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The Rev. Elizabeth Goodman The Rev. Elizabeth Goodman
The Rev. Elizabeth Goodman is pastor of Monterey United Church of Christ in Monterey, MA and the author of "Breaking and Entering: Unexpected Sermons for an Unfinished World."

Member of:

United Church of Christ

Representative of:

Monterey United Church of Christ, Monterey, MA


Liz Goodman: Full Circle

John 11:1-45

5th Sunday in Lent - Year A

April 02, 2017

 

I received the gospel in a nutshell once, or what someone felt was the gospel. It was literally in a nutshell, though the shell was now emptied of its nut, was stuffed with a slip of paper with a verse from scripture on it. It had been a youth group activity with an aim for evangelism. The members of the group had been told to choose their favorite Bible verse, to write it on a slip of paper, and then to stuff it into an emptied nutshell. I imagine it was a painstaking process. But (I have to be honest) it was lost on me. I just don't think you can fit the gospel in a nutshell, even figuratively; I just don't think you can adequately sum it all up. Holding the open shell in my one hand and the slip of paper in my other, I thought of Jesus telling people, "Come and see." Not a summation but an invitation, not an abstract but an expanse: come and see.

These are among the first words Jesus is remembered to have said according to the gospel of John. Having been called out by John the baptizer, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" having attracted then the attention and the following of two of John's disciples, Jesus turned to them and asked, "What are you looking for?"

Their response was also a question, and an odd one, "Rabbi, where are you staying?"

Jesus answered, "Come and see," which they did, the story telling us, "They came and saw where Jesus was staying, and they remained with him that day." Following this, they not only became Jesus' disciples but called a third as well, Simon Peter.

A powerful reaction to what they had gone and seen -- it makes you wonder about where Jesus was staying.

Jesus was staying in the Father, just as the Father was staying in him. The Greek word here is meno, which is a key word in this often-puzzling gospel. Meno, menos, menein: these favored words of John are rendered in English "abide," "dwell," "endure," "remain;" and they should fill our hearing with a spiritual understanding. When Jesus is said to stay or to dwell, to remain or to abide, it's to indicate his staying and dwelling with the Father, and the Father's remaining with and abiding in Jesus.

What's more, this mutual in-dwelling: it should speak not only of their reciprocal filling and fulfilling one another, but also should indicate the beloved community that together they aim to create -- a spilling over of their pouring out grace upon grace, a full circle between the two of them that brims with possibility for each of us and all of us, that we each and all might also stay where Jesus is staying, that we each and all might also be a place where God the Father abides.

In fact, this is the work of the Father that Jesus has come to do. To finish the creation that God has begun but, according to John's version of the creation, has not yet finished; to perfect this partial work that is so much promise laboring toward fulfillment: this is the work that Jesus, sent by the Father, has come to do. That all might be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea; that all might dwell in God who is self-emptying, self-giving love; that all in the world might recognize in the way of Jesus the very way of God and thus decide upon this way for our living as well -- clear, kind, compassionate, gentle, wise in judgment, zealous for justice, steadfast in commitment, far-sighted in its aim yet immediate in its being lived out: this is the work that Jesus has come to do. To make of the not-yet-complete creation a beloved community in which all have life and have it in abundance and by this paradoxical means, that we surrender our lives to God's larger life: this is what, when following Jesus, we might come and see.

Come and see.

"Come and see." At this, Jesus began to weep.

We're on the other end of his ministry now. We're nearing the crucifixion. When Jesus had come to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, we're just a few days, maybe a couple weeks, prior to the festival of the Passover, which would also be the time of Jesus' arrest, his ridiculous "trial," his condemnation and execution. We're about as far from that pivotal event in the story, and in all history, as we are right now to Maundy Thursday, two weeks hence.

The inaugural invitation: we hear it again here, but now near the end: "Come and see." This time, though, it's Martha and Mary who say it to Jesus, and they're saying it of their brother's tomb, Lazarus having died and been buried now for four days. They're saying it because Jesus asked, "Where have you laid him?"

"Come and see."

And at this, Jesus began to weep.

There's much speculation as to why he began to weep.

An obvious answer is that his friend Lazarus had died -- which is why he'd made the trip to Bethany at all. He was mournful of this loss, this death: this is why he wept, it's often said.

But this doesn't quite hold because Jesus had previously said of Lazarus' illness that it wouldn't lead to death but would be an opportunity for God's glory to break into history, to be revealed in a most startling and awesome way. Jesus would demonstrate God's power even over death; he would reveal God's dominion over all: this was an unveiling that the world had been waiting for! And it was his to enact. The very thing he'd come to do, the very thing the world had been waiting for: now was the time. So, to weep? Hardly! It was a time to rejoice, or at least to anticipate rejoicing.

