Rembrandt van Rijn, The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1632)
Jesus, I think, knew this well, which is why so often in the Gospels he teaches by showing rather than telling. Yes, there are the parables and the descriptions of the kingdom of God that he gives us; but often it’s through his miracles that Jesus really gets the attention of those around him. Multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed the crowd of thousands shows the abundant goodness of God in a way that words just can’t do. One can know theoretically that God takes care of us, but seeing Jesus calm the storm and still the seas gives that knowledge the firmness of experience. The miracles of Jesus, in short, show that what he claims is worthy of belief.
In the Gospel today, Jesus works what surely was one of his most dramatic miracles, the raising of his friend Lazarus from the dead. Each of the last three weeks, the reading from the Gospel of John has had Jesus encounter a particular person and change them in a fundamental way. Two weeks ago, if you remember, we heard of how he met the Samaritan woman at the well, giving her the gift of faith, and reconciling her to neighbors who had shunned her because of her sinfulness. Last week, we heard of how Jesus healed the blind man by the pool of Siloam, giving him status again among the Jewish community who before had taken no notice of him. These interactions show that Jesus is all about breaking down barriers, restoring the individuals he meets to fullness of life.
Today’s Gospel, though, shows a different kind of encounter, one with a person not lacking fullness of life, but life itself. We are told that Lazarus was Jesus’s friend, and that he wept when he was taken to Lazarus’s tomb. It’s strange, therefore, that Jesus behaves the way he does when first hearing that his friend had fallen ill. Did you notice that the Gospel says that upon receiving the news, Jesus stayed where he was for two days? This delay results in Lazarus’s death, something pointed out by both Martha and Mary: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even the Jews wonder, “Couldn’t the one who healed the blind man, have done something?”
What exactly is Jesus doing? Is he being selfish, or lazy – or, worse, cruel? No, certainly not. Rather, some things are better learned by experience them than by explanation. The fundamental message of Jesus throughout his public ministry is that he has come to bring fullness of life – a life of abundance in God’s grace that extends even beyond this life. This message though can remain theoretical, hypothetical even, unless it is experienced in some way. And so Jesus chose to allow Lazarus to die – even, indeed, to permit his loved ones to grieve his death – in order to teach us a greater truth. Here he shows us that – even more than forgiving an individual’s sins or curing a sick person – Jesus possesses the power to reach even beyond the grave to grant us the fullness of life. By raising Lazarus, Jesus also in a sense raises Martha and Mary, raises all who saw, raises indeed all of us who believe in him so that we too can see – not just in theory, but in actuality – that even death has been conquered by Christ. If that is something that we believe, then we can’t help be changed by it, and encounter anew in a profound way God’s all-conquering love.
Friends, one week from now, we will enter into Holy Week and begin again our most solemn celebrations of the year. In them, we will recall how the mystery of suffering and death is something that God has dealt with finally and completely, not just theoretically but in the experience of his own Son. Jesus raised Lazarus from the death only to one day die again; but by his own death and resurrection, we who are members of his Body have also been raised to eternal life. No human suffering, no sorrow at our own mortality or the mortality of those we love, indeed no force on earth or in hell can separate us from the love of Christ if we remain in that love. May we prepare our hearts well for the high holy days to come, that He who is the Resurrection and the Life will help us to experience anew – now and in every moment – the victory over death that he gives.