Sermon -- John 11.1-45
""Dead Man Walking""
In 1995, a movie called Dead Man Walking came out. It starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Sarandon played Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun whose book and real-life experiences were the bases for the film. It dealt with the issue of capital punishment in some interesting ways. In the movie Sister Prejean befriends a deathrow inmate named Matthew Poncelet, played by Penn, and the movie is about his journey toward death by lethal injection. The struggle from Sister Prejean comes from her realization that Poncelet had not yet come to terms with his own guilt and in order for him to die with dignity, he must do that. She said she could help him find that dignity, but he had to Aparticipate in his own redemption.@ But to no avail. Poncelet showed no remorse, was flippant about his situation, and even denied any guilt on his part. Finally, minutes before his execution Poncelet took responsibility for his actions. For the first time he broked down in tears and confessed to the murder in which he participated. Sister Prejean told him that he now had dignity and she called him Aa son of God.@ Poncelet=s response was that he had never really experienced the true meaning of love. But now, on the day of his death and from the compassion of Sister Prejean, he knew the meaning of real love and he said to Sister Prejean, AIt figures that I=d have to die in order to find love. . . . Thank you for loving me.@
I don=t know about you, but when I go to a movie, I rarely can sit through it for pure entertainment. I look for hidden meanings, allegories, and metaphors. And so when I heard that line in Dead Man Walking, I really had to think about that. ""I=d have to die in order to find love."" What did he mean by that? How can someone discover love on the brink of death by execution? How could a cold-blooded killer finally find love and dignity on death row?
I find this morning=s text a bit like this movie. Like Poncelet in the movie, Jesus is on a journey toward death. We tend to read this story and concentrate on the obvious - the raising of Lazarus from the dead. That=s not the most important part of the passage. The crucial element in this text is what happens after the raising and how Jesus= fate is sealed by this event.
This text becomes a pivotal point in Jesus= ministry in John=s Gospel. It becomes the event that leads to his death, at least talk of his death by those who oppose him. It=s rather intriguing for several reasons. It=s a story found only in John. The other Gospels connect other circumstances with the decisions that Jesus must cease. However, in some ways it=s a typical story from John, a story of Asign faith.@ That is, the sign or wonder performed by Jesus informs the readers of the truth it teaches. Here Jesus gives life to a dead person, and within the narrative that goes along with the sign, Jesus identifies himself as Athe resurrection and the life.@ And the text says that ""the Jews"" decide he must die because he=s attracting crowds and he=s stirring trouble that none of them want. From their perspective, and from this time on, Jesus is basically a ""dead man walking."" The text says in v. 53, ""from that day onwards they were determined to kill him."" But there is great irony in this decision. In fact, it is a reversal in actuality. The giver of life must die, and it is in that very death that life will be given.
The sign of the raising Lazarus itself is rather brief. The meaning has already been explained in the preceding stories. Jesus adds one last interpretation with his prayer, which the writer seems to be allowing us to eavesdrop. In this prayer Jesus thanks God for the faith that this sign will produce.
The response to this sign takes place in the council of the Pharisees in Jerusalem. Here Caiaphas makes a statement of significant irony, ""It is more to your interest that one man should die for the people, than that the whole nation be destroyed."" This remark is filled with political ramifications, I think. He means that the actions of this one called Jesus is threatening the Jewish nation, a nation that is already under Roman oppression and Rome doesn=t need another reason to tighten their grip on the Jewish people. His statement is one of self-preservation, but little did he know that it is also filled with a deeper meaning.
The raising of Lazarus becomes the pivotal event on which the decision is made that Jesus must be executed. Jesus= journey toward Jerusalem is always about his journey toward his death. And the way this journey makes its turn in John is unique to the Gospels because it is full of irony, reversals, and hidden meanings. Supposedly the Jewish leaders are concerned most about the crowds that keep following Jesus because of what he has just done with this sign involving Lazarus. But we see its meaning lies at another level. The raising of Lazarus is a sign that Jesus is the one who gives life. It is precisely because of this that ""the powers that be"" are opposed to his continuing. Especially when we consider who Jesus was. Was he a high-profile religious leader? Was he a Roman official? Was he a rich person? Was he one born into the power structures of his time? The reason Jesus posed such a threat, was that he was none of those things. Rather this one who gave life, this one who embraced the untouchables, this one who forgave sins was a Jewish peasant. It is not because of his popularity or power or money that brought about his death card. It was the claims that this peasant was making and the acts he was performing - even to restore life - that was what got him into trouble. This poor, carpenter=s son was the one God chose to reveal life, healing, and resurrection. But it didn=t come without a price. It cost him his life. ""From that day onwards they were determined to kill him.""
I guess we could say that from the beginning of Jesus= ministry in Galilee to his journey toward Jerusalem, the Gospels are about a journey toward death. There is much irony in this and yet it is in this paradox of the gospel that we find truth. I see everything Jesus did, everything he said, every story he told, every sign he performed, these were all his way of trying to show his followers - and us - what God=s realm is really like. God=s realm is not about the standards of conventional wisdom. The Jesus I read about in the Gospels, the Jesus we find in this story from John, is from the beginning a ""dead man walking."" If we always read the Bible at face value, we will miss it, just as the disciples missed it and the religious leaders missed it. Jesus reveals in this raising of Lazarus that with God, life will always prevail. With God, death never has the last say. And with God, it is offered to everyone! There was no one he wouldn=t touch. There was no one he wouldn=t share a meal with. There was no one he wouldn=t love. And because of that . . . they killed him. Isn=t it ironic. The one who gives life is the one whose life is taken. And yet we come to realize, as did Poncelet, that for some people it takes death to find the meaning of love.
Jesus of Nazareth was basically a ""dead man walking,,"" sentenced to die an insurrectionist=s death. And we see that if we follow this Jesus, our journey will lead through death as well. But we=ll also see that the journey=s end will always be love, and hope, and mercy, and forgiveness, and resurrection, and life!
Jesus said, ""I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will never die."" Do you believe that? If you do, then you too will have life, both now and unto an eternity.
Dennis E. Smith & Michael E. Williams, editors. The Storyteller=s Companion to the Bible: Volume Ten - John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, p. 108ff.