Death Threat: Reflections on John 11:1-45

Lectionary Reflections
John 11:1-45
April 6, 2014

My 87-year-old father-in-law is in a nursing rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania to regain his strength after a bout with pneumonia. My husband, visiting him last week, got to overhear a conversation between him and the young woman who is his physical therapist working to help get him out of bed and sitting in a chair, and, if possible, eventually, to walk a few steps. After a five-minute struggle to get him to his feet and rotate him to the chair, she decided that the direct approach was the best.

"Mr. McKenzie," she began, "do you know what the most important factor in physical therapy is?"

"No, and it's Paul to you," he said, maintaining his humor in spite of his struggles. She continued: "The patient has to want to succeed. So this is not about me and my goals for you. It is about you and your attitude and your desire to get better."

She is absolutely right. While there are, of course, many variables in physical therapy, a factor that must be present is the patient's desire to succeed. To state the theological version of this dynamic, in the God-human relationship, the response of the human being to God is a crucial contributor to growth in discipleship.

But Jesus, as he stands outside the tomb of his friend who has been dead four days, is not a physical therapist. His relationship with Lazarus is not one of coach and client or doctor and patient. It's too late for Lazarus to contribute to his recovery by having a positive attitude. The recovery of lost muscle tone isn't at issue. There is nothing more he can do for himself. The most important factor in bringing someone back from the dead is the power of God.

Mike Graves, author and homiletics professor at St. Paul School of Theology, advises preachers to put the second most dramatic or moving part of their sermon first and the most dramatic or moving part of their sermon last. There needs to be an upward mobility of drama and impact in the sermon. The fourth evangelist follows this advice in his gospel. John's Gospel is characterized by an escalation of hostility toward Jesus. And this is no coincidence since it is also characterized by an escalation of the drama and impact of Jesus' signs and the urgency of his interactions with individuals and groups. As we move through the gospel, it becomes increasingly clear that one's response to Jesus is a matter of life and death.

I've mentioned in prior columns that I read the sequence of John's Gospel as the opposite of the game Show and Tell. It's Tell and Show. In the Prologue John tells us who Jesus is. He is the bearer of life to humankind and he is the light of the world (Jn. 1:4, 5). Then, in the rest of the gospel, John shows us who Jesus is in a depiction of how he walks the earth, performing signs and encountering various troubled individuals and groups.

There are seven signs or miracles that escalate in import and drama from water into wine, to sight for the blind, from healing from illness to resurrection from the dead. They are signs (semeia) that point us toward Jesus' identity. They are not ends in themselves, but "visible indications of something else" (Koester, 74), the unique relationship of Jesus with God and the possibility of sharing in that relationship. They are:

  1. turning the water into wine (chp. 2)
  2. healing the Galilean official's son (chp. 4)
  3. healing the invalid at Bethzatha (chp. 5)
  4. feeding the 5,000 (chp. 6)
  5. walking on the sea (chp. 6)
  6. healing the blind beggar (chp. 9)
  7. raising Lazarus (chp. 11)

In addition to these seven signs, there are seven encounters with conflicted people and groups that escalate in drama and import.

  1. Nicodemus (chp. 3): a man struggling with loyalty to his upbringing versus a new loyalty, potentially to Jesus.
  2. The Samaritan Woman at the well (chp. 4): a woman sunk in her own isolation and low view of herself.
  3. The royal official (chp. 4): a man mired in grief at the prospect of the death of his son.
  4. The invalid at the pool (chp. 5): a man so in the habit of sickness he cannot even contemplate anything different
  5. The crowds (chps. 6-8): people yearning for Jesus' gifts, but unwilling to accept all that following him means.
  6. The man born blind (chp. 9): a man who receives a gift (sight) that he never thought to receive and realizes the source of that gift.
  7. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (chp. 11): a man who has said goodbye to life and resigned himself to death who now walks forth from the tomb at the call of his name by Jesus.

In each of these encounters, Jesus has an interchange with a troubled person that involves a recognition of Jesus' identity and life-giving power. Jesus is the one who brings new birth (Nicodemus), living water (Samaritan woman), healing (royal official's son, invalid at pool), sight (man born blind), and life (Lazarus).