One of my favorite books is Gospel. No, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, this “Gospel” is a big rambling 800 page novel by Wilton Barnhardt. Gospel is the story of an eccentric, hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant., as they careen and comb all over the world — through Europe, Africa, the Middle East and America — in search of a fifth gospel long lost to time and history.
This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle, Judas’ replacement, chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts. The apostle Matthias had never seen the risen Lord. He struggles daily with his unbelief. These newfound chapters and verses tell how Matthias, in his old age, searches out the remaining apostles in their twilight years. Do they still believe? Do they still hope in that wild and wonderful story of Jesus, risen from the dead?
There are rumors — persistent rumors — that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen and secreted away. And these rumors haunt Matthias and he just has to know the truth. So he searches out the shady underground and the cities of the dead that traffic in relics.
The price is a bag of silver to be taken to the tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” Matthias says, “where the death relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden…But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange. but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path! He approached what looked to be an anointed body and began to unwrap the dirty linen… but I demanded that he stop and I fled up the stairs… I ran from the very truth I sought…. ”
“I ran from the truth I sought.”
Resurrection is hard to hold on to.
Maybe this is why graveyards and cemeteries haunt us so. These holy places speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. Stones silently tell the stories of the lives buried beneath our feet: rows upon rows of soldiers at Arlington; the fading glory of government buried deep at Congressional; my parents, their parents, cousins, neighbors, uncles and aunts, all planted at Cedar Hill – just across the Anacostia line.
And then there are the graveyards of our own making. Deaths of a different kind: the death of a marriage; the relinquishment of a child; the abandonment of dreams; the places in our hearts and heads where we surrender to the darkness. We bury the pain of our trauma six feet under. With the belief, that there is no hope of resurrection there.
But — what about Lazarus? Lazarus, called forth by Jesus, stinking and stumbling out of his tomb today?
Now I have always had trouble with the Jesus in the gospel of John. At first, callous and cold, he appears to be using his friend’s death, as an opportunity for a parlor game – a magic trick to impress the incredulous crowds. The unbelievers are likely the people in John’s own community. This is late in the first century and resurrection doubt was certainly creeping in. And so, the Gospel of John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.
Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels. This triumphant Christ, cocky and confident of his own divinity, makes sense only with the resurrection in the rear view mirror. Maybe the story is just one of the “signs” John concocted to convince his congregation of the wildest story ever told.
But scrape these layers of stuff away and read it again. The core of this story rings true. It is in the end a story of a grieving friend –whose faith was put the test.
Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus — over scheduled and overburdened. — preoccupied with his preaching mission –is not overly concerned for Lazarus. This illness does not lead to death. He’s just got the flu. He will get over it. He will be alright. But indeed death does steal Lazarus away. Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany and as he approaches the grave of his friend “Jesus wept.” He breaks down and cries. A man in tears, he openly grieves for his friend. And wracked with guilt, Jesus berates himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, why was I not here to comfort you? O my God, why did I not come sooner? Maybe there would have been a miracle that day and I could have healed you. And then desperately Jesus cries out. Father, hear me. Please, bring him back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.
And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that no one was more surprised than Jesus. You see, just before he heads into Jerusalem. Just before he has to climb the hill to Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call death back to life. That God will unbind him and let him go.
And so for us as well, on this final Sunday of Lent, we get a glimpse of Easter. Yes, first Jesus, dead three days will rise again. And in this lies our hope, that God can and God will rescue us from the graveyard: the real ones and the ones we dig ourselves. Literally and metaphorically, not just in the by and by, but in the here and now, death shall lose its sting. And all of those stones, blocking the way to heaven, might just be rolled away.
But first to Calvary… we all must go.