Death is Real
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:1-45
The Capuchin Crypt in Rome is one of several holy places in which the entire space is meticulously decorated; decorated with the bones of people. I think it would be nearly impossible to enter a space like this for worship and not understand that death is real. Ezekiel was brought to such a space where in the valley lay many dry bones. Through the word of God, these bones were rebuilt with sinews and flesh, skin and breath; and they lived again.
Orthodox Christians generally believe that when we die, we are on hold until Christ comes again. At that time, all people will physically rise from the grave and the once dead will proceed to enter either Heaven or Hell. This messianic age would be something like what Ezekiel experienced but on a global scale.
There is clearly a resemblance of the dead rising in Ezekiel and Lazarus but even more clearly is the resemblance of Christ’s resurrection. Lazarus lay in the tomb for four days and is resurrected by Christ. This was a spectacle for all to see and becomes the turning point in John’s Gospel account.
Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is his last and the ultimate sign of who Christ is to the world; at least until his own resurrection. Two weeks ago we read of the Samaritan woman at the well in which Jesus knows what is in her heart. Last week Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. Today he resurrects the dead. In the remainder of this Gospel account, Jesus focuses his attention on the disciples and not the people in the world. I some way we could say that the first half of the gospel is directed at the non-believer; so that they can understand and believe who Jesus is. This is done by the numerous signs he performs; pointing out directly that Jesus is the Christ. With this thought then, the second half of the Gospel is primarily directed to the believers, so that we may understand who Christ is for us personally. We can learn and model our lives after him through the intimate conversations and interactions he has with his disciples.
Right now we have this story in front of us, the story the divides this Gospel equally. And so it is this story that bridges both halves. It deals with miraculous signs, revelations of faith, and conversations with those he loves. But one of the most curious points seems to be about time. It is the concept of time which unlocks our story. A simple two day delay in time also shows that the main point, for us, is not the miracle of bringing a dead man back to life.
In this story, Jesus receives a message that a dear friend is ill. This illness wasn’t some minor illness such as the common cold. Mary and Martha sent someone to track down Jesus. When they find him he seems to be a two-days travel away. This is how important this message was. Yet after hearing the news, “Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” This seems so cruel for the family and friends of Lazarus. They would have spent time preparing the body, taking him to the tomb, morning with friends and family. This was done without Jesus at their side. Possibly their most trusted friend. Their priest, was nowhere to be found. But this delay was not a cruel joke. Nor was this delay a tactic Jesus uses so he could show everyone his amazing powers.
In verse 15, Jesus states directly as to why the delay, though no one hears it, not even us. “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.’” He delayed so that you may believe. All kinds of people doubt that Jesus is the Messiah, even his closest disciples. At one point in this story, his disciples think they are going on a suicide mission. Martha thinks Jesus is simply a miracle worker, and Mary, by the fact that she is crying at the death of her brother, demonstrates that she does not fully believe that Jesus is the Christ either. Seeing the others weep, knowing that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days makes his death all too real and they doubt. Even the ones with the most faith doubt.
This lack of belief is what angers Jesus and causes him to weep. It’s not sympathy or grief. When we read that Jesus is disturbed, we find that the word disturbed is translated from the Greek word thunder. So is not out of sympathy but out of their lack of faith that Jesus weeps and is disturbed. Jesus knows that the people may never fully embrace or understand who he is but this sign, raising a long dead man, should greatly help their faith. And it does.
In the next eight verses (which we did not read) we hear how this event causes an outpouring of support for Jesus; so much so that the some of the Jewish authority become afraid. The reports of this miracle to the authorities do not mention that Jesus called on God to raise the dead man. The council seems to only receive the report of Jesus doing this on his own; leading them to believe that he is just a miracle worker and not the messiah.And because he is just a miracle worker, they are not directly afraid of Jesus.
They are afraid that because of this wave of support, this miracle worker will destabilize their authority. With this destabilization and a loss of religion, the Romans will come in and destroy their way of life. It is because of the fear of the Romans that the high priest decides to have both Jesus and Lazarus killed. The Gospel writer points out that the high priest received the idea to kill Jesus through a prophecy. The prophecy is that the death of Jesus will reunite all of the people of God. Though the high priest may have been misguided in what this actually means, restoring all people to God through Christ is one of the main tenants of Christian faith.
What I think is important to realize is that God doesn’t intentionally cause us pain in which to make us an example of his great power. God didn’t kill Lazarus. God isn’t causing the pain that Lazarus’s sisters are feeling. The pain comes from life, or in this case the death of a loved one. Pain so often comes from our love for one another. God could stop our pain and suffering. God could stop all the pain and suffering in the world. But that is not God. In part, this would cause us to lose our free will.
We are called to be patient and faithful through hard times; to pick up our cross daily. In both good times and in bad, God works in his own time to heal or to give rebirth. God works through our pain and suffering to reveal himself, to us and to others, in a more profound way. It was through the pain and suffering at Lazarus’s death in which Jesus was revealed. It was through the suffering of the blind man that Jesus was revealed. And it was through the suffering of the woman at the well that Jesus was revealed. It is through our faithful suffering, and ultimately through the very real death of our flesh, that we are given rebirth in Christ and that Christ is revealed.
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Series 4 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1998) 333
Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, Sacra Pagina Series 4 (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN 1998) 331-333