5th Sunday of Lent
10th April 2011
Tony van Vuuren
We have arrived at the 5th Sunday of our Lenten journey, hearing one of the longer Gospel narrations; a narrative that describes in part the resurrection of Lazarus; the last and the greatest of the signs (miracles) worked by Jesus; and also a story that is an important one because of the serious consequences for Jesus. It will precipitate His death. He gives Lazarus life but at the cost of His own.
Hearing the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus, the question that might well arise in the minds of many of us is: why did Jesus allow his best and most faithful friends to suffer anguish for four days? He could have cured Lazarus of his illness the moment he heard of it! Yet he delayed and allowed the sisters to suffer the death of their beloved brother.
The delay had two purposes: Jesus wanted to make the miracle that He would perform in Bethany be the convincing proof of his claim to be who he was—the Messiah, sent by God to give a new life, an eternal life, to mankind. He also wanted to give his enemies, the chief priests and Pharisees an urgent reason and motive to carry out his condemnation and crucifixion.
Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem—so within a few hours the Pharisees had news of Lazarus (11:46); they called a meeting and decided that Christ must be put to death. It was his Father’s will that he should die at the Passover feast which was drawing near: Jesus had completed his work; his “hour” had come and so in working this miracle, he gave them the extra motive and excuse for carrying out their plans of putting Jesus to death.
That Jesus’ closest friends had to suffer for a while, in order to cooperate with him in his plans was an unavoidable necessity. Is there not herein a possible answer to the questionings of divine providence, which we hear so often from otherwise devout followers of Christ?
Drowned in our own personal sorrow and grief we cannot see that this very sorrow and grief that we are sometimes burdened with is part of Christ’s plan for our salvation. And the fact that we are loyal, true friends of Christ is the very reason we are chosen to carry some particularly heavy cross. Less faithful friends would not be able to help him, so in his mercy he does not put that extra load on their unwilling shoulders.
Throughout his gospel John has been pointing to the “signs” Jesus performed — “signs” that will reveal to us who he is. (Bear in mind that St John refers to miracles as signs.)
The Lazarus story is another significant Johannine “sign.”
Perhaps we envisage a new and resurrected life as something that will only happen after we die. But when we read John we realize whatever the promise Jesus holds for us is available now. Let’s take the dialogue with Martha as an example of the “present tense” possibilities of Jesus for us.
Jesus refers to himself today with another “I am” statement (“I am the resurrection and the life.”) Jesus, in John’s gospel, is very present tense. He isn’t, “I was,” — or just, “I will be.”
He is “I am!”
Martha criticizes Jesus for delaying his coming to the distressed family. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Who of us here this evening hasn’t, at one time or another, implored the Lord’s help in a desperate situation and gotten no quick response? At those times it feels like we were put on hold!
Jesus engages Martha in conversation; and as we have seen in previous dialogues in John’s Gospel narratives this Lent, once an earnest conversation with Jesus begins it leads to deeper faith. (E.g. the dialogue with the Samaritan woman, the man born blind and now with Martha.)
Jesus tells Martha that her brother will rise again. She thinks he means the resurrection “on the last day.” But the message throughout John is that Jesus is offering us life now, not just at the end time. It isn’t just that the resurrection will take place at some future time, as Martha believes, but that Jesus has come to give us life here and now.
The resurrection is a present tense experience, as well as our future hope.
What the discussion with Martha and then Lazarus’ rising from the dead underlines and substantiates, is Jesus’ description of himself, “I am the resurrection and the life.”
In our church and in our personal lives we need what Jesus is promising now. We need him to be our resurrection–that he also calls us out of our current tombs and the dead spots of our daily lives; unwrapping the binding cloths that tie us down.
Most of us can name the tombs in which we find ourselves; the places of captivity; the pits we have dug for ourselves; the situations that seem beyond our energies and even desire to address; We could also name where we feel overwhelmed by what we must face. Perhaps we went into the tombs on our own initiative; a decision that didn’t yield the happiness we had hoped for. We often refer to this reality as death of the heart or spiritual death. There are many of us who are entombed in this kind of death every day because of the sad and tragic circumstances of our lives. Who can possibly reverse this situation and revive us, stir us back to life, free us from the tombs that hold us? Who can perform the CPR that will reverse such desperate situations?
It depends on where our faith lies. The resuscitation of Lazarus gives us reason to place our trust in Jesus’ words to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life… everyone who believes in me will never die.”
Jesus isn’t just promising that we will be resurrected to a new life in the future; but that right now he is calling us out of our graves to give us life—right now.
Faith in Jesus’ Word keeps us from giving up. Which makes one wonder if there isn’t too much emphasis placed on reward in the next life and not enough emphasis or neglect of the eternal life we can have now with Christ. We not only need life later, we need life now.
We need to hear Jesus calling us to rise from those dark places where we find ourselves.
What does it mean to live as resurrected people?
When we hear Jesus’ call, it doesn’t mean just resuscitation with energy to go back to the way things have always been. That’s not what having divine life here and now means. That’s the old life, not the new life we are preparing to celebrate this Easter. Together with the RCIA candidates who will be received at the Easter Vigil we are all faced with the opportunity of embracing a new life in Christ; a new life with Christ that will ensure that we have a new self discipline with which to overcome addictions and encrusted habits; a freedom and new confidence in our prayer; a deeper commitment and self-giving to Christ in our daily life; more availability to the needs of others and a freer spirit that comes with the forgiveness we have received. Of course we look forward to a full life and communion with Christ in the future. But our focus is on the here and now, for we have been called out of our graves, out of our dark corners, and given the opportunity of Christ’s new and abundant life.
Now is the time to share that life with our loved ones, our families, our community; the world.
The resurrection is present tense.