This week’s gospel reading is, in one sense, the climax of the gospel according to John. I know the final act is not yet played: the arrest, the trial, the crucifixion, the resurrection. I know that the story of Jesus isn’t even close to finished, and that the greatest miracle is yet to come. And yet, somehow the raising of Lazarus is a climax all its own.
I say this for two reasons. First of all, the raising of Lazarus is, according to John, the reason the Jewish leadership decided that Jesus had to die. Right after Jesus raised Lazarus, a group of witnesses ran to the Pharisees to report what had happened. A council meeting was convened, and it was decided that in order to stop Jesus’ miracle-working from bringing unwanted attention from Rome, Jesus would have to die. It was also decided that Lazarus would have to be captured and killed, since he had become such an attraction and so many Jews had begun to believe in Jesus because of him.
But there is also a second reason why the raising of Lazarus is a kind of climax to the Jesus story. In spiritual terms, this is the story in which faith finally becomes more important than miracles—or, as John consistently calls them, “signs.” It’s ironic that on the occasion of Jesus’ greatest sign—the raising of a man who had been dead four days—the emphasis of the story is not on Lazarus, but on Martha.
It was Martha who met Jesus on the road to Bethany and chastised him for taking so long: “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died!”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus said.
“Yeah, yeah. He’ll rise on the last day; I get it. In the meantime, he’s dead.”
“Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though the die, will live. Do you believe this?”
Do you believe this? This isn’t just Jesus asking Martha. It’s also John asking us. In previous stories, people came to have faith in Jesus because they saw him perform signs. The recurring question throughout these stories has been that people will believe in miracles, but will they believe in Jesus? His first disciples believed in him because they knew he had turned water into wine in Cana. The Samaritan woman believed in him, because he was able to tell her everything she had ever done. The man born blind confessed that Jesus was the Son of Man, because he had been healed. But Martha has not witnessed these miracles, and Jesus showed up too late to help her family. Jesus had not come, and her brother had died. She had likely lost everything—a woman without a man to protect her was vulnerable in those days and in that culture. If anyone in John’s gospel had a legitimate reason to turn her back on Jesus, Martha did. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Then, in the midst of her grief, her pain, her disappointment, Jesus asked her an impossible question: Do you believe?
“Believe?” she might have said. “Believe? I believed you could help when I sent messengers to find you six days ago! I believed you would show up in time to save your friend! Now he’s four days dead! In what, exactly, am I supposed to believe, now?”
But if such thoughts raced through her mind, if such doubts raised angry storm clouds in her spirit, she never said so. I imagine there was a long pause. I imagine that Martha stood in the road, staring at Jesus for a long time, before her anger gave way to the truth that she saw before her. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
She had no reason to think that confessing faith in Jesus Christ was going to save her brother. He was four days dead, and nothing was going to change that. As far as she was concerned, Jesus had screwed up. If there was anything Jesus could have done, he should have done it at least four days ago. And yet she believed in Jesus. No miracles. No hope of a miracle. Just faith.
In this way, Martha showed greater faith than the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42), more faith than the blind man who was given his sight (John 9). They experienced Jesus at his best—a great teacher, a great healer. Martha, who had already been friends with Jesus, and who might have been justified in expecting a little urgency on his part when she’d sent for him, had received nothing from Jesus—no great teaching; no miraculous healing for her brother. Yet she believed.
Of course, Lazarus was raised, though Martha didn’t see that coming. It wasn’t a resurrection like Jesus’. Lazarus would still grow old, perhaps get sick, and certainly die again. One has to wonder what this experience would have been like for Lazarus. We know that Lazarus had been sick—sick enough to die, in fact. Are we sure he wanted to be raised? What if, in death, Lazarus had finally found the rest he’d longed for? He had found himself in blessed communion with the Creator—the very thing promised to all of us! Wouldn’t being raised have been an unwelcome interruption of his eternal rest?
