Formations 04.02.2017: Smells and Resurrection

John 11:21-27, 32-36, 39-44

Stained glass from Mariawald Abbey depicts the raising of Lazarus.

I agree with Martha when Jesus tells them to roll away the stone. I’ve not smelled a four-day-old body, but I can imagine. Don’t do it, Jesus—the smell will be awful!

I’m surprised by Jesus’ response. He asks, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40). This doesn’t address Martha’s practical concern about Lazarus’s natural stench, but it does reframe her statement. At first a pragmatic concern for Lazarus’s literal smell, Martha now raises a question that is at once profane, juvenile, and perhaps profound: what do resurrected bodies smell like?

To put it another way, how much is the experience of Lazarus’s death present in his resuscitated life? How does acknowledging his death change her memories of his life? What would Lazarus’s death mean for the life he returned to just after? How can death and life intermingle as much as Jesus says (v. 25)?

Whatever the answer, Martha knows one thing. Lazarus will smell different. He might smell full of death where life used to be. Or maybe he leaves the tomb, resurrected but carrying hints of his death.

Scents carry memory. They hold in them moments of fullness or emptiness. Often they carry both.

For me, tea steeping carries on its steam recollections of brick floors, a glass porch, and an old burgundy teapot—those very full memories of learning to drink tea with my grandmother. The smell of PG Tips now holds her absence too. It’s still rich and beautiful, but it has changed.

Martha stands at the tomb and knows this. Lazarus died. He really died. She reminds us that we suffer and hope leaves us. She insists that these times don’t go away, that we carry with us the smells and marks of the various ways we’ve experienced death.

And Jesus reminds us too that the smells of the tomb don’t hold us back, that we can live while we are dead, that even in the darkest places we can come out (v. 43).


• What memories do you have that hold the experiences of both fullness and loss? How do you make sense of both of these realities?
• In what ways have you experienced hopelessness? In what ways have you experienced hope?
• How can resurrection come from hopelessness and suffering? How do these realities shape the lives we find after?

Reference Shelf

Life in John

“Life” is itself a favorite Johannine term (thirty-six times in the Gospel and thirteen times in the Letters), and without the adjectival modifier “eternal” still designates a special concept. “Life” and “eternal life” indicate some thing different from and more than “natural life,” which is named in the Johannine literature by the Greek word “soul. Natural life ends in death, but life is viewed positively by the Johannine authors and this probably inspired the development of the phrase “eternal life” as a way of speaking of God’s greatest gift to humanity. In developing this idea the author of the Gospel (and in turn the author of the Letters) was not, however, freely inventing a line of thought, rather he was working with and making full use of an existing theme—as is shown in the simple occurrence of the phrase “eternal life” in Mark (10:17,30 par., Matt 19:16,29 and Luke 18:18,30), Matthew (25:46), and Luke (10:25) in relation to future life in the KINGDOM OF GOD (cf. Luke 18:30).


In the Johannine writings the concept of “eternal life” has about it both the notions of temporal (everlasting) and qualitative (abundance) superiority in comparison with natural life, but the use of the phrase in the Gospel and I John reveals that the qualitative aspect is foremost in the Johannine thinking. Indeed in the Johannine usage it is clear that “eternal life” is not simply futuristic, for it is the present possession, or better, quality of existence, of those who believe in Jesus. This does not mean there is no future dimension to “eternal life”—it clearly continues beyond death, but the Johannine authors are more concerned with presenting the importance of eternal life as a transformed human existence in the present than with developing teaching about life after death.

Marion L. Soards, “Eternal Life,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: MU Press, 1995), 264–65.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.


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