It is perhaps well known and accepted that the raising of Lazarus anticipates the resurrection of Christ himself. Theologically, this sign in the Gospel of St John comes heavy laden with dramatic irony. The resurrection of Lazarus provokes those who will move against Jesus. The resurrection of Lazarus triggers the death and resurrection of Christ. However important these insights are they do not exhaust the significance of this event as one of the classic signs of Christ saving work in the gospel of St John. Much of the gospel story is taken up with a more personal aspect; namely the attitudes and reactions of the main characters, including our Lord himself, and it is these that I wish to explore today.
First we may observe the importance St John attaches to the fact that Christ loves the people with whom He shares His life. Since Jesus loves everyone the same we might wonder why this is even mentioned. It is not after all that our Lord has special favourites, ones whom he loves more than others. In his divinity his love is infinite and inexhaustible, poured out for every creature without limit exactly the same. However, in his humanity this was not possible. A distinction needs to be made between our Lord’s universal love which belonged to the divine nature and the particular and specific loving defined by his human nature. More plainly we might say that Jesus on earth loved everyone but His intimate loving relationships and friendships were necessarily confined to a few, namely his family and friends, with whom he spent more time. He is not so limited now.
Indeed these particular close friendships are now universal in ways they never could have been when he was a man. This is important because although Jesus is absent in the flesh (except in the holy Eucharist in a mystical manner) his Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit from the Father mean that His close personal relationships and friendships are now open to all not just a few. Standing this side of Pentecost we therefore need to see ourselves in the person of St John who they close to his Lord’s breast at the Last Supper and here in this story, not only Lazarus himself but also Martha, Mary and our Lord’s other close friends and family. We stand in exactly the same position before Christ as they. Our relationship with Him is to be as personal, as close and as intimate as theirs.
Returning to the story, we immediately notice, perhaps with alarm, that Jesus has a rather strange notion, (at least that is until we understand this better), concerning how he should treat his friends when they grieve. He does not immediately rush into the situation to sort it out. Upon hearing that Lazarus was sick he stays two more days where he was, and this he does quite deliberately. He says in verse 15: “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.” What was the point then of this waiting for two days? It was so that the friends and family of Lazarus might believe. Many of us tend to think that Christ should be present with us all the time and yet our common experience is precisely this: that He often withdraws. Unless this happens we would not develop our own thinking, feeling and believing to bridge that gap between where we are and where we should be. Our Lord wants us to bring to the table, with ruthless honestly our feelings, our faith, our hopes and our fears. He wants us to grow and mature spiritually through these experiences, difficult and painful though these might be. It is not that he does not care. He cares to have us care first. Note now what Martha and Mary bring to the table…. frustration, anger, incomprehension. Christ does not reject these things nor does he reject his friends but he helps them see how their existing thinking, feeling and believing has been misplaced. Consider the dialogue with Martha which is later echoed by Mary when she joins the group. Martha says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Frustration and anger give way to trust and hope and in that transformation formal doctrine fundamentally changes its character. When she says: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” Jesus brings this perfectly correct but dead statement to life by focusing it on Himself. He says (in the classic manner of the ‘I am’ sayings of the Johannine accounts): “I AM the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he that may die, he shall live. And whoever lives believes in me shall never die.” In this invitation to personal faith Jesus becomes truly present to her with everything that He has to offer and especially His resurrection life that will shortly rekindle Lazarus’ dormant spirit and body.
Before that happens Jesus has something else very special to bring to this situation: his own grief. Twice the Scriptures record the tribulation in His heart leading Him to groan quite audibly and we also have that shortest and perhaps most profound reference to divine grief: “Jesus wept.” This is no play-acting. Jesus is grieving also. Time after time when I conduct funerals I try to get people to see this that their grieving finds a place in the heart of God himself. Life and its inevitable grief becomes so much more bearable when we know that our tears are matched by those of God, our suffering is hidden within His own wounded body and that death itself is not alien to the divine state.
But enough! The time is at hand for the creative Logos again to speak; to bring forth life out of nothing. Jesus says, simply: “Take away the stone.” Sadly and not yet fully understanding what she has heard, Martha incredulously refers to the stench. Jesus reminds her, she must believe. Then for greater effect, but not because he needs to, He cries out in a loud voice: “Lazarus come forth!” The rest we know, the dead man lives. Even now at the end of this story there is much to learn in Christ final command. He speaks the words of life. He speaks these life-giving words to each one of us personally. He says to me, priest, Gregory: “Come forth!” Note that I have to do something! I respond to the Word. I come forth at his command. I lay aside death. I embrace life. I become what he is – RESURRECTION! That is the meaning of today. Let us never forget it. Let us live it!