Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Easter, 14th April 2013, at St Mary’s – John 11:17-44

In the Church Times this week, there was a letter [12th April 2013, p14, letter from Antony Alexander] which said, ‘Many an ordinary would-be believer has difficulty understanding why Jesus should be exempt from the natural laws that govern humanity – such as would prevent a body confirmed dead by expert witnesses … from not only coming back to life, but getting up and walking around within two or three days. Within the real world of humanity such an occurrence would be deemed incredible. An alternative interpretation is that the resurrection was something that took place within the hearts and minds of Jesus’ disciples – even as it has enlightened countless Christians since. …. Their beloved Leader had been crucified and was no more. They then began to realise, however, that the reality of Christ was spiritual, and that He was still with them in spirit as much as He had ever been.’

Last week I preached about the effect of Jesus’ resurrection, the effect of the revelation that Jesus’ death was not futile but that, by being resurrected, He had proved that He was God on earth. I drew a comparison between the moral opinions of the various newspapers in relation to the Philpott case, and whether the Welfare State was in some way to blame for it, and Jesus’ teaching about how we should deal with needy people and how we should deal with bad people.

I was making a case that, because of the resurrection, we could rely on Jesus’ teaching; that the resurrection changed everything. That revelation to us demonstrated that God is with us and that He cares for us. In today’s lesson from St John’s gospel we have the story of the raising of Lazarus, a story which prepares the way for the story of Jesus’ own resurrection.

Martha originally misunderstood what Jesus told her, when He said, ‘Your brother will rise again’, because she already believed, from Jesus’ teaching, that there would be a general resurrection, at the end of time. But Jesus said that’s not what he means, but that the resurrection is embodied in Him. He is looking forward to His own resurrection – ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’

He promised a miracle. As the letter in the Church Times goes on to say, ‘Another common Christian response is that God can do anything, and doesn’t need to take any notice of the natural laws governing the beings that He created.’ This is a real puzzle. Are we saying that God is above the natural laws that govern everything else in creation, so that miracles are possible, or are we saying that there is no reason why we should believe in miracles like the resurrection of Lazarus or indeed the resurrection of Jesus Himself, as being literal, bodily, resurrections? Are they just myths, spiritual stories?

You will recall the passage in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15: ‘Someone will ask, How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ St Paul says, ‘So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.’ [1 Cor. 15:35f]

In March it was the 50th anniversary of the publication of the famous book by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, called ‘Honest to God’. It might surprise us now that a theology book should become a national best-seller, but that’s exactly what happened in 1963. Here was an Anglican bishop saying quite clearly that God wasn’t – or God isn’t – a kind of supernatural presence, able to do things which in normal nature are impossible. Indeed, John Robinson’s argument was that God isn’t ‘up there in the clouds, or in the heaven,’ or ‘out there’, somehow outside our world, our cosmos, creating it and sustaining it, but instead, God is fundamentally inside everything; He is at the ‘ground of our being’, that the ultimate essence inside everything is what God is.

That would mean that John Robinson would tend to agree with the letter to the Church Times, and possibly with St Paul, that the resurrection was not a physical resurrection, but was a spiritual one.

Against that, you could put this evening’s lesson, about the raising of Lazarus. The evangelist, the author of the gospel, emphasises the physical nature of the story. Lazarus had been dead for four days, and indeed the remains stank; Jesus spoke to the dead body, called him to come out of the tomb, and he did, still wrapped up in his grave-clothes. It was literally a question of Lazarus, physically, bodily, coming back to life.

Then in the next chapter we read [John 12:2] that Lazarus was present at the supper for Jesus at Bethany, at which Mary poured out costly ointment on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.

There’s no suggestion that Lazarus is a ghost, or anything other than alive in the normal way. And it is tempting to think that, if the resurrections, of Lazarus and of Jesus Himself, were figurative, were not concrete, physical events, then Christianity would not have lasted as long as it has.

This is all about Truth. What is true? We might tend to say, as I did last week, that the truth which we can rely on is our knowledge of God, which largely comes from the Bible, perhaps tempered with the collective wisdom built up in the church over the years. But if John Robinson was right, the believer looking to find God will also do well to look inside himself, to find a quiet place in which to reflect not upwards to the heavens, not in any particular direction, but inside ourselves, to the ‘ground of our being’.

That in turn would mean that the truth is all about us as well as inside us. But it might be difficult for a believer to discern what is a sign of God, to distinguish that from what is just his own feeling. Again St Paul has something to offer. He talks of people being ‘in Christ’: for example in Galatians 1:22, ‘the churches of Judaea that are in Christ’. This expression can also be understood the other way round, so it is ‘Christ in you’.

It is the same idea that Jesus himself puts over in St John’s gospel, chapter 15. ‘Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me.’ [v11]

If Christ is in you, He is in a sense ‘at the ground of your being’. But John Robinson, and the theologians who influenced him, such as Paul Tillich, would say that God was not to be found anywhere in particular, ‘at the ground,’ but that He is the ground, the essence of our being.

Fifty years after ‘Honest to God’, perhaps we are less willing to challenge orthodox ways of understanding the mystery of God. But if we give up on wrestling with the real nature of truth, we are back in the featureless desert, where there are no clear paths to lead towards the good and away from the evil.

There is no guarantee that we will ever be absolutely sure that we have fully understood God – but, just as we can be sure that He often does answer our prayers, so we can be sure that He has revealed Himself to us, in the Bible and of course face to face to His disciples. In the story of Doubting Thomas, in St John chapter 20 [esp. v 29], Jesus has a message which speaks directly to us, who have come 2,000 years later. He said, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’

I am sure that none of us, not even the most learned theologians, can fully comprehend the nature of God. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep trying, that we shouldn’t try to be alert, to be ready to see God at work in places where we might least expect Him to be. As Jesus Himself said, ‘Watch therefore, for ye know not what hour your Lord will come’ [Matt. 24:42].