Sermon: I AM’s Resurrection
Text: John 11:1-44
Date: April 30, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
This story of Jesus, Martha, Mary and Lazarus is so big and so rich—like a five pound slab of dark chocolate salted caramel fudge. We can’t possibly take it all in at once, no matter how hungry we are or how deliciously intriguing it may be. So let’s just slice off a little corner piece or two and savor it, and save the rest for another day.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” That’s the slice of the rich fudgy story I want to chew on today. Beginning with the first two words, “I am.” “I AM…” Where have we heard that before? Hint: burning bush. When Moses meets God at the corner of desert and flaming shrubbery, God is urging Moses to go persuade Pharaoh to let God’s people go. Moses is more or less willing to go, but wants to know the name of the unknown God summoning him behind the miraculous bush that burns but is not consumed. God answers “I AM.” The Hebrew can also be translated “I will be what I will be.”
It’s a pretty mysterious name. Biblical scholar Dennis Bratcher says this enigmatic name is needed because the way God is ultimately known is the way God is encountered in history, active and creative. “I am” implies a fill-in-the-blank in one sense. Soon after Moses’ encounter with I AM, God manifested godself by working with Moses to liberate the people. It was a key moment of self-revelation that gave shape and clarity to that mysterious name. Bratcher writes, “Israel’s confession about God would arise out of their experience of God’s historical self-revelation in the Exodus, and would give definition to God: ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery’ (Exod 20:2).” The mysterious “I AM” God takes shape in our encounters with God. “Who is God? God says, ‘I am.’ How do we know that? God says, ‘Watch! Because I am who I will be in your history.’”
Jesus takes up the “I AM” language in the gospel of John on a number of occasions. One of the big ideas John’s unique gospel tries to hammer home repeatedly is that Jesus is a continuation of God’s penchant for meeting people in their history, on their turf. So it makes good sense that Jesus would take up this very evocative phrase “I am,” which would give all the folks familiar with Hebrew theology a head start in understanding that God was in Jesus Christ, meeting them where they were, offering new and renewed life, liberation, guidance, sustenance, and so forth. In John, Jesus proclaims “I am the Bread of Life;” “I am the Light of the World;” “I am the Gate;” “I am the Way;” “I am the Good Shepherd;” “I am the Vine.” All of these gorgeous metaphors are attempts by the gospel to convey that God was revealing godself in Jesus, offering the people what they needed, if only they would get over themselves and receive it. The variety and suppleness of the metaphors beginning with the enigmatic “I am” hints at the flexibility, the nimbleness of the Divine trying to meet us where we are, give us what we need, and call us beyond ourselves.
I got to dabbling in some post-modern theology this week that helped me savor this “I am” language in a new way. John D. Caputo and a colleague were kicking around ideas of how one might talk about theology if you didn’t want to use traditional God language. Caputo wrote about a theology of events as an alternative to classical theological ways of thinking. [This is a little esoteric but stick with me.] “An event,” Caputo says, “is not precisely what happens, which is what the word suggests in English, but something going on in what happens, something that is being expressed or realized or given shape in what happens; it is not something present but something seeking to make itself felt in what is present.” That’s part 1 of the definition.
Here’s part 2, which is relevant, I think, to the mysterious name of God: “I would distinguish between a name and the event that is astir or transpires in a name. The name is a kind of provisional formulation of an event, a relatively stable if evolving structure, while the event is ever restless, on the move, seeking new forms to assume, seeking to get expressed in still unexpressed ways.” This seems to me very much in tune with the “I am” name of God and the “I am” revelations of John’s Jesus. God is on the move, and needs a name that makes you look beyond a mere name [like Fred or Edith] to the divine energy that is astir behind it.
I’m going to skip to part 5 of Caputo’s “simple” definition of event, which comes after his assertion that events are never present, never fully finished or formed. “In terms of their temporality, events, never being present, solicit us from afar, draw us on, draw us out into the future, calling us hither. Events are provocations and promises…”
How might all this relate to the remarkable claim of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life?” The telling of two resurrection stories in John’s gospel—Lazarus and Jesus—implies that God is revealing God’s character in each instance. Resurrection is God’s provocation and promise, moving restlessly and endlessly through creation. We could see “resurrection and life” as less about discreet instances and more about a potency behind the scenes that wants to bloom and grow in history like a dandelion in the crack of a sidewalk.
“I AM the resurrection and the life.” This statement, and the questions and answers about belief that follow, have led some Christians to concretize belief in Jesus as the one and only ticket to Eternal Life. Either you believe in Jesus as the Son of God or you don’t, which leads to: either you are going to live forever in heaven after you die or you aren’t. We all know Christians who have boiled down the sweet syrup of Christianity into this one brittle concept, cooking the idea over imagined Hellfire. Right?
