“I am the Resurrection and the Life.” In a world of suffering and death, these words of resurrection and life transcend us. Jesus first addressed these words to Martha of Bethany when Jesus stood at the tomb of his good friend Lazarus (John 11:25). This occasion is one that has profound meaning because Jesus shows clearly his emotions in the face of death, weeping openly over the death of his friend.
Martha understood fully that God always stands on the side of life. “Lord, if you had been here our brother would not have died,” she said pleading to Jesus. The whole Bible reveals this theology of life as God meant it to be. God chooses wholeness for us. God chooses life with dignity. God chooses life abundant. As Jesus proclaimed in the previous chapter of John, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
This is the whole reason for Jesus’ life and ministry. This is the whole reason that John has recorded these stories, including the story of Lazarus called forth from the tomb. “These signs have been written,” says John in his summary conclusion, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life” (John 20:31). This is why every child in Sunday School is taught, “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not die, but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Over the last few weeks we have been overwhelmed by images of devastation and despair from Japan. And I have returned often to Jesus’ sorrow over the death of Lazarus. And I feel the tears that must be flowing over the loss of life, damaged homes, and the catastrophic possibilities still emerging from the ruined nuclear reactors.
On Ash Wednesday the cross of Christ was marked upon our foreheads. Just two days later, the earthquake and tsunami marked this island nation. And in the weeks that have followed this and other catastrophes have marked us all. Our Lenten journey has been marked with weeping at the death and destruction throughout the entire global community.
We look at this devastation and ask: “What is life?”
As a country, Japan is uplifted as a model of an economic success. Recovered and redeveloped after the Second World War, highly educated, with a strong social network, it seemed secure from global threats. And yet so quickly that is changed, broken, washed away.
People who one day are busy going about their daily life are gone the next. Young people, full of life and energy, joy and laughter are left lifeless by the crushing waters. And we are left questioning the fleetingness of life as it is made seemingly cheap by the trembling earth and the towering waves. We are left questioning the very meaning of life. For this tragedy shakes us all.
And we reach out to God. We trust in God’s promises. And we wait for freedom. We wait for human rights. We wait for dignity in life. We wait for resurrection. We wait for life abundant.
I believe the resurrection is the feast of life. It is the feast that reminds us that Jesus has overcome death in his own death and resurrection and has granted new life—life abundant—to all creation.
And I believe it is this striving for life abundant that we see at work in the Arab world today. We see people taking great risks against powerful rulers. We listen to people speak as they are empowered to challenge the system. And we hear the words of those who are ready to lose everything to gain freedom.
As Christians we understand that Christ did not mean for us to live just any life, but life abundant. So we look positively toward political and economic reforms in the Arab world. And we hope the seed of freedom will blossom amidst these people who are aching for life, for equal opportunities, for economic growth, for a modern civil society, for freedom of speech and expression.
For it seems the seed of freedom, which has been implanted in every living conscience, will never die. Though it may lie dormant and quiet, silenced for a while by oppression and fear, it remains present, and when it awakes, it awakes to seek dignity in life abundant. Such an oppression of this precious human will for freedom resembles in a way the oppression of Christ in his death on the Cross. But in the same moment, we remember Christ’s resurrection from death. And in Christ’s resurrection, all that humiliates and oppresses us is swept away as the feast of abundant life is spread before us in the present and for the future.
United States Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner spoke last Saturday—a day we refer to as the Saturday of Lazarus—to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Geithner estimated that the world economy will grow by about 4.5 percent this year, but that the world still faces “very significant economic policy challenges.” Among them are the challenges to emerging economies brought by rising commodity and energy prices.
If this continues to happen we must realize that those who will be most directly affected will be the poor amongst us. The poor will become poorer. Countries that are already living in poverty will suffer more. And those who already struggle to feed their children will be forced to struggle to survive on even smaller portions. What does the resurrection and the life mean to those people? And what is the responsibility of those who live in overabundance?
