In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is my privilege to be able to address you on this occasion of the first celebration of the British Orthodox Liturgy of St James here in Burslem, Stoke on Trent. I am grateful that His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim and other clergy and ecumenical guests have increased the significance of this event by their presence and participation in the worship today.
Today we are seeing four local people become catechumens, ordinary English people from the streets around this church building. A catechumen is one who is receiving instruction in preparation for membership of the Orthodox Church. There are now five people who have decided to make just such a commitment here in this town. In a few months’ time the first baptisms will take place as God wills.
For each of these souls, as for myself and all others among us who have become Orthodox, becoming a catechumen and then being received into the life and communion of the Church is a significant step. We are taught and believe that baptism and anointing with holy oil in the Apostolic church is a means and experience of dying and rising to new life in Christ by the power and with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
But this spiritual pilgrimage neither begins with the catechumenate nor ends with baptism. It is the journey of a lifetime. All that we have learned and experienced of God in truth we carry with us thankfully into our participation in the Orthodox Church. We are not turning away from that blessing we have received, rather we turn in hope towards that which is offered to us as a fuller, richer, deeper experience of God in continuity with the faith and practice of the ancient and Apostolic Church.
As our British Orthodox mission begins its worship here in Stoke we must also thankfully recognise that our service and ministry among the people of Stoke is expressed in continuity and partnership with those who have been praying and serving here before us. An 8th century cross and Saxon font in St Peter ad Vincula in Stoke demonstrate that Christians have been praying in this area for at least one thousand two hundred years. The faith and spiritual practices of those first Christians has a great deal in common with that which we teach and live in our Orthodox communities. The first church in Burslem itself, as I am sure you are aware, dates to the late 13th century. But in this modern and contemporary age while considering ourselves in continuity with these Orthodox-Catholic believers of the past, we express a desire to be partners in the Gospel as far as is possible with all those who preach new life in Christ in this part of England.
It is appropriate that these four souls, dear to Christ, should be made catechumens today, on Lazarus Saturday. This is the day before Palm Sunday and in our Gospel reading today we heard the account of the raising of this friend of Christ to life when he had become sick and died.
The name Lazarus, or Eleazar in Hebrew, means God is my help. What a wonderful meaning for a Biblical character who is in many ways an example to us of the soul finding life in Christ. Our Orthodox Faith is clear. There is no help for us other than in and through the grace and mercy of God. Indeed in our daily Orthodox prayers in the British Orthodox Church we pray…
O Holy Trinity have mercy on us. O Lord God of hosts be with us, for we have no help in our tribulations and afflictions other than thee.
There is no help for us other than God, and the essence of the Christian life is surely discovering this truth, that we cannot save ourselves, and that the exercise of our own strength and will apart from God, even when directed towards religious ends, leads to death and not life.
What can we learn from this account of the Raising of Lazarus? It seems to me that one important lesson for those seeking to deepen their commitment to Christ is that the way in which we respond to the various circumstances and situations of our lives allows us to discover the strength and stability of our faith. We know that for many of those crowds who followed our Lord, it all became too much when things started getting tough, and they left him. Even his closest followers, the Apostles, found themselves shrinking in fear when the soldiers came and arrested Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Perhaps we also can consider the situations in which each of those mentioned found themselves and reflect on their relevance to us. Mary and Martha were friends of our Lord. Mary was a devoted disciple and had washed the feet of our Lord with costly oil. St John in this passage points out particularly that our Lord loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus, their brother. So when Lazarus fell ill it was natural that the sisters should send an urgent message to let Jesus know that Lazarus was sick. They must have been quite concerned about his health. They would hardly go to the trouble of finding a messenger and having him seek out wherever Jesus and the disciples might be unless he was seriously ill. They must have comforted each other with the thought that Jesus would soon be with them, and all would be well. But the days passed, and Jesus never came. Lazarus grew more sick, and finally he died. We can imagine how heartbroken the sisters must have been, and how confused they must have felt. Where was Jesus? Why had he not come when they most needed him?
We might consider St Thomas, gathered with the other disciples. Our Lord suddenly told them that they were all heading towards Jerusalem to visit Lazarus who had died. None of them thought that was a good idea. They reminded him that it was only recently that the leaders of the Jews had tried to stone him. But Jesus persisted. Lazarus was dead and they were all going to go to him. St Thomas probably voices the fears of many of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with Him”. What does he mean? Is he saying to the disciples that if they go with Jesus they will die with him when the Jewish leaders use the opportunity of his return to Jerusalem to rouse the mob against him? Or does he mean that they will all end up dead like Lazarus if they go back to the place where the opposition to Jesus’ message and ministry was strongest? In either case we see that St Thomas was sure that to follow Jesus would lead to disaster and the end of all their hopes and dreams. Many of the Church Fathers have pointed out his fearfulness, but I don’t think we can call him a coward, because despite his anxiety, and his expectation of a violent end to Jesus ministry, he still follows Jesus to Bethany.
