by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
That's not Lazarus there under the bandages, but there is a body shrouded on that table. Not a walking corpse but a corpus, a body. You have to work with me here, but it shouldn't be too difficult. Earlier this week some of you saw the bread before it was banded; even with bandages on you can see the festive drink standing at attention. The cup of blessing—is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread we will break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ—the corpus Christi?
As it is, the bandages look sterile. And so they were at one time—gauze for binding up wounds. But now they make vivid how bound the body can become. These wrappings want off, but they are stubbornly attached, meant in a diabolical way to constrain and constrict, a sign of what this corpus Christi can become--and surely is.
On Monday we began to disclose a lamentable list of failures that characterize the body of Christ in this place. Corporately and individually. We acknowledged our delinquency at claiming baptismal priesthood. With Luther breathing down our neck we named our lukewarm desire to work for the unity of the church. We reluctantly spoke of half-hearted response to the needs of others, and with each acknowledgement the bands ascended up over the gifts, constraining the body, imprisoning the life it provides to us and the world. A new and different Babylonian captivity has raised its head here.
It's almost cute, isn't it? So far, this exercise is not very painful, to liken ourselves to a four-day stay in the cave. In Lazarus'case, beneath the bandages one might discover more than a few failures; rather he showed serious signs of decay, flesh that by this time had a smell, an odor , like that of an unkempt person. No mistaking it, his body stank.
Dare we go there? How do we smell? The narrative of Lazarus can be sentimentalized—a dear friend of Jesus dies, Jesus feels deeply about it, he cries, and then raises him up, assuaging his own grief and keeping his female friends happy. The account of raising actually takes one verse of the entire text; the remainder of the forty-three verses have to do with Mary, Martha, and the disciples. Lazarus nearly comes off as a prop to expose the lack of faith among the rest.
One translator has it that Jesus was not "deeply moved" as in deep grief, but he suggests the word indicates that Jesus was angry, really angry, because his followers, and even his dear friends, showed so little trust in him. They failed to rely on him to take care of Lazarus without their seeming frightful pleas to a peripatetic healer.
It is so like us to turn God into a fixer, the white-bearded dispenser of spiritual pharmaceuticals. Not trusting, we are more likely to bewail the apparent dim future of the church, of this seminary, of theology in general, of the systems that perpetrate endorsement interviews. Lord, it stinketh; fix it, will you? Meanwhile Jesus is looking for faith, a trust that something is happening even here by which we will see the glory of God. Will he find that kind of faith here or will the bands of faithlessness imprison the corpus Christi even further?
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. That's what it says. No doubt they loved Jesus in return. But their trust and love gave way to fear, fear that what with Lazarus in the cave—all bound up—his memory would fade, his name be forgotten by both God and humans alike. That prospect smarted more than the grief connected to Lazarus' death.
It is a fear we share, both of ourselves and of those mourned by us. Walking through cemeteries one often wonders who these people were that led lives under the names inscribed on their stones. Does anybody remember them?
In that book of life back there are inscribed the names of saints dear to this community. Some, those who have died this year, we will name in the prayer at the table, invoking our collective hope that they too are present at our feast, imbedded in the loaf and cup. But there are others in the book not named today, yet dearly remembered. When I die, will there be someone to remember Martha Sun, my stepdaughter named on those pages, who tragically lost her life four years ago? Will she yet somehow exist apart from those who remember? Will God remember?
Fears, we have, that bind up the body. Fears that suffocate the hopes kneaded into the bread, fears that muffle the glory meant to be revealed in the Son of God. The wrappings want off, but they will not unbind themselves.
HERE LAZARUS! Is what Jesus cried with a loud voice. COME HERE, as if calling to a beloved child or even a beloved pet. Lazarus, here! With a loud voice he cried out, a great sound, probably as astounding to the bystanders as the amplified effects heard in the Imax theater today.
Such a great loud voice is given usually to others in the New Testament, but here it belongs to Jesus; only one other time does he cry out like that, and that's with the words ELI, ELI from the cross. The great sound shouted into the cave is given power and authenticity by the cry Jesus will make from the cross.
HERE, he cried out, come to my side, Lazarus.
[Here an assistant begins to loose the bandages around bread and wine]
Here, because I am the resurrection and the life—a declaration he made to Martha minutes earlier. Here, Lazarus. Here, Martha Sun, Here Robert, Here, Phil—and suddenly it becomes clear that all those names in that book of life, and in the book of life will not be forgotten. They are imbedded in the loaf as true companions.
So Lazarus comes out of the cave and Jesus commands: Unbind him and set him free. Lazarus needs others to unbind him, just as Jesus needed his Father to raise him. The dead cannot free themselves. The corpus that sometimes looks and smells like a corpse cannot unbind itself. We await the loud voice, the great sound.
Here, my dear people, Jesus says in the midst of our lukewarm faith and constricting fears, come to me, the resurrection and the life. Come to me at this table and hear the voice say--loud and great by reason of its tender-loving strength: Take and eat, this is my body, this is my blood. In that voice we recognize the memories and names of all the saints. In that voice we become convinced again that this is truly the Son of God, His strength made perfect in weakness, his strength made perfect in our weakness.
Now unbound, Jesus set Lazarus free and let him go. Go where? Home, probably. Back to life as he knew it, back to daily tasks, to his sisters, probably talking non-stop. But not without a feast. Because life from the one who is resurrection and life moves directly to feast. The veil and the shroud are lifted, there is a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees, and Lazarus will know with us, that death has been swallowed up. Jahweh will wipe away tears, and all peoples will be there—all the saints, all the saints, unbound and set free.