Finding genuine hope in Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead

Vietnam veteran Eugene J. Toni went to see the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C. Standing under a full moon in March 1991, he flipped through the paperback directory of names on the wall, looking for friends. Eventually, he turned to the T's in a long-shot search for an uncle he had never met. Instead, he found his own name. He and his wife, Nancy, walked down to panel 17, counted to line 121. He said, "I showed her my name, and then we both looked at each other in amazed disbelief."[1]

Today’s gospel reading has three possible interpretations.[2] First, people may take the reading literally, expecting God to intervene supernaturally to heal an incurable disease, prevent bad things from happening to loved ones, and generally to solve the world’s problems. These misguided hopes at best offer temporary relief and usually break hearts when God fails to deliver. As an old tradition reports, when Lazarus was unbound, the first thing he said was, "Must I die again?" to which Jesus replied, "Yes." And Lazarus never smiled again.[3]

Second, John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead may be a historicized version of the parable of Lazarus and Abraham found in Luke’s gospel.[4] In that parable, an ill beggar named Lazarus daily lies outside a rich man’s house. Receiving no help from the rich man, the beggar dies and goes to heaven. Then the rich man dies and goes to Hades, the abode of the dead. There, the rich man laments his fate. When Abraham rebuffs the rich man’s plea for Lazarus to bring him water, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the rest of the family of their impending fate. Abraham replies that people who fail to heed the prophets will not listen to someone raised from the dead. As Christian beliefs about Jesus’ miracles developed, this parable calling for justice may very well have become the basis for John’s story of Lazarus’ resuscitation.

This interpretation offers a more realistic basis for hope, repeated in both today’s Old and New Testament readings, that God will end injustice, vanquish evil, and make all things new.[5] The dead are raised – metaphorically. Indeed, we can see signs that God is at work through people changing death into life. Extreme global poverty is declining, fewer people are dying of hunger, life expectancy is increasing, and child labor is disappearing.[6]

This interpretation’s demand for justice has special relevance in view of the hate crimes at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life Synagogue. Jesus was a Jew. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were Jews. An attack on Jews is an attack on the community to which Jesus belonged and t ministered.

Jesus, however, did not minister only to Jews. When a Syrophoenician woman begged him to heal her daughter, Jesus did so. And when asked who his neighbor was, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, identifying himself with the Samaritan. That the authors of the gospels preserved these occasional stories constitutes clear evidence that Jesus frequently, and in the eyes of his contemporaries scandalously, ministered to non-Jewish Palestinians, a fact conveniently ignored in many churches.

Walking the Jesus path by seeing ourselves individually and collectively as Lazarus, persons whose lives are transformed by God’s power, thus requires loving Palestinians and Israelis equally. Our faith precludes both anti-Semitism and ignoring the plight of displaced, devalued Palestinians.

Third, the gospel reading may symbolically describe the meaning of Holy Baptism, the living enacting Baptism’s grace. The old Lazarus dies; is wrapped in burial clothes (his baptismal garments), and then “rises” to new life, answering Jesus’ call to come out of the tomb even as the newly baptized is raised out of the baptismal waters.[7] New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan describes the story as process incarnated in event, the process by which God brings life out of death in the present.[8]

This spiritualized interpretation coheres with the grace evident in the lives of the (S)saints – whether spelt with a lower or upper case “S” – grace that manifests itself in our lives as wisdom, courage, and strength for coping with life’s perils and problems. Looking at you, or at any congregation in which I know people, I always see persons whom God has raised from the dead. I see addicts in recovery, broken hearts that were healed, once empty souls now filled with love, the lost who have found their way, and much more.

Resurrection transforms us from the walking dead into the genuinely alive. Unlike Vietnam Vet Eugene Toni who was surprised at seeing his name on the Wall of the Vietnam Memorial, we confidently trust that our name, along with the names of all God’s people, are written in what the author of the book of Revelation called the Lamb’s book of life.

When you entered St. Clement’s this morning, you came into a place of new hope, new life, new beginnings. God may not offer the answers we want. But God does offer a realistic, trustworthy hope for both a better, more just world and more abundant life eternally connected to God and to God’s people. May Jesus words, "Roll away the stone;" always echo in our hearts and minds, renewing and strengthening our hope. Amen.

All Saints Day sermon preached November 4, 2018

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

[1] C. Thomas Hilton, "Christmas Fulfilled," The Clergy Journal, March 1992, p. 17.
[2] John 11:32-44. The three approaches to interpreting the gospel are from Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), pp. 428-430.
[3] A. Dudley Dennison M.D., Shock It to Me Doctor! (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1970), p. 108.
[4] Luke 16:19-31. Cf. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), p. 93.
[5] Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a.
[6] Dylan Matthews, “23 charts and maps that show the world is getting much, much better,” Vox, October 17, 2018 at
[7] A.N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life (New York: Fawcett Communications, 1992), p. 183, citing Morton Smith’s work.
[8] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), p. 95.


Anonymous said…
FYI: The Syrophoenician woman asked Jesus to heal her DAUGHTER. (Mark 7:24-29)
George Clifford said…
Thanks for catching my mistake.

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