Today’s Gospel is about friendship and belief. The story, not to be taken literally, focuses on Lazarus. Here, in John, Lazarus is the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany. Martha, Mary and Lazarus were friends of Jesus.
We probably first hear the story of Lazarus in Sunday school. One young student, hearing the story, asked the teacher, “Why does it not tell the names of the others people who were raised from the dead.” The teacher replied, “It was only Lazarus. Why do you think there were more?” The student replied, “It says Lazarus came forth.”
Bethany is close to Jerusalem, the final stage of Jesus’ earthly journey. To the east of Jerusalem is a hill commonly referred to as the Mount of Olives. There is a 3,000 year old olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus drew apart to pray on the night before his crucifixion. Looking down from the hill, you can clearly see the east gate of the city. Suleiman I, the Muslim leader, has the gate sealed with stone because this is where the expected messiah would arrive. Sitting on the hill and looking down toward Jerusalem a few years ago, I could clearly visualize a group of temple police and Roman soldiers carrying torches and heading toward the place where they would arrest Jesus.
If you continue going east over the hill, you arrive in Bethany—a small suburb of Jerusalem. Now, however, it is a long bus trip because the wall Israel has constructed prevents direct access to Bethany. In Bethany, you can go down into the tomb of Lazarus.
A brief word on signs. John calls Jesus’ healing acts signs. In the signs, Jesus is the face of an extravagant God. When they needed wine at Cana, Jesus produced 150 gallons. He did not heal just any cripple but a man who had been crippled for 38 years. Here he raises Lazarus to life after 3 days.
The story of friendship. Jesus was fully human and this story recounts his need for human friends. We have to believe that Jesus was truly human and experienced all that we experience except sin. So often, we say Jesus is human but he is divine and, in our minds, the divinity overrides his humanity. Jesus was born of the same cosmic dust as us. He was truly human. Jesus had friends and needed friends for all the things that friends can mean to people. We can imagine that, after a long day preaching, teaching, and healing on the dusty roads of Judea, Jesus would arrive at their house looking forward to being with them and sharing a meal with them. The shortest verse in the NT is “And Jesus wept.” Jesus wept because his friend Lazarus had died. Note that Martha and Mary did now cower before their friend, Jesus. Each chided him in their grief, “If you had been here, our brother would not be rotting in the tomb.” Friends can talk straight to friends.
The story of belief. Martha and Mary are mentioned in earlier gospels. Lazarus is not mentioned in conjunction with them. The only reference to Lazarus in the Matthew, Mark and Luke is to Lazarus and Dives, the rich man. Throughout the Bible, God sides with the needy and oppressed. Dives could not see the less worthy beggar at the gate as being worthy of his concern and compassion. Having suffered damnation for his lack of concern for this person, Dives pleaded with God to send Moses and the prophets to warn his brothers. As the story goes, God said they still would not believe even if he sent Moses and the prophets. Here then Lazarus might well be a symbol for belief in Jesus and resurrection. The followers of Jesus separated from the Jewish synagogue late in the first century over this very issue—belief in the power and presence of the Risen Christ.
Jesus was crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities because he offered a new vision of life. By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus was showing the people who had gathered that there can be new life, life in abundance. Jesus is teaching that Temple and the Empire cannot offer life in abundance. Caiphas, the high priest, said it would be better that one man die for the nation. Jesus and his message would bring the boot of Rome down on the nation. Jesus had to die for the good of the nation so that all nations could come to God.
This Gospel calls us to consider friendship. Friendship is based on relationships. The doctrine of the Trinity is all about relationships—the overflowing love among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Living God is the God of Love who pours forth creation as an act of love. Love is what enables us to rise above our innate concern for ourselves. The Love of God enables us to rise to a new consciousness—a realization that we are all one, a realization the power, possession, and prestige do not make some more worthy than others. God loves each and every human being and calls us to the same love and compassion.
This Gospel also calls us to belief. Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come forth.” Imagine a man whose feet were bound and whose hands were strapped to his body taking uneasy baby steps from the tomb. Jesus is calling for us to believe. He is shouting, “Mike, Pat, Bill, Mary, Joan and Sara, come forth form the tombs that imprison you. Come forth from the ties that bind. Come forth from the things that imprison you. Shake off the shackles of self-love and selfishness.
Why does Jesus calls us forth? Because he is the resurrection and the life. He is calling us to belief—belief that he is the “way, the truth and the life.” He proclaims here that he is the resurrection and the life. True life bestowed by a Loving God. He is calling us to believe in the power of His Spirit. He is calling us to believe that we can be more than what we are. He is calling us to believe that we, like him, can “grow in wisdom, age and grace.” He is calling us to his deep concern and compassion for the needy and oppressed. He is calling us to awaken from the slumber of sleep and enter new life. He is calling us to the possibility of new life, deeper love, and stronger compassion.
Are we ready to answer the call? Are we ready to become more than what we are? Do we believe in the power and the presence of the Spirit of the Risen Christ to bring us new life?