Homily Thoughts - 5th Sunday of Lent
Scripture scholars call the First part of Gospel of John Book of signs. Each one of the signs points to Jesus and reveals something about who he truly is. 1) Wedding Feast Cana, 2) Cure of a royal Officials son at Capernaum, 3) Healing of paralytic at Pool of Bethesda, 4) Multiplication of the loaves and fishes “I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE” 5) Jesus walking on the water “DO NOT BE AFRAID IT IS I” 6) Healing the man born blind “I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD” 7) And today’s Gospel - Raising of Lazarus from the dead “I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE”
Today we are presented with the seventh sign. First, I want to point to something important about the last 4 miracle stories – in these Jesus uses uses the words “I am”. In last week’s Gospel was about the man born blind – Jesus identifies himself as the light of the world. I am thee light of the world. The Greek words from which each of these passages is translated are 'ego eimi'. These are the same words we find it in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament (in Chap 3 Book of Exodus) where Moses encounters the burning bush. When Moses asks what shall I say to them when they ask me your name? God answers I Am who Am. God is saying I define what exists, I am what exists, all exists through ME. Jesus words in this Gospel are meant to be a divine revelation. Jesus identifies himself in the Words that God used to identify as his self-revelation to Moses [and in Isaiah 43:10, 25]. Lazarus lived in Bethany – 1.7 miles East of Jerusalem.
Jesus was in Jerusalem facing mounting opposition mounting – the Jews were looking to stone him. John is speaking here of the Jews in Judea (those in the South) who rejected Jesus, a Galilean, as a legitimate teacher and religious authority in his own right. He’s not speaking of all Jews (Mary, Marth, and Lazarus were Jews – as were his disciples) those who are spiritually blind to Jesus, the light of the world. This seventh sign in the gospel today brings Jesus’ public ministry to a climax. It makes the religious authorities in Jerusalem hostile to Jesus beyond their endurance and it sets in motion a series of events that that will result in Jesus’ arrest, condemnation, and execution. So, Jesus withdraws temporarily to Bethany beyond the Jordan for respite.
The Gospel says that Jesus loved Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus and when he heard Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in Bethany beyond the Jordan. This is puzzling to everyone in the Gospel. We know now that Jesus, from the beginning of the Gospel is not ignoring Lazarus’ illness but sees it as a pathway to a greater glory: Jesus allows Lazarus to suffer and die because he is going to bring him back from the grave and this will Glorify God. When he heard of Lazarus’ illness and he decided to return to Bethany near Jerusalem. Amidst the disciple’s confusion about whether Lazarus was sleeping or dead, Jesus finally set things straight – Lazarus is dead. His disciples seem to be finally resigned to following him wherever he goes, “So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.” Here we see “doubting Thomas” willing to die with Jesus – cast in a new light. Jesus then returns to Bethany in Judea where he places his own life in danger. This narrative is a microcosm of the entire action of the Gospel. Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne puts it this way, “In order to bring life to a friend of his at the point of death, Jesus left his safe country [Bethany] beyond the Jordan to enter a territory of mortal danger, [Bethany of] Judea [on the doorstep of – 1.7 miles from – Jerusalem]. In the sweep of the gospel as a whole, the word who was with God, ever in the bosom of the Father leaves that safe country to come to a world which God so loves but is at the point of death because it had turned away from the source of life. In Jesus' return to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we see the whole of the gospel represented in this event.
The scene is set now where many Judeans (those hostile to Jesus) had gathered to console Mary and Martha. When Martha hears Jesus is coming, she goes out to meet him. It’s interesting to note that one of the first things she does is complain. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Some interpret her words as an expression of regret tempered by faith in Jesus as a healer. To overlook the edge of complaint is to overlook her Jewish identity – to shortchange her. Her complaint doesn’t cast doubt on her piety. On the contrary, her statements to Jesus are forthright and honest and authentic. We should recognize Martha’s anger as an inescapable part of her grief over Lazarus’ death. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet Martha’s faith calls her forward. “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” In his dialog with Martha Jesus opens her eyes to the truth of his identity. He begins once again with the words God used to identify himself. “I am I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” This confession of faith Marth is like the confession of Peter in the Gospel of Matthew – recognizing Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. I love this powerful portrayal of Thomas and Martha in the Gospel of John.
