Preaching Peace Lectionary

Lent 5, Year A

Gospel Anthropological Reading

“For those who think that supernatural intervention by a personal/transcendent God is impossible, profitable discussion must begin elsewhere than at this narrative.” D.A. Carson The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991)

I was tempted to begin these reflections seeking to articulate a post modern paradigm of faith in the light of quantum theology. However, that has been done often enough on this site so that Carson’s statement can stand as a presupposition. There are aspects of the narrative today that are far more illuminating and profitable than a discussion of whether miracles can occur (or do occur). They occur for those who see them.

We begin by noticing that the raising of Lazarus occupies the same place in the FG (Fourth Gospel) as the Cleansing (sic) of the Temple does in the Synoptic. If, for the Synoptic tradition, it is Jesus’ action in the Temple that provokes the authorities to take action against him, in the FG it is this astonishing revelation of power, eschatological power, ultimate power. In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus has thrown down a gauntlet to the reigning principalities and powers. How so?

There is a delicious irony in the text. It is to be found first of all in the term doxa (glory), second in the term embrimaotai (be deeply moved/be angry) and third in the note regarding the plot to assassinate Lazarus in 12.9-11.

We have noticed that doxa is a term in the FG that refers to the kavod YHWH of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is used this way in the Prologue for example (along with skenao). But like hupsao(to exalt/to raise up) it has its most important referent in the cross or death of Jesus. It is in the death of Jesus that the glory of God is truly revealed. God is exalted in the humiliation of the Son. When Jesus says (vs 4) that the death of Lazarus occurred “for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” we might suppose that Jesus means that it will be the display of power that will bring him glory. But on the Johannine level, it also refers to the death of Jesus. The resurrection of Lazarus will eventuate in Jesus’ death.

More than that, the raising of Lazarus while culminating in a plot against Jesus also culminates in a plot against Lazarus. This wonderful ‘display’ of eschatological power causes the death mechanism of the principalities and powers to be engaged. Death will have nothing to do with life and death-dealing gods will have nothing to do with the God of Life or the One who is ‘the resurrection and the life.’

Finally, commentators have struggled with the meaning of the verb embrimaotai. What could Jesus have possibly been angry at? Was it anger at death, or more specifically the death of his friend? Then why does he delay his coming to Bethany when he has already accepted Lazarus’ death? Is Jesus angry at those who mourn Lazarus’ death? If so, then why does he weep himself? We would like to suggest that this reference to ‘being deeply moved in spirit’ is the Johannine ‘version’ of the Synoptics story in Gethsemane. In both stories Jesus is aware that his life is about to end, in the Johannine version, Jesus is ‘deeply moved in spirit’ aware that this ‘miracle’ (semeion) will bring about his death. Yet he still raises his friend from the dead, he literally gives his life for the sake of his friend Lazarus. This I think is the Johannine direction of the narrative.

Further proof might also be found in the misunderstanding of Thomas (vs 16). Thomas thinks that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die, that is, to participate in the ultimate revolution, the final battle between Messiah and Rome, the fight between the children of light and the children of darkness. Does Thomas think Lazarus is the ‘first’ fatality of this engagement? It seems so. The battle has begun and Jesus and the disciples will now proceed to Jerusalem to join the fray. In typical Johannine fashion, like Nicodemus, e.g., Thomas is both right and wrong. He is right in that Jesus will die, he is wrong in the manner in which that death is conceived. Jesus’ death will reveal God’s glory, the glory of peacemaking, forgiveness and triumph over the principalities and powers.

For the FG, the raising of Lazarus is the penultimate sign. It is the sixth of seven semeia, the final ‘sign’ being the death of Jesus, the cross upon which Jesus is exalted. By tying these last two semeia together the FG also implicitly gives us a glimpse into the way God’s interaction in the world is interpreted by the ruling authorities. These two events are brought together in the ‘prophecy’ of Caiaphas who asserts that this miracle can only lead to death, the death of Jesus ‘huper tou ethnous.’

All in all, it seems to us that we must recognize that when God works in the world it will be misunderstood by those who have chosen bia (violence, power, biological existence). Zoe (life) and bia (life) are qualitatively different. Bia is grounded in desire (I John 2:15-17), zoe is of another character altogether grounded in agape. The disjunction between the two is often confused in modern Christianity but the FG opens the door for us to see their distinctive differences and their different spiritualities.

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Gospel Historical/Cultural Questions

By far some of the best exegesis of this text can be found in C.H. Dodd’s The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (pages 363ff). Our mimetic theoretical approach owes much to the insights of Dodd’s comments. For example, ‘the narrative before us is not only the story of the dead Lazarus raised to life; it is also the story of Jesus going to face death in order to conquer death.’ We have simply sought to explicate observations like this in terms of mimetic theory.

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Gospel So What?

What is life? Does life consist in bios, in that which is possessed (possessions), or grasped? Jesus brings life from death, but his life is zoe, eternal life, God’s life. We bring life from death when we find succor and peace in our victims, our enemies death, the demise of those who threaten our safety. These two ways are radically different but too often confused. There is a life, a false life, a pseudo existence which we can derive from exploiting sacrificial mechanisms, but it is a life doomed to death, an ever ending spiral of taking, grasping and killing. There is also a life, a true life (Jn 14:6), a real existence which we can derive from exposing sacrificial mechanisms, but only as the innocent forgiving victim! This exposure occurs when we forgive our enemies and do not seek redress or vengeance. Thus it is difficult for us to understand how so many of our contemporaries can continue to act as though the current state of terror and war in our world can be overcome by the application of greater violence (bia), even violence in the service of liberty, freedom and free markets. We still manage to kill innocents, create poverty, strangle justice all in the name of our life (bios), and we miss the real power of Jesus’ life (zoe). Jesus still weeps.

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Epistle Anthropological Reading

This section of this particular page is not yet completed, but will be done a few weeks before the Sunday in question. It will be the heart of the discussion, offering an anthropological (“Girardian”) reflection on the lectionary texts. It will be complemmented by the other sections, but this will be the primary material.Back to top


Epistle Historical/Cultural Questions

This section of this particular page is not yet complete. In it, there will be materials pertinent to the historical/cultural setting of the texts under consideration, to the extent that they contribute to a non-violent understanding of the text. (We won’t re-hash historical/cultural materials that are well known and add nothing to the “peace” discussion.)Back to top


Epistle So What?

The “so what” section for each week will go here. Less scholarly, more reflective. In this section, we’ll try to give our answer to the questions, “Okay, that anthropological stuff is nice, but “so what?” How do I use this in a sermon? How do I relate this to my congregation’s world?”Back to top