On this Easter, we cannot ignore this global challenge. We are called as individuals to repentance. And we are called us as churches to repentance. For we churches have all fallen short in the sharing of our resources. We are called to a repentance that does not think selfishly, bur rather drives us to share our resources equally between North and South, East and West.
And we are reminded that the resurrection of Christ that brings life—and life abundantly—connects us together to the policies and circumstances of this life. And we must be reminded that none of us is independent, but all of us are interdependent. How can I enjoy life, if I know that my sisters and brothers in many parts of the world are deprived? How can I speak to life with dignity, when the dignity of others is deprived? The risen Christ calls us into this new interdependence in order that all might live in Christ’s dignity.
Doesn’t this all go with the Easter message? At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus spoke a powerful word: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, and brought him from death into life.
Professor Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary recently wrote about this powerful word of Jesus in Christian Century magazine (April 5, 2011). She notes the omission of the word “life” from this pronouncement of Jesus in some ancient manuscripts. These variations in several old Bibles simply say, “I am the resurrection.” Yet what is resurrection without life?
Sadly, this variant reading reflects the way some Christians lead their lives. For them, “I am the Resurrection” means waiting patiently, with lots of prayer and singing, for the resurrection on the last day, with no emphasis on life in the present. It means for some that Christianity is all about heaven, above and beyond, and not about the here and now. This was the view of Martha who believed fervently that Jesus would resurrect her brother on the last day.
But there is more. Correcting Martha, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he acted to bring Lazarus from the tomb, to give Lazarus life, not just hope in a future resurrection.
And what does life mean for Lazarus? The resurrection is a gift from God, but Jesus says, “so is your life now.” You are life in the midst of suffering and death. Your life is to be a message of hope in the resurrection. Your life is to provide comfort and relief for those who suffer, to be brokers of justice in the midst of conflict and war, to be agents of reconciliation in the midst of division, to give sight to the blind, to help the lame to walk, to set the captive free. Hope in the resurrection means that Lazarus has life in the present, life abundant.
It means in the next chapter of John that Lazarus hosts a banquet in Jesus’ honor. It means a close and intimate relationship with the one who gives life and he sits close to him like the beloved disciple. It means a deepened spirituality. It means sharing his food with the hungry. It means a vibrant public witness to Jesus as Messiah.
And for us? It means not just that we live in hope of the resurrection, but also that we have the gift of life now. A life that embraces us with meaning and purpose in our present world. A life that calls us to speak a word of comfort in the midst of tragedy. A life that calls us to work for peace in the midst of war and strife, a life that seeks answers and solutions to climate change with its violent weather patterns. A life that commits to causes of justice and reconciliation. A life that hears the cries of the poor and answers them. A life that is not afraid of death. A life that is motivated by the power of forgiveness and resurrection.
People ask me about the Christians in the Middle East amidst all that is going on. What I say is this: Arab Christianity is an integral part of Arab society. And, as such, we are a part of the struggle for life abundant for all. Fundamentally, the Middle East conflict is about life. It is unacceptable for some to have life at the expense of others. The situation requires a political will that will assure both Palestinians and Israelis that peace based on justice is possible—a peace that will allow all of us to have life and to have it abundantly.
But central to Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus that took place in Jerusalem. Because of this Arab Christians—with all Christians—are always called to be proclaiming the good news of life with dignity, wherever we are. This we do in our witness, in word and dead, in mission, in education, and in diakonia.
Therefore, despite the many who wonder how Arab Christianity has survived through the past 2,000 years. Despite that fact that in recent years our numbers have been decreasing. We have survived because of the hope in the resurrection that calls us and promises that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of Christ, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:38-39). And we will continue to survive because we carry the hope of the resurrection in one hand and uphold the dignity of life with the other.
For this reason we ask you at this very time, to continue to pray for us and to support our ministries. Together, we will continue to be a living witness through the power of Christ’s resurrection in a multi-religious, multicultural, globalized world. Our witness begins in Jerusalem and is shared outward to the rest of the world as we wish each other life and life abundant:
Christ is Risen. Christ is risen indeed.
Christ is Risen. Christ is risen indeed.
Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed!