Empty tomb in garden environment

Open up your heart

Recharge is a bible study just for you, to nurture your own relationship with god. So stop, sit, breathe and read. This month, Gerard Kelly looks at resurrection 

The Full Monty:

John 11:1-44

To read if you have time to take-in the whole story

The Continental Option:

John 11:32-44

Read this if you only have time for a few, key verses

One Shot Espresso:

John 11:39

‘”Roll the stone aside,” Jesus told them’

Franklin D Roosevelt is a towering figure of the 20th Century, often cited as one of the greatest of all US leaders. He is the only president to have served for more than eight years, remaining in the Whitehouse from 1933 till his death in 1945. He came to power in a society devastated by the Great Depression, with unemployment at an all-time high of 25 per cent and poverty on every side. His first inaugural address galvanised the nation. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,’ he said, ‘nameless, unreasoning, unjustified, terror which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’ FDR understood that we are oppressed not by the things we fear, but by our fear of them. We are terrorised not by death itself but by the shadow of death. ‘Only fear can defeat life,’ Yann Martel writes in The Life of Pi. ‘It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always...so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.’

Love cannot leave us entombed by fear, because it wants all of us

It is this paralysing fear that Jesus confronts head on in John 11. His response is a resounding ‘Open up!’ This is the FDR moment of his ministry. Jesus stands before the tomb of his old friend, the fear of those around him so strong in the air he can taste it. It is left to Mary to voice their terror: ‘He’s been dead for four days. The smell will be terrible.’ Will it? Too terrible to risk for the sake of resurrection? Too terrible even for Jesus? Mary’s protest is neither rational nor balanced. It is a visceral, instinctive submission to fear. The stone rolled over the tomb of her brother represents the most important boundary in her culture - that between the living and the dead. Death is her greatest fear - a fear so deep she calls it by other names. Hunger, sickness, poverty, shame, embarrassment - all these small fears are ultimately expressions of our greatest fear. It’s not only sheep that don’t want to walk through the valley of death’s shadow. The walking dead have been the stuff of horror across the world for multiple generations. ‘Most people would rather face the light of a real enemy than the darkness of their imagined fears,’ says Max Brooks, their modern-day spokesman, in World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

And here Jesus stands. He is three metres from the horror most feared in all the world and three minutes away from finding out if zombies are real. What does he do? Does he respect Mary’s boundaries and out of compassion let her remain in her fear? Does he leave the thing she is so frightened of in its hiding place, safe in its stone-lidded box? No. He does something different altogether. He says ‘Open Up!’  

Most people would rather face the light of a real enemy than the darkness of their imagined fears

We are told that a deep anger has risen in Jesus. It is anger at death, and the power death has over people. Anger at the way fear reduces them; oppresses them; deprives them of their full humanity. Jesus is not angry with Mary, or with Lazarus, or with the crowd. He is angry with death itself. He is angry on behalf of Mary and the crowd. So he looks straight at the tomb; looks into the darkness they most fear and says: ‘Open up! Let’s see what this thing you so fear actually looks like. Let’s open up the tomb and call death’s bluff. Is it really something to be so afraid of?’

‘Let’s open the box and look at the things you most fear,’ Jesus says to us, ‘Let’s see what power they really hold.’ Can you see how this applies to your fear of poverty; of shame; of humiliation; of social embarrassment; of exposure? Every day you are surrounded by people imprisoned by their fears. Lazarus is the one in the tomb, but we, the crowd who mourn him, are the ones shutin by fear. We hold back from the fullness of trust in God because of our fear. What if I don’t have enough money? What if I lose my home, my friends, my position? There are so many things we find security in. The fear of losing them dents and distorts our behaviour. More people are held hostage by the enemy of their souls through fear than through any other means. ‘Voldemort is playing a very clever game,’ J. K. Rowling says in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ‘Declaring himself might have provoked open rebellion. Remaining masked has created confusion, uncertainty, and fear.’ The Bible tells us two things about such fears.

The first is that they are at war with faith. When the disciples wake Jesus for fear of the storm he asks them ‘Where is your faith?’ The presence of fear in your life does not exclude faith, but listening to your fears does. Fear is the alsatian in next-door’s garden. He may be chained up and kept behind a fence, but you still give his snarling a wide berth.

The second is that love drives them out. When we open our hearts to love we both risk fear and take a step towards its end. God does not want to overcome your fears with courage, or determination, or strength, but with love. It is love that he offers in place of terror. ‘There is no fear in love,’ John tells us, ‘Because perfect love drives out fear.’

What can we learn about love and fear from weeping with Mary and Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus? Firstly, God wants to take us to the very end of our fears. Love cannot leave us entombed by fear, because it wants all of us. If you allow him, God will stand with you to look into the eye of that which you most fear and call you to ‘open up’.

Secondly, fear evaporates when love breaks us open. When it is the love of God that asks you to confront your fear, you will discover what a shadow it was. We fear the worst happening but fail to see that if it did, we would still be loved. We would still be held in the unbroken embrace of God. Darkness cannot stay where light shines, and fear flees when love shines on it.

It isn’t only Lazarus that Jesus wants free of death. It is Mary, and Martha, and the great crowd lost in their grief and confusion. It is us. God wants to open you up where fear has kept you in the tomb. Are there areas of your life where you know it is fear that has limited you, depriving you of full humanity? Ask God to come and speak his word of resurrection over you. What about those you lead? Are there places where their rebellion, their destructive patterns of behaviour, their rejection of your friendship, are signs of fear? Can you help them to the place where God will open them up? Where they are Mary, kept in thrall to fear, will you let the compassion and the anger of Jesus rise in you? Will you trust this Jesus, who looks death in the eye, to take both you and those you lead beyond fear and into his love?

Take away


‘The splendour of a human heart that trusts it is loved unconditionally gives God more pleasure than Westminster Cathedral, the Sistine Chapel, Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony”, Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, the sight of 10,000 butterflies in flight, or the scent of a million orchids in bloom. Trust is our gift back to God, and he finds it so enchanting that Jesus died for love of it.’ Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God


Where I have locked my fears away for fear of naming them, roll the stone from my tomb God. Where I have hidden from you, open me to love.

Gerard Kelly is co-founder, with his wife Chrissie, of the Bless Network - a mission and training agency at work across mainland Europe with a hub community in Normandy, France (blessnet.eu). 

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