The story of Lazarus (John 11) is justifiably famous — it’s not often a dead guy walks out of his tomb several days after moving in (so to speak). There are a hundred ways to approach the story, and if you’ve been in church more than a month or two, you’ve probably heard all of them.
The story of the early days of the church from Acts 2 is also famous — it’s not often you hear guys spouting things in languages they’ve never learned. As famous as it is, you’ve probably heard even more taught about the community of the early believers, captured so eloquently in verses 43–47, e.g. “All who believed were together and had all things in common.” If you’ve heard a lesson or sermon on community in the church, it’s almost guaranteed to have used this passage for its foundation.
Today we’re going to do a mash-up — we’re going to look at community, but we’re going to do it using Lazarus' story as our backdrop. This could go two ways: it could go as well as mixing Star Wars and the Beatles, or it could go as bad as mixing Star Trek and the Beatles.
Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. So the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”John 11:1–3
This is the first mention in John’s gospel of any of the three people mentioned here. This seems surprising, especially considering the reference to an incident with Mary and Jesus and some ointment. It turns out John is doing a bit of foreshadowing here — the ointment incident doesn’t appear until the next chapter, after the entirety of the Lazarus story is told. Further, the only other mention of any of this family anywhere in the Bible is in Luke 10, where only Martha and Mary appear, and then only for a couple of verses where we learn a bit about the two sisters' personalities.
In short, we know almost nothing about this family from the actual text. But what can we infer about them by reading between the lines?
From John 12, we know they were probably fairly well off. They could afford, and had a big enough space, to host a dinner party for Jesus and the disciples, and Mary had an extremely expensive jar of perfume. They were a family of some means, and, from this one example anyway, they were generous with it.
Since we’re discussing community, though, it’s the family’s relationship to Jesus that is the most interesting. Here is a family that not only appears to know Jesus, but know Him intimately enough to call on Him during a family emergency. Their message acknowledges that Jesus is their teacher1 and they his disciples, but then gives a plain indication that their relationship goes far beyond teacher/student — “the one You love is sick”. This isn’t a “God loves everyone” reference — it’s a call to someone they love and that loves them, to come to them in their time of need. It’s the ancient form of a text you would send to your best friend when a family member goes in the hospital.
Lest we miss any of that, or think that it was simply projection by the sisters, John eliminates any doubts in verse 5 — “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” These are people that cared about Jesus at the personal, not just theological, level, and whom He cared about equally. It can be a bit of a startling realization if you’ve only ever thought of Jesus in terms of teaching and healing and dying. Jesus didn’t just have disciples, He had friends. He had community.
This is shown in another way a few verses later. A couple of days have passed since the intro. Lazarus has died, unbeknownst to the disciples, and Jesus decides He wants to go back to Judea. Given that the last time He was there He had almost been stoned (see the latter part of John 10), the disciples are naturally leary. Incredulous, even — “they tried to stone you, you’re going back??” They have some back and forth, and Jesus finally tells them straight out — “Lazarus is dead, and I have to go to him.” At this point Thomas defies his stereotype (verse 16).
I have to say that I’ve always seen Thomas' reply as somewhat humorous. I picture a buddy movie, with a bunch of the studs of the day sitting/standing around doing what guys do when they’re bored: playing cards, throwing darts, making inappropriate noises, etc. At the climax of the above conversation, Thomas, who would surely be played by Chris Pratt, looks around at the rest of the group and says with that patented smirk he stole from Bruce Willis, “All right guys, they’re gonna kill him, we might as well go and die with him, we don’t have anything else to do. Everybody in? Right, let’s go!” (I know, reading the Bible is a little different in my head than it is in yours.)
Even in my buddy movie, though, and especially in the real sense in which this conversation takes place, this is a picture of men who care for each other and especially for their rabbi, and who, at this point, would rather face danger together than alone. It’s a picture of friendship. Of community.
The question for us is: does our community look like this? Do we have people we will call when we have a crisis, or would we rather ride it out alone? Do we have the confidence in those people to remind them that they love us, and that that alone is reason enough for them to come? Are they people we’re willing to face anything with, or do we bow out when things get difficult? And if this isn’t what our community likes right now (and few do), are we moving it in that direction?
Life is too short to waste it on bad community. Do whatever it takes to create good community, great community, the kind of community we see in John 11. Find people you love and who will love you in return. Go deep with them, deep enough that if something breaks, there’s no alternative but to hold onto each other.2
We now return you to your regularly scheduled Beatles.
The “Lord” in the sisters' message isn’t the small-cap Lord used in the OT as a stand-in for the tetragrammaton, God’s covenant name, commonly written Yahweh in recent years (and Jehovah in past ones). It’s more of a “sir,” or perhaps the Greek equivalent of “Rabbi”. ↩