A matter of life and death

Lent 5 – 2014
John 11:1-42
Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us life in abundance. Amen

One of the mysteries in the account of the raising of Lazarus is Jesus’ tardiness – when Jesus hears that Lazarus is ill he stays where he is for two more days. This is even harder to understand when the narrator tells us that Jesus loved Lazarus and that Jesus wept when he learned that Lazarus had died. This confusion is shared by the characters in the narrative. The disciples take Jesus literally when he says that Lazarus is merely asleep, Martha exclaims: “if you had been here my brother would not have died” – a sentiment echoed by her sister Mary. The Jews wonder: “could not the man who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Why, when Jesus cares so much for his friends and obviously has the power to cure the sick, does he delay?

An obvious reason for Jesus’ hesitation is that the Judeans are trying to kill him. If Jesus returns to Jerusalem it will place him (and by association his disciples) at great risk. It is little wonder then that he takes some time to think about the consequences of his going . What changes his mind appears to be his belief that Lazarus has died. This simply adds to the confusion – why, having chosen to play it safe, would he now risk his life and that of others to go to someone who is already dead? Again the answer is in the text: “so that you might believe”. Believe what is an obvious question, the answer to which is found in Jesus’ discussion with Martha. In response to Martha’s assertion that Lazarus will rise again on the last day, Jesus responds: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live.”

Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been claiming to be life. The gospel begins with the claim that “in him was life and the life was the light of all people” and the word life occurs at least forty more times – sometimes with the descriptor eternal life, but often on its own. “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10). It is this focus on life in the gospel as a whole that helps us to get a handle on this chapter. When Jesus says that Lazarus’ illness is not unto death he is not trying to deceive or mislead the disciples. What he is trying to do is to get the disciples and the Jews to understand life and therefore death differently, to understand that somehow, as a consequence of his presence in the world, the relationship between life and death has radically changed – a fact that will become clear after Jesus’ own death and resurrection, but which he wants them to take on faith in the present.

Physical death is brutally real – the raising of Lazarus does not alter that fact, neither does Jesus try to sugar coat the reality of death. Lazarus is not raised to eternal life, but to life in the present, a life that will eventually end with death. Death separates us from the one who has died and the one who has died loses any benefits he or she might have had in life. The grief that Lazarus’ sisters and friends (including Jesus) feel cannot be avoided. In raising Lazarus Jesus’ attempt to redefine the ways that his followers think about death. (In order for that to happen, Lazarus has to physically die.)

There are a number of aspects to this redefinition of death. First of all, Jesus’ apparent lack of concern does not indicate indifference to Lazarus’ illness or indifference with regard to the sister’s grief. Jesus’ refusal to be hurried demonstrates that death (even his own) is not a matter over which human beings have any control. Death is something that is determined by God (not illness or other cause). Pilate himself would have no power to crucify Jesus unless that power had first been given him by God. Secondly, by creating ambiguity around Lazarus’ death – saying the illness will not lead to death, saying that Lazarus is asleep when he is not, opening the grave when it is certain he is dead, Jesus opens the possibility that death is not the definitive end to life. Death is more open ended – life does not cease completely after the death of the physical body.

A third way in which death is redefined is the notion that death is in some way for the glory of God. In the case of Lazarus, death glorifies God because his being raised to life will help the disciples to believe that Jesus is life. When Jesus raises Lazarus, he demonstrates that death cannot defeat life – something that will be definitively proven when Jesus is raised from the dead never to die again. Life and death are in the hands of God. Finally, the raising of Lazarus shows the disciples that death does not lead to separation something that will be clearly evident to them when Jesus rises from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection life will break into the world of the disciples ensuring that they are never separated from him.

In the account of the raising of Lazarus, both life and death are radically redefined for the disciples of Jesus. They learn that death has lost its power to overcome life. That said, Jesus offers no false promises of happy endings, no assurance that pain and sorrow have been eliminated from the world, just an assurance that this life can, with confidence be understood as a prelude to the life to come, that the separation from loved ones is only a temporary condition and that no matter what happens in the present, Jesus will never abandon those who believe in him because death itself cannot separate him from those whom he loves.

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