On the Sunday at the heart of this Lenten season, we hear again great stories from the Gospel according to John, and if they listen, they impact us as individuals, as communities, and as simply human in a pandemic world. The story of the woman at the well (John 4) was fundamentally consoling; the cure of the man born blind and the exposure of the blindness of so many others (John 9) was challenging, stark, dark. In the Gospel for this 5th Sunday in Lent, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11). In John’s typical and unnerving style, this is both surreal – who can raise the dead, who seriously believes in such things? – and confusingly human, as the late-arriving Jesus finds when he comes finally to Bethany.
Jesus restores his deceased friend to life, and seems to promise the same for every listener. John 11 is often used at funerals, as both preachers and hymn-writers pick up on the consoling words,
25 “I am the resurrection and the life.Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
But the whole story is puzzling too. When Jesus hears of Lazarus’ severe illness, he does not go racing to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, to save him from death; nor does he cure him from a distance, as earlier (John 4) he cured the official’s son without going to his home. He delays and does nothing, until it is too late:
4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazaruswas ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
So Lazarus dies. This specific delay and specific death are for God’s glory: this is the same reason given in John 9.3 for the blindness of the man born blind: “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Even when Jesus arrives too late, the proper words are ready to go. Martha believes in Jesus and aptly professes her faith:
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
But not now. Resurrection yes, but only later. Only a bit later, she is pointing out that Lazarus has been in the grave for a few days, and it is too late to bring out the body:
39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
“Resurrection and life” do not cover the smell of death.
In the end, of course, Jesus restores Lazarus to life. As in Chapter 9, here too is no joyful reunion, no celebration, no hallelujahs. Some believe, but other run to the leaders, to denounce Jesus and set in motion the coming arrest and murder of Jesus:
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.
And the sequel is at first sight not a happy one. Caiphas involuntarily offers a prophecy he himself does not understand:
50 “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
We learn too in Chapter 12 that they want to kill Lazarus too, since he is an uncomfortable reminder of what Jesus scandalously has done.
So what’s the point? A cycle of life-death-rising-life-death-rising, over and over? Perhaps. But John is also highlighting the cost of believing any of this, the way through death to life. For it is in this chapter that Jesus grieves more than anywhere else in the Gospels.
The heart of the story lies right in the middle. Mary, closer to the heart of Jesus, has faith, but she also weeps, since she knows that it is too late. She draws Jesus into her deep sadness:
32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
Come and see: in John 1, Jesus had invited the first disciples to his house: come and see. Come and visit the Word-made-flesh. Here, the invitation reverses the dynamic: Come, God, and see how we suffer, die, and grieve. In John’s typical way – the passion comes before the Passion – and Jesus now reaches the depths of his becoming-flesh, at this tomb with a stone rolled in front of it. (In Philippians 2, St. Paul sees the death of Jesus on the cross as the utmost depth of his humility. Perhaps, but John sees that the death of a loved one can be harder than one's own death.) Jesus is deeply moved, not merely the master who already knows the happy ending. He comes, sees — and weeps:
35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.
It is here that the promise of John 1 is finally, really fulfilled:
14 The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
The glory of God is now revealed — in the worst of situations, when ordinary consolations and ordinary words of comfort have run out, when all the right words are still right, but no longer work. In the face of a death too late to reverse, in tears with tears, God is present, caught up in our human plight. Here is the portal, the way to life through death.
During our pandemic: quite often, too often, I delay in the face of death, detaching myself from other people’s deaths, especially when they happen far away, or simply not on the street where I live. We postpone coming down to dwell among those who suffer. In our scriptures we have all the right words, but such words work only to some extent — nice words, too verbal, not fleshly enough — and gain force only when we are finally there, in the middle, among those who are lost.
We are not characters in John 11. Resurrection is not happening right away. Those dying each day in such terrifying numbers are not coming back. Those who are helping the sick and dying risk dying themselves. The words of holy books do not insulate us. Rather they push us to be with those in dire need, standing together near the many graves, tears mingled. The least we do is show up, mourn with those who mourn, weep with those who weep. Then the words of Jesus may break through with some other power:
43 Lazarus, come forth!
In the days of the pandemic, even if we remain very careful about distancing ourselves, let us at least in our hearts show up, cease to be distant, dwell among those who suffer, our tears mingling with theirs, at every tomb. That is a start, at least; that is what Jesus did, will do - in what we do - in our time of loss.