Our gospel for today is about the last of seven signs, or miracles, that Jesus performs in the Gospel of John. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, where he knows there will be a final confrontation with the religious authorities. He knows he will die soon. John tells us that Jesus had a run-in with some of the religious authorities right before this story takes place. (Whenever the term “Jews” is used in the Gospel of John it usually refers to the religious authorities, not the Jewish people as a whole.) There was even an attempt to stone him. This story, located right in the center of John’s gospel, is the pivotal point between Jesus’ public ministry and the private ministry he will engage in with his disciples before his death.
As Jesus travels towards Jerusalem, a message sent by Mary and Martha informs him that their brother, his friend Lazarus, is sick and near death. These three people are very close friends of Jesus; they are mentioned several times in the Gospel of John. Jesus used to visit their home in Bethany when he needed some time away from the crowds and a chance to rest. They are the only people specifically named in this gospel that Jesus is said to love. So we might wonder, why does Jesus not go immediately to Lazarus when he learns that he is so critically ill? Jesus healed total strangers, why wouldn’t he want to help one of his closest friends?
Jesus gives a hint as to why he waits – but it sounds like a riddle. The illness “does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.” Even though his disciples must have wondered why Jesus did not rush to Bethany to see Lazarus, they were also concerned when he announced that it was time to go there. There was danger being in Bethany, only two miles away from Jerusalem, and the disciples were afraid. We should note that Thomas is the one who bravely declares that they should all go, even if they end up dying with Jesus. We are given a clue to the character and faithfulness of Thomas which is often overlooked.
Although this story will climax at the raising of Lazarus, he has a very passive role. The central characters are his sisters, Mary and Martha, and their experience of grief and loss. They have no doubt that if Jesus had come immediately their brother would still be alive. However, they have different personalities and so respond differently when Jesus arrives.
Martha stands out as a perfect example of faith in this story. She knows scripture, she has learned from Jesus, she knows that God will answer Jesus’ prayers, and she believes in the resurrection of the dead. In spite of the fact that she is deep in mourning, Martha declares that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and the Son of God. No one could give a better confession of faith. In the Gospel of John, prominent women – Jesus’ mother Mary, the Samaritan woman, the sisters Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene – will provide the clearest understanding and proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah.
In contrast to Martha, whose faith is more intellectual, Mary is much more emotional. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, a place where we often see her in this gospel – sitting at his feet listening to him teach. In the next chapter of John, when Jesus and his disciples are at a dinner given by the sisters to celebrate the resuscitation of Lazarus, Mary will anoint his feet in a foreshadowing of his death. Although she does not make the same verbal confession of faith that Martha does, she shows by her actions that she understands who Jesus really is.
Throughout his encounter with Martha and Mary, as he prepares to raise Lazarus, Jesus is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – “disturbed” is the same verb used when his soul is troubled when his own time of trial begins, when he announces that one of his own will betray him, and when he tells his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled at his departure. This is the deepest sort of human emotion – revealing that even the one who is the resurrection and the life is deeply upset by human grief and death.
Before raising Lazarus, Jesus prays – loudly – for the benefit both of his disciples, who remain somewhat clueless, and for the crowd that has gathered. The purpose of the miracle is so that people will believe that God has sent Jesus into the world as the Messiah. He makes it clear that he has the power to raise Lazarus but also that the power comes from God. It is Jesus’ words, literally, his “shout,” that raises Lazarus. Just as Jesus told his disciples to “come” and follow him, so Lazarus comes out of the tomb when called by him.
Lazarus is dead and can do nothing for himself. What he can do is receive the power of God that calls him to a new life. Yet sometimes when we are called to new life we tend to remain wrapped up in all that is familiar, the signs of our old life. Jesus orders them to unbind Lazarus, so that he is free from the temporary death he has experienced and is able to truly live again. Lazarus will eventually die, but he has temporarily given the gift of an extended life.
In the verses following our reading, John tells us that there was a mixed reaction from those who witnessed the miracle. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are overjoyed and will celebrate with Jesus before his death. His disciples have now witnessed seven miracles – are they “getting it” yet? Some of the bystanders come to believe in Jesus, but others go and report him to the authorities, and it is on the basis of this miracle that they decide he is too much of a threat and must be put to death. How ironic that the final journey to the cross and the tomb begins right here, just when Jesus has been at his most loving and life-giving. That is what Jesus meant when he said that Lazarus’ illness “does not lead to death, rather it is for God’s glory.”
The key to this story is in Jesus’ famous proclamation, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” We focus on the word “resurrection” because we want to have eternal life; we want desperately to believe that when we take our last breath on earth it isn’t the end, but rather the beginning of the rest of our life in eternity. We often make our most powerful proclamation about death and resurrection at funerals, yet Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life.” His words are also meant to remind us to continually reassess our lives in the light of the reality of the incarnation, which enables us to live. His proclamation suggests that we need to embrace Jesus as the resurrection and the life not just in times of death, but in our everyday lives. The world is under God’s care and power, and because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we, too can live the resurrected life.
As the witnesses in this gospel came to understand, we can imagine what such new life would be like and apply it to our own lives. Just as Lazarus was unbound from the grave clothes of death, so we can discard all that binds us to the negative parts of our former lives and freely embrace the new life that God continually offers us through Jesus. Amen.