Summary: A sermon on death, friendship, and friendship with God
We begin with a friendship. “Jesus”, we read, “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. Mary is the one who broke all social convention and annointed Jesus’s feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair. He is clearly close to her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus too. We begin with a friendship.
Gallilee is safe territory for Jesus, but down south in Judea it is dangerous. “Rabbi, they were just now trying to stone you and you are going there again?” say his disciples. But when there is a friend involved we take risks. We can all, each one of us, think of friends who have made sacrifices, perhaps even taken risks, to help us. We can be inspired to take such risks, to make such sacrifices, for our friends in turn.
Friendship is a very important theme in John’s Gospel. Apart from Jesus, the key figure in the Gospel is the always unnamed, described simply as “the one whom Jesus loved”. It is as if we are watching a film through the eyes of one of the characters. You know those films where the camera is positioned so that we never see one of the actors but always see things through her or his eyes. In John’s Gospel we see things through the eyes of “the one whom Jesus loved”, because that is how John wants us to see the world. We are the ones whom Jesus loved. As Jesus says later in chapter 15, “You are my friends. I do not call you servants … but I have called you friends”.
Cardinal Basil Hume said “Holiness involves friendship with God - there comes a time in our walk with God when we need to move from being Sunday acquaintances to being weekday friends.” I think the author of St John’s Gospel would very much have agreed - friendship is a very important theme in John’s Gospel.
What we see in the rest of this passage about Lazarus is something of what friendship with God means.
We have the one bible verse that I am sure you can all commit to memory, it being the very shortest verse in the whole bible: John 11:35 “Jesus wept”. Or as other translations put it “Jesus began to weep”.
Jesus has already extolled to Martha all the spiritual messages possible about the hope of resurrection. All the good stuff that you would expect me as a vicar to preach at a funeral. Yet when confronted with the reality of a friend’s death, Jesus can’t hold the tears back. “Jesus began to weep”. Every vicar will have had the same experience. We do maybe ten, twenty or forty funerals a year. We say all the right things, all the spiritual messages about the hope of the resurrection. We are very professional. We keep it all in. And then we do a funeral - perhaps a child’s funeral, perhaps a friend’s funeral and we are confronted with the reality of death and we cannot hold it back and we begin to weep.
There is a poem that I would like to tear out of anthologies. I have to tread carefully here, because it is a poem that I know is dear to many people. It is a poem written by Henry Scott Holland, a canon of St Paul’s cathedral and then Regius professor of Divinity. Who am I as a mere newbie vicar of St Peter’s to argue with a canon of St Paul’ cathedral? Who am I to argue with a regius professor of Divinity? Indeed there is much in that poem that I agree can be of great comfort. But there is just one line which for me ruins an otherwise lovely poem. “Death is nothing at all” it claims.
It is only one brief line. But it is a lie. When families ask me if they can have this poem at their loved one’s funeral, if I am brave enough, I ask them to consider leaving that one line out. Start not at “Death is nothing at all” but at the next line.
I never forget the first funeral I took of a friend, because death is not nothing at all. There funerals you will not forget, funerals of someone you loved and who mattered a lot to you.
Death is NOT nothing at all. It is not just something we can shrug off (1). Even for Jesus himself, when confronted by the death of his friend - it hurts. “Jesus began to weep”. What does it mean for Jesus, the one who is both human and God, to be faced with death? Does he weep for us, for our grief, for our loss? Does he weep because even while his divine side knows all is fine, his human side fears death is the end? We don’t know. The German theologian Jurgen Moltman says “God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him”. Perhaps he is right. We don’t know. What we do know, is that confronted with the death of a friend, Jesus weeps.