Today’s Gospel has two of my favorite women of the bible—Mary and Martha. I love them! Some years ago, I participated in a women’s bible study about these two women and it began with the question, “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” Are you a Martha—a woman or a man who scurries around worrying about trivial things of this world or are you a Mary—a woman or a man who sits at the feet of Jesus to learn? Well, I know which one I am. I have often said—I am a Martha, but I am in recovery.
But I must defend Martha from time to time because she IS one of the great theologians of the bible. Just before our passage for today from John, Martha meets Jesus on the road as he is on his way to see them and, in their conversation, Jesus tells her, “I AM the resurrection and the life……do you believe this?” And her reply is the crisp, clear response like that of Peter, “Yes, Lord” she says, “I believe that you are the Messiah—the Son of God.”
But today, we see her in all of her characteristic Marthaness. Lord, she says, don’t move that stone! There will be an awful stench—he’s been in there four days! In my mind, I see her already fretting over the Glade air fresheners. Now, she just confessed moments before her belief that Jesus is the resurrection—that he is the Messiah—and still, she is scolding the Son of God about the tomb and the facts of decay and the grave.
I don’t know about you, but I must confess—I am a Martha—but by the grace of God, I am learning better. Over and over, hundreds of times in my lifetime already, I have confessed my faith by reciting the apostles’ creed. Like Martha, I have confessed my belief in Jesus Christ. I believe that these things about Jesus are the truest things in existence. I confess my belief in the resurrection of the body—in fact, I even trace the sign of the cross over my body at that point in the creed so that I might remember it better. Yet, I, too, like Martha…..like so many of us…. Focus on what I see to be the reality of death rather than the truth of Life through Jesus Christ.
In her autobiography, Elizabeth Edwards talks about the sudden death of her teenage son in a car accident. She writes, “Every day, I would sit beside him on a blanket…..and read to the place on the ground under which he was buried.” She read aloud to his grave all of his 12th grade books.
Not only are we covered with the shroud of death, but that shroud can seem so impenetrable that we cannot see the light of God and the hope of resurrection through its heavy weight.
People do not get up and walk out of graves—it is hard to believe. We, like Martha, focus on the pain of death—on the loss of death. The ones that we love who have had to suffer. The ones we love who are no longer around us. Sometimes, we are like Mary—we think that if we had done something more, maybe death would not have come. If there had been more doctors, more medicine, more time….something might have prevented it.
Sometimes, we are like the crowd gathered around Martha and Mary and think, if God is so great, why didn’t he do something to stop this? How can God stand by and watch this? If God were good, this would not have happened—they would not have to die. Sometimes, we are realists, like Martha. So be it. Death happens. Face it and move on.
To all of this, Jesus weeps. He cries with Mary and Martha—for their sadness, for their grief. He experiences their sorrow and cries with them. Jesus may also weep for the lack of belief. After all that has happened so far, they still do not get that he is the Son of God and nothing is impossible with him. He might weep for the battle that is ahead for him—he knows that his own death on the cross is coming quickly. I believe that he also cries for all the pain that is in the world, both then and now. He suffers along with all who suffer in sin and death—all of humanity—and feels the pain of rivers of our tears.
How often do we find ourselves fearing death—our own or that of someone else? We think of it as the worst thing that can happen to us. I had a professor once who said that the one thing he knew for certain about death was that it had been destroyed—swallowed up—by Jesus in his own death and resurrection to new life. And the only thing we can do is to hurl into the grave these words “Death, you have lost! For Christ is risen!”
Death has been our arch enemy since we humans were driven from the garden of Eden. We fight against it at every turn. The one thing we all have in common is death—rich or poor, we all face it and death always wins. At Least, that is what the Martha side of me says. It is reality. This is the way the world works. We are born, we live and we die. Period. And yet, this is not what we hear proclaimed to us today.
Our gospel tells us of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from his tomb. The stone is rolled away by the bystanders and Jesus calls to the dead man and he comes out—alive! He is still bound up in grave clothes. Unlike Jesus’ resurrection, Lazarus will need his tomb and his grave clothes again—but this resuscitation is a foretaste of the resurrection to come. The Easter morning resurrection of Jesus. And, as we are united by baptism with Christ into his death, so too are we united in his resurrection—not just a resuscitation but a resurrection to new life.
In our old and new testament lessons we hear of a new heaven and a new earth that illustrate this resurrected new life in Christ. We hear that God himself will live with us—he will wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more crying and no more pain. Death does not exist anymore. We hear that God himself prepares a banquet for us with the very best food, the very best wine, and the very best of all things. For this IS the feast of victory for our God. The feast of celebration of God’s victory over death—for God has swallowed it up. We sit at this victory feast, free from the shroud of death that all people share. And we sit with Martha, Mary and Lazarus and all the saints who have gone before us.
Today, as we receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, we receive a foretaste of this feast that is to come. Through this taste, we are strengthened to believe in the Host of this feast—Jesus Christ—so that we may believe he is the Resurrection and through him we have life everlasting. With Martha, we may say, “Yes, Lord. You are the Messiah, the Son of God.”