Ezekiel 37:1-14 • John 11:1-45
We are a confessing church. We have a tradition of saying what we believe. We witness to what we understand about God, and who we are as God’s people, by confessing, by saying out loud, what we believe to be true. This tradition goes back to the very early days of the church and it is rooted in the stories of scripture.
The earliest creed that the Presbyterian church, along with many others, accept as a statement of what we believe is the Nicene Creed. It dates to the early 4th century. The Apostle’s Creed is from at least as early as the eighth century. Many of you will have heard one or both of these creeds before -- we say them together sometimes in worship. Both are broken into three sections….I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen; and then they go on to state our belief in Jesus Christ and what we accept about who he was and is; and then there is this end paragraph that lists our belief in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Many of us have heard these, right?
Well, the central claims of these early creeds, we also know, were stated by folks of the church as far back as the 2nd century. We have some writings of the church from this time. They record some of the words used in worship, and it’s clear they were saying these same things that we still say.
And this witnessing, this verbal or written declaration of who God is and what we believe, goes back even further than that. The Gospels themselves, together with the early letters of the church, are themselves this very witnessing. And they are full of people stating what they believe. In just the first couple of chapters of John a whole list of people state their belief in Jesus. There is John the Baptist, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” And Andrew, “We have found the Messiah.” And Philip, “We have found the one that Moses wrote about.” And then Nathaniel, “Rabbi, you are the son of God.” Saying what we believe is a central aspect of this Christian life.
The circumstances and events in this life together so often call for a restatement and a parsing out of who we are and what we believe. Big societal events like the reformation, WW2 and the movements of the 1960s gave rise to a number of confessions or statements of belief that our church hold as true. But also at normal everyday events -- at a baptism, for example -- we will say the Apostles or the Nicene Creed together – a reminder of what we believe about this God who claims us. And we have new ministers like myself write their own statement of faith for the church to see as they embark upon ministry.
The churches’ statements of belief have a certain cadence, a certain rhythm about them – I believe in God the father….I believe in God the son…. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the church, etc... It is unusual to hear a statement of faith without those important words – I believe – repeated throughout.
I think that today’s scripture is asking us, however, to take care with that word and to think a little more fully about what we, the church, mean, what we commit to, when we say “we believe.”
We live in a post-enlightment world. Just ask any of our high schoolers who have to spend time working on mathematical proofs! In this world everything has to add up. It has to be capable of proof. Believing in this world more often than not is something that happens in our heads, we do it with our intellect. We are taught that we should accept or dismiss truth as being reliable based on evidence and logic – and that often is very good advice.
But logic is not the thing that will help Martha and Mary. They are in a very dark place. They have lost their brother and they feel abandoned and alone. They know the standard teaching on what happens to the faithful when they die, but still they are bereft – wondering where their friend Jesus is. How he could let this happen?
Well, Jesus goes to the sisters and when he gets there he doesn’t deal in logic. He asks Martha, do you believe, my friend, that I have got this? That you can rely on me to bring you what you need? Even when everything tells you that there is no way through – do you believe that I am with you and will bring you to life?
She doesn’t go for it at first – doesn’t catch onto the gist of his question. Well sure, eventually my brother will be restored to life with God – I know that, I believe that – it’s what I have been taught. No, Martha – I am the one. I am here with you now, and I will bring you to the things you need right now, right here. Do you believe that, Martha?
Martha doesn’t need logic, and it’s not what Jesus offers her. She needs to remember that God will show up for her when everything around her, when all the evidence is telling her, screaming at her, that all hope has gone. It is this illogical but deeply real assurance that Jesus offers.
You see he is not asking Martha to believe in a heady way, he is not asking her to access the things she has been taught, the logic of her tradition. He is asking her to trust him. Trust is a better word for all those times “believe” shows up in John. All along people are being asked to trust that this is the Son of God and that this Messiah can and does brings us into the presence of God here and now, despite what their circumstances, what their senses, what their tradition tells them.
