Setting Lazarus Free

Setting Lazarus Free

(John 11:17-44)

Today is Reformation Sunday, marking how 504 years ago today in 1517, this monk, theologian and religious reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis critique of the church to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany – and so beginning what is has come to be known as the Reformation. We are part of that reforming tradition, believing that the church is never static, but always needing to be reformed for every age in which we find ourselves. Today is also All Saints Sunday, honouring the way the church has come to harness what was celebrated by the Celtic pagan world as Sanhain which was all about warding off ghosts from the world of the dead. The early church baptized that focus by remembering ‘all the saints’ – or ‘all the hallows’ – and, on the eve of that day, calling it Hallow-e’en.

Today’s scripture kind of goes there, Jesus’ bringing back to life the previously dead Lazarus. Lazarus was the brother of sisters Mary and Martha, someone whom Jesus loved very much. He was a grown man yet, we read, without a partner, and still living with his sisters, which cause some to suggest that he may have had some form of mental or physical impairment, something that made him especially special. He had become sick and was at the point of death when they called for Jesus. Jesus came, but too late, for Lazarus had already died. Jesus called Lazarus back to life from his tomb.

Even more than what exactly happened, or how it happened, I believe, is WHY it happened! What was Jesus wanting us to grasp from why he did this?

But first, let’s recap on 3 foundational Biblical truths undergirding all of what we – as Christians – believe: (1) All of creation – down 13.8 billion years of creation as we know it – is the result of God’s perfect, creative self-expression, and with all people being made ‘In God’s image!’ Richard Rohr writes:‘…this ‘image of God’ is absolute and unchanging. There is nothing we can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it. It is pure and total gift, given equally to all’[i] That is what our awareness of that which is what living in ‘Paradise’ or ‘The Garden of Eden’ is all about: creation coming to live knowing and delighting in who & what we all actually are, what we’ve been made to be. But (2) since the fall of whatever is being communicated to us in that Genesis story with the talking snake and the temptation of the fruit[ii] we now understand that our conscious awareness of being in God’s image has fallen from that sacred place. (3) Every religion worth anything has the restoration of that awareness as its entire goal & purpose.

As Christians, we believe that restoration is through our appropriation of God’s Grace as we are given to receive it in and through Jesus Christ, this same Jesus Christ who reveals the unconditional mercy and poured-out healing-shalom-peace of a God whose Presence is constantly permeating the whole of creation with God’s love. It’s our owning of that poured-out love which, we believe, draws God’s Christ-image from us – restoring us to our truest selves![iii]

Christ’s raising of Lazarus represents an enacted parable of what Jesus is straining to do for each one of us: offering a restored sense of ourselves as made in God’s image.

But ‘…he’s been dead 4 days, there will be a smell, Mary said, when Jesus ordered them to unseal the tomb! What she was referring to is what pathologists call the stage 2 decomposition that happens within 3 days of death. All that decomposition was somehow not only stopped but actually reversed with Lazarus being brought back to life. Thank God that it’s apparently NEVER too late to respond to Christ’s calling out of our truest self. 

From what death place are you being summoned? How have you settled down snug in your tomb having decided that ‘this’ is all probably all there is and probably all you deserve?

What are the smelly grave clothes that you are still clinging to, swaddling yourself within?

To what ‘other-people-currently-being-called-out-by-Christ’ are you currently being exposed –people that God would use you to help release?

Surely that’s the goal of everything we attempt to offer in Christ’s name: the setting of all people free to know and to be all God intends for them to know and to be?

Today also celebrates ‘All Saints Sunday! ‘All Hallows’ from where we get the word ‘Halloween! And so, on this Reformation Sunday, we are choosing also to honour all those ‘Saints’ who have, or who still are unbinding us – setting us free. Who are they in your life?

Even as we embrace our role as the saints that are called to unbind others, or at least to stop being the ones who are unhelpfully binding them into their too soon places of death.

The producing of God’s Grace is always only ever God’s business. We know that! God is only ever the source and fountainhead of all good. But get this: we get to be the executors, what St Francis called the ‘channels’, of that goodness. And according to this text, one of the best ways of being those channels is that we get to unbind others from the tomb cloths that entrap them, keep them small, allowing their living into all the freedom and life that God intends, and that Christ has secured. Perhaps the primary measure of the work of any of God’s Saints is the extent to which we are being useful in doing just that: releasing others from whatever bondage they have, to live into the just, compassionate, merciful, loving freedom which is always theirs!

Dead Lazarus – all swaddled in his shroud – represents us at our worst: …us as we have given up on living and instead, chosen to settle into our tombs of hopelessly settled complacency! But listen for it! As an awareness of the living Christ touches our lives, John’s point is that we are being called out: The risen and emerging Lazarus represents us as we have been made to be!!!

I love the word John uses to describe what happens next – after Christ has instructed the others to remove his grave clothes. …they are to ‘Let him go’ as an arrow is released from a drawn bow. That’s the ‘living’ that Christ wants us to know – the ‘abundant life’ that Jesus speaks of coming to give us in John 10:10: I have come that you may have life, and life abundantly! May that be so, in Jesus’ name


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[i]  The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 59, 60–61.

[ii] interesting that the term ‘original sin’ is not Biblical so much as an idea put out by St Agustine a few 100 years later in the 5th C

[iii] Isn’t that just about exactly what ‘being set free indeed by the Son’ means in John 8:36?