There is an old tale about the time – many, many centuries ago – when the Pope decided that a synagogue the Jews were using in Rome really belonged to the Vatican. So he told them to move. Rightly, there was an uproar from the members of the synagogue. So, the Pope made a deal. He would have a theological debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in their old space. If the Pope won, the Jews had to find a new space.
The Jewish community realized that they had no choice. The problem was that no one wanted to debate the Pope. The only volunteer was a poor old man named Moishe, who opened the door to the synagogue each Friday night. Being a simple man, and not being used to words, Moishe asked for only one condition to the debate—that neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.
The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Pope sat opposite each other. After a few moments, the Pope raised his hand showing three fingers. Moishe looked steadily back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his hand in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple.
At that point the Pope stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
Later, the Pope explained to his clerics what had happened: “I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that we believe in the same one God. Then I waved my hand around my head to show that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was present right here. I pulled out the bread and wine to show that God has given us the Eucharist. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin.”
Said the Pope, “That man had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, Moishe explained to the rabbis how he won the unwinnable debate. “Well,” said Moishe, “First he said that the Jews had three days to get out. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews if we didn’t leave the space. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
“And then what clinched the debate?” asked the rabbis. “I don’t know,” said Moishe. “This was the strangest thing of all: he took out his lunch, and I took out mine!” 1
John, who used a lot of symbolism in his Gospel, presents seven signs – miracles – which Jesus performed, that attested to his identity as the Son of God: changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana; healing the royal official’s son in Capernaum; healing the paralytic at Bethesda; feeding the 5,000 on the mountain; walking on water on the Sea of Galilee; healing the man blind from birth; and, finally, the clincher being Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. That seventh sign, say many scholars, was the pinnacle – the climax to John’s theological argument to demonstrate that Jesus, indeed, is the Messiah.
But there are other scholars who say `No, no . . . that cannot be the culminating point of John’s testimony; it has to be the crucifixion of Jesus. Thus, you have to take walking on the water as part the same sign as feeding the 5,000.’
Still other scholars suggest that, if that’s the case, then you must also add an eighth sign: Jesus own resurrection. Surely, that’s got to be the climatic miraculous sign in John’s story.
It’s an ongoing theological argument which begs the question: Why did John even include this odd little story in his Gospel? It’s not recorded in any of the other (Synoptic) Gospels. So, why put it right in the middle in his own Gospel, some nine chapters before what is certainly the main event: Jesus’ own resurrection?
John buried the lead.
“Burying the lead,” is a phrase common to news journalism; it connotes beginning a news story with secondary, or even non-essential, details. Now that might be a strategy used by someone (say a politician under fire, or beleaguered press secretary, or even a defense lawyer scrambling for plausible vindication for his client) who wants to obfuscate or overshadow the central reality or truth of the story by hiding it in a torrent of distracting details.
But it’s considered a cardinal sin for good journalism.
John buried the lead.
In fact, if Jesus knew that he was going to be raised from the dead after he was crucified (which we believe he did) – and if he, let us say, wanted to commandeer center stage for himself as the main event – then by raising Lazarus from the dead prior to that, Jesus sort of buried his own lead.
Why would John, or Jesus for that matter, do so? And what is the literary purpose?
I believe that we find at least some clues if not a definitive answer to that question in the juxtaposition of the story teller, John, and the primary Subject of his story, Jesus.
The whole point of John’s Gospel was to point his readers to Jesus as the living embodiment – the Incarnation – of God’s glory on earth. The Messiah.
But the whole point of Jesus’ ministry and his life – his sole focus – was to bring glory to God alone. Jesus’ was all about the glorification of God’s power and the embodiment of his own humility. And the culmination of his life’s story was the intersection of those two realities.
The way Paul put it in his letter to the church at Philippi, that Jesus Christ “. . . though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” [Phil. 2:6 – 8]
The lead story of John’s Gospel had to do with manifestations of the presence and power of God in Jesus Christ, which extend even to that of supremacy over death. But, for Jesus, resurrection wasn’t about something that would just happen once, and only to him.
For Jesus – and for his faithful scribe John – resurrection was a living reality of the ever-present power and potential of God to infuse new life and vitality into virtually every human situation imaginable; from affliction to wholeness, from blindness to sight, from fearfulness to faith, from `winelessness’ to rejoicing, from death to life.
Resurrection is the primary Instrument by which God redeemed – and continues to redeem – the world. As such it was an ever-present reality which Jesus embodied and dispensed to those he encountered, each according to their particular need.
And the great paradox of our faith is that the power of resurrection is rooted, not in infinite strength, but in immanent, intimate weakness.
When sportswriter Mitch Albom heard that his favorite college professor, whom he hadn’t seen in twenty years, was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, he started visiting him on a weekly basis. In his bestselling book Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom describes their visits, focusing on his old professor’s wit and insights.
On one occasion, Mitch asked Morrie why he bothered following the news, since he wouldn’t be around to see how things turned out. Morrie responded, “It’s hard to explain, Mitch. Now that I’m suffering, I feel closer to people who suffer than I ever did before. The other night on TV, I saw people in Bosnia running across the street, getting fired on. I just started to cry. I feel their anguish as if it were my own. I don’t know any of these people. But—how can I put this? I’m almost drawn to them.” 2
Of all the verses in the bible, perhaps the most powerful is one of the shortest: “Jesus began to weep.” [John 11:35] Jesus understands our sufferings, too, but it’s more than sympathy or even empathy; he has suffered for us and is with us when we suffer.
It is the intersection of divine power and divine humility.
It is the paradox of God on a cross. The power of Infinite, Immanent love.
John is the master storyteller. Jesus is the divine Subject of the story. And we – John’s readers, Jesus’ disciples – are the object, the reason, the story is being told.
Stated concisely: John points us to Jesus. Jesus points us to God. God saves us in Love.
Henri Nouwen, during a time in his life when he was surrounded by the prospect of death – a friend with a life-threatening illness, a relative with cancer, a dear mentor who had just died – wrote his seminal book Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring.
There’s a passage in that book which bespeaks of today’s story: “When we reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution, and even death will be unable to take our freedom. Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge—a knowledge more of the heart than the mind—that we are born out of love and will die to love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us.” 3
We fragile, mortal human beings spend much of our time worrying about death and dying. Certainly, the subject of death seems ever to be the headline which leads today’s news. And I suspect that much of what we do in life – and most of our existential anxiety – revolves around efforts to protect and insulate ourselves from that inevitability.
But, by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus has `buried that lead’ and given us a new headline by which to live: For He is risen! He is risen, indeed!
And because he lives, we, too, shall have new life.
Well, would you look at that: Still two weeks until Easter, and I just `buried the lead’.
Let it ever be so. Amen.
- Lori Beth Wagner, News from PreachtheStory, www.PreachtheStory.com.
- Greg Asimakoupoulos, 1001 Illustrations that Connect, eds. Craig B. Larson & Phyllis Ten Elshof, Zondervan, 2008.
- Henry Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring, HarperOne, 2009.