At the center of our Gospel reading for this morning stand the three siblings, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. We don’t know very much about them, but they were clearly close friends of Jesus, perhaps Jesus’ closest friends other than the disciples themselves.
Shortly before our reading begins, Lazarus became seriously ill. His sisters immediately contacted Jesus and asked him to hurry to Bethany to heal their brother. As we just heard, Jesus is slow to respond, and Lazarus dies. Jesus doesn’t arrive for another four days.
Much is striking about this passage. But the part that is most relevant for us right now is Jesus’ interaction with Martha. Martha already knows Jesus well. Martha already has great faith. But Martha still has room to grow. In our passage, we can see Jesus working with Martha to help her take the next step in her journey of faith. And what Jesus says to Martha, we can hear as addressed to us, too.
So, Martha learns that Jesus is finally close, and she hurries out to meet him. And what is the first thing Martha says when they meet? “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
We are not told what Martha is thinking to herself as she says that. But that sounds angry to me. I think Martha is fussing at Jesus for having been so slow to arrive. Martha knows that God listens to Jesus, so she can’t fuss much. But it sounds a lot like she blames Jesus for her brother’s death.
Jesus promises Martha that her brother will rise. Martha knows that; she is a woman of faith. But it is cold comfort. “I know,” she says, “that [Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But that isn’t much help. I am grieving now.
That is when Jesus delivers the big line of this passage. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
What does that mean?
Well, first, Jesus is explicitly not talking about resurrection in some distant future, as Martha had assumed. Jesus, the man standing right with Martha, is himself resurrection and life in that very moment.
Now, we know how this story ends. Jesus will literally raise Lazarus from the grave in just a few minutes. That is part of what Jesus is telling Martha here.
But let’s not go there quite yet. Let’s stay with Jesus and Martha in this moment, while Martha is still grieving and Lazarus is still in the tomb.
Jesus is telling Martha that resurrection is not just something that will happen when God’s kingdom finally comes in all its power and glory. Resurrection is not limited to what he is about to do for Lazarus either.
Resurrection is something that happens wherever Jesus is present. Resurrection is, in some mysterious way, happening in that very moment, as Jesus and Martha chat and before Lazarus comes out of his grave.
Jesus asks Martha if she believes him, if she believes that He is resurrection and life, if she believes that resurrection is a present reality as well as a future hope. Martha says she does.
But Martha doesn’t mean it, as we see a few verses later when she objects to opening the tomb. Martha can’t wrap her mind around Jesus’ claim that he is resurrection, that resurrection happens wherever and whenever Jesus is present. I don’t blame her. That is a hard thing to take in.
Bring this up to today. A lot of us are in the exact same place as Martha was. There is fear and death and grief all around us. So we do what we do. We pray. We pray for Christ to come, to come protect the well and heal the sick. But Jesus seems to be delayed.
What would happen if Jesus showed up right now, if Jesus were standing here in front of me? Probably I would dissolve into a puddle of fear. But if I had the courage, I might be tempted to say a version of what Martha says. “Jesus, if you had been here, this whole pandemic would have gone away. So where have you been?”
We can keep going with this. If Jesus responded with a promise of eventual resurrection, I would surely thank him for that. But I might also add, if I had the courage, resurrection hope sustains me. But I would still prefer for you to fix the problem right now, not to wait until the literal end of time.
And now that we are right where Martha was, we may be able to hear the mind-boggling promise in Jesus’ words. “I am resurrection and I am life. Where I am, there is resurrection and life, whether or not you can see it.”
Best of all, Jesus says elsewhere, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). Resurrection and life is happening all around us all the time.
So here is the promise that Jesus makes to Martha, the promise that Jesus makes to us, too. Resurrection and life is happening even in the midst of our fear and grief and death. This is an invitation to open our eyes and notice the signs of God’s grace all around us.
Let’s return to Martha. Martha appears in one other story in the Gospels that helps us to understand her a little better and that helps us to get better at seeing resurrection and life around us.
Sometime before Lazarus’ death and resuscitation, Jesus and his disciples visited the two sisters. Martha’s sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet with the other disciples listening to him talk and soaking in his beloved presence. Meanwhile, Martha was trying to keep this horde of hungry people fed.
Finally Martha has enough, and she complains to Jesus. Martha wants Jesus to make Mary help her with all the housework. But Jesus tells her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42), which, we might add, is available to Martha, too.
We see here what we can also see in our Gospel reading. Martha is an active, take-care-of-business kind of woman. I like women like that. I am married to a woman like that! I am like that. A lot of us here at Saint David’s are like that. We tend to be active, busy people.
But we Martha people are in a Mary moment. We can’t do a lot of the things we would normally be doing. Many of the distractions that occupy us in normal times have been taken away. My poor sons are suffering serious sports withdrawal!
But there is an invitation to us, in this terrible time. Like Martha, we tend to be worried and distracted by many things. But in this moment, when those things have been taken away, perhaps we could spend more time sitting at Jesus’ feet, attending to Jesus’ holy word, soaking in Jesus’ beloved presence.
If we use this time of quarantine as an opportunity to sit at Christ’s feet, we will get better at seeing Christ’s presence in the world around us. We’ll get better at spotting moments of resurrection and life even now. That would truly be a great gift.
And that is my prayer for us. I pray that Christ will protect and sustain us in this difficult time. But I also ask Christ to help us sit at his feet, and to open our eyes to resurrection and life all around us. And I pray this in his holy name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan