On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, many Christians will hear the report of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. It is recorded in Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John, linked here rather than paste here a long text over which you’ll likely skip and skim.
…Did you read or play it? You really should. Last nudge.
The title and picture gracing this post refer to an article by Leslie J. Blackhall and Kunchok Gyaltsen in The Handbook of Thanatology. I’ve been reading from this excellent resource as I’ve been called into hospice bereavement care.
“The Lazarus Narrative” does not reflect well on the Gospel passage, or, to be more accurate, on American Christianity’s effort to “find application” of it. Blackhall and Gyaltsen cite a 2018 study that
…found that high levels of religious coping were associated with denying negative prognostic information, desire for resuscitation in terminal situations, and with the use of intensive care near death. Patients who received support from their religious communities were less likely to receive hospice and six times more likely to die in an ICU [intensive care unit]. This was unsurprising, in that more than 85% of US pastors surveyed by this research team expressed the belief that God has the power to heal illness.
What is going on in the Lazarus event reported by John? Is it telling us that Jesus is a miracle worker, come to meet our needs? And, if so, is it a moral lesson, obligating us to keep praying and prolonging life at all costs – even desperate and traumatic institutional interventions – as proof of our faith? The research suggests that it’s preached and heard that way.
But when it comes to us, the raising of Lazarus gives little that would suggest moral application. Jesus’ friends love him and are aware of his love – “See how he loved Lazarus!,” the mourners cry out as Jesus weeps. They believe in his power to heal – “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” laments Lazarus’ sister.
Even with hearts and minds in the right place, the people around Lazarus do not gain power over sickness and death. Even with their love for Jesus and urgent appeals to him, he does not come and heal Lazarus. In fact, he purposely delays coming to them, ensuring that Lazarus’ illness is terminal.
The scandalous challenge of the raising of Lazarus is to take our gaze off of ourselves and direct it toward Jesus – not for what he can do but for who he is.
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel we hear, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)
Jesus is the glory of God inhabiting our flesh and blood reality. “Glory” is a churchy word without an easy definition. My favorite approach to it is the Hebrew word kavod. It is translated “glory” when referring to the presence of God but it is also the word for “liver.” Kosher butchers knew that the heaviest internal organ is the liver. In this sense, “glory” resonates with the hippie exclamation, “Heavy.” Big… weighty… beyond simple explanation but of overwhelming presence. John and the other apostolic witnesses saw the glory of God, as Paul would write, in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6). Heavy…
To draw our human gaze to the glory of God, Jesus employs miracles. Sometimes he shares them through his church or even apart from it even now. They are not token rewards for faith, although Jesus often praises the faith of those who receive them. They take place to unveil the glory – the heavy presence – of God, and of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Not long before he reports the raising of Lazarus, John tells of Jesus healing a man who was born blind (John 9). The apostles walking with Jesus seek a moral application lesson from the blindness, asking if the blindness was a punishment for sin. Jesus replies,
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.
Jesus gives the man sight. But it is not all blessing in earthly terms – the circumstances of the healing put the man into immediate conflict with the religious authorities and cause him to be estranged from his family. So what was the point?
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. The miracle was not a reward or an exhortation to pray harder. It was to demonstrate the presence of God, and to bring the man’s full attention – his worship – to the glory of God in Jesus.
So it is that when Mary and Martha first send to Jesus for a healing, he gives the confusing yet key response, This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
Heavy indeed. But like the healing of the blind man, it is not all blessing in earthly terms. The sisters must deal with the frustration of Jesus not coming when asked, the pain of their brother’s death, the confusion of why their trusting faith was not rewarded.
Jesus’ apostles are just as much adrift as the sisters. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” One of them starts to think that this whole discipleship thing is a suicide pact. Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
When they arrive, Lazarus is dead and buried. His sister Martha, still overwhelmed, meets Jesus. Jesus seems to offer a platitude about Lazarus rising again. Martha says, Yes, I know, in the resurrection at the last day. Pie in the sky bye and bye. But Jesus calls her gaze off of all that she is experiencing and even what she believes, as he says, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?
He has made one of the “blasphemous” claims that will lead to his own death on the cross. HE is the resurrection? HE is life? Belief in HIM overcomes death? He is saying that he is God!
Her eyes of faith shocked open, Martha gazes on the unveiled glory and exclaims, Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.
Now Martha is a witness, an evangelist even, as she goes and gets her sister Mary with what seems like a white lie, The Teacher is here and is calling for you. The text doesn’t say that he asked her to get Mary, yet he is calling for her – he is calling for all of us – to come and put our gaze on him.
Mary comes and the mourners gather and all wonder aloud why Jesus didn’t do a healing. Jesus shows the glory of God in his compassion for us all – he weeps with us and for us in our hurt and doubt.
And then, not because of our fervent prayer or exemplary faith but because we all stand around gazing on the finality of death and decay and loss – Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days – he is moved with glorious love to show us glorious hope. He raises Lazarus out of the grave to new life. Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?
Our lesson breaks off as Lazarus leaves the tomb. But the little bit of Chapter 11 that remains tells us that the religious authorities have had enough. The plans go in motion to put Jesus to death. The glory of God will suffer the death that all of us must face. But because of who he is, our gaze will be lifted to the cross with glorious hope. Dry bones will take flesh and receive breath (Ezekiel 37); a free gift of eternal life will blossom (Romans 6).
Thomas said to his fellow disciples – now including you and me – Let us also go, that we may die with him. But we go knowing that he is resurrection and he is life, that gazing on him with eyes of worship we enter into the glory of God, as we pray on this Fifth Sunday in Lent,
that, among the swift and varied changes of of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.
THAT is the true Larazus narrative.
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