The theme of renewal, of new life, runs throughout the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. More precisely, resurrection from the dead runs through all of these readings. This is the case even though the first reading Ezekiel 37:12-14, as does all of chapter 37, speaks literally of the whole house of Israel rising up from the metaphoric dead of exile and being brought to life again. Interestingly, though, one might argue that the spiritual sense of this passage comes to life in light of later teachings regarding the literal resurrection of the dead, the actual raising up of dry bones from the valley of the dead, as taught in later Judaism, perhaps from the Persian period but certainly from the Hellenistic period on. The second reading from Romans 8: 8-11 also maintains this tension between a literal and spiritual sense of resurrection, but in a slightly different manner. In this case the one who has the Spirit of Christ is "not in the flesh" (Romans 8:9), but Christ has already brought the Christian to spiritual life: "if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness" (Rom.8:10). This current spiritual life, however, will also lead to a literal resurrection, for "if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you" (Rom.8:11). We can see death and resurrection in two ways: a spiritual death, from which we can be raised to a renewed life, here and now; and as a physical death, from which we will be raised literally to a new life in the world to come.
Both of these themes come together in the raising of Lazarus, the final sign in the Gospel of John, told in chapter 11, verses 1-45. Lazarus is raised from physical death to new life, now, not in the world to come, but it is a sign that is done, Jesus says, so that people might be lead to renewed spiritual life. At the beginning of the passage, having learned of Lazarus' illness, Jesus waits before going to potentially heal him, saying, "'This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God's glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was" (John 11:4-6). After Lazarus is raised from the dead, we read,
Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. (John 11:40-45)
The reality of physical death - Lazarus, says his sister Martha, already stinks due to decay - is a means by which Jesus demonstrates that physical death - "this illness does not lead to death" - is not the final word, that the spiritual reality of resurrection awaits beyond the grave. Upon seeing this spiritual power made manifest through Jesus in Lazarus, many people "believed in him."
This spiritual reality, though, is demonstrated in the pain of daily life, as we see with Lazarus, and ameliorated throughout history by faith that sustains hope. Martha evidences this hope when she says, even prior to Lazarus' rising, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day" (John 11:25). With this in mind, one of the most fascinating displays of Jesus' humanity in all of the Gospel record is when Jesus weeps when confronted with the pain of Lazarus' loss:
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep.(John 11:32-35)
It is not strange that Jesus is moved to tears by their pain, what is strange is that it was he who in a sense brought this pain about in the case of Lazarus. So why is he seemingly shocked when he sees family mebers and friends weeping and suffering with the reality of death? Admittedly, physical death from a Christian perspective is one of the prices of sin, but it is Jesus who, informed of Lazarus' illness, decided to wait two days before acting in order that "the Son of God may be glorified through it" (John 11:4). Jesus waits, I believe, so that through this act of raising Lazarus up, people will believe that it is only through God that true life, spiritual life, is to be found. The goodness of this spiritual life is that physical death is conquered. Jesus knows this and wants to show this through raising Lazarus. Yet, Jesus himself is shown, through the suffering at the death of a beloved brother and friend, the pain that death brings. Jesus weeps when he sees the loss of death made manifest in an individual, human life, but he must have known of this reality. Confronted by this reality personally, though, the human pain of death becomes his pain, not just as a foreshadowing of his own death, but of all human death. He conquers death, spiritually and literally, because this suffering is too much and life is too good to come to an end. His tears at Lazarus' gravesite tell us all we need to know about why resurrection is the answer.
John W. Martens
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