Today we have our first guest post, submitted by the Reverend Don Prange with St. James United Church of Christ in Lovettsville, Va. We welcome guest posts if you wish to encourage LGBTQ readers or share about your personal experiences at or with Patrick Henry College in connection with LGBTQ issues. To submit a guest post or to inquire whether your guest post would work on Queer Patrick Henry College, email us at email@example.com. We’ll grant you complete anonymity if you desire, and we love interacting with new people!
The Freedom to Be
Based on John 11 and the larger biblical context.
We conclude Epiphany and its reflections around the signs of Jesus, and stand at a liturgical moment called transfiguration and the imagery of Jesus on a mountaintop with his closest disciples, where he is seen there in all his glory. It’s a narrative that anticipates the season of Lent and the glory of the cross in its proper perspective, and the John 11 narrative offers some truly pivotal commentary on all of this.
But near the end of the story we’re told that when the chief priests and Pharisees learned what happened with the raising of Lazarus they called a meeting
“Here is this man working all these signs, and what action are we taking? If we let him go on in this way everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.” (And then comes the pivotal part of the story from Caiphas): “You don’t seemed to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that it is better (for us) for one man to die for the people, than for the whole nation to be destroyed…and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God,” (a prophetic word which John suggests Caiphas himself does not even understand). And from that moment on, “they were determined to kill him.” (Jn 11:46-53)
Why are they so determined to kill (to silence) him? The signs, the ‘works of God’ (Jn 4:34), Jesus was doing, that reach a climax in the empowering words, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn 11:43) are the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Ezekiel. This is what Jesus and his signs are all about: raising up the “dry bones” (Ezek 37:4) of the poor and the oppressed. You’d think they’d be rejoicing in the signs of the Reign of God; so why do they want to kill him? (And why are some still resistant to understanding Jesus’ words about ‘eternal life’ as a concern for a quality of life in the here and now?) There are clues throughout the Christian Bible… and as Paul once wrote to Christians in Rome: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” (Rom 8:7)
Jesus’ words to Nicodemus also come to mind: “What is born of the flesh is flesh; what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be surprised when I say: You must be born from above.” (Jn 3:6,7) But as John reminds us, ‘the flesh’ can get caught up in religion… and that can blind us to the realities of the Reign of God… and it can resist what it means to worship God in spirit and in truth. And, as in this story, there can be outright hostility to the Reign of God.
But by God’s amazing grace, we have experienced that born from above reality in terms of the Spirit of God alive in us. And that’s what we celebrate as we are led by the Spirit into a Season of Lent to reflect more deeply on all that it means to be followers of The Christ – always making connections between worship and faith and life. And especially in today’s story as a climax to recognizing the meaning of eternal life as a quality of life– the freedom to be, in the here and now– Jesus’ words offer an exciting invitation: “Untie (yourselves) and let (yourselves) go!” (Jn 11:44) It’s a message which needs to be preached, but even more so to be acted on! So this is a moment for getting untied, for opening ourselves up to all the freedom to which Jesus invites us; and that’s what his own actions and signs are all about.
And the raising of Lazarus is the climax of all the signs Jesus was doing, along with all the metaphorical dialogue going on between Jesus, the crowds who followed him, the disciples, and the religious leaders. (Cf narratives from John 2:1-10ff) So we need to look at the characters in this story as what might well be a metaphorical summation of all the characters in John’s Gospel. That’s just one of the possibilities for trying to learn something from the story.
First there’s Mary, who surfaces again in the next chapter as she anoints Jesus’ feet (just before Passover) and wipes them with her hair as a symbol of preparing him for his ultimate Passover in dying on the cross. But who is Mary? She may well be the “prodigal” sister, the bad apple in the family, the proverbial sinner (like the man born blind [cf Jn 9]) in all the narratives in the Gospel of John.
Then there’s Martha, the fastidious, obsessive-compulsive older sister, the “older brother” to the “prodigal” in Luke’s narrative. Possibly a symbol of the religious laity devoted to the purity codes maintained by the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem and the Temple represented by still another character in the story: Caiaphas.
And of course there is Lazarus. And not the least of the possibilities in what John is portraying is to see him as a symbol of all those who were as good as dead, and might as well been dead because no one valued or cared about their quality of life. Could he not possibly symbolize the excluded, the marginalized — those imprisoned in a tomb of life, shut off from the meaning of life, eternal life – a quality of life as God meant it to be?
