Text: John 11:32-44
Bob Poerschke was one of my major professors in seminary, and he was a faithful member of this church for many years before moving to the Charlotte area. For the better part of three years, Bob tried to convince me that each of us has the divine potential to be Jesus, or as he would say, “become the Christ figure in our world.” Over time I would understand that he wasn’t kidding about this idea. He truly believed that Jesus was no different than any other human being created in the image of God. Or to say it another way, we are no different from Jesus. It was one of the most radical ideas that I had ever heard. In the beginning, I found his thinking offensive, even sacrilegious at times. I thought this must be what my dad meant when he told me not to let the thinking at that seminary destroy my faith. My religious upbringing had taught me that I was to try and be like Jesus; but it also clearly taught me that I could NEVER really be like Jesus. It was a mixed message that confused me for years—be like Jesus and oh, by the way, you can never be like Jesus. With Bob, there was no mixed message. He believed (and I imagine still believes) that every one of us, like Jesus, is created in the image of God. Therefore, every one of us has the potential to be and do as Jesus did—to live as he did: offering salvation, redemption, grace, forgiveness, and peace in our world. For Bob, Jesus was simply a fully human being who had the courage to live into his divine potential to be God’s love and salvation in the world. His argument was simple, yet profound: we, too, have that same divine potential if we have the courage to live into it.
What does Bob’s thinking and the story of Jesus raising Lazarus have in common? And how does it answer the question, “Why the Church?” When I read John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus I immediately got hung up on the part of the story that talked about Jesus weeping when he saw the tomb where Lazarus had been laid. Only twice do the gospel writers mention Jesus weeping. Here in this story and in one other place where we are told that Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. I wondered what it was about this particular experience that made him weep? Does he weep for his friends Martha and Mary in mourning? Does he weep for the loss of his friend Lazarus? Does he weep because he thinks he could have done something sooner? Does he weep fearful that he may not be able bring Lazarus back from the dead? Does he weep because he doesn’t want to disappoint those whom he loved? Who knows why Jesus wept by Lazarus’s grave or why John records that he weeps—for sure, an unusual departure for John. For John, the Gospel writer, everything Jesus does points to the divine. John is not particularly interested in the humanity of Jesus. Unlike Mark, who loves the person of Jesus, John loves the God in Jesus. But in this moment, by the graveside, mourning his friend Lazarus, John shows us the human Jesus—the Jesus who cries real human tears. Maybe that is the significance of Jesus’ tears in John’s gospel—with all his emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, John couldn’t deny the human Jesus. But regardless of the “why,” it seems to me to be an important aspect of the story; for as I have already said only in one other place in scripture did Jesus weep.
If I had to guess—and it would be a guess—I don’t think Jesus wept because of any of the reasons I mentioned earlier. Earlier in the chapter that contains the story of the raising of Lazarus we are told that Jesus knew that Lazarus was ill and would die. He had already told the disciples that he was on his way to awaken Lazarus. His tears were not about being afraid of disappointing those whom he loved or not being able to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus knew how the story would end. No, I think he wept because the pain was real. The cries of the world, the pain of those whom he loved disturbed his spirit and deeply moved him and he wept. He wept when he saw the pain of those he loved.
“Why the Church?” Of all the institutions in our society, the church is still the one place where we are called to listen to the cries of the world, to feel the pain of our sisters and brothers in need and weep with them. The church is still the place where, no matter how much we may trust and believe in the promises of God, no matter how much we may think we know the end of the story, we are called to weep at the pain in our world. When people suffer and die because they don’t have access to adequate health care, we, the church, are called to weep. When parents are torn apart from their children because they don’t have the legal documents to be in this country, we, the church, are called to weep. When someone is beaten or bullied because of whom they love, we are called to weep. When our creation groans in pain because of humanity’s lack of care, we, the church, are called to weep. As the church, wherever and whenever we see people hurting and dying, in body and spirit, we are called to weep with them in their pain. But that’s not all the Lazarus story teaches us. We, the church, of all the institutions in our society, are also called to unbind those who are bound and work to set them free. Our weeping must move us to act. No other institution in our society has that calling in the same way that the church does—to weep at the cries and pain of the world AND to unbind those who are bound. It is our purpose and calling as the church.
Some days I am still perplexed by Bob Poerschke’s teachings. Are we to be Jesus or are we to be like Jesus? Are we the Christ figure in our world or do we simply represent the Christ figure in our world? Other days, I think I get what he was saying. We are the only hands and feet, heart and voice that God has in this world. God lives in and through us, transforming and saving the world if we but have the courage to open our minds and hearts and lives to such truth. When I think of where we are to find such courage, I think about the question, “Why the Church?” It is the church that has the privilege to teach each of us about our divine potential. To remind us that we are created in the image of God; that God lives in us; and that God is redeeming the world through us. Is the salvation and redemption of the world solely dependent on us? No. Is salvation and redemption occurring in our world because of us? Yes! When we have the courage to know and see ourselves as God’s presence in the world (the incarnation) and when we have the courage to act as God’s transforming and redemptive power in the world, we do, indeed, become the Christ figure in our world. Sound radical? Maybe, but could it be the gospel message?
It is here, around this table, that we are reminded of just how much Jesus believed that he was God’s presence in the world. Here at this table, our remembering becomes transforming if we, too, have the courage to believe and act as though we are the incarnation of God in the world. It is possible that around this table, here in this church, we unbind ourselves and are set free.