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Lent 5, Yr A, 10.4.2011
Ezek. 37.1-14 dry bones
Ps 130: with the Lord there is mercy
Rom 8.6-11: weak flesh is overcome/replaced by indwelling Spirit through Christ
John 11.1-45: raising of Lazarus (1243)

Gracious Father, you gave up your Son out of love for the world: lead us to ponder the mysteries of his passion, that we may know eternal peace through the shedding of our Saviour’s blood, Jesus Christ our Lord.

(The Johannine 'I am' statements express what Jesus is for us)

          We have just read the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus from St John’s Gospel.

          In the three year cycle of the RCL the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke each have a year in which one of them dominates.  The Fourth Gospel instead is given a substantial look-in in the seasons of Lent and Eastertide.

          Scholars agree that on the whole Matthew, Mark and Luke are better witnesses to what Jesus probably said and did than is the Gospel according to John. 

          Mark, our earliest gospel, was produced in two editions.  The earlier, shorter one, was used by Luke.  The second edition, the one we have, was used by Matthew, and it has a large part added in the middle to deal with conditions of the mission to the gentiles.  This, for example, includes the declaration that all foods are clean and the story of the Feeding of the 4000 which takes place in the Decapolis , that is, mixed Jewish and Gentile territory.

          Unlike the other three gospels, scholars are agreed that the Gospel according to John was built up by stages.  I, myself, for example, am sure that I can detect four different endings as more materials were added to meet new needs of the community.

           The Fourth evangelist, as distinct from the other three, is more concerned with directly stating what Jesus has come to mean for his community.  During the years of my research it was striking how often after I had discerned a major pattern in, for example, Mark or Matthew. I could sum up what it meant by a single verse from John.  That is, John often states a conviction quite baldly that lies embedded in the narratives of the other evangelists, and this conviction is frequently placed on Jesus’ lips.

          I’ll give you an example.  In February I preached on a part of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and in February on Matthew’s temptation narrative.  Both times I explained to you how these are related to the same ancient basic pattern of power, wisdom and well-being as defining a human being or society as a whole.  John not only presents Pilate as presenting Jesus with the words, idou, ho anthropos, ‘Behold, the human being’ (19.5), but simply presents Jesus as saying, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’ (14.6).  That is, the Way of power that brings justice, the Truth which is the wisdom of love, and the Life of faith that brings well-being.

          One of the striking differences between the Synoptics and John is that the decision to seek Jesus’ death as told in Matthew, Mark and Luke arises over the issue of the temple but in John it is over the claim made in today’s gospel in verse 25, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’; and this decision to seek his death is told in the verses immediately following today’s gospel.

          Now all four of our readings today echo the experience of new life arising out of the depths of despair and darkness.  We are approaching the passion and death of our Lord, which humanly one might well expect to be the end of the story.  So Easter Day is simply amazing and staggering when it comes.  It is enough to prompt the response, ‘I am the resurrection’.

          While I was in hospital I read a book entitled Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt.  Chartwell is the name of the house where Winston and Clementine Churchill lived,  As many of you may well remember, Churchill fought deep depression for many years, and this depression he called his ‘black dog’.   In the book Mr Chartwell is that black dog, a massive talking black dog the size of a mattress that walks on his hind legs and lurks in the corner of the room, ready to envelop in the blackness of total despair that person who lets him.  Mr Chartwell becomes the lodger at the house of a young widow whose husband became so depressed that he committed suicide two years ago.  She is dreading the anniversary of his death which is only days away.  That day also marks Winston’s retirement from the House of Commons, and he fights back a deepening depression at the prospect.   The book is touching, humourous, and a wonderful read, with a real feel for what it is like to be deeply depressed but ultimately defiant.

          This reflects the basic pattern of our life in Christ, which is one of death and resurrection, of cross and resurrection.  We are always learning how to die to ourselves that we may be enabled to live for others.

          For the past two Thursdays and with two more still to go I have been going to the Healthy Heart Programme held at the Selly Oak Methodist Church .  I have noticed a sign inside the door which says, ‘Whatever season of life you’re in God wants you to be forgiven.  Join us here at Selly Oak Methodist Church .’  Now there is nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough to convey the heart of the Gospel, which is an offer not just of forgiveness but of life worth living. 

          Now back to the gospel.  Think about this:  If you were to put a word on Jesus’ lips that expressed something of what he means to you, what would your choices be?  This, in effect, is what the Johannine community did as it gave expression in the ‘I am’ sayings in the Fourth Gospel.

          As we might expect, this largely Jewish Christian community drew its images from its own background, namely, the scriptures and images of what we call the Old Testament.

          If we confess that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, then we mean more than that he is the way to forgiveness of sin.  The Gospel is about much more than merely forgiveness.  That only gets us back to square one.  The question then is what do we do with it?  What is the gospel good for?  In the words of Christian Aid, ‘We believe in life before death’.

          So we come to these ‘I am...’ sayings in St John’s Gospel.  These express what Jesus is to us.  He is the Bread of life (631.51), the Light of the World (8.12; 9.5), the (sheep) gate (10.7, 9), the Good Shepherd (10.11, 14), the Resurrection and the Life (11.25), the Way, the Truth and the Life (14.6), and the Vine (15.1,5)  They are not about Jesus in himself but rather what he is for us.  In his mission Jesus is the source of eternal life as the ‘vine’, ‘life’ and resurrection’; he is the means through whom we find life as the ‘way’ and the ‘gate.  As the ‘shepherd’ he leads us to life.  As the ‘truth’ he reveals the divine love which he nourishes in us as our ‘bread’.   Jesus is these things to us because he and the Father are one (10.30).

          Sunday by Sunday, with the Johannine community, we affirm all this as we hear the witness of the scriptures and gather around the table to take bread and wine and give thanks as we remember Jesus, our teacher, our guide, our brother, our lover and our friend who leads us to our neighbour that we may come to our Father and ultimately hear the words, ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Lord.’