This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. It was my first Sunday back after my twelve-week medical leave. The gospel reading was John 11:1-45, which I recited from a paraphrase of scripture called The Message.
It is good to be back from my medical leave, and hearing the story of Lazarus again moves me to say something bold:
I know how Lazarus felt at the end of this story.
I know what it feels like to die, and be brought back to life. I have experienced the power of death in my life, and I have experienced the life-giving cry of Jesus Christ, saying, “Michael, come out!”
I can tell you exactly when that happened. January 25, 1976. I was just over a month old, and my parents brought me to the baptismal font in English Lutheran Church in Minersville. And at that font, these words were spoken:
Almighty and everlasting God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: We call upon thee for this child, and beseech thee to bestow upon him the gift of thy baptism and thine everlasting grace by the washing of regeneration.
We used a different hymnal back then. If my baptism took place today, it would go more like this:
Pour out your Holy Spirit, the power of your living Word, that those who are washed in the waters of baptism may be given new life.
And as the pastor poured water over my head, he said in the words of that old hymnal:
I baptize thee, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
I believe that at the same time, Jesus said these words:
My beloved child, come out!
And my death was averted. My death was undone. I was but five weeks old, yet I was, like all of us, destined to die. I was, like all of us, already mortal, already broken, already sinful. I was, like all of us, heading for a future that would include suffering and worry, jealousy and anger, sorrow and disease. I was, like all of us, nothing but dust, waiting to return to the ground one day. But on that glorious January day, Jesus called me out of the tomb and gave me life, new life, eternal life, full and rich life. And death would never have any power over me again. I was healed forever.
Now you might say, “If you were healed like that in your baptism so long ago, then why did you take three months for healing now? Why do any of us still suffer, if baptism is that great?”
Good question. In fact, I think it’s a similar question to the one asked in the story today: “If Jesus loved Lazarus so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying?”
If Jesus is so great, if baptism is so great, why do we still experience suffering? Good question.
I think one response to that question is at the end of our story today. I think one response to that question is Lazarus himself. See him at the end of the story, standing in the door of the tomb. Yes, he is alive again, but he is wrapped from head to foot, with a kerchief over his face. Yes, he is alive again, but he is dressed like the dead. Yes, he is alive again, but death clings to him. Like death clings to us.
By the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been saved. We have been made alive. Yet still death clings to us. Death clings to us:
- when we live with a physical or mental disease.
- when we love someone with such a disease.
- when we mourn the loss of someone we love, or mourn the loss of a relationship.
- when we face changes that are very difficult.
- when we live in fear or persecution.
Just as Lazarus was wrapped from head to toe in bandages, death clings so tightly to us.
And that is where the next words of Jesus come in. After Jesus called Lazarus to come out, he said to those around him, “Unbind him, and let him loose.” Unbind him, and let him loose.
This is what I have experienced over the past three months. People unbinding me. People unbinding the signs of death that clung so tightly to me, people unbinding my heart, and setting me loose. You have done that for me. My therapist and my spiritual director have done that for me. My wife and my children have done that for me. And others. Death had clung so tightly to me a few months ago, but now it is much looser. I have been let loose.
That is how Christ works. Christ calls to us, and brings us life through the power of his voice. Come out!
And then throughout our lives, Christ continues to heal us, continues to unbind us from the clinging remnants of death, and he does that through other people. And that is what Christ calls us to do through our baptism. That is how we are called to use the life that Christ has given us. We unbind one another, loosen death’s grip on each other, and set each other loose. Even though Christ has given us life, death always clings to us throughout our earthly existence. But together, we can loosen that grip. By showing compassion for the sick. Feeding the hungry. Welcoming the stranger who is different. Standing up for the oppressed and the persecuted. Proclaiming hope to the one who needs it. Forgiving one another. Giving generously of our time and money. And by praying, constantly praying.
And when we unbind another, we find death’s grip on us grows a little looser too. This is the gift of baptism. Death will always be here, but Christ is stronger. Christ will always have life for us.