WelCom April 2017:
Kieran Fenn fms
The Gospel reading, for the fifth Sunday of Lent, John 11:1-45, is about the raising of Lazarus.
A Story Told Twice
Have you ever noticed how closely this chapter on Lazarus foreshadows the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus himself? Only seven verses refer to Lazarus. The focus is on Jesus’ conversations with his disciples and then with Martha and Mary. I remember a group once having to act out and try to get across the meaning of the Lazarus event. We made a tomb out of a table, placed as in Bethany, which means ‘house of affliction.’ We had winding cloths and a cloth to cover the face. We had our Lazarus whose name means ‘beloved’ (loved as each of us is). And we had someone say the line, ‘Where have you laid him?’ (11:34) – the same words Mary Magdalene speaks to the gardener as she seeks the body of Jesus (20:15). We then shifted the story to the resurrection from the tomb, and acted out the same scenario with the same words and actions, the mirror of the raising of Lazarus and each one us as poor but loved human beings.
On the Third Day
Notice the time indicators in the story. After staying ‘two days longer’ (11:6) Jesus on the third day sets out for Bethany. Lazarus is described as having been in the tomb for three days plus one. On the fourth day, when physical decay sets in, it was believed the soul that hovered over the body finally left it. We are also told Mary is the one who anointed Jesus with ointment earlier and wiped his feet with her hair. This action was one of preparation for Jesus’ death (12:7). Jesus says, ‘This illness does not lead to death.’ But it does. Jesus goes to raise him, an action that will lead to the plotting of his own death. Lazarus will return to ordinary life while Jesus’ death will not only lead to new life but at the right hand of God, to glory. Poor but loved humanity will take its place beyond our own deaths or sleeps to be with him.
I am the Resurrection and the Life
Jesus, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life, arrives in Bethany and is greeted by Martha who acts as hostess, while Mary sits at home – rather like Luke’s portrait of the two sisters. After expressing her sorrow that Jesus had not come earlier, she expresses conventional faith in resurrection on the last day. The heart of the story is the section between
vv. 23-27, with another powerful ‘I am’ saying, to which Martha responds with the triple confession of faith in Jesus as Christ, Son of God, and the one coming into the world. This is a passage that demands comparison with Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi in Matthew 16:16, the Petrine reply to ‘Who do you say I am?’
Mary and Martha
Mary is called for by Jesus; ‘the Master is here’. She too repeats Martha’s sad line, ‘If you had been here…’. Jesus is moved by her grief and deeply troubled. This is more than a surge of emotion. Some of it would be sadness at our human inability to face our own death and that of a loved one (as I write this I am facing the imminent death of my loved younger brother). Hope and trust in Jesus as the light and life who gives meaning to death for those who love him is the lesson we learn from this gospel.
Signs in John
The shortest verse in the whole of the Gospels is also profoundly human, ‘Jesus wept’ (11:35). Interestingly, someone asks, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ It is a good question as it raises the issue of our own seeing the meaning of signs in John. A sign does not work for us unless we understand it. The Raising of Lazarus operates on many levels, but all of the signs in John are large, magnificent and deeply personal. We all are Lazarus, and Jesus himself concludes the Lazarus account by himself undergoing death, being raised by the God he called his Abba, and becoming the source of risen life for all of who believe in him.
What I most love about the signs in John is the prodigality, the huge generosity of a God who gives us through Jesus 180 gallons of wine (the blood of the grape) at Cana, and Jesus gives his last drops of blood and water on Calvary; he heals a child near death and raises a dead friend, then on the Sabbath both raises a paralytic and restores sight to a man born blind; in the middle of these seven signs he feeds a multitude with five barley loaves and a few fish. The God we believe in is no small God but a super-abundant giver of life.