In today’s gospel reading, we hear that Jesus raised his dear friend Lazarus from the grave. In our tradition, we often hear this particular reading from John’s gospel, at a burial service. For many of us, we find comfort in the words, “Jesus wept.” We find solace knowing that Our Lord grieved at the death of his friend, just as we are grieved when one of our loved ones dies. God mourns with us in the tragic events of our lives, and grieves at the heart-rending tragedies, those terrible atrocities, we often hear about in the news every single day. God is grieved by war, poverty, injustice, oppression, and death. God mourns, but God does not leave us in grief, despair, or in the grave. God’s work in the world is to bring about God’s kingdom, where tragedy and death will be no more, and here is the part we often forget, we have a part in that mission.
The raising of Lazarus happened at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just left Jerusalem where his antagonists had tried to stone him for his very true, but daring assertion, “I and the Father are one.” He escaped that potential commotion in the city that day, and traveled to the other side of the Jordon, which is where he received word that Lazarus had taken ill. Jesus did not rush right away to Lazarus sickbed but rather he waited two more days to go to his friend’s side. He was deliberate about that delay, for he knew that it would be through the death of his friend that he would demonstrate God’s power over life and death.
The raising of Lazarus was a decisive miracle that not only provided his closest supporters proof of his identity claim and the catalyst for their further belief, it became the evidence for prosecution by which, his opponents would justify the trial that led to the end of Jesus’ life. In substantiating his power over life and death, Jesus suffered the consequences of how the powers of the world war against God’s mission. Thus, Jesus walked through the jaws of death. I believe this moment of his ministry, seen against the backdrop of his entire ministry, clarifies something really important for the church today.
Although Jesus experienced suffering, fear, disappointment, betrayal, and misunderstanding, nothing dissuaded him from his mission. In a way, Jesus forewarned his church about the challenges of discipleship. Jesus showed his community of followers that day, and all of us today that being faithful to God’s mission and partnering with God’s mission in the world comes with a great cost.
Today the church copes with many challenges that she has not seen wrestled with in a very long time. A growing number of people in this country, 22.8% to be exact, claim to have no religious affiliation at all. That number has grown by nearly 7% over the last seven years. If the statistics hold true, the church is now and will in the future, wield less and less influence on the lives of others and culture as a whole, less inspiration and relevance than it did just a few years ago. We often see the evidence of this cultural change, because in some of our communities, there are fewer people in our worship services on Sunday morning. We also are challenged by increasing threats to community sustainability, and a growing anxiety about our future.
The real threat for the church is not the latest trend of a declining religiosity, the declining attendance on Sunday, or even the sustainability issues of building and property maintenance. The real threat to the church is our tendency to forget that God’s mission is the priority. In other words, “God does not have a mission for His church; He has a church for His mission.”
God did not fashion together a community of people for the mere purpose of gathering together once a week. God set aside a community of people for a specific role, and a specific purpose, to of carry out God’s mission in the neighborhoods, into which they are planted. You see my friends, the Missio Dei, God’s mission of reconciliation, restoration, peace, mercy, joy, and grace, is the purpose to which we are called together. We are called by God to go out into the desperate places of people’s lives, and call them out of their graves and to do so, despite our own uncertainty, anxiety, and the fear of our own mortality.
God acts and calls us out of death into new life.
“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus calls us out of anxiety, out of despair, out of uncertainty, and of death every single day. Jesus calls us to new life! Episcopal priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, We have a “God who resurrects us from the dead, putting an end to it by working through it instead of around it—creating life in the midst of grief, creating love in the midst of loss, creating faith in the midst of despair—resurrecting us from our big and little deaths, showing us by his own example that the only road to Easter morning runs smack through Good Friday.”1
When we are in despair, when we see glimpses of what some naysayers forewarn as our eventual institutional death, and that negativity is trying to slip in amongst us, we like Jesus must work through it, and not around it. We must focus on God’s mission and constantly ask ourselves, “What is our ministry to the neighborhood in which, we have been planted?” “Who is God is calling us to love, serve, and restore?” “Who is our neighbor, and how should we get back to the basics of being a lighthouse of love in the neighborhood around us?” Remember, the mission to which we are called is fraught with fear because, for us to engage in God’s mission, we may have to die a little to our current comfortable way of being, in order to experience new life.
