Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Lectionaries have several different listings for this Sunday’s Gospel, all from John 11. We can read 53 verses in a row, just the last seven of those verses, a combination of verses 17 to 27 and 38 to 45, or even verse 1 through 45. The interesting part is that the theme seems to change, depending on the reading chosen. If you stop on verse 45, you end on a high — Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead and many people put their faith in Him. If you end on verse 53, the message is: “From that day on they plotted to take His life.” If you only read those last seven verses, you may not even get to hear the faith inspiring news that Lazarus was raised after being dead for four days!
Modern medicine has revealed an amazing fact about the “high” that the crowd of witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection probably experienced. They gave the phenomenon the interesting title of the “Mother Teresa Effect.” Dr. David McClelland of Harvard University proved the phenomenon with a fascinating demonstration. After showing 132 Harvard students a film about Mother Teresa’s efforts among Calcutta’s poorest, he measured the level of immunoglobin A (S-IgA) present in their saliva. Immunoglobin A is the body’s first line of defense in the war against the common cold virus. The students had each had a similar immunological examination before they watched the film. The test revealed markedly increased levels after the students had simply witnessed somebody else actively doing good. This buoying of the body’s immune system is only part of the story for people who are themselves actively involved in volunteer work for the good of others.
You are probably familiar with the physiological phenomenon known as “runner’s high.” It is a feeling of tremendous exhilaration experienced by athletes following times of intense physical output. It is triggered by a large dose of the body’s natural pain killers, endorphines. Scientists are now wondering about the source of another measurable response that they have titled “helper’s high.”
Many people resist attempts to get them involved in any kind of volunteer work on behalf of others. Many are also reluctant to get involved with such tragedies as poverty, illiteracy, terminal illness, imprisonment, drug addiction and mental or physical disabilities because we find them depressing and debilitating. We are afraid that we will spend our precious free time only to reap rewards of personal sadness and gloom.
In actuality, volunteer involvement for the good of others — no matter how tragic or morbid — has an opposite effect. An article in the journal, Homiletics, referred to the findings of Allan Luks, in his book, The Healing Power of Doing Good. Luks describes the “helper’s high” as an almost euphoric sense of well-being coupled with a revitalizing burst of energy, followed by an even longer period of great calmness and serenity. He surveyed volunteers of all ages, both genders, disparate economic groups and educational levels who were involved in a gamut of volunteer services. He found that their descriptions of the “helper’s high” were practically identical in 95% of those who responded to his questions.
The authors of Homiletics noted: “Instead of finding themselves dragged down by others’ problems and challenges, volunteers felt ‘pumped up,’ exuberant, happier, healthier and more stress-free — a ‘high’ that persisted for hours, days or even weeks after their volunteer experiences.”
Scientific tests reveal that there is a good deal more to the phenomenon than emotions. The volunteers experienced noteworthy decreases in levels of blood pressure, stomach acid, even cholesterol counts!
If you examine the difference in what some would call the social conscience of Jesus and the Pharisees, you will find that there is not a tremendous difference between the kinds of things they would say we should do for people. Admittedly, Jesus emphasized doing good for all those in need — sinner or saint, male or female, Jew, Gentile or even Samaritan, rich or poor — but His moral imperatives were not unlike those of the written Jewish codes. There is, on the other hand, a world of difference between His motivations or purposes and those of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees operated almost exclusively out of legalism and a sense of duty. They would urge people to obey and follow the law because it is the law. The Pharisees would have been at the front of the line of those telling us “Don’t do drugs,” and “Just say, ‘No,'” but they were a million miles behind the Lord who urges us to say “Yes” to God and to doing good.
Jesus talks about willing service. He urges doing good because it is good. He wants us to meet the needs of others because they have needs and, strangely, when you come right down to it, He seems to suggest that it is good for us to be good to others. He never discussed the benefits of immunoglobin A, or the “Mother Teresa Effect,” or “helper’s high,” but He demonstrated a love of loving and a joy in serving.
Now, all of this is not designed to suggest that the reason you should become a volunteer missionary or go about loving, serving, caring and doing good for others is that you will be both healthier and happier. To be honest, it can also kill you. The close of Sunday’s Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus’ awe-inspiring and marvelously loving act of resuscitating His dead friend provided the last line of the Pharisees’ warrant for His arrest and death sentence. History books tell about kings who sent their subjects out to die for them. John tells about the King who went out to die for His subjects.
In my way of thinking, the story of the raising of Lazarus is incomplete if we only know how the miracle affected Mary, Martha, their friends, relatives and onlookers, not to mention Lazarus. We can share their exhilaration and faith and joy and maybe even a little shot of immunoglobin A, but we also need to hear how the enemies of Jesus were moved to even greater evil. Neither they, nor we, nor any of our own friends, relatives and neighbors are changed by what Jesus did for Lazarus. We can all be changed by what He did for us!
Lent doesn’t end with Jesus suffering — with a cross and a dead body. It ends when that evil and suffering are overcome with the goodness of God in the Resurrection of our Lord. Overcoming evil and ignorance and suffering are what the Lord is still about in us, His Body, the Church.
In the book Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner asks some soul-searching questions. Here are a few: Have you wept at anything during the past year? … Have you thought seriously about the fact that some day you are going to die? … More often than not do you really listen when people are speaking to you instead of just waiting for your turn to speak? … Is there anybody you know in whose place, if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer yourself?
If our answer to all or most of those is negative, I’d like to suggest that there is not much more life in us than in Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. We are in as much need of the Lord’s resurrecting power as was Lazarus. St. Paul wrote, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit, who lives in you.” We who are the children of God and coheirs with Christ are not merely living, but really alive.
I’ll add a couple more questions to those of Buechner as a closing thought. Think of a person you know who does not share the Christian life with you. Can you change that person — can you give them resurrection, eternal life and the joy of living, loving and serving? Can you lead them to the One who can? (Measure your S-IgA after that!)