What would being raised from death have meant for Lazarus? We hear people say that because they didn’t die when they probably should have, they felt like God was giving them a second chance in life. Near death experiences are often occasions of religious awakening, as people seek to make sense of why they are alive when they should be dead. Well, no one had more cause to speculate about this than Lazarus, who had been dead so long he was starting to rot, when suddenly he heard his name being called. There is evidence that Lazarus continued to be a faithful disciple of Jesus. A couple of chapters later, Jesus is seen eating dinner at Lazarus and Martha’s house. Some scholars have argued—somewhat convincingly, in fact—that Lazarus was the character known as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” or, “The Beloved Disciple” for short. That’s a subject for another occasion, but it certainly alludes to the idea that Lazarus’ “second life” was long and storied.
Lazarus might have been quite a confused soul. He was still palling around with the other disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, and despite the fact that local officials wanted Lazarus dead, rumors were going around that Lazarus couldn’t die. But most confusing of all—the most heartbreaking part of Lazarus’ story—is that he was the reason Jesus was killed. Jesus had literally laid down his life for Lazarus, setting in motion the official action that would lead to his crucifixion, and all because Jesus loved him.
Maybe everyone at the table knew what Jesus meant when he said, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). For Lazarus, taking up his life was in some strange way also a laying down of it. Surely he could not have gone back to “business as usual” after this! Surely knowing he had been the cause of Jesus’ death, however unintentionally, placed a burden of responsibility on him that he could not easily have shaken! What little evidence history gives us indicates that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in the early church, so he certainly remained a man of faith and of calling. How could he have done anything else?
I am reminded of the movie Saving Private Ryan. The movie opens with an older gentleman and his family searching a military graveyard for the marker of Captain John Miller. Upon finding it, Private Ryan recalls the mission that Captain Miller and his men undertook in order to rescue Ryan from behind enemy lines. As the climactic battle reaches its end, and although reinforcements have arrived that will ensure victory, nearly all of the American soldiers sent to save Private Ryan have been killed, and Captain Miller, himself mortally wounded, beckons Private Ryan close, saying, “Earn this. Earn it.”
The retired Private, weeping in the graveyard some 60 years later, turns to his family and stammers, “Tell me I have led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man!”
I have to think that Lazarus would have felt much the same way. Jesus was hunted down and arrested, because he raised Lazarus from death. His life, from that moment on, had to be lived in a way that made such a sacrifice meaningful.
The old Wesleyan hymn “And Can It Be” is allegorical and deeply personal, and yet it also seems to be written from the perspective of none other than Lazarus himself:
And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—for me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
One of the most formative teachings to my pastoral identity and my understanding of Christian ministry is what Dr. Andrew Purves calls “the crucifixion of ministry”—that is, putting to death the idea that ministry is ours, and instead thinking of ourselves as participants in Christ’s ministry, seeking to do his will rather than our own. More to the point, we must be willing to lay down that which we cherish, in order to embrace what the Lord cherishes. The follow up to the crucifixion of ministry, then, is the resurrection of ministry. For Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.” As Lazarus could surely tell us, the resurrection is the life!
The resurrection is the life in that without Christ’s redemptive, resurrection ministry we have no life, no light, no hope! We are dead and in the grave—food for the worms, just as Lazarus was—if not for Christ’s ministry of resurrection. Just as Wesley’s beautiful hymn describes, and just as Martha learned while speaking with Jesus on the road to Bethany, the resurrection is more than just a future hope: “I know that he will rise again on the last day.”
“No, Martha. I am the resurrection, I am the life!”
“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.”
The resurrection is the life. When we die to ourselves and live for Jesus Christ, when we are enjoined to Christ by the power of the Spirit, the old life has gone and a new life has begun! We are raised from sin and death to live in the light. As Christ gave his life in order to raise Lazarus, so he has done the same to give us new life, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. That isn’t a teaching to give us hope for what will happen to us after we die—it is the promise that in Christ we participate in the eternal “Hallelujah!” that is the communion of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
When your recline at the table of the Lord in worship, remember that he has freely given his life for ours, and that he has secured for us a mystical union with God’s eternal and holy presence. It is a gift unmerited, unearned, and irrevocable.
That said, I also choose to live as though Jesus has said to me, as Captain Miller once said to Private Ryan, “Earn this. Earn it.”