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Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice


Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 11.1-45
: Death Unbound

Begin by using the Method as outlined
Sharing together

Describe a situation in which you have known the need to wait for the right moment before acting, even though an urgent response appeared necessary. How did you decide when to act?

Reflection on the text

Lazarus’ death was a personal tragedy for Jesus (v3), yet he seems to have sensed the need to wait before taking action, before responding to the sisters’ cry for help. We may wonder why.

Going to Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, meant considerable personal risk. When he does get there, Jesus is blamed for allowing Lazarus to die (vv 21, 32 & 37) which must have been painful and cutting.

He is met by Martha at the edge of the village (v20), where he waits while she fetches Mary (v28). Again we may wonder why he didn’t go straight to the home he knew so well.

Coming into the crowd of mourners and to the tomb affects Jesus deeply. His engagement is total, involving all of his being.

Why wait for four days in the tomb (v39)? On the fourth day Lazarus would have be declared legally dead - and there could then be no going back.

Even after life has been breathed back into Lazarus, he has to be unbound from the things that imprison him. He cannot do that for himself. New life involves both renewed Spirit and removal of all that entrapped him in the old life.
(Note Ezekiel 37, where the dry bones first have to be bound together with skin and tendons and then life is breathed into them.)
Application: some questions for group discussion:

The Church often seems to find it particularly difficult to let go of things that are past their ‘sell-by’ date, which is a little surprising considering its foundation on a Risen Christ and subsequent empowerment by the Holy Spirit. This can be letting go of old traditions which have lost their original meaning, organisations which can no longer fulfil their purpose, and the ‘rotting remains’ of old disputes and hurts.

In pairs, share an example of ‘entombed’ situations in the life of your family, local community or church. Then take one or two of the stories which have been revealed, and ask the following questions about them. (These are likely to be highly personal matters, so remember the bond of confidentiality between the group members and treat the stories appropriately)

  1. Who might be sent for, who could bring deep compassion to the situation to initiate the process of healing and renewal?

  2. Who might breathe new life into those situations, and how?

  3. What would have to be unbound, for the renewed life to take on a fresh shape?

  4. Who can do the unbinding?
Praying Together

Provide a bowl of water, slips of paper and pens (or paint sticks) which have water-soluble ink. Allow time for everyone to write the name of an ‘entombed’ situation on a slip of paper. Then drop the pieces of paper into the bowl of water, to symbolise the ‘death’ of the issue. Watch as the ink disperses and the life and power drain out of the words.

Then allow space for the lighting of candles and naming of the ways in which the Holy Spirit of renewed life might be breathed into those situations. Pray too for the unbinding which will have to take place.

Going Deeper

There is a much used word around in church life at present - Mission – which the Archbishop of Canterbury has defined as “looking to see where the Spirit is evident and joining in”.

Might the church do better to follow the example of Jesus with Lazarus– go to the stench of death and to things which have been declared dead, and to bring new life.

(John Warren, Church of England National Officer for the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s writing about the church’s orientation around the past, said, “This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith … The mission becomes a movement and turns into a monument.”)
More background information
  1. We who have the benefit of hindsight can deduce from the story that Lazarus died soon after the messengers left Bethany to fetch Jesus (allowing one day to travel in each direction, two days waiting (v6) and noting that Lazarus lay for four days in the tomb (v39) but Jesus didn’t know that.

  2. Eventually, Lazarus had to face death a second time: the only person ever to do so?

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