Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:44)
The season of Lent does not end with Easter. Resurrection is not enough. The risen Christ alone cannot provide the abundant life God offers, “real and eternal life, more and better life than [we] ever dreamed of” (John 10:10 The Message). Something more is needed, something only you and I can provide.
Jesus spent his life offering a way into a purer, more authentic, more abundant quality of life, a life we call “eternal,” and Christ still does that today. But Jesus said very little, far less than we imagine, about life after death; he said a great deal about the quality of this life, the life available to us before death.
The kingdom of God has drawn near, Jesus said (Mark 1:15); the invitation has gone out, the banquet of heaven is spread before us, and now is the time to come to the table and start feasting (Luke 14:15-24). Will we join the great celebration of life when it’s offered, in this life, or will our distraction by other concerns cause us to miss the party entirely? “For none of those I invited first,” Jesus said – none of those who choose to come later – “will get even the smallest taste of what I had prepared for them” (Luke 14:24 NLT). With the kingdom of God, Jesus said, it’s now or never; we’re invited not to an unblemished life in heaven tomorrow but to a life that, even with all its blemishes, is complete and perfect and present today.
John’s gospel uses many symbols of that new life and of the way we’re called into it. Jesus offered the best wine to wedding guests; he called invalids off their mats into freedom, the distracted out of dissipation into abundance, the sick out of their beds into wholeness, the blind out of darkness into light, the despised out of the margins into community, and the shamed out of the shadows into full acceptance.
Still today Christ frees us from all the places where we are stuck, from all the distractions that prevent us from feasting on abundant life today, from all the tombs of yesterday that hold us fast and prevent our walking free in this life. But John’s gospel also makes it clear that Jesus’ call into life is not enough. John’s gospel tells us that entering into abundant life is as much our work as it is God’s gift. Abundant, eternal life is something we must be ready to claim, and it’s something we must help each other enter.
Before raising Lazarus (John 11:1-44), which is our lesson today, Jesus encountered a paralytic by a pool of water (John 5:1-9). The man had been ill for thirty-eight years, perhaps his whole life, and he lay next to a pool where he could be healed. But when the time of healing came, he had no one to help him into the water, and someone else would get there first and be healed instead. For thirty-eight years that continued, waiting for someone else to help him be healed. Maybe the man had grown content being an invalid, comfortable being needy and cared for by others, accustomed to having an excuse for living below his potential.
Then came Jesus with his question, “Do you want to be made well?” (v. 6) – are you ready to give up the life you’ve known for something new that you don’t know? Then “stand up,” Jesus said, “take your mat and walk” (v. 8). Sometimes your healing, your entry into eternal life, depends on your wanting it enough to claim what is already yours. Sometimes you have to step out of the familiar place where you’ve been stuck and step into the unfamiliar and perhaps even frightening wilderness of new life. Are you ready for that?
A few chapters later, Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus came out! Hopelessly dead and sealed in a dark tomb, Lazarus stood up and stepped into broad daylight. But he was still wrapped in his grave clothes. Standing in the midst of new life, he was still bound by traces of yesterday, unable to move freely. It was up to the people around him to complete the work of resurrection and do what Jesus said: “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44).
My most significant growth has come with the help of others who were committed with me to a common journey, who confronted and challenged me where I was stuck, who steadied me as I took uncertain steps in new directions, who helped me see in myself what I could not see alone, who saw not what I tried to show them of myself but who looked deeper and saw the unrealized potential I carried within. These are the friends who helped peel away the grave clothes of a dead past so I could step into a new life. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes I wanted to hold my grave clothes tightly so what was vulnerable under them wouldn’t be exposed. Sometimes I still do.
Maybe the best we can offer one another is a ministry of mutual unbinding: identifying, naming, challenging, and removing whatever hides and diminishes our glory so we can move freely in the new life God has given us. It will take a while to complete the process, probably your entire life, but no one needs to wait to begin. Our life is not in what may happen tomorrow; it’s in the power of what is ours today when we commit to love one another in that way.
And maybe the best place to begin is by trying to see others as God sees them, through God’s eyes, and here’s a simple prayer exercise to help you do that. Find a comfortable place to sit where you won’t be disturbed, call to mind the person who will be the focus of your prayer, and offer this simple prayer from your heart: “Lord, help me see what you see.” You will need to repeat the prayer many times.
For twenty minutes – longer if you can – listen for God’s voice as you continue that prayer. Jot down a few words or phrases to describe your feelings as they come to you, or you might try more extensive journaling about what you hear from God. At the conclusion of your prayer time, give thanks for what God has said, whatever it may have been. Then follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit as it continues to work with you. The prayer has power and sooner or later will be transforming.
From all the places where we are bound by the past, God has opened our tombs and called us into new life. The rest is up to us. In our commitment to be the church together, let us also be committed to unbinding one another so we can move freely in the life God offers.