This is a version of the sermon I preached on Sunday, February 21, 2021 at Broken Bow United Methodist Church. It’s part of an ongoing series running through Easter exploring the Gospel of John.
Today’s sermon is based on John 11.
This season, I invite you to make faith commitments using “A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Spirit.” You can find it here.
Much to the chagrin of my family, I like country music – among other styles. But once in a while, I’ll be driving down the road singing along with the radio and I’ll realize I know part but not all of the lyrics. Does this ever happen to you? For example, think about Garth Brooks’ ‘90s classic, “Friends in Low Places”: “I’ve got friends in low places…I’ll be okay, I’m not big on sausage gravy…” Wait. Why doesn’t he like sausage gravy? Oh yeah. That’s the wrong lyric. It’s really, “I’m not big on social graces.” Yet, even if we miss some lyrics, most of the time it doesn’t really change our reaction to the song as a whole, but when we get all the lyrics, the song does take on greater meaning and value. As I’ve been reading, pondering, and praying over the story of Lazarus – and the meaning of Jesus in John – I realized that something similar can happen to us in our faith.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is about salvation – freed from sin and death, right? As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, John the Evangelist’s goal in writing the gospel is so that people, so that we, can come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and in believing, that we will be saved – that we’ll have life in his name (Jn 20:31). But, what really do we mean when we talk about salvation? At one time in my life, I thought – and I was taught in Sunday School – that salvation is what happens after we die. Salvation is about being made right with God through Jesus, so that we can live eternally, beyond death, with God. Did anyone else learn this too? Now, it’s not that this is wrong – it’s the correct lyric – but given today’s text, I find myself wondering if I’ve missed part of the lyric about salvation too.
Jesus is off in the region beyond the Jordan River, where John the Baptist had been baptizing people. He was staying there, beyond the prying eyes and stone-throwing threats of the Jewish religious establishment. Some people from Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, come to Jesus and tell him that his friend Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother, is sick. Their intent is that he would come to make Lazarus well. But Jesus stays where he is two more days before abruptly telling his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” His disciples don’t want him to go near Jerusalem, because, remembering Jesus’ near-stoning, they think he’ll be killed (Jn 10:31, 11:8). Jesus ignores their concern for his safety, and theirs, and tells them, We are going because our beloved friend Lazarus is sleeping and I’m going to wake him.
To this, they reply, Oh, well if he’s sleeping, he’ll get better. Let’s stay here.
But Jesus tells them bluntly, Lazarus is dead. Let’s go to him. At this news, the disciples commit to going with Jesus, even though they think it will lead to their deaths.
This is all strange, because it rubs up against our Sunday School idea of salvation. John’s Gospel is all about signs that lead us to believe in Jesus so we’ll be saved, so we’ll be with God after we die. If this is what Jesus is about, why does he decide to go to Lazarus after he’s died? Lazarus is beloved by Jesus already. He, presumably, already believes in Jesus. If so, then his salvation of life beyond death is already assured…or, it’s not. But in either case, Lazarus is dead, so it’s a moot point now. Let’s keep going with the story.
So Jesus goes to Bethany and meets Lazarus’ sister Martha, and then their sister Mary. He grieves with them. He accepts Martha’s critique that, if he had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. He assures Martha that Lazarus “will rise again” (v. 21). She understands this as a future hope of resurrection “on the last day” (v. 24), she says, but she wants Lazarus alive today. Jesus assures her again, apparently without much effect, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (vv. 25-26). Martha says she believes this, and yet, I can’t help but think they’re still missing each other’s lyrics. She thinks Jesus is talking about some day, “on the last day,” – like our Sunday School salvation – but, Jesus seems to mean more than this.
Then, Jesus asks to go to the tomb. There, he weeps and tells them to roll the stone away. They protest, sure that decomposition will have already begun: He’ll be stinking by now (v. 39). Jesus encourages them to believe in him, and they roll the stone away. Jesus prays aloud, then calls, “Lazarus, come out!” And, miraculously, Lazarus comes out, alive, and Jesus orders them to unwrap him.
Now, let’s be clear: this is a huge thing. Obviously, it’s a big deal for Lazarus and his family – he’s back from the dead, alive to live another day. Certainly, it’s impressive for the disciples and the others who are there, and for us: John includes it as a sign to help us believe that Jesus is the Son of God. But it’s also significant for the religious establishment. Some of those who witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus to life go tell the Pharisees about it. The Pharisees redouble their plot to commit to killing Jesus. They’re afraid that, if Jesus keeps on doing such amazing things, everyone will believe in him, they’ll lose power, and eventually Rome will come in and get rid of the Temple. They even plot later to kill Lazarus as well (Jn 12:10), because people were believing in Jesus on account of Lazarus.
