Frances writes on this coming Sunday’s readings :- John’s account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45) is one packed with meaning. Unlike the synoptic gospels which have Jesus’ thrice repeated prediction of his arrest, death and resurrection, John seems to play this out in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Instead of the tripartite synoptic accounts with the disciples reactions, we are invited to enter into this account and become involved in its implications. In other words, this is the way in which John leads us into an appreciation of what will shortly happen to his master – it is a pre-run of the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. But it is also far more, for as those who know this gospel will realise, the raising of Lazarus from the dead will be the catalyst which leads to the meeting of the Jewish council and their condemning of Jesus to death in 11:47-53. Then in the immediately following verses they also try to remove Lazarus from the scene. The cat is finally out of the bag and the Jewish authorities must now either accept Jesus for what he is – the Son of God – or get rid of him and protect their own necks and the traditions they so insistently and intransigently cling on to: “If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Just a few verses further on Jesus will say “the hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified”, that is, by his death. As the scene continues, we begin to explore its depths, though not without difficulty.
The Jerusalem Bible twice speaks of the ‘sighing’ of Jesus which hardly conveys what the Greek had in mind, for the verb they use is more often expressive of anger or even deep emotion and groaning. Now clearly Jesus is not piqued with his dead friend nor merely fed up, so the suggestion is that he knew full well the effect that this, the last of his miracles or ‘signs’ as John calls them, would have on the Jewish authorities and he willingly engaged with them. “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live and who ever lives and believes in me will never die.” This is the final dénouement, the moment when Jesus issues his unmistakable challenge to the Jewish authorities and in which they must either accept him or kill him. This encounter is in one sense not about Lazarus at all, who as we see does not really have a starring role in the scene, it is about Jesus challenging evil in the shape of those utterly opposed to his life and ministry, and from the basest of motives. It is about Our Lord taking on and defeating that most feared and final of evils, death itself; of its vanquishing as the Word of God made flesh, God’s sacrificial lamb, takes on and defeats sin and evil in an act of recreation of fallen humanity. In this pre-run of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus himself, we are given space for meditation on the meaning of Jesus, the Saviour of the world, and are enabled to enter into the meaning of his passion more deeply.
St Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome (Romans 8:8-11) contemplates this need to see beyond the surface of things to what he calls the spiritual things. In chapter 8 of Romans he gives a lengthy meditation on the salvation wrought for us by Christ in his death, something which as he realised only Christ could do, since no matter how hard we try to live as we should as men and women redeemed by Christ, something always gets in the way. Be it our worldliness; selfishness or just plain stupidity, there is that in us which continually returns us to our human sinfulness and fallibility, no matter how hard we try. In this plight we can only cling onto Christ. It is something we are all continually aware of, and Paul’s genius lay precisely in seeing that this condition afflicted Roman Christians and would continue to be our problem too. Only in our total reliance on the risen, glorified Lord can any of us cast off the ‘unspiritual’ and be orientated to God, a daily battle, but achieved in Christ, and not by our own will or action.
The wonderful extent of this new life already achieved for us by Christ is conveyed to us by a much earlier piece of writing. Ezekiel (37:12-14) was the work of a prophet of the Assyrian exile of the 8th century BC. Ezekiel wrote centuries before there was any concept of resurrection from the dead, and he wrote to offer comfort and support to the Jews of the Northern Kingdom exiled to what we now know as Iraq and Iran. Many would have died in the attack on their cities; many died on the road to exile and for the survivors, as we know from friezes now in the British museum, unremitting toil in building work; in stone quarries and other menial tasks would have made their present lives a living death. The Lord says this: I am going to open your graves; I mean to raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, the promise then of new life, of hope to the hopeless, of the vision of God to a people in the deepest despair. This then is God’s promise to all of us in the one who came back from the dead and gives new life to each and every one of us, entering into the deadness of those parts of our lives which depress and sadden us, and making them whole and new. What a challenge this is too for the world we inhabit, with its continual cycle of death and depravity; small wonder then that this smashing through of all that separates us from God caused the Sanhedrin to sentence Jesus to death and to try to destroy all evidence of his power, and what a privilege it is for us to be able to follow our Saviour on his journey to redemption of the world this Holy Week, certain of his victory over sin and death.