Now when Jesus came, he found that the church had already been dead for years. “House of Figs” (the little village church) was near “Abode of Peace” (the mega-church), about two miles off, and many of those who call themselves Chosen Ones, who belong to Abode of Peace, had come to the last two members of the little village church (two women, Mary and Martha) to console them concerning their church. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in “House of Figs”. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my church would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your church will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that it will rise (figuratively speaking) on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who 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 coming into the world.”
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the church building. It was like a tomb. It was like a cave. Jesus said, “Open the door.” Martha, the senior deacon of the dead church, said to him, “Lord, by this time it stinks, for it has been closed for years.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they opened the door. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Church, come out.” And the church that had died came out of their bondage. Jesus said to them, “Let them go out and be free.”
I hope you will pardon that I re-wrote the story of Lazarus (John 11:17-44) this morning. It just struck me that in so many places the church has died or is dying because of three things.
First, as Martha observed, if Jesus had been there, the church wouldn’t have died. You may say, “We were doing all the things that churches do. We read the Bible and prayed. We had Sunday School. We took care of our building and each other. There was a time when we really felt that Jesus was here. But the church still died.” Could it be that the church died when Jesus said to it, “Follow me,” and when he walked out the door of the church and into the world, the church decided that move was too scary and they shut the door behind him? This, by the way, can be just as true of port-a-churches that have no actual building.
The second reason the church in our rewritten Scripture died is for lack of actual belief. The senior deacon (Martha) skirts the issue of resurrection. One can argue that Martha in the actual story was doing the same when Jesus asked the question. Remember that one of the tenants of the Sadducee party in First Century Judaism was that there is no resurrection. This was a huge arguing point in “church circles” in that era. Her answer, “Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world,” is wholly insufficient. Jesus was asking a question about here and now. Do you believe in resurrection as a present possibility? Her failure to simply say yes tells us the symbolic had taken the place of the real where Martha’s faith was concerned.
The third reason the little church died was because they couldn’t see the glory of God. Not only had they shut Jesus out when he asked them to follow him into the world; they simply had invested everything in tangibles. What they could see, touch, handle, build, and control was really all there was. As long as you’re convinced that the grave is the grave, you’re bound to a single conclusion: that’s all there is. Look at your churches budget, its building, or its leaders, and you’ll never see the glory of God. And this is true of the little village church and the mega-church. But if you will do the irrational and literally follow Jesus out: to your lonely neighbor; to the family down the street struggling to make ends meet in a recession; to the homeless person you pass every day going into the subway; to the veteran suffering from PTSD; to every place where Jesus is about to go, then you will begin to see the glory of God in very real ways. Then, when you gather as a church it will not stink, because the fresh wind of the Spirit of God will have cleared the air of the smell of death.
O Jesus, Thou art standing, outside the fast closed door,
In lowly patience waiting to pass the threshold o’er:
Shame on us, Christian brothers, His Name and sign who bear,
O shame, thrice shame upon us, to keep Him standing there!
-- William How (1867)