The raising of Lazarus has much in common with the story of the Samaritan woman which we heard two weeks ago. Jesus’ interaction with women is uppermost in both stories. I find it interesting that the few deep, person to person conversations Jesus has in John’s gospel are all with women. They seem to ask the questions that get to the heart of the matter. In both stories the women had issues with Jesus. The Samaritan woman did not expect Jesus to be sitting at the well, nor did she want him there. Martha and Mary, on the other hand, had the opposite complaint, namely, why wasn’t he there? Each of them used the exact same words: ‘If you had been here my brother would not have died.’ In both stories, Jesus makes no effort to apologise but simply invites them to go deeper. With the Samaritan woman, he moves on from ordinary water to living water that can well up in one’s heart. With the Bethany sisters, the issue is living life as compared to ordinary life.
As the conversation with Martha unfolds we see Jesus bringing this grieving sister from a theoretical faith to an actual, living faith in him. At first Martha trusts that Jesus can answer her prayers by saying ‘if you had been here…’ Jesus answers by saying Lazarus will rise, but Martha doesn’t believe it can happen now. She pushes it into a distant future time: “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus then goes further and asks if she believes he is the resurrection and the life. Her answer shows that though she has a profound faith in Jesus she avoids the question of the resurrection: “I have come to believe that you are the Christ”. She can’t seem to make the jump from Messiah to resurrection.
When Jesus asks Martha to open the tomb, she hesitates: “Lord, by now there will be a stench.” So, Jesus nudges her forward: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” Jesus is talking about glory here and now, not in some distant future. Finally, she agrees to the stone being removed. The tomb is opened and Jesus calls Lazarus forth, and Martha comes to believe.
The struggle of Martha is also our struggle. We are inclined to see the resurrection as an event in the future but not having any great impact on our present life. It’s something that comes as a reward at the end after our struggles here. But the Christian faith is much more than this: it requires that we live as people who have been raised to new life and for whom death and the tomb are not the end. This means believing that God is calling us to a new life here and now — today!
The apostles are a wonderful example of what it means to be living a full life compared to mere ordinary living. Ordinary living was their lot all during Jesus’ lifetime with their squabbles among each other, jockeying for positions and hoping Jesus would restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. When Jesus entered his passion, they were found most wanting and ended up running for their lives. But with Pentecost all of that changed. They became a risen people, utterly bold and courageous, only too happy to suffer for the name of Jesus. This extraordinary change was due to the fact that they were living the resurrection as a present reality. It wasn’t that life was any easier for them — certainly not. Their struggles continued and they suffered much more in the line of resistance and persecution. They were, however, full of the Easter Jesus. They had become fountains of living water just as Jesus had prophesied to the Samaritan women. They had moved from ordinary living to living life to the full.
Today’s miracle invites us to see ourselves in Lazarus. We may not be physically dead but spiritual death is a reality. St. Paul says that we have all fallen short of the glory of God. The web of evil that has caused so much pain and havoc in today’s world has affected us also and, in all humility, we have to admit that we too are entangled in it. But just as Jesus asked for Lazarus to be unbound and set free so he wants to unbind us so that we can walk again in the light of the Lord. Jesus loved Lazarus and so too he loves us and is determined to bring us all to a new life of grace, joy, peace and love.
This is none other than the fulfilment of God’s dream for us going way back into the Old Testament. In today’s first reading the good Lord promised Ezekiel he would raise us from our graves and put his spirit in us. That’s what is symbolised today in the raising of Lazarus. But we have our part to play. St. Paul tells us that for this to happen we must leave behind all unspiritual things since God has made his home in us. Welcoming the Holy Spirit in our lives is to live the life of the risen Jesus and to allow his vision and his passion to energise and move us forward.
A firm belief in the resurrection doesn’t free us from the ordinary chores of everyday life. There will still be bills to be paid, school fees to catered for, the hassle and stress of modern living etc. Nevertheless, living the resurrection in the here and now gives us a solid footing and a firm hope that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.’
Sunday, 2nd April 2017