Romans 8:6–11 • The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God. But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.
John 11:1–45 • A certain man, Lazarus, was ill. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This was the Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped his feet with her hair. Her brother Lazarus was ill.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, saying, “Lord, the one whom you love is ill.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This illness isn’t fatal. It’s for the glory of God so that God’s Son can be glorified through it.” Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. When he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was. After two days, he said to his disciples, “Let’s return to Judea again.”
The disciples replied, “Rabbi, the Jewish opposition wants to stone you, but you want to go back?” Jesus answered, “Aren’t there twelve hours in the day? Whoever walks in the day doesn’t stumble because they see the light of the world. But whoever walks in the night does stumble because the light isn’t in them.” He continued, “Our friend Lazarus is sleeping, but I am going in order to wake him up.” The disciples said, “Lord, if he’s sleeping, he will get well.” They thought Jesus meant that Lazarus was in a deep sleep, but Jesus had spoken about Lazarus’ death.
Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died. For your sakes, I’m glad I wasn’t there so that you can believe. Let’s go to him.” Then Thomas (the one called Didymus) said to the other disciples, “Let us go too so that we may die with Jesus.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After she said this, she went and spoke privately to her sister Mary, “The teacher is here and he’s calling for you.” When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to Jesus. He hadn’t entered the village but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were comforting Mary in the house saw her get up quickly and leave, they followed her. They assumed she was going to mourn at the tomb.
When Mary arrived where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” When Jesus saw her crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.”
Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.
In the lands of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, there are two dominant religions, generally referred to as “the old gods and the new.” There is the Faith of the Seven, the religion of the majority of Westerosi, a technically monotheistic faith in which God is known in seven attributes: Father, Warrior, Smith, Mother, Maiden, Crone, and Stranger. They worship the Seven in seven-sided sanctuaries known as “septs” and there is a traditional priesthood of male septons and female septas. In the north of Westeros, the descendants of the First Men still worship the Old Gods: the nameless gods that inhabit the sacred woods and weirwood trees. The worshipers of the Old Gods do so in areas known as “Godswoods” with the sacred weirwood trees, white trees with red leaves and red sap, with faces carved into the bark.
But off to the west of the mainland, are the Iron Islands, home of the Ironborn. And there neither the Old Gods or the New hold sway. There they worship the Drowned God. The Drowned God dwells beneath the waves, and was once drowned in the sea but rose again and battles eternally with the storm god, and who bestows favor on behalf of the Ironborn who worship him.
The worshipers of the Drowned God undergo a ritual not unlike baptism, where salt water is poured over them and they are symbolically “drowned.” Then there are the priests and holy men often referred to as the “Drowned Men” who actually do get drowned and then resuscitated as a sign of their faith. The Ironborn generally prefer to die at sea, knowing that they will be taken down into the halls of the Drowned God, there to feast forever. In all these rites, the Ironborn always profess their faith with the words: “What is dead may never die, but rises again stronger and harder.” It is a faith as defiant toward death as the Ironborn are to everything else.
Defiance toward death comes in many forms of course.
In tonight’s gospel lesson, we have the famous story of the raising of Lazarus. It is the last of the “signs” that Jesus performs in John’s gospel: those miracles that serve to confirm the identity of Jesus. In the story, Jesus is on his way toward Jerusalem when he receives word that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, and his friend is ill. Curiously, Jesus does not immediately come to Lazarus, but tells the disciples that his illness will not be fatal, since it is all for the glory of God. By the time Jesus arrives at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Lazarus has been dead for four days.
Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” And Jesus responds, “Your brother will rise again.”
In one of those instances of double-meanings and dramatic irony in the text, Martha replies, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” to which Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Jesus goes to the tomb, orders the stone rolled back, and called out, “Lazarus, come out!” whereupon Lazarus comes forward, still wrapped in his burial linens. And we are told that many of the Jews who had come with Mary and saw what he did believed in him that day.
It is a powerful story, and a powerful sign, leading up to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where he, too, will defy death.