Change is a frightening concept, but dying to that which holds us back from God’s purposes is a natural part of sanctification. Suzanne Guthrie in a recent Christian Century article wrote, “In small ways we practice dying: dying to sin, dying to shame, to prejudices, opinions, stagnant ideas, dying to one old life and then another, ever striving toward new life. You consciously practice rising, from whatever tomb you have holed yourself up in lately.”2
To experience new life, we often must shrug off some of the trappings, the grave clothes that have the power to keep us bound up, and deter us from God’s mission in the world. It may be that we must die a little to those comfy elements of our ways of being, our contented ways of sharing grace, our narrow definitions of the community’s local mission, or our often, restrictive boundaries to entering the community’s life. We need to be unbound from that which keeps us from God’s mission.
Unbind them and let them Go
Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him go!” Jesus calls us out of the graves of despair and uncertainty in our lives, which are those heart places holding us back from God’s purposes. Jesus calls us out, and commands us to unbind one other from our grave clothes. Many of us have old memories of church gone by and thus, we have preconceived notions about how the church should be or must be today. Many of us carry some of that baggage, or worse yet, we look at our community and think we are just not enough, or believe somehow we don’t have enough to do local mission. This thinking, these old grave clothes keep us from God’s purposes for God’s church.
Dean Chandler of the Diocese of Atlanta once said in a sermon, unbind them and let them go. “Those should be the words, which are our orders every day, every new day. Unbind somebody. Where you find someone in bondage: your friend, your wife, your husband, your companion, even the stranger.”3 The church is called to be about the business of unbinding, bringing folks into a community of healing and restoration, by releasing them from the bondages of poverty, broken hearts, broken spirits, worthlessness, injustice, and oppression. This is our purpose, this is what the church has been set apart to do from its inception. “Unbind him and let him go,” was Jesus command to his followers who were standing and watching him raise his friend from the power of death. Jesus told the onlookers there that day, to “unbind him” or rather, get to work in the mission of love I have just begun. The community has a place in the restoration of those whom Jesus raises to new life. We are partners with God in the unbinding of one another from those things that want to pull us back into whatever graves from which, we have been raised.
You see that is really what it means to strive to be a saint. We are a people that have been given the assurance that death has no power over us, and we have been raised to new life in Christ. We are a people that are brought together in love as the Body of Christ, not merely for the embellishment of ourselves, but to the end and ultimate purpose of sharing God’s abundant grace with others. Being a saint is not a call to be perfect, or to become some kind of superhero Christian who does everything with precision and holiness. Being a saint is striving to everyday, in every way, to share God’s abundance with others, to unbind others.
Will we get it right every time? I doubt it, but we must try. Nelson Mandela once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Most likely, we have and we will mess it up, and we will have to change occasionally. We will have to die a little in order to see new life spring about, but we must keep trying. My friends please recognize that all of us are already saints, saints with a God-given mission. We are called to love one another, and those whom God loves, those neighbors around you who are desperately seeking something of which, they do not know. We are called to love one another and those not among the gathered community. We are called to love one another just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, and a sacrifice to God.
1Taylor, Barbara Brown. “Can These Bones Live.” The Christian Century 23.9 (1996): 291. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.
2 Guthrie, Suzanne. “Back To Life.” The Christian Century 122.5 (2005): 22. ATLASerials, Religion Collection. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.)
3 Very Rev. Samuel G. Candler Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, GA. http://day1.org/1086-unbind_him_and_let_him_go