Then there’s the story itself and, of course, Jesus, the ultimate life-giver in John. He is taken to task by Martha for seemingly not caring. If you had been here, my brother would not have died! But Jesus says, “Your brother will rise again!” Martha counters, “I know, at the resurrection in the last day.” (You know how it is: someday there will be heaven. Someday, in the sweet by and by.)
But Jesus wasn’t into that kind of after-life theology. He said: I am the Resurrection and the Life. Those who believe in Me, even thought they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me (and what believe means is a faith that is alive and active) will never die.
And then comes the climax to the story: Lazarus, come out! Unbind him, and let him go! And, by implication, Give him the freedom to be! The freedom to be the full and complete human being God created him to be.
Now let’s try to put all of the characters in context: the Marys and the Marthas, the sinners and the religious — including the hierarchy — and the poor and the marginalized, the dry bones people of Ezekiel. (cf 37:1ff) Organized, institutionalized religion, with its rules and concerns for purity, had created a kind of closet for them which isolated them from full involvement in the life of the community, and they were supposed to stay there!
Organized religion had a role to play in society, helping to maintain social, economic, and political arrangement, and even when it was not in full control as in the time of Jesus when the Roman Empire was really calling all the shots, it had made peace with the powers that be. There was what we would call today a trade-off. Temple officials would never openly challenge the status quo, and the empire allowed them to manage society through their religious purity codes, to maintain all the closets.
Now it was one thing for people to go along and accept the closet, and too often to impose their own closet on themselves by accepting and internalizing the oppression of organized society and institutionalized religion! You know how it is: the poor are led to believe it’s their problem because they’re lazy and don’t want to work, or the female rape victim is led to think it was her fault. Now it was quite another thing for a preacher and teacher and healer like Jesus to come along and say:
COME OUT OF THE CLOSET!
And that’s when the narrative gets crunchy. There were many who believed, who began to celebrate what was going on. But some, some, SOME– some just couldn’t handle it and were saying to themselves: “We need to stop Jesus from preaching things like that, because some people are getting upset!”
Now this is a pivotal moment in the story of Jesus, and if we want to really take the meaning of Lent seriously these next few weeks in terms of wrestling and agonizing with the substance of this story, then it can also be a pivotal moment for all of us as well.
To those, like Mary, maybe feeling guilty or worthless for some very foolish mistakes in life, Jesus says, Put it all behind you! Your sins are forgiven! COME OUT!
To those like Martha, still bound up by a variety of religious traditions and a variety of assumptions about the meaning of sin and who the real sinners are, still hung up on clichés like we need to love the sinner but hate the sin, sometimes confusing it simply with those whose lives are significantly different, and certainly avoiding what the real sin is that needs to be hated, Jesus says, Stop masquerading behind the walls of religious tradition and purity! COME OUT!
And to those like Lazarus, marginalized and bound up by social, economic, political, even religious assumptions which create haves and have-nots — while that may not be your reality today I think that in the past some of you have known from personal experience just what that is all about — you need to remember that there are those today who are in that situation and need your support and solidarity. (And that is precisely what the UCC claims to be!) So we need to take note of the fact that there are still those marginalized by attitudes among the majority that say there is something wrong – if not sinful – about them; and too often they remain marginalized because they may have internalized that oppressive closet imposed by society and religious institutions so that they stay in their closet. So what Jesus offers is an invitation to break down all the barriers that divide human community, and says to all who are oppressed in any way by some of the assumptions of society (and too often parts of the church), and his radical invitation is, quite simply, to COME OUT!
Now you may have some difficulties with that radical proclamation of the good news of the Reign of God that Jesus was preaching and acting on, and that’s understandable. We wouldn’t be normal human beings if we didn’t have some anxieties about the ultimate meaning of discipleship, if we didn’t have to struggle and agonize about the spiritual life of being followers of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are condemned or that we’re bad or evil person, it just means that being human means we have to deal with the realities of the flesh. And believe me, I’m no different from any of you when it comes to those anxieties. But I find an excitement, and a joy, and tremendous hope in the voice of Jesus saying to us today: COME OUT… AND LIVE!