Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
As I pondered this text, considering how it draws us into the mystery and wonder of the resurrection and aids honesty in those left behind in the hours surrounding death, these final words of Jesus in the story of Lazarus lingered in my thoughts. Obviously, as Lazarus’ life was restored and he went to leave the tomb, he needed to be physically unwrapped from the strips of cloth that a body was bound with when it was laid out. But in the context of resurrection and thinking about the complexity of death where we grapple with our beliefs amidst the overwhelming emotions of grief, why has the storyteller, the Gospel writer of John, ended with an image of new or renewed life being the unwinding of the things that bind and the need to let go?
As we mark 50 years of the URC there is great encouragement to celebrate our achievements. However, given the difficult times we find ourselves in—the deployment crisis, numerous church closures, lack of people—there feels like there is little to rejoice over. Rather than planning a party, might it not be more fitting to begin scripting a funeral? Yet, although a funeral is where we gather to collectively mourn the passing of a loved one, is it not also the moment where we give thanks for a life and offer it back to God in hope of resurrection?
John Bradbury in his paper published in Reform (March 2022) suggested that God is calling us to refashion the Church in radical ways. To do this we have to believe in the resurrection and look for the green shoots of life. However, this requires being unbound and letting go!
Living God, you call us from death to life, darkness to light. You call for those things that bind us to be stripped away so that we may go in faith and live in your way. Help us to give thanks for what has been, as we seek your courage and strength to be unburden and refashioned as you will, as part of the body of Christ, given life through your mercy and grace. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Elaine Colechin, Minister, St Mark’s United Church, Greenwich and Bromley United Reformed Church