As most of you – or probably all of you – know, I used to be a Peace Corps Volunteer once upon a time. I served for four years in the Dominican Republic. And as you might expect, there is a lot of training and preparation that goes into becoming a Volunteer. In training, you learn the skills that you will need to do your project work; and you also study the language and the culture of your assigned country to try to prepare yourself to live and work for two years – sometimes more – in a different country.
But one aspect of Peace Corps that doesn’t get talked about very often is the fact that they also actually train us for how to come back. We actually spend time in Close of Service (or CoS) training before coming back to the US. They help us update our resumes and teach us how to condense our years of service into concise stories – literally, we had to practice that. But even more than these practical bits of training, they tried to prepare us for the strange reality of reverse culture shock.
Most people know what regular culture shock is – you move to a new place and find yourself constantly bumping up against a different culture with different values and different ways of doing things than what you’re used to. Reverse culture shock, on the other hand, is when you come back again and the culture is the same one you’re used to, but you are a different you.
Peace Corps changes you – living and working for years in another country, speaking a different language, being surrounded by people with completely different perspectives on the world and on life in general – all this changes you, it changes the ways that you think and speak and act. Those of you who have served in the military or who lived for a long time somewhere other than the midwest, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You can’t unsee the things you have seen – the good or the bad. You can’t un-know the things that you know. And because of this, even when you come back, you live in a new and different reality. Things have become new and there’s no going back to the way things were before.
And that is a theme I see all throughout our readings for this morning. In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah writes to his people, “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters… ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; even now it springs forth… I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’” Things have become new and there’s no going back to the way things were before.
In our second reading, Paul brags about his credentials – his claim to salvation on his own merit. He says, “if anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” That last one’s probably debatable, but the point is that on paper, under the law, Paul is the epitome of righteousness. And yet, Paul says, “whatever gains I had” – whatever reasons I had to be confident in my own righteousness – “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” In the light of the new things God is doing – the light of Christ – all these human markers of success and value have come to mean so little to Paul that he actually counts them as loss, as less than zero. Paul knows that things have become new and there’s no going back to the way things were before.
But no one in our readings for today knew this better than the folks in our gospel reading: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Lazarus had died. He had been dead for four days. Mary and Martha had washed and prepared their brother’s lifeless body and buried him in the earth. And then Jesus brought him back to life. No amount of re-entry training can prepare you for something like that. I can’t even imagine what kind of reverse culture shock he must have experienced – and Mary and Martha as well, living in a house with their previously dead brother.
Jesus’ disciples had also witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus. And we know that their lives had also been transformed by their encounters with Jesus – they had already left everything else behind to follow him. But I still don’t think that the fullness of who Jesus was or the sheer magnitude of the transformation that God was bringing about had really sunk in for them yet. They just didn’t get it yet the way that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus got it. It hadn’t quite transformed them yet the way it had transformed these three.
And you see that transformation in the way that these three siblings receive Jesus and his disciples. They welcome them with truly extravagant hospitality. They set out a rich dinner for at least sixteen people, probably more. Martha humbly serves Jesus and the others – in true Martha fashion. And Mary kneels once more at Jesus’ feet with a pound – a pound! – of very expensive perfume, and she lovingly anoints him. She anoints Jesus probably in much the same way that she once anointed her brother Lazarus for his burial. The abundant hospitality with which Martha, Mary, and Lazarus receive Jesus and his disciples is not just an expression of gratitude for having raised Lazarus from the dead – it is an expression of hope, of hope that looks forward to the day when Jesus conquers death once and for all. It is a recognition that, in Christ, things have become new and there’s no going back to the way things were before.
The counterpoint to all this is Judas. The other disciples may not yet fully understand Jesus’ significance or the things he is doing, but John shows us that Judas does not understand it at all. Jesus has laid the riches of the kingdom of God at their feet – he has even shown his power to bring life where there has been death – and he offers all this freely to his disciples. But Judas is still hung up on the cheap riches of this world. A place in the kingdom of God and life everlasting are right at his fingertips, but instead he worries about a measly 300 denarii .
I genuinely feel sadness for Judas, rather than condemnation. Even though he has been through the same things the other disciples have been through, and he has seen all the same things that they have seen, he still doesn’t have faith. And because he doesn’t have faith, he doesn’t truly understand what is happening or what is at stake. He doesn’t understand that things have become new and that there’s no going back to the way things were before. And Judas’ lack of faith and understanding will make facing the trials that come later down the line all the more difficult. His lack of faith leads him to lose hope and, eventually, even to take his own life.
John presents us with this intense contrast between Lazarus and his sisters on the one hand and Judas on the other. The three siblings embrace Jesus and the transformation he embodies with hope and faith, while Judas does not. Judas still places too much faith in the things of this world. And I see this contrast as an invitation to us to consider how we receive Jesus and the new things he is doing – to consider how much we cling to the promise of the kingdom with hope and faith, and how much we continue to count out our own denarii instead.
The question isn’t whether God is still making all things new. The question is whether we will open ourselves to the new thing God is doing and allow ourselves to be changed by it, to let it make us different from the way we were before.
We can’t unsee the things we have seen. We can’t un-know the things that we know. All things are becoming new, and there’s no going back to the way things were before.