“If only you had been here…”

The Raising of Lazarus (fresco) in the Catacomb of the Giordani, Rome, Italy

This Sunday’s gospel, the good news, is about how Jesus raised a good friend, Lazarus, from death back to life. You can read the gospel here: https://universalis.com/20200329/mass.htm

In the past, when I had discussions with people about the existence of God and, in particular, why a good and loving God didn’t bring healing or stop their loved one dying, this passage was often used by them. And you can see why. If Jesus could do this for his friends, why couldn’t he do it now when we ask for it? Why can’t God do these miraculous acts today? The end result is that many people dismiss this event as a work of fiction written to make Jesus seem more powerful than he was or they interpret it in a spiritual sense; the raising of Lazarus did not really happen but the story was written to remind us that we will have life after death. And for some time, I belonged to the latter camp. Then I did a bit of “digging.”

The Gospel of John is unlike the other Gospels. There are some similarities with them but the structure, language and theology is different. The gospel contains lots of symbolism and imagery e.g. light and darkness, sight and blindness, truth and belief. But one of the unique aspects of this gospel is how the author refers to Jesus’ miracles as “signs.”

As we know, signs along our roads always point to something else. We don’t usually (although we might) look at a sign, stand in awe and say “What an amazing sign!” but rather, we are more interested in what the sign is telling us. A sign points away from itself to something else – a destination.

From reading this passage, you will see there is a lot of raw emotion. Mary and Martha question Jesus on why he was so late coming to see them – he had been given the message days earlier but remained where he was. No doubt they were angry and wanted answers. We also read of Jesus crying – even though he knows he has the power to bring Lazarus back to life, he still cries. This gives us an insight into how deeply he cares for people – he feels their pain and their distress. Jesus’ divinity does not make him aloof to or unaffected by suffering.

But we discover that the reason he has stayed away is because he knows that this miracle will be a “sign.” Jesus did not do miracles to show everyone he was great or powerful. He did not do them for popularity or attention. He did not do this miracle so Lazarus, Martha and Mary will tell everyone about how amazing he is. Don’t forget, and this was something I had never thought about; Lazarus would die again some day. We are even told later in the gospel that the chief priests were plotting to kill him!! Death would come again to Lazarus.

So the miracle is not simply about Lazarus being raised from the dead. Instead of calling it a miracle, let’s use the author’s terminology – a sign. Jesus’ action of raising Lazarus is pointing to something more important – that in Jesus, death has lost and will lose its power over us and it will never have the last word. Ultimately, in Jesus, through the power of the Spirit and in the Father, death is not the end. Instead, there is not an end to life but a change. Resurrection. This is the hope that Jesus gives to Mary and Martha – he is the resurrection and life. Resurrection is no longer just a belief or a religious theory – it is a person. And Jesus points to this deep truth by his action, or rather, the sign – raising a dead man to life.

And this is what millions of Christians base their hope on today; it is what gives them comfort in their times of deepest sorrow when a loved one has died. Only this week, a dear friend of ours died and, though we deeply miss her and many tears have been shed, we have a sure hope that her life has not ended but will continue in the presence of God until her resurrection. It is what she believed too.

The question that Jesus asked Martha is being asked of you now.

“Do you believe this?”

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