“I am the Resurrection and the Life. Do you believe this?” That’s the question, isn’t it? It’s the question Jesus puts to his friend Martha in that panoramic, novelistic story from John 11 that we read in church this past Sunday about the raising of Lazarus. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ. . . .” Martha replies, in what seems like a rote answer – old-fashioned catechism- style. (It may in fact reflect old liturgical profession of faith, scholars tell us).
But I pause at this: not so fast. Do I believe this? What does it mean to “believe” that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life – those words that we cling to in the burial service, that carry us, as Christians, through the darkest times in our lives.
“Do I believe this?” I approach the question differently since a liberating discovery I made in my brief, but focused, exposure to New Testament Greek a few years ago, auditing a colleague’s class at the seminary. I learned there that the Greek verb (pisteuo) that is translated “believe” or “have faith” or even sometimes “be righteous” actually means something closer to “trust” or “come to have faith in.” My interlinear translation (a new friend when I go to Scripture—and there’s an app!) tells me that literally what Martha says is, “Lord, I have been believing – or trusting” – so it’s not so much an assent to a proposition as it is an agreement to trust, to stay with, to have faith in a friend’s word.
The story takes me to other places, too: darker places that are also very real in my life. Jesus waits two days after he hears that Lazarus has died: perhaps he deserves Martha’s reproach, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” – and even now she kind of wants him to do something about it. Why did he wait so long? I ask that with her. It seems cruel.
But maybe he waited because of the deeper truth of the story: that in order for resurrection to be revealed as a real possibility, something has to die. Whatever it is that has to go, I may need to mourn it, know the loss, and recognize the things that have “bound” me. There is something both encouraging and frightening in Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, once the dead man has returned to life: “unbind him. Let him go free!” It seems a scary kind of freedom – the freedom that comes after I have let go of something that needed to die, whether it is a relationship, an addiction, an expectation or a habit or an organization that needs to go, to make way for a new thing that God is trying to do.
We chafe at what needs to die. We grieve, we lash out. But this haunting story has Jesus standing there in the midst of our frustration, and asking the question at the heart of Christian faith: “I am the Resurrection. I am the life: do you believe this?” Or, better yet (going back to my Greek) – do you trust me on this? That is the question I carry with me, responding as faithfully as I can, I join in the church’s late-Lent turning toward the Cross and Resurrection in the weeks ahead.
Kathy Staudt is a member of Our Saviour, Hillandale and an adjunct faculty member at Virginia Theological Seminary and Wesley Theological Seminary.