We see that on the one hand there was a disappointed expectation. Mary and Martha were sure that our Lord would come to Bethany and heal their brother. And on the other hand there was an great anxiety and sense of impending disaster, and yet the disciples followed our Lord into a fearful and uncertain future.
Then the Apostolic band, with our Lord, reach Bethany. Lazarus has been dead for four days, Jesus had waited for two days before setting out after Lazarus had died, and it must have taken some time for the messenger to be sent and to reach them. So it might have been a week since Mary and Martha hopefully sent their message to Jesus asking for urgent help. When the village heard that Jesus was coming we see that dutiful Martha, went out to meet him, while Mary just couldn’t bring herself to leave the house. It was too painful.
Martha approaches our Lord and says to him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”. She just can’t help herself. She is only human after all. If Jesus allowed Lazarus whom he loved to die then what hope was there for any of them. She couldn’t love him and serve him any more than she did. “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”.
But there is a spiritual depth to Martha, We should not allow ourselves to think of her as simply the busy housekeeper who was too engaged with the details of hospitality to sit at Jesus’ feet. She adds to her complaint, saying, “Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You”. There is still some hope, still some possibility of a miracle, even though she has been so disappointed. Then there is that wonderful and perceptive conversation between Martha and our Lord,
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?" She said to Him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world."
I find this a remarkable passage. Martha has been greatly disappointed. She had such faith in our Lord, and such love for him, but when she needed his help most it didn’t seem to appear. Yet when Christ comes to her, he helps her to express her faith such that she is able to exclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of God”.
Martha runs to fetch her sister Mary, and when the crowds see that something is happening they all follow her. Mary was the more emotional and demonstrative of the two sisters. When she found Jesus she collapsed at his feet weeping. And she utters the same complaint, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”. There is no stopping her tears, and her family and friends were all weeping with her, and this moved our Lord greatly such that we read even that “Jesus wept”.
What does this mean? Our Lord Jesus is truly the Son of God, and therefore when we read that ‘Jesus wept’ we are to understand that the Son of God, God himself, was so moved by the sorrow of those he stood among that he also wept. God wept when he saw the sorrow of his children in the face of death. The Jews gathered around said to themselves, “See how he loved him”. There is no less love in the heart of God for each one of us, and he weeps still to see us in situations of suffering and distress.
But let us pause for a moment and see that these responses to difficult situations and circumstances are ones which indeed we have all experienced ourselves.
There is the disappointed hope. We have tried to be committed servants of our Lord. We have tried to live lives of obedience and faithfulness. And then some obstacle appears in our way. We pray to the Lord to come to our assistance, and wait with expectation for a miracle to take place. But a miracle never comes. The situation gets worse, and worse, and overwhelms us. We are left asking why no miracle came. Lord, if you had been with me this terrible situation would not have occurred.
Or perhaps it is not a terrible situation that overwhelms us, but rather a lack of fruitfulness in our lives or in our service. We have tried to heed God’s voice as far as we hear it, we do everything that it seems God is asking of us, but nothing happens or it seems that we are just as confused. We pray especially committedly for a whole week and then fall into sin. Lord, where were you? If you had been here this would not have happened.
Or perhaps it is not a disappointed hope but a sense of impending doom. We have an idea of what God requires of us, but it seems that to follow God’s will leads us into a fearful future. It might be that we have agreed to take part in some ministry or service and feel our inadequacy. It might be that we want to make a commitment to Christ and to the Church but it is not clear what that will mean for our lives. It might be that we want to bear witness to our faith at work but we are afraid of what others will say, and if they will mock us. It could be that to be faithful to our Lord Jesus will require us to face the possibility of broken relationships with family and friends who do not share our faith, and cannot understand that we have become so serious about religion. We may well cry out, Lord, where were you? You asked me to follow this path and it has led into a place that makes me afraid.
Perhaps we need to turn for a moment from the various circumstances which troubled and distressed these people in the Gospel account, Mary, Martha and Thomas, and look for a moment at what our Lord was saying and doing.
In the first place, he receives the news of Lazarus’ illness, and says, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it”. From the very beginning of this incident we see that Jesus had a different perspective to that of Mary and Martha. They were afraid that if Jesus did not come quickly that the worst possible outcome would take place, and Lazarus would die. But our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, was already aware that this would not be the outcome of his sickness. It was not terminal. There was hope. Indeed in the will of God there was more than hope because his plans were being worked out for the good of Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Disciples.
More than that, this situation would glorify God. Not that he was sending suffering and distress upon those he loved, but that in this situation of our fallen world, where disease, suffering, pain and death are a part of our normal experience, he would bring light and life and glory.