Let’s imagine this statement, this provocation and promise, remains fluid rather than becoming a brittle eternal sorting mechanism. The “I am” tips us off immediately to the dynamic God with the mysteriously adaptable name, who wants to meet people in history to offer what we need and call us beyond ourselves. The name of God alerts us to the dynamic divine force that “pulses through things…urging them, soliciting them to be what they can be.” “I am the resurrection and the life” speaks of God’s will to be calling us forever to be fully alive while we live, and urging us to put the fear of death that would constrict our abundant life away where it won’t tie us up.
I have come to think of resurrection as not so much the singular headline event for Jesus (although it was) but as a way God is everlastingly present on this earthly plane. Lazarus’ resurrection, like the other signs and miracles in John’s gospel, are meant to uncover God’s modus operandi in the world. They aren’t meant to be circuses or sideshows to amaze the crowd; they are meant to help those who are blind to God’s ever-presence see the light. They aren’t meant to create buzz and gossip about the Messiah’s road show; they are meant to help those who are deaf to God’s call to hear. Such amazing signs are events in which God is stirring.
When Jesus explained to Martha something of what he meant by his words about being the resurrection and the life, his statement had two parts. One was about how those who believed, even though they died, would live. That’s a promise about God’s ultimate power over physical death. You’ll die alright, but you can trust that your physical death doesn’t mean the end of you. God hopes we won’t be dominated our whole lives long by fear of death.
The second bit is strange: “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” That is quite obviously not true in the literal sense. My commentaries say that this is really about the qualitative difference that committing to the kind of abundant life God wants for us makes. Life is changed when we open ourselves to Christ, not just after we die but here in this life. Our conversion to the Christ Way means we live courageously and joyfully in the present as if God was our light. It’s living as if life conquers death not just later on but right now, when the forces of death keep folks living small and scared.
Or maybe it’s the forces of Life that keep folks living small. Ernest Becker, who wrote an influential book on the fear of death, wrote “The two great fears are the fear of death and the fear of life.” He spoke of how people learn to repress their vision of the primary miraculousness of creation, abandoning ecstasy, doing without awe. As we grow up most of us change our perception of the awe-inspiring creation into a nonthreatening scenery backdrop for life which is manageable, safe and drably normal.
Physically, death is fairly binary—you’re either dead or you’re not. But spiritually speaking, death can be on a continuum. We can—out of fear of either death or abundant life—slide into a kind of deadness until we’re just going through the motions. “Mostly dead,” as a favorite film, “The Princess Bride” portrays it. I want to show you a clip. The hero, Wesley, has been tortured until he is near physical death, and his friends have brought him to Miracle Max in the hope that he can still be saved. Watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4ftmOI5NnI
What might lead to someone being “mostly dead?” People who have been traumatized or intentionally hurt like Wesley was might have shut down in self-defense. Boredom or ennui can kill off the spirit bit by bit. Living powered by unworthy forces like greed can lead to spiritual demise. Discouragement about the state of the world might lead us to seek the relief of not caring. You saw how the prospect of disrupting the evil Prince Humperdink energized Miracle Max—a reminder that the Humperdinks of the world hope We the People will stay mostly dead, just alive enough to pay our taxes, buy their products, and keep quiet. Mostly alive people are so much more troublesome!
In addition, fear of what the potent Divine might want to do in us and through us might lead to hiding out in a self-constructed tomb of some sort. Where might True Love lead? It’s so unpredictable. Because of the two great fears—fear of death and fear of life–while we are on this planet, we need to keep auditing ourselves. Is the life we’re living more like life or like an uneventful slide toward numbness and death? Even if we have intentionally or unintentionally become “mostly dead,” there is “True Love” buried in the seed of the soul that yearns to get on with Life.
I love the little morsel in the gospel story about how Jesus shouted at Lazarus to get him to come out of the tomb. [When he had said this, he cried out with a loud voice, “LAZARUS, COME OUT!”] He needed a loud voice to lure Lazarus out of that velvety peace into which he had settled. When I read the section of Caputo’s definition of event that says events solicit us from afar, call us hither, I connected it with this shout of Jesus, COME OUT! The divine event in this particular resurrection story reveals the will of God to keep us fully alive, to never settle for a dead end no matter how appealing its cramped, secure, insured and quiet quarters might be in the moment.
The Resurrection and the Life is eventfully circling the globe right now; in no way should we imagine it was over when I Am finished inhabiting the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Is I AM calling to you to emerge from some tomb or other?
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver to evoke one possible, eventful answer to that call. It’s about closing yourself off from the power of nature, but I know you bright people can connect the dots between creation and Creator:
“For how many years have you gone through the house
shutting the windows,
while the rain was still five miles away
and veering, o plum-colored clouds, to the north
away from you
and you did not even know enough
to be sorry,
you were glad
those silver sheets, with the occasional golden staple,
were sweeping on, elsewhere,
violent and electric and uncontrollable–
and will you find yourself finally wanting to forget
all enclosures, including
the enclosure of yourself, o lonely leaf, and will you
dash finally, frantically,
to the windows and haul them open and lean out
to the dark, silvered sky, to everything
 Bratcher, Dennis http://www.crivoice.org/IAM.html