New Life and Its Consequences

Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?”  So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me.  I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.”  Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”  Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.  Then the chief priests and Pharisees called together the council[a] and said, “What are we going to do? This man is doing many miraculous signs!  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything!  You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation—  and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one.  From that day on they plotted to kill him.

John 11:40-53 (Common English Bible)

The Gospel According to John contains a series of “signs” that Jesus performs that eventually lead to the plot, among the Jewish authorities, to get Jesus killed. In the increasingly dramatic miracles, Jesus had shown himself to be a problem, potentially harmful to the delicate relationship between the Jewish community and its Roman rulers. Still, Jesus carries on and continues to demonstrate that he is the Messiah sent by God, eventually going so far as to resurrect his close friend, Lazarus, from the dead.

As we learn in the story, new life has consequences. Some of those consequences are mundane and some are profound. Some are predictable and others are unexpected, surprising and unsettling. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, I’ve often wondered about the life that Lazarus led after his resurrection. Did he and his sisters slide back into their old routine or did their lives change in unimaginable ways? I suspect it was the latter.

Although a very different sort of situation, the story of Lazarus almost always causes me to remember a man I met during the unit of Clinical Pastoral Education I completed at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in the summer of 1991. I met Bob during my first weekend on-call. It was a lovely June Saturday. I was called in not so much to see Bob, but instead his wife, Mary. Bob was a 39-year-old man who had spent much of his adult life dealing with heart disease. A day or two before we met, he had been rushed to his local hospital, where his heart stopped in the ER. After successfully resuscitating him, a plan was made to send him to Boston to be evaluated for a heart transplant.

He and his wife arrived at the hospital and the wife almost had a panic attack. Her husband was in a serious health crisis and they were in a city they did not know, with no family or friends nearby.

I spent a couple of hours with them, listening to their story and getting to know them. We prayed together. Then, I visited with them again a couple of days later, just before Bob was sent home, after he was put on the transplant list.

A few weeks later, I heard that Bob was on his way back to the hospital. His condition had become so precarious that he needed to be admitted— until a transplant became available or his heart failed him for the last time. He didn’t arrive before my shift was over, so I alerted my CPE colleague who was on-call and asked him to check in on Bob, and his wife.

As I made my way home on the med school shuttle, back to Cambridge, my own precarious situation started to dawn on me. To be with Bob and his wife would likely involve praying for a new heart. And, new hearts only come from one place: relatively young, healthy people who die in tragic accidents. How in the world could I pray for that?

The next morning, I thankfully had a lecture to attend and that allowed me to push off my visit to Bob and Mary a little longer. When I emerged into the hallway after the lecture, the chaplain who had been on-call the night before was standing there waiting for me. He had news. Bob had received a new heart overnight. He was still in surgery and Mary was in the surgery waiting room.

Shortly after I arrived at the waiting room, the surgeon came to talk to Mary. The procedure had gone well. Bob was the new owner of a healthy heart that had come from a teenage boy.

Bob’s recovery was nothing less than remarkable. Before surgery, he always looked pale, weak and ill. After surgery, he looked healthy and energized. His face was radiant. His recovery went so well that his doctors allowed him to walk around the hospital. I remember bumping into him in the lobby and hardly recognizing him. It was amazing, and joyful.

I started to notice, though, in the midst of all of the elation, that Mary was acting strangely. She seemed distant and disconnected. I invited her to join me for a cup of coffee. She freely admitted that she was struggling. She had married a man with heart disease, a man who moved slowly and cautiously. She had grown accustomed to being the caregiver. And, now she hardly recognized her husband. But, how could she talk to him about her unexpectedly unsettled feelings?

New life has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are joyful. Sometimes they are unforeseen and difficult. Sometimes the consequences are complicated and hard to manage.

I find myself thinking a lot about new life and its consequences, not simply for individuals I know, or have known, but for the church that I serve. How is new life making itself known among us? And, what are the consequences of that new life? How do we engage with the “signs” of newness around us, especially when those signs turn out to be ones that we would not choose?

At Old South, in a congregation where the average age is over 70, it can feel strange to point to signs of new life. But they are there. They just aren’t the signs that most of us have wished for. I feel signs of new life when we talk about downsizing our attachment to our physical plant and putting our large, maintenance-demanding sanctuary building up for sale. Without that building, we could turn our attention to more mission projects and other ways of being of good use in the community.

Those little signs of new life have consequences, though. Not everyone is able to see those signs as clearly as others. And, some seem determined to turn a blind eye to signs of new life, and to remain steadfast in their own vision. The raising of Lazarus calls to us and beckons us to seek the wisdom to release those things that cloud or cover our sight and to be released from the ties that bind us to the ways that lead only to death. We must heed the call of Jesus to “come out,” to let go of our own wishes and desires and to realize that new life in faith is so often not something we get to define or choose. Still, it is the path of light and life.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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