READ : John 11:17-27
Since the dawn of time, people have been searching for the secret of immortality. Christians have found it!
Let’s be honest about it. Most of us don’t think about death at all, or at least as little as possible. As a rule we don’t spend much time reflecting on the ultimate questions of life. We’re much more likely to be occupied with mundane concerns of everyday existence. I saw an advertisement for a radio station that listed the contents of its broadcasts: traffic, weather, music, news. Those are the things most people are interested in – in that order. We don’t wake up in the morning pondering the meaning of life; we wonder how difficult it’s going to be to get to work today or whether we’ll need an umbrella. And we’re much more likely to lie awake at night thinking about how we’ll spend tomorrow than how we’ll spend eternity.
It takes something fairly big to make us start to think about eternal things. Death can do that, especially the death of someone very close to us. When that happens, everyday life comes to a crashing halt. Suddenly the thousand and one little concerns that usually occupy our minds disappear, and we find ourselves asking some pretty big questions. What happens after we die? Will I ever see her again? Will I hear the sound of his voice? What about me? Where am I headed? It’s only when we’re asking these questions that we’re prepared to hear the answers Jesus offers.
“YOUR BROTHER WILL RISE AGAIN”
It was the spring of the year, only a few weeks before Jesus would go up to Jerusalem for the last time to be handed over to death himself. While Jesus and his disciples were spending time on the east side of the Jordan River, about a day’s journey from Jerusalem, a message reached them from the little village of Bethany, outside the holy city. The message was from Mary and Martha, who had sent to tell Jesus that their brother and his friend Lazarus had fallen ill. It was an obvious call for help, but Jesus unaccountably delayed his return and did not reach Bethany until four days later.
By then it was too late. Lazarus was already dead and buried. His sisters Mary and Martha were prostrated with grief when Jesus arrived to visit them. Here’s how the Bible describes their meeting:
On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
(John 11:17-27, niv)
“Lord, if you had only been here our brother would not have died,” cried Mary and Martha plaintively. This was a family that knew and loved Jesus intimately and had no doubt about his power to heal and to save. If the Lord had only come in time, everything would have been different, the sisters thought, and perhaps they were right. What a mystery the ways of God sometimes are! How it hurts to think what might have been if only . . . if only God had done something to help . . . if only he had answered our prayers in time . . . if only he had been there, when he seemed to be silent and far away. But God has his own purposes, and in this instance Jesus’ failure to heal Lazarus would result in something even more wonderful instead.
“Your brother will rise again,” he said to Martha. “I know that,” she replied. Like most believers of her day she accepted the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead at the end of the world as an article of orthodox faith. What Martha didn’t realize is that the Person who was the power behind resurrection, the Easter life himself, was at that very moment standing in front of her.
“I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE”
I am the resurrection and the life. I try to imagine how Jesus spoke this simple sentence. Did he say it gently, in tones of comfort? Did his words thunder like the bombshell they are? This statement is a totally new formula, the revolutionary consequences of which can only be guessed at. It’s the spiritual equivalent of E=MC2. Martha’s ideas about resurrection were conventional doctrine that, although true, and truly held, nevertheless remained rather vague. Jesus’ dramatic statement made the truth immediate and intensely personal. However he spoke it, the emphasis in this sentence falls squarely on the first word: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
Our hope for eternal life is bound up entirely in Christ. He is the resurrection. He is the life. Apart from him there is no future. Most religions have some sort of teaching about an afterlife. Most people today have some sort of hope, even if only a vague one, that death will not mean their extinction. The Greek philosophers believed in the natural immortality of the soul; the idea that when the body dies the soul is set free and continues to live forever comes from them, not the Bible. A lot of people today think this is what the future holds for them. There’s a tremendous interest nowadays in life after death. Accounts of “near-death experiences,” as they’re called, describing the soul’s leaving the body and traveling toward a warm, all-embracing light are bestsellers.
But this is not the sort of thing Christians look forward to. While we do not doubt that our existence does continue in some way after our physical death, and that, in the Bible’s words, for believers in Jesus Christ “to be away from the body [is to be] at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), this is not our ultimate hope for the future. Jesus’ promise is not of a shadowy existence of the soul after the death of the body but the bright, hard, clear reality of resurrection – the resurrection of the body and the glorious, transformed life in the world to come. And it’s all centered on him. He is the resurrection and the life. Those who do not know Jesus Christ have no hope at all of eternal life.
“I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE”
There is still more to say. Easter life is more than just a promised future for believers in Christ; it is also a present reality. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. When he promised Martha that Lazarus would rise again, her response was orthodox but without real enthusiasm. I think she misunderstood Jesus. Martha thought he was offering her conventional comfort, the sort of thing you get in the pious words we tend to hear at funerals. “It’s God’s will,” people say. “He’s in heaven now.” “Her suffering is finally over.” Those may all be true things to say, but so often those stock phrases roll too readily off our tongues. We say them so as not to have to face the deep anguish of loss quite so squarely.
Jesus’ word to Martha cuts through all of this. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told her. Resurrection was not just some far-off, future event, unrelated in any way to life here and now. The trouble with Mary’s orthodoxy is that it believed God was somewhere but not right there, that God would help her some day but not today, that resurrection would happen some time but that for now there was only death. What Jesus does for her is to draw aside the veil and show her life, Easter life, right then and there. And when he had made the startling claim that is at the same time a stunning promise – think of it: if you believe in Jesus Christ you will never really die; death has no power over you anymore – then he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead to show that he had the power to make the words real. What he was saying was not mere bravado, not just empty words. He really is the resurrection and the life!
If that is so, then it must be true that there is no real life anywhere outside of him. We all know that there’s a difference between life that’s real and life that’s merely existence. Indeed, it is this fact that makes so many people sense they’re missing something. There must be more to it than all of this, they think, but what? And so people search desperately for the secret of life. They look for the thing or the experience or the possession that will make them feel more alive. Do you really want to live? Well, buy an expensive dress. Go to a first-class restaurant. Get a new car. Does life seem jaded and dull, does it seem like you’re missing something? Take a holiday. Spend some money. Change your wardrobe; change your appearance; change your partner. The world says you can’t live unless you try all these different things. Jesus says real life isn’t to be found in any of them. A person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his or her possessions. It can only be found in knowing him.
The other side of this truth is that if you do know Christ, you have real life right now. You’ve heard the sarcastic line that’s sometimes used of Christians, that we’re looking for “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” People who think that are sadly mistaken. I’m not hoping for eternal life someday; I already have it, right now. I know Easter life as a present possession because by faith I know the one who is himself the resurrection and the life.
THE KEY QUESTION
“Do you believe this?” Jesus asked Martha. His question to her changed the nature of their conversation. He wasn’t just offering her some interesting information about the future. He wasn’t asking her to think about what he said, to turn it over in her mind, to see whether she agreed with it or not. He was asking her for a decision. This was a moment of crisis, prompting either faith or unbelief. Jesus offered Martha a momentous choice that day. If she believed what he said, then she had to give her life to him. If she did that, she would receive eternal life, then and there, as well as the sure and certain hope of sharing in Christ’s resurrection some day. Or she could reject him and miss everything. It all hung on her answer to this simple question: “Martha, do you believe this? Do you trust me? Will you, by faith, commit yourself to me? Will you stake everything – your life, your soul, your eternal destiny – on the truth of my words?. . . Do you believe this?”
Lord Jesus Christ, we believe that you are the resurrection and the life. We turn to you from all that does not satisfy and embrace you to find in you our true life. Amen.