We have seen this call to trust repeated in the Gospel readings we have made our way through already this Lent. Last week it was the Pharisees and the parents of the blind man, the week before it was the woman at the well, before that Nicodemus. All were being asked to trust. Trust in God’s presence with them, for them, despite what the evidence around them would suggest. “Yes Lord, I believe,” said the blind man – Yes, Lord, I trust that you, the Son of God, made this so even if everyone else says it’s not possible – I trust that you are here with me. And then the Samaritan woman, well, she proclaimed her trust to everyone – even though she was a woman and this was a Jew and she shouldn’t be having anything to do with him. And Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, he was challenged by Jesus to trust that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have it all figured out – that maybe this mystery of God is bigger than our logic, our analysis, bigger than the things we believe are possible.
So what if we took a lead from the message of these scriptures and tried saying the words of our creed with the phrase “I trust” instead of the words “I believe.” Just listen for a minute to how this sounds….I trust in God, the Father the almighty, maker of heaven in earth. I trust in Jesus Christ, God’s only son our Lord. I trust in the Holy Spirit, I trust in the church, I trust in the forgiveness of sins, I trust in the resurrection of the Body and I trust in life everlasting.
I would suggest that this shifts things a little bit. Instead of agreeing to what we know about God in our heads – dealing with God as something to think about. Trust resides more in our bodies. It’s not just about our heads, but our hearts, our guts too. To trust in something means it’s no longer a concept to debate and analyze, and it has become something we can rest into. The things we trust hold us now in this place, they show up and help us through. They are not a distant promise – a hope we can’t reach.
This is what Jesus is asking of Martha and it’s what he is asking of us. Do you trust that I am with you? Do you trust that when things are too much and you feel that hope is removed that I am here and I am weeping with you. Do you trust this, and if you do, what will say about me, and what will you do?
Yes, we are a confessing church. Another way to say it: we are a trusting church. When others can’t remember how deeply they are loved, when others are in so much pain and darkness that they cannot see a way, the church’s role is to help them remember not with word and debate – not with empty reassurances of better times to come – but with loving, compassionate presence in the here and now. The church’s role is to help them remember in real and tangible ways that they are not alone.
Jesus’ call to the disciples and to the community in this reading reveal to us this very thing. When Jesus says he is going to be with Mary and Martha, the disciples are convinced he is beyond reason. The Judeans are trying to stone you, they tell him, you will be in such terrible danger if you go back there. And they are right. His return leads right to his execution. The disciples have every reason to very scared. But Jesus tells them they must go anyway – their friend is in need. And they go. Maybe not easily – “Let us go that we may die,” Thomas says to another disciple, but they go. And we are to do the same. We are to help those who sit in the dark. Even if it feels risky and perhaps hopeless, we are to go to them, we are to be with them. We are to show them with what we do that we trust that God will be with them, with us, in this pain, even if they, even if we, can’t sense, can’t believe it.
And here is a beautiful part of this reading, when new life comes – in this case in the shape of a very dead man out of a tomb – but however it comes, the community that surrounds those who are grieving are the ones who are to receive this life: together we are to help nurture it and make this life full again.
You see, as Lazarus stumbles out of the tomb, still bound and struggling to walk, Jesus looks to the community and tells them to unwrap him that he may return to his family. Jesus just raised a man from the dead. He could have easily had him walk out boldly, not needing anyone. But no, this new life needs help, and Jesus calls those who surround the ones in loss, those who came to weep with Mary and Martha, to do their part.
So what will you say, what will you do this week? Can we trust this week and in the coming weeks that God is with us, gently making a way as four homeless families stay in our midst, even if it might at times feel inconvenient at times? Can we trust that God is with us to help us discern how to use this building, where to put our finances and our resources, even if the choices are difficult and we are unsure?
This reading tells us to trust and it tells us how. We are to weep with the broken, the bereft; we are to trust that God is present even when we can’t feel it; we are to go into places that don’t feel comfortable and we are to wait with those who need it, we are to wait and watch for unexpected but promised new life. And when the shoots of New Life, come, and it will come, we are to be there to help it grow.
Jesus is with us, new life will come. In that we can trust.
Thanks be to God.
St. Andrew Sermons