Fifth Sunday of Lent

Introduction and Call to Worship

Welcome to this house of prayer which has been here for over 1,000 years. St Mary’s is a beautiful and special place of healing for each of us. Allow yourself to meet with the presence of the Lord here, and know that however earthbound and ordinary, weighed down or vulnerable you may feel, each one of us can embrace and enjoy the possibilities of heaven here.

Today’s Readings

First Reading Ezekiel 37:1-14

Israel has lost hope. They say that their bones have dried up. But Ezekiel has a vision of God taking those bones, clothing them with flesh and breathing life into them. A message of hope for a hopeless people.

Second Reading Romans 8:6-11

Paul explains to the Roman Christians that even though the power of sin and death is strong, the Spirit of Christ has conquered death and will win out in each one of them.

Gospel John 11:1-45

Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies, and Mary and Martha send for him. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and restores him to his family in an echo of Jesus’ own death and resurrection soon to come.

HOMILY “Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:35)

Spiderman was my childhood hero, and one of his famous sayings was: ‘My spider sense is tingling.’ Now, when we hear that Lazarus’s final resting place was a cave with a stone rolled over the entrance, our theological minds should start tingling as we say to ourselves: ‘There’s going to be far more to this passage than first meets the eye.’

When asked, clergy often cite St John’s version of Jesus’s earthly ministry as their firm favourite. While there will no doubt be various reasons for this, perhaps, as our passage shows, this Gospel really does contain a wealth of hidden gems lurking just beneath the surface, desperately waiting to jump out and fill our faith with joy and wonder.

Many people find it very interesting that, throughout this Gospel account, during each of the seven times when God’s presence shines out and becomes truly visible within the ministry of his Son, these episodes are always described as “Signs” and not, as in the other Gospels, “Miracles”.

Biblical scholars remind us that, in Scripture, the number seven was deeply significant as it was thought to symbolise perfection. They also felt that, and perhaps this is something we might like to discuss at the end of our service, the word “Miracle” conjured up a stand-alone, isolated incident whereas the word “Sign” had a greater sense of movement, flow and purpose about it.

All of this got me thinking as to what sign and direction this passage points us towards here in Thorpe. What valuable lessons can we obtain from this text? Well, as I prayerfully reflected over the verses, I felt that our Gospel was littered with different expressions of love.

Love is one of those strange words which, like so many others over the years, has lost its true meaning. Why, only the other day, I came home from work and said to my wife, Fernanda: ‘I don’t know about you but I would love some fish and chips for tea tonight.’ Anyway, enough about my belly; I would like to explore four entwining kinds of love that are being captured by the writer of our Gospel.

Any one of us with a brother or sister will know that siblings don’t always see eye to eye with each other. In fact, if we read Chapter 10 of Luke’s Gospel, we will soon discover that the two sisters, Martha and Mary, almost came to blows when Jesus paid their home a visit. All the same, when their brother Lazarus’s health takes a turn for the worst, past understandings are forgotten as the sisters pool their energies in order to focus on the job in hand. This, you may be thinking, isn’t really teaching us anything new, but I sometimes think it’s so easy to place all the biblical characters on a pedestal and wrongly believe that, just like Spiderman, they had magical powers to cope with the harsh reality of life. Love, especially when members of our family are ill, can be extremely difficult not only to give but also to receive. I know that, by reading this Gospel, a magic wand doesn’t suddenly appear and instantly restore our situation. However, I believe it offers two valuable lessons. Firstly it emphasises the love, strength and support that can be achieved through sharing genuine emotions with our nearest and dearest; and secondly, it echoes Martha’s raw sentiment: ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.’ God has broad shoulders, and therefore we should never feel the need to bottle up our pain and frustration. Rather, we must always turn to him, especially when we need to let off steam.

All of this feeds into another vital aspect of love, which is beautifully captured in this passage, and that’s a consuming love for Jesus. Now, like me, you may have heard the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead many times before, and to be honest, up until now I have skated over Verses 2 to 16 of this passage in order to get to the exciting bit, when Lazarus walks out of his tomb. However, Verse 2 explains that the deep-seated love, which his sister Mary felt towards Jesus, was so special she was willing to go against protocol and not only uncover her hair in public but at the same time touch the feet of a man who was not her husband. Now, given our free society, it’s easy to underestimate the courage this act of love must have taken. On a similar note, Verse 16 contains a real gem. You may know that throughout the ages St Thomas has been painted in a rather negative light, as people frequently label those with little faith as “Thomases”. However, if we revisit Verse 16 we see a brave and outspoken person who, because of his overwhelming love towards Jesus, is prepared to stand up against his band of fellow disciples and courageously, in solidarity, die with Jesus. Martyrdom is not a calling that is required of everyone, but these previously overlooked verses clearly show us that a love for Jesus will normally come at a personal cost.

Our third kind of love, that between friends, is beautifully summed up in Verse 35 of our Gospel: ‘Jesus began to weep.’ Now, being a Northerner, I have never been used to outpourings of emotion, especially by men. Consequently, the image of the Son of God publicly shedding a tear following the death of his dear friend Lazarus, portrayed by our Gospel writer, acts as a gentle, yet firm, reminder that we can’t always predict how the power of love will affect us in life.

The fourth, and most difficult kind of love for us to get our heads around, takes us back to the centre theme of our opening quote, namely God’s love for the whole of humanity. It would be foolish to attempt to put into words how and why God really does love us unconditionally, and therefore it seems fitting to end this homily by reflecting upon the Easter message of Verse 25: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’

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