Sermon in a tweet: Saints are those who, like Lazarus, have been summoned out of death into life and sent out.
“Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Lazarus is dead. His sister Martha is distraught, knowing that if only Jesus had of been there this whole situation could have been different. Then, at the climax of the story, Jesus stands at the mouth of the dead man’s tomb and cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” And, in a moment of horror and overwhelming joy, out he comes wrapped in grave clothes and all, set free and sent out. There you have it: the making of a saint.
I want to suggest this morning that in the raising of Lazarus we discover three movements that make a saint. There is a summons by Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!”; there is the unwrapping of the grave clothes so that Lazarus might live a new life, “Unbind him”; and finally there is the sending out of Lazarus by Jesus, “let him go.” Moreover, what we come to see here is the foundation, the goal, and the commission of the life of any and all the saints, indeed of the whole Church of Christ.
“Lazarus, come out!” The raising of Lazarus from the dead is initiated by the summons of Jesus. Lazarus was raised not as a result of his own action but, quite in spite of his ability to act, he was raised from the dead because Jesus stood there at the entrance of his tomb and called him out. That is to say Lazarus, dead as a doornail, was a pure receiver of Christ’s gift. This tells us something important about what it means to be a saint, namely, that the title of “saint” is not a special designation reserved only for those heros of the faith that quickly come to mind when we think of what a saint is. For example, we might think first of all of Sts. Mary and Martha, Sts. John and David, or Peter and Paul and so on. Or we might think of towering figures like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., or any of the thousands of Syrian and Iraqi Christians more recently slaughtered for their faith by ISIS. It is only natural that when we think of the saints we think first of those men and women whose love for Christ has shone through in extraordinary ways, often against great odds.
But this has the danger of obscuring a fact that our gospel reading today makes plain:
Saints are not saints because of their own accomplishments. Rather, saints are saints because Jesus Christ has summoned them out of their tomb of sin and death, and has joined them to himself and to one another by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Saints are saints because Jesus has set them apart and made them his. Have you been baptized into Christ? Then you, like Lazarus and all the saints, are the uncanny receptor of the gift of God’s own life and love in Jesus Christ. A gift we see most fully on the cross where Christ ridicules sin and the power of death, giving himself wholly to us. And we receive God’s gift in Christ every time we gather at the Eucharistic table: “The gifts of God for the people of God!” Our life as God’s people depends wholly and only on the summons of Jesus Christ. And this Christ, the crucified and risen Christ, confronts us in the thick of it all, in the stench of our sin and death, and calls us out. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us,” writes Paul. Died for us, called us out, that we might live anew.
“Unbind him.” Saints are those who, like Lazarus, have been summoned out of death into life. And this life is a sharing in the risen life of Jesus Christ, a growing up into communion with him and with all of his saints in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the real function of the Lazarus story, it’s as a sign which points towards Christ’s own death and resurrection which will come later in the gospel. And so when Christ summons us out of our tombs of sin and death and joins us to himself it is for the sake of a new life of holiness. By holiness I mean not a moral perfection but a life set-apart by Christ, for God’s purposes.
Take the saints we thought of earlier, for example. Christ summoned them out of their tombs and invited them into a whole new way of life previously unimaginable. And indeed, the Holy Spirit moved in their lives so that they brought aid to the needy, justice to the oppressed, hope to the sorrowful, and the divine word of forgiveness to sinners. They were, above all, courageous and bold servants to the people of their day, and it is their service rendered unto Christ, and their perseverance in the face of opposition and resistance, that makes them examples to us today.
Our life, like theirs, has been reoriented towards a different goal—the kingdom of God which is coming into the world. Previously, your life may have been marked by self-preservation or self-realization: How can I save my life? Now, in light of Jesus Christ and our baptism into his death and resurrection, our life is marked by something new—self-giving love: How can I lose my life for the sake of the gospel? How is Christ calling us to give our lives away in love? How might Christ be calling the church of St. Mary and St. Martha, to lay down our lives for one another and for our neighbours so that Jesus might be made known? What does God want to do with us here?
I should emphasize one thing here: that the kingdom of God is coming. While it is true that on the cross Christ defeated the powers of sin and death, we still witness the remnants of their power, like old ruins marking the landscape. And so we, along with all the saints, look forward to that new creation where finally, “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away,” (Rev. 21:4). This serves as a reminder that while the gospel brings great joy and peace and new life, it is not primarily a worldly message about how to achieve prosperity or self-fulfillment. The new world which is breaking into this old world, like the new men and women that are the saints of God, is not a matter of our own accomplishment. It is rather, a gift which we receive. We must resist the temptation then, however good natured it seems, to take off running after it. Rather, the life of the Church is one marked by a longing, a desire, a patience, a trust in God in spite of appearances. In a word, saints hope. “Did I not tell you,” Jesus said to Martha, and to you and I as well, “that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” And we, with all God’s saints, shall see it. And in Christ we have seen it and are invited to live into the light of this glory even now.
“Let him go.” Being set apart for new life isn’t an end in itself, however. It is so that the Church might be a herald of the gospel. Moments before Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb he looks up to his Father in heaven and says that all of this is, “for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me,” (11:42). Then, shortly after our reading, in the very next chapter of John’s gospel there are three short verses that tell of a plot to kill Lazarus. “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus,” (12:9-11). Did you catch that? The crowds were drawn to Jesus and believed in Jesus because they saw the power of God at work in Lazarus.
The saints of God exist for one reason, to bear witness to the risen and living Jesus Christ. Just as Lazarus was unbound and sent out, so too the Church is sent running into the world proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, so that those who have not heard it or perhaps have long forgotten it might themselves be confronted with the risen Jesus and hear his summons to them to “come out!” and live anew with Christ and all the saints.
And yet, even saints can be weak in faith. As Jesus stood there at the tomb of Lazarus Martha tried to limit his power: “Don’t bother rolling away the stone, Jesus. He has been dead for four days and he stinks!” How often do we limit God’s power in our lives, or in the lives of others, because we presume that God cannot act? That it is too late. That Lazarus is too dead. May it not be so!
I wonder what all of this looks like for us here as we begin our new life together as St. Mary and St. Martha’s? Our parish boundaries have grown and increased. How might we be ambassadors of the gospel of Christ here in this place? How might we who have been summoned by Christ run from here to proclaim this good news to our neighbours, to future saints and not-yet saints? May we not hinder the power of Christ to raise people from the dead to new life. May we rather run out into the world, into the places where people are dead in their sin, as God’s holy people, proclaiming that God has indeed done just this in Jesus Christ. Amen.