III. DEATH AND REBIRTH
But as powerful a story as it is, it is not alone in its themes of death and life. It is not surprising that a religion founded on the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus should be replete with images of death and rebirth. And John’s gospel is certainly rich with such imagery. Elsewhere in the gospel it says “I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
Paul believed that the believer underwent a death into life journey in this present life. That is, while Paul certainly believed that the faithful would be raised to new life on Judgment Day, he did not think that death and life were experiences limited to the afterlife:
“Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
The image of burial and baptism together is not unknown today. I have a colleague whose seminary professor once told her class that the appropriate amount of water needed for baptism was “enough to drown in.” Suggesting that there has long been a connection in Christianity with death as the way to life.
And then: “But if we died with Christ, we have faith that we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8)
And elsewhere: “I died to the Law through the Law, so that I could live for God.” (Galatians 2:19) “If you died with Christ to the way the world thinks and acts, why do you submit to rules and regulations as though you were living in the world?” (Colossians 2:20) “This saying is reliable: “If we have died together, we will also live together.” (2 Timothy 2:11)
Even the Old Testament story of Jonah, especially in Christian circles, treated as a story of death and rebirth. Jonah is in the belly of the great fish for three days after having tried to run from God and spewed out on the land in order to get about the work that he’d been called to.
The Christian is one who has died to their old life and taken up a new one. That theme is found throughout the New Testament.
IV. WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE
It should not surprise you at this point in the sermon that likely John Wesley had something to say about this, too.
In his sermon Scripture Way of Salvation, Wesley reflects on both the nature of salvation and the manner of it. In looking at the concepts of “justification” and “sanctification” he writes:
Justification is another word for pardon. It is the forgiveness of all our sins; and, what is necessarily implied therein, our acceptance with God. The price whereby this hath been procured for us (commonly termed “the meritorious cause of our justification”), is the blood and righteousness of Christ; or, to express it a little more clearly, all that Christ hath done and suffered for us, till He “poured out His soul for the transgressors.” The immediate effects of justification are, the peace of God, a “peace that passeth all understanding,” and a “rejoicing in hope of the glory of God” “with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins. In that instant we are born again, born from above, born of the Spirit: there is a real as well as a relative change. We are inwardly renewed by the power of God. We feel “the love of God shed abroad in our heart by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”; producing love to all mankind, and more especially to the children of God; expelling the love of the world, the love of pleasure, of ease, of honour, of money, together with pride, anger, self-will, and every other evil temper; in a word, changing the earthly, sensual, devilish mind, into “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”
Wesley referred to this process as “regeneration”—literally, being born again—given a new life in Christ. A life of love for all humanity rather than the desire of power or wealth or self-interest. The old self was dead. And a new self was being born. Now, Wesley did not pretend that this experience produced a creature entirely free of sin. That was why he believed in the process of “sanctification”—of being made more holy. And this process of being sanctified, of being made perfect in love, could take the rest of our lives.
But for Wesley the regeneration was real—the new birth was a real change that was worked in the believer. The old self has died and the new self is made for living eternally. What is dead may never die.
In practically every strain of mysticism, from the Kaballistic mystics of Judaism to the contemplative mystics of Christianity to the Sufi mystics of Islam, the death of self is an important part of moving forward in faith. The deconstruction of the old life, the death to one’s insecurities, prejudices, and fears is necessary to take on the new life that we have in God.
When Paul talks about being buried with Christ, this is what he means. That our old selves have perished to be raised to a new self in this life, a new self that has a share in the everlasting life that God has promised.
It is an old line that a hero dies only once but that a coward dies many times. But in a way, we all die multiple times, dying to the old ways that we seek to cast off. Dying to the fear, the narrow-mindedness, the insecurity, the parochialism, the bigotry, the self-interest, the greed, the hate… Dying so as to be born anew in love, openness, confidence, self-sacrifice, generosity, acceptance, and hope. In so doing, we, in the words of Paul, “put on immortality”, we are born anew as citizens of the Kingdom of God.
When we encounter the life-giving power of Christ, a power that literally can raise the dead, it transforms even us who are alive. For in it we die to our old selves and are born anew, stronger and more faithful. And we are fitted for everlasting life and come truly to understand that what is dead may never die.