Those two words can haunt us - or not

“Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These are the words Martha says to Jesus in our gospel lesson today. The weight of that phrase, “if only,” is heavy. We all know that weight. If only he hadn’t caught pneumonia. If only she hadn’t taken the car out that day. If only we had known about the cancer earlier. If only they were here now. We know the sickening power of “if onlys.”

One of my favorite movies is a movie called Sliding Doors. The movie follows a woman who is fired from her job. As she makes her way home she has seconds to catch a train. The movie divides into two at that point. In one storyline she catches the train home only to find her boyfriend cheating on her at home. In the other storyline she misses the train and is none the wiser about her boyfriend’s affair. The two stories unfold in parallel, letting her life unfold from that one moment of a missed or caught train. Her story is the ultimate “if only” story.

Martha knows the feeling of “if only.” She knows that if only Jesus had been there, he would have healed Lazarus. She also knows that if only Jesus had not taken so long, he probably could have made the trip in time. That phrase, “if only,” hangs in the air for Martha. But Jesus does not let Martha linger in the past, dreaming about what might have been. Instead, he points Martha to the future – reminding her that her brother will rise again. Martha already knows this. Resurrection life was standard Jewish teaching in their day. By Martha’s quick response to Jesus, we know that his reminding her about the future of resurrection doesn’t offer Martha much comfort. But then Jesus does a funny thing. He twists time all around, telling Martha that “the future is suddenly brought forwards into the present.”[i]

When Jesus says to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he is not just talking about a doctrine. He is not just talking about a future fact. The resurrection is a person, standing here and now in front of Martha. Jesus invites Martha to exchange her “if only,” for an “if Jesus …” As one scholar explains, the “if” changes: “If Jesus is who she is coming to believe he is … If Jesus is the Messiah, the one who was promised by the prophets, the one who was to come into the world … If [Jesus] is God’s own son, the one in whom the living God is strangely and newly present … if [Jesus] is resurrection-in-person, life-come-to-life … ”[ii] You see, when Jesus changes Martha’s mourning to a pondering about what resurrection means, Jesus pulls her out of the past, with an eye on the future, that bursts into the now.

The last time we gathered, we did so in the darkening days of winter. We watched Christmas approach, and the grief of “if only,” was heavy upon us. But today, our tone shifts. Spring is trying to emerge, the days are gifting us with more light, and Easter is approaching. We have journeyed through a season of darkness. The Church now invites us to journey toward the light. The way that we make that transition is not by mourning the “if onlys,” but cultivating the joy of the possibility of “if Jesus.”

Isn’t that how we ever truly face death, though? That is the eternal gift of our faith in Jesus Christ. We are promised eternal life through the Savior who came among us, who taught us, loved us, died for us, and rose again. And through his existence, resurrection is no longer a future longing, but a promise for the here and now. Our loved ones are celebrating in the resurrection life, because as Jesus says, everyone who believes in Jesus Christ, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in him will never die.[iii]

As we approach Holy Week and Easter next weekend, I invite you to journey with Christ through the last bits of darkness, holding fast to the promise of the light of Easter – when we shout our joy to the world for the Savior who makes resurrection life possible in the here and now. The church will journey with us as we loosen our grips on the “if onlys” of life and we attempt to embrace the “if Jesus” ponderings of life. Today we recognize the ways that the “if onlys” try to haunt us. But today we also lean on the church for support to hold fast to the “if Jesus” part of our loved ones’ stories. When we hold on to the power of the future made present, we are able to rejoice this Easter with fullness and joy. Amen.

[i] N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 6.

[ii] Wright, 7.

[iii] John 11.25-26