It is hard to believe but it will be five years ago this Thursday night (All Saints Day) I was ordained a priest in the Church of God. I thought that I might interweave some thoughts about this Sunday’s Gospel lesson with some reflections on what priesthood means to me now, in the light of this anniversary. To start with, the Sunday’s Gospel lesson is John 11.32-45. It is the recounting of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. In particular, there is one verse that I want to think about and that is the last one, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
Why is such a thing important to us? We cannot say that we are not involved in the everyday things, including the miracles, which God does in people’s lives. God does and we are called as God’s people to participate. How do we know that this is true? Consider the whole story of the raising of Lazarus... it starts with Jesus not being anywhere near Lazarus. News is brought to Jesus from the home and the community of Martha, Mary and Lazarus that the man is sick and dying. Jesus receives the news and tells people that this sickness will not end in death. And then goes back to teaching, preaching and sharing, remaining in that same place two more days. In the meantime, this close friend dies.
Then, suddenly, Jesus announces that he is going back to Bethany to be with the people he knows. A disciple pipes up and points out that there are people in Jerusalem and around the city who want Jesus dead for what he did in the temple (knocking over tables, spilling the coins and chasing out man and beast with a homemade whip). “Why would you go back there, people want you dead?” questions the disciple. So Jesus tells them all, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. I am going to go and wake him.” the disciples smile and say, well then why are we going, if he sleeps he will get better.” The disciples didn’t understand that Jesus was speaking of Lazarus’ death and that he was going to raise him up again. So Jesus bluntly tells them, “Lazarus is dead and I am going there to raise him. I am glad that I was not there so that you can believe the truth of what I do now.”
We need to keep in mind that all of this speaks both to what was said by Jesus in Chapter 10 about being the Good Shepherd and the Gate and at the same time foreshadows what is to come in the city and on the hill and in the cemetery three days after. Jesus is showing his disciples what is going to happen and challenge them to believe in him despite what they think they see and know. He wants them in this moment to reach out in faith.
If I connect this dying and rising event to the priesthood and what my time in the priesthood has been about, it has been exactly that: trying to see Christ in both his dyings and in his risings. God is in the destruction of a hurricane, in the earthquakes and tremours. God is with not only the strong and the rich; he is with the weak and the vulnerable. He is with the sick and the dying as well as the youthful and the exuberant. What we need to do is seek him. We seek him to really see him. And when we have really seen him, we then can move to serve him and those who are around him.
If the Church “militant here in earth” is ever going to become the Church victorious and the Church at rest there is going to have to be some work done to make know the words, the life and the grace of the person of Jesus Christ. We are called to be the ones to unbind the one who was called from sin and sickness into health; from sin into righteousness; from death into life. The Church needs to walk with the Master through the Valley of the Shadow of death, knowing that the cross is behind us and that we can face what is ahead with hope, fortitude and mercy.
We can do this because our common priesthood is rooted in the soil that the foot of the cross. It is the same soil from which each of us is drawn and formed. It is the soil upon which we rebelled against God and chose ourselves instead of him. It is the same ground in which the cross was cradled and on which Christ suffered, bled and died for us so that the devil, evil and the grave were finally defeated. Such ground is sacred and therefore becomes the altar from which we proceed and celebrate. Some will go boldly and with great enthusiasm while others will follow in steadfastness and with patience but we go together to love and serve this city and let God worry about the rest.