But, here’s the thing: John and Jesus challenge me and us in our understanding of salvation through the raising of Lazarus. If salvation is only that which happens after we die, there’d be no reason for Jesus to risk going back to Bethany, and raise Lazarus. Salvation, for Lazarus, is also about being brought to life in this life, for this life. Salvation for Mary and Martha, after this event, isn’t just about something that happens “on the last day”; salvation has also to do with this life. Jesus brings Lazarus to life and unbinds him for this life – and this too is part of salvation. And herein, we need a bigger understanding of salvation.
In the United Methodist tradition, we believe that salvation is by grace through faith for our enduring partnership with God. Salvation is about living with the eternal life of God filling our lives, today and forever. And in this, we talk about salvation as a process of growing in personal holiness and social holiness – of God’s saving grace drawing us personally closer to God and God’s vision for us, and God transforming the world into God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven with us. And, while this is our bread and butter as United Methodist Christians, it’s not uniquely our own. Most streams of Christianity believe in salvation in these ways. It’s just that sometimes we sing only part of the lyrics the loudest. We proclaim that Jesus saves us, so that we can live with him after we die, but sometimes we forget that Jesus saves us for this life too, personally and socially. Jesus raises Lazarus to new life, reminding us that salvation is for life today for all.
Given this, let’s think for a moment about forgotten song lyrics again. It would be nice if I only flubbed lyrics alone, but it’s quite likely that I’ve done it with friends, in which case, they’d likely tease me a little. No harm. No foul. But it is embarrassing. And if the critique continues, it can get a little painful to take. I wonder if our one-sided view of salvation sometimes can be painful when it’s called out too.
Last week, my friend Pastor Rob preached about how God was opening his eyes and giving him vision to see the reality of racism – a social sin to be saved from. I’ve experienced similar eye-openings, and God is still working on me. At another point in my life, though, I would have been dismissive of Rob’s sermon. But today, faced with Lazarus, I realize that I’ve been dismissive, because I feel hurt that I’ve, essentially missed part of the lyric of salvation.
Salvation is not full salvation if it only makes my life better “on the last day.” Full salvation makes the world, and our lives, better, today. In Lazarus, Jesus shows that today matters deeply to God. But Rob did a great thing in his sermon: he gave space for the Spirit to work. He didn’t say God had to be opening our eyes to the same thing. Instead, he proclaimed that God opens our eyes so that we may see God’s saving work transforming the world in many ways. Today, Jesus raises Lazarus so that he can live. So too does Jesus raise us to new life, if we’re willing to come when he calls us out of the tomb and be unbound for life.
Jesus calls us to sing the whole story of salvation: personal and social. Jesus unbinds us from a narrow, after-death-only view of salvation, to participate in God’s saving, transforming mission of full salvation for the world. Jesus calls us out of the tomb of grief, and Jesus unbinds us from the stigmatization of mental health treatment – offering hope for today and forever for us and others. Jesus calls us out of the tomb of loneliness, and Jesus unbinds us to bear God’s presence with others in loneliness. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of fear and insecurity, and Jesus unbinds us from food, medical, and aid systems that block people from fully living. Jesus calls us out of the tomb of withheld forgiveness and desire for retribution, and Jesus unbinds us from systems of unequal and unjust sentencing practices in which Black males are sentenced to 20% longer sentences than white males. Jesus calls us out of the tombs of greed and consumerism, and Jesus unbinds us from systems and cultures that proclaim our net worth is our human worth.
Jesus calls us out of the tomb personally and unbinds us socially, so that we can fully live with God’s eternal life. Will we come out? Will we be unbound for life? Will we come out like Lazarus, freed to get all the lyrics right: life someday, and life today? Will we walk with others as they’re called out of darkness, as means of God’s saving grace in their lives? For when we come out, we can fully sing, “Amazing grace, my chains are gone. I’ve been set free” for life filled with God’s life today, and always.
- This sermon develops the Wesleyan view of salvation – including personal and social holiness. Is this a new idea of salvation for you? If so, or if not, how does this understanding of salvation work in your mind and heart?
- The understanding of salvation as being both for us, for our personal transformation, and for the world’s transformation, is the reason United Methodists have historically founded and supported such things as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, universities, day cares, and food pantries. Have you ever thought about these ministries and institutions as means of partnering with God’s saving work in the world through Jesus? What about this makes sense to you? Did you think there were other reasons why we do these things? What?
- Sometimes, people critique United Methodists as being too engaged in the social issues of the world. Have you ever felt like this? Does this sermon help you see social engagement in a different light?
- Sometimes, the critique named above is accurate, particularly if churches or individual Christians forget that the foremost reason to be engaged in social issues is as a means of God’s saving, transforming grace. When have you seen this to be the case? What would clearly make social engagement an act of participating with God’s saving work instead of social work or political advocacy?
- Here are two pieces – here and here – about the UM view of salvation developed in this sermon. What stands out at you that I didn’t cover?
- The idea of the sermon is that our sweet spot, if you will, as United Methodist Christians, is to live into, embrace, and participate in God’s saving work in both areas – our personal salvation and transformation, and the transformation of the world. If we think about these two as a continuum or line, where do you fall? Where does your church fall? Is God calling you, and us, to move along that continuum?