The same question is asked of us today… Do you believe this?” Have you come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who has come from God into the world.” Jesus is asking us to believe that our existence is not limited by the power of death but that it is God’s life-giving power in Jesus that determines our existence. He manifests this truth by raising Lazarus from the dead.
In the Gospel we see Mary going out to meet Jesus and falling at his feet with the same question on her lips as Martha. When Mary shows Jesus when Lazarus tomb is, accompanied by many Judeans who are grieving with the family, Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus. The Judeans gathered there note two things – Jesus loved Lazarus and was grieved at this death and they wonder why the one who opened the eyes of the man born blind couldn’t have kept this man from dying? The Judeans make the same mistake that Mary and Martha make – they don’t understand how Jesus – if he loved Lazarus – would allow Lazarus to remain in his sickness and suffering and even to die. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is insensitive to Lazarus suffering and his death. In his humanity, he weeps. Jesus doesn’t diminish the reality or the horror of suffering by redeeming it – he fully participates in it and feels it in his own human heart. Jesus feels the full sense of loss with respect to Lazarus and so weeps and mourns. Yet, Jesus allows it because there is a greater glory to be revealed.
John points twice to the fact that Lazarus has been dead four days. Martha believed about the body of Lazarus what was commonly believed – that, after the 3rd day, a person’s soul had left the body and, by the 4th day the features that make a person recognizable would have decayed to such an extent that he was no longer recognizable. There was no embalming, only the application of spices to offset the smell of decay. Rather than preserving the body, the family would enter the tomb a year or more later when the flesh was long since gone and commit the bones of the deceased to an ossuary. So, Jesus, moved in compassion, pity, and a desire to glorify God acts. “Did I not tell you that if you believed that you would see the glory of God.” Everyone present sees Lazarus raised from the dead – even the Judeans hostile to Jesus, and, the Gospel says, many came to believe in him. But not all – not everybody perceives the same thing. Only those whose seeing is accompanied by faith can see past the miracle to the miracle worker in whom is the very presence and life-giving power of God. This last and greatest sign demonstrates the truth of Jesus statement of who he is. But – it points to a greater sign even still. The fullness of the promise of resurrection is yet to come – Jesus own resurrection from the dead that restores not just a temporal life like Lazarus but defeats death itself and secures resurrection to everlasting life.
This Gospel makes much of the confusion of Mary, Martha, and the Judeans about why Jesus tarried and didn’t save Lazarus from death. St. Peter Chrysologys in his homily on this Gospel, (63:1-2) says that Jesus allows Lazarus to die because it was more important for Jesus to conquer death than it was to cure disease. He showed his love for his friend not by healing him but by calling him back from the grave. Instead of a remedy for his illness, he offered him the glory of rising from the dead. This gets to the essence of why the Church picks the story of Lazarus for the fifth Sunday of Lent. Jesus demonstrates his Power over Sin and Death. Jesus demonstrates his Power over flesh that has become corrupt with death. There are no barriers – no limits to our own resurrection.
Saint John Chrysostum says in his Homilies on the Gospel of John (62:1) Many are offended when they see any of those who are pleasing to God suffering anything terrible… Those who are offended by this do not know that those who are especially dear to God have it as their lot to endure such things, as we see in the case of Lazarus, who was also one of the friends of Christ but was also sick.” St. John Crysostum is pointing to a deep mystery of our faith, A REALITY OF THE Christian life - Those who God has called in a special way he often allows to suffer allows to suffer. Pick the life of any saint, any martyr. Those who God loves in a special way he draws into the mystery of the Cross- into the mystery of his own suffering – his own death.
Andrew of Crete – Eastern Church Father – gave a Homily on the Raising of Lazarus. It is in a song form and is a meditation of the words of Jesus spoke to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come out… As a friend, I am calling you; as Lord, I am commanding you … Come out…Let the stench of your body prove the resurrection. Let the burial linens be undone so that they can recognize the one who was put in the tomb. Come out!... Come out of the tomb. Teach them how all creation will be enlivened in a moment when the trumpet’s voice proclaims the resurrection of the dead.”
This gospel invites us to place ourselves and our world into this story – to be Lazarus, one whom Jesus loved and for whom he gave his life. Do you believe this? Have you come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who has come from God into the world?” Grateful acknowledgement to scripture scholars, commentators, and all around excellent resources: Bishop Robert Barron, Geoffrey Plant, Brendan Byrne, Gail O’Day.