Reflection for Sunday – March 26, 2023
Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
It may have happened to you, or to someone you know. You miss your last chance to be present to someone you love before they die.
When it happened to relatives of mine, they had just left their husband and father in the hospital after an unremarkable visit, and learned only hours later that he had passed away about the time they were down in the parking lot getting into the car. In my case, I was flying home from a conference in the Netherlands, having received a call from my brother the night before that our father was hospitalized and not doing well. I landed at Dulles for the connecting flight and ran to the bank of pay phones along the wall. That was when I reached my brother at home. My father had died when I was over the Atlantic.
In today’s Gospel, however, the writers of John make a point to say that Jesus delayed deliberately when he heard his dear friend Lazarus was dying. By the time Jesus and his friends arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead for four days. There’s a theological reason why the writers framed the story this way. It seems that in ancient Jewish belief the spirit of the dead person was thought to remain near the body for three days. “Four days” meant that Lazarus really was dead. Martha’s later words reinforce the point: “By now there will be a stench; he’s been dead four days.”
All three of the stories from John’s Gospel that we’ve been hearing at Mass —Jesus’ dialogue with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus’ creation of new sight for a man born blind, and now the revival of Lazarus, were stories constructed to meet the immediate pastoral needs of the Johannine community at the end of the first century C.E. They needed to believe that Jesus was indeed “the resurrection and the life.” They were struggling to survive as followers of Christ in a world where, on the one hand, they lived in fear under the Roman military occupation, and on the other, Jewish converts to Christianity were excommunicated, as it were, from their local synagogue.
The writers of John told these stories adding extra scenes with a variety of characters, and layers of dialogue, to make clear that Jesus knew he was on his way to arrest, trial and execution on a cross at Jerusalem. His friends, however, couldn’t yet put the pieces together.
In the first scene his friends seem to think that Lazarus could be healed, and they couldn’t figure out why Jesus delayed their departure. The dialogue raises the ideas of light and darkness (a favorite in John) and why Jesus said first that Lazarus’ illness would not lead to death. His friends, however clueless on the meaning of events, knew that Jesus was putting himself and them in danger by going back to Judea. Jesus exposed himself to his own death when he traveled to Bethany on the occasion of Lazarus’ death.
Jesus’ dialogue with Martha illustrates more misunderstanding about death and life. When Jesus tells her, “Your brother will rise,” Martha thinks immediately of the Jewish belief that the dead will rise at the end of time when God is victorious, and this means bodily resurrection as well. But the writers of John are coming from a later Wisdom/Sophia theology which holds that the righteous remain always in life, body or no body, because they live on in the Spirit. The Word/Sophia was pre-existent before creation. We see that in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God.” We see Jesus’ pain at the lack of comprehension by both Martha and Mary, even when Martha can use profound titles for Jesus. He starts to cry. Yet Jesus speaks in terms that come from the Sophia tradition: embraced by the life of eternity, returning to the Holy One, lifted up and exalted, and he will return. (Oddly enough, the Order for Christian Funerals includes both ideas.)
All of this language prepares Christian believers to enter into the fearful events of Holy Week with an eye on eternal life in the Spirit.
It’s understandable to dwell on the circumstances of a sudden death, or to sink into the regret and deeper pain that follows if we blame ourselves for what we didn’t do. Yet in faith we can tell the story differently. We can focus on “the life that does not die.”