ‘Gathering of the Community’ for Lent,” Becoming the Story We Tell: Renewing Our Engagement with Christ Crucifiedand Risen, p. 28.
[4] BCP, 292-3.
[5] Ibid.
[6]The Choristers’ Prayer,” Spirit of Saint Andrew’s,accessed March 30, 2017.
[7] Broderick L. Greer, “How Ferguson and Michael Brown Helped Me Understand MyBaptismal Vows,” America: The Jesuit Review, March 29, 2017, accessed March 30, 2017.
[8] John 11:16.
[9] Greer.
Julia Edwards Ainsley and Andy Sullivan, “U.S. Attorney General Escalates Pressure on‘Sanctuary’ Cities,” Sojourners, March 28, 2017, accessed March 30, 2017.
[11] BCP, 293-4.