Everyone knows where to find the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” And maybe because it’s an easy verse to memorize, maybe because it is in the middle of a dramatic story, and maybe because it is possibly the densest theological phrase in all of scripture, I’ve returned to it, and to the rest of John 11 over and over in my life and in my thinking. There’s a detail, though, that I hadn’t noticed until this year, that makes the story speak to me in lovely new ways.
We know the prologue of the story well. Jesus receives word from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus is very sick. And, despite the fact that “Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus,” he waits for two whole days before going to be with them. He tells his disciples before they leave Jerusalem that Lazarus has already died. When he finally gets to Bethany, Martha and then Mary lament, and perhaps even accuse Jesus: “Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” Jesus responds to Martha by affirming her faith in the resurrection, and trying to explain what he will do. He responds to Mary simply by weeping with her. And then he enters the tomb and commands Lazarus’ already-rotting and putrid body to be filled again with life.
It is the moments just after Lazarus’ unlikely rising that I want to pay careful attention to:
Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.
But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
I had never noticed before last Easter that Lazarus comes out of the tomb still “bound hand and foot with graveclothes.” He is not radiantly restored to life; he must have been a terrifying spectre. Jesus leaves it to those who believe to finish the miracle–to unbind their brother and be the ones who “let him go” by bidding him come back to them. God’s healing work was finished, but Lazarus could not be restored to life until those witnesses who “believed on” Jesus caught a glimpse of the life He came to offer, overcame their squeamishness and even their religious conviction that having anything to do with the dead was taboo, and went to work bringing Lazarus fully back into their communal life, which would be transformed forever by his return.
There’s a danger, of course, in drawing the parallels too closely, but I think there might be something for us to learn from this story in figuring out how we ought to respond to the remarkable statement on race and priesthood posted at lds.org. Strangely (to me, at least) it has been my friends who consider themselves most progressive who have been a little bit like those who “went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done”–they’ve not wanted to let go of their idea of what rebirth ought to look like, they’ve wanted the statement to emerge from the tomb of the COB (sorry, couldn’t resist ;)) without the graveclothes of institutional inertia and bureaucratic caution. They are eager (as I am, and as we all must be) for the process of healing to be complete, the vision of a less racist future for the Church given to us in the form we would recognize most readily and celebrate most gladly.
It seems to me, though, that it almost never works that way. And perhaps it shouldn’t. We think we know what Jesus should do, both before and after Lazarus dies. We believe he can heal us and our loved ones, and we want him to do it when we feel most desperate. Like Martha, we want Jesus to be our fairy godmother, trusting that “whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” And yet, he seems sometimes not to reward our faith, our righteous longing. Instead, he waits and weeps with us, “for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.” Our reward is in being invited to collaborate in the miracle.
Racism is a terrible, grievous sin that might have killed the Church, and that still has deadly force in the world and in us if we do not relentlessly root it out. We are called to loose ourselves and our brothers and sisters from its graveclothes, and from other sins that bind us–sexism and homophobia, to name a couple of obvious examples. But there are other deadly sins as well–so many ways we can refuse grace, or fail to see it when it is given, and go away sorrowing because we do not see what we expected. Unbinding ourselves and each other is difficult work, sometimes frightening, sometimes tedious. Maybe this is why we celebrate Christmas as well as Easter; we are reminded, over and over again, that God’s glory is revealed in the messy human process of birth; we have to learn to be midwives as the glory of God is revealed.