And yet, Jesus wept.

Then there's the supposition that Jesus felt guilty that Lazarus had died. After all, when word reached him that Lazarus was ill, he yet stayed where he was for two more days. So, maybe he felt bad about having been casual about something that was actually quite urgent.

But the story is clear in pointing out that, though Jesus had stayed where he was for two more days, by the time he reached Bethany just a few hours away, Lazarus had been dead for four days. In other words, the story seems almost eager to point out that Jesus wouldn't have arrived before Lazarus died, even if he'd rushed off as soon as he heard of the need for his help.

More subtly, though, it's said that Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was. He stayed there, which means something greater than just that he delayed, just that he dilly-dallied. That he stayed where he was indicates that he was abiding with the Father, abiding, dwelling. Indeed, it indicates that he was at prayer, deeply at prayer.

See, I think it's wrong to suppose that Jesus could have saved Lazarus if only he hadn't delayed -- and wrong not just because the timing's off. What's more, I think the truth is quite to the contrary, that Jesus couldn't have raised Lazarus unless he'd stayed where he was, for it's by Jesus so absolutely staying where he was -- in the Father and the Father in him -- that he was able to restore Lazarus to life. It's by Jesus staying so perfectly where he was -- in God as God is in him -- that he was able to do the work that was set before him to do. So, no, his staying where he was didn't result in Lazarus' death; his staying where he was resulted in Lazarus' restoration to life.

And yet, he wept.

Why?

We've heard "Come and see," a couple other times, you know.

One, soon after Jesus himself had said it, was when Phillip, having been called as a third disciple, went off to find Nathanael whereupon he told him, "We have found him about whom Moses and the prophets wrote, Jesus...from Nazareth." Nathanael was skeptical. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" So Philip challenged him, "Come and see."

Next, there was the Samaritan woman who, having met Jesus at the village well, ran back to her countrymen to tell them as the first evangelist: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?"

Come and see: beginning with Jesus to his first disciples, then among his inner circle, then further abroad among foreigners, word was out until finally it would return, full circle, Mary and Martha saying now to Jesus what had been Jesus' first to say: Come and see.

In this gospel, there's a promise that we who believe in Jesus will do the works that Jesus did, "and, in fact, will do greater works than these."

In this gospel, Jesus bestows upon the apostles the Holy Spirit, breathing it onto them that its power might be their power -- might be our power.

In this gospel, there is the notion that Jesus will have served for the sake of perfecting the creation and will then have finished his purpose in the world, will have passed the work yet to do onto his people, and will return to the Father at last to sit and rest.

What's not in this gospel is Jesus at prayer in Gethsemane. Unlike the synoptic gospels, John's gospel never imagines Jesus in prayer, distressed and anguished at the prospect of his own death, at the prospect of his leaving this world. John never imagines Gethsemane because the raising of Lazarus is John's imagining this. The raising of Lazarus is Jesus' moment of confronting his own death and his own having completed his task. Greatly disturbed, it says he was as he approached Lazarus' tomb -- as if he knew that to raise Lazarus was to condemn himself to death, as if he knew that his work in the world had come to fruition and now it was time for him to return to the Father.

There's a lot of talk of love in the final night of Jesus' life as a human in the world. He spoke much of the love he felt for his disciples, his friends. And I've never doubted that he spoke truly, that the love he felt was real and divine. Jesus weeping though; Jesus weeping that now his earthly ministry was complete, that now it was time for him to leave: this isn't just abstract, divine, impartial love. This is felt, embodied, desiring love. I think Jesus wept at having to leave his friends whom he'd come to love, to leave a life that he'd come to love, to leave work that might have seemed "beneath him" but that he perhaps discovered was urgently important and deeply fulfilling.

I think Jesus wept at having to leave us.

Rest assured, we would take it from here. By the power of the Holy Spirit and the wise teachings of our Savior and friend, we'd have this work covered. It might take us a lifetime to complete. No, it will take us all lifetimes to complete.

Meanwhile, he would go on ahead -- through death and back into life.

But he would also have to leave us. His work among us was, as he said from the cross, now finished.

"It is finished."

I'm sorry to say, I don't know how you sum this all up. I don't know how you impart to people yet seeking a purpose for living how urgently needed, and urgently loved, we all are -- except to say, "Come and see." Otherwise, I don't know how you fit in a nutshell the very God who means to dwell within and among us, and have us do the same. I only suspect that, to claim any less is to sell short both the faithful persistence of God and the depth of human yearning and need.

The beloved community in service of abundant life for all creation is ours to build up and to live among -- and because Jesus came to us from the Father and returned to the Father having completed his task. His loss is our gain, for which we too might weep these coming weeks. Holy Week is yet ahead, and it's never easy. But it also is not the end.

Thanks be to God.

 


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