And then in regard to the fear and anxiety of the disciples, who hesitated to follow him back to Jerusalem where the Jews would be likely to act against him and them. He says, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him”. What is he saying here? It seems to me that while the disciples are afraid that they are setting out to walk into the unknown, into a situation of darkness and fear, he teaches them and us that if there is darkness then it is within us, not outside us, and if we walk in light then we will not stumble. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and the Holy Spirit descends upon those of us who believe, so that we might have the light of Christ within us. If we have this light in our hearts and minds then we will not walk in darkness. There need be no fear of the unknown, because the one who knows all things is with us.
In our darkest situations, even when we are falling prey to doubts and confusion, there is light, and there is a clear path if we walk with Christ.
And then our Lord speaks of Lazarus being already dead, and says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him”. We see that the Lord delays his coming to Lazarus for the sake of the disciples. He could have healed Lazarus as soon as the messenger arrived. This would surely have reinforced the faith of the disciples in Jesus’ power to heal. But he wanted them to learn more. There was a danger that they might become like many of the crowds who followed him, excited by the miracles and the spectacle. So he delays his coming until Lazarus is dead and the disciple’s expectations are dashed. It must have been a rather solemn group walking to Bethany. Lazarus was dead. The Lord couldn’t save him. What did that mean? This difficult situation exposed the thoughts of those around Jesus, and difficult situations expose our own thoughts. What do we really think? What do we really believe?
It exposed the thoughts of Mary and Martha. “Why didn’t you come sooner? Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”.
Isn’t this a question many of us ask of God from time to time? Sometimes over long years of prayer for some situation. Why, Lord? If you had been here this wouldn’t have happened. If you were here with me this wouldn’t carry on happening. Why, Lord?
But we cannot see things from God’s point of view, and we cannot see that his purposes are for our eternal good and not for immediate benefit. We often make a child do something it does not want to do because we know that it is for its long term benefit. We make children clean their teeth, take exercise, go to school, eat vegetables. We discipline them in various ways that they do not enjoy, but this is not for the sake of the punishment or the discipline, but for the well being of the child, and so that the child might mature into an adult.
The Lord often makes us wait, and often it seems that natural hope is extinguished by the collapse of all our plans. But there is a light we can walk by if we stay close to Christ even when things seem hardest. Even in the depths of despair Martha is able to say of Christ, “I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You”. There is distress and confusion, these are normal aspects of our fallen human nature, but if we have even a spark of faith this responds to Christ with hope. “Lord, I don’t know what you are doing, but I know that you can do all things, and will do all things, for my good and the glory of God”.
When our Lord arrives in Bethany he asks to be taken to the tomb of Lazarus. He has not forgotten Lazarus, and he does not forget our own heartfelt desires for good. He comes to the place where Lazarus has been laid, and he comes to the place in our heart where our own hopes have been laid up as if dead. He weeps with us, and groans with us, being moved by our sorrowful experience. Even though the Lord delays his coming for a greater good, it does not mean that in the case of Lazarus, or in the case of each one of us, he does not heed our tears.
The Lord asks that the stone be rolled away from the tomb of Lazarus, and practical Martha objects that there will be a smell, as the body will have begun to decay. And in our own lives we come to some accommodation with the loss of hope as well. One day the Lord stirs our hopes again and we say, “Lord, these hopes have been dead so long now”. But the Lord insists, “Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”
Can Mary and Martha still have faith after the death of their brother? They do. This does not diminish their pain, but they do not allow their confusion and sorrow to damage their faith in Christ. Our Lord calls their brother out of the tomb, “Lazarus, come forth!" And he who had died came out”.
They receive their brother back from the dead and their faith is, not restored, because it had not been lost, but increased by the experience. Martha has understood that Christ is not simply a healer and teacher but the Son of God. This was surely a painful experience, but our Lord took no joy in their tears, rather he wept with them, and groaned before the suffering that had been inflicted on the world by sin and Satan. There was a greater glory and a greater light by the outcome of this situation, but it was not an outcome that Mary and Martha could forsee. It was not an outcome they expected.
Are we in the midst of difficult situations ourselves, have we faced such in the past? These are not sent to punish us, nor is their continuing presence a sign of God’s displeasure. Rather each difficult situation is a means of increasing our faith and seeing the greater glory of God. There may be pain and sorrow, but our Lord Jesus Christ is not absent from us and weeps with us. He waits for the best moment to do us most good. There is a light and life to walk by if we travel with Christ even into situations which bring us feelings of dread. It may be that the worst we can imagine takes place, but there is glory to come if we remain faithful to the end. And there will be a better than we can imagine in the end. We must not allow our small understanding of God’s ways to determine for us whether or not we should despair or be distressed. We cannot hope to see all the aspects of every situation. Nor can we hope to see and understand the final outcome that God desires.
But if we keep faith, even in our weeping, then Christ will come to this situation we find ourselves in. Perhaps it will not be today, perhaps it will not be tomorrow. But he will come and bring glory to His Father, and joy to our souls. “If you believe you will see the glory of God?”
May the Lord open our eyes that we may see his glory and give thanks in every circumstance, to the glory of God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.