The Raising of Lazarus and the Hope of Eternal Life

Luisa and I, and the boys have just returned from ten days annual leave together. I have to admit that I was in some trepidation before our holiday begun about how wise it was to be taking three boys and a young baby on an aeroplane to New Zealand.

It is the first holiday that we have all had together for a long time. And we had a really great time together. In fact you might say that we had an adventure – an adventure journeying closer to each other, and an adventure exploring places and peoples that we had not experienced before.  And I am using the word “adventure” deliberately when I think about our little holiday, because that is the word which our two oldest boys Isaac (who is 5) and Malachi (who is 3) used to describe it themselves.  For them it literally became one big adventure. When I asked them in the mornings what they wanted to do, they told me: “we want to have an adventure at the beach,” or “we want to have an adventure in the car. ”  By the end of our holiday we had clocked up a huge variety of different possible adventures – including Joshua’s favourite which was an “ice cream adventure!”

Well, we have been on something of an adventure together over the last few weeks here at St Augustine’s. It might not seem like an adventure, but in spiritual terms it is.  It began when we gathered here on Ash Wednesday around God’s altar to enact together a liturgy in which ash was imposed on our foreheads as we commenced together the season of Lent.  And over the last weeks we have been journeying on this adventure together not just here in Merewether but in an interconnected way with the Church around the world, through this holy season.

What are some of the things which we have seen on the journey?  We started off in the wilderness, the place of temptation and contemplation and preparation – where Jesus made a decision that in faith he would live out the potential of God within him, and do what he believed his Father was calling him to do.  Then we listened in on Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, when he explained to him that he had come not to condemn the world but in order that it might be saved.

Our next glimpse of Christ, on this Lenten pilgrimage, came as we encountered him and the woman collecting water at the well.  We were re-assured then, as we re-lived that story, that the mission of Christ (a mission which we share in today) would not be hidden away and focused on the few, but would be a mission to and with the whole world.  Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman signalled to us that his Gospel would extend far beyond the confines of Judaism or a holy group of men, but to all peoples regardless of sex, creed or circumstances.

But our Lenten adventure did not end there. Last week we were caught up in the story of a man who had been born blind, and who, through Jesus, received the ability to see – an ability which he had not previously known; challenging us all to participate in the transformation which will lead each one of us from blindness to sight – so that what we see and understand about the world around us may be shaped by him.

What a journey, what an adventure: and it continues this morning. In fact in many ways this morning’s Gospel makes sense of all of the other Gospel experiences which we have been caught up in on this Lenten pilgrimage; because at the heart of the encounter which we have heard this morning is the question of some of the onlookers who ask “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

As our Lenten adventure has progressed over these last few weeks – we come now to one of the central questions of the Gospel of John:  is Jesus really God?  If he is God he has power over the living and dead, if he does not have that power then he is not God.  So the story which we gather around this morning is a pivotal story in John’s Gospel.

If you have time this week at home, why not try to dip into John’s Gospel by reading it as if it were a novel.  lt will take you around four hours to read it from cover to cover.  If you have that opportunity, (or if you have done it in the past) you will see that John’s Gospel is basically split into two halves. The first half is a series of signs, and the second half is the story of the events of Jesus’ death and  resurrection.  That’s why one biblical scholar names the first half of the Gospel, “The Book of Signs,” and the second half of the Gospel “The Book of Glory.”

This story of the raising of Lazarus comes at the end of the first book (the first section), that is why it is so pivotal to the structure of the Gospel.  It is the last of the seven signs, the seven miracles, which the Gospel writers use to show us the importance(for all time)of this man Jesus.  It is the greatest of these signs, because it reveals Jesus as God – the one who has power over the living and the dead.

When Jesus comes near to the village of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, having been called there a few days earlier because of Lazarus’ illness he is met by Martha who informs him that Lazarus is already dead.  In fact Lazarus has been dead for four days – that is the period of time that Jews believed that the soul of a person hovered around the body. So in this ancient world view, Jesus snatches back the body and soul of Lazarus at the last possible moment, as the soul is departing from the body’s reach on the fourth day and restores him to life.

And in this act Jesus shows that he brings a message of hope for all of us, which is not just restricted to the here and now – it is a hope for eternity; which is especially significant, because it is from this story of resurrection that hearers of the Gospel of John turn to face the final stages of Jesus’ journey to his death through the agony of the cross.

For each of us who are preparing ourselves for the events of Holy Week which will begin next Sunday when we will gather together around the palms and remember the final stages of Jesus’ life, it is important for us to hold in our hearts this resurrection miracle which we are caught up in this morning.  Because this story of the raising of Lazarus is a sort of double symbol, a two-sided story which both anticipates the resurrection of Jesus and anticipates too the resurrection of each of us who are his followers.

Through this story we enter Holy Week with the faith that eventually all will be well, that our hope in Christ is stronger than anything that could stand against it.

As we remember Jesus’ tomb being sealed on Good Friday, so we see today the power of God’s love to remove the stone which had sealed the tomb of Lazarus and which had brought an end to his sisters’ hope that he would live on.  We hold this glimpse of the raising of Lazarus in our hearts as we approach the final stage of Jesus’ life.

And yet there is a crucial difference between the raising of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus, of which this story is a foretaste, and to which we journey on this Lenten pilgrimage.  Lazarus rises from the dead to die once again, but Jesus will rise to live forever.

There is a hint of this distinction in the linens which will be wrapped around both of the bodies. In the case of Lazarus, he rises with the grave linens still wrapped around his head and his body. He is still bound by death because he will have to travel through it again before the final resurrection.  In contrast to Lazarus, Jesus will rise with the linen left folded in the grave, ready to be used by someone else – because, after all, it will never be needed by him again.

The name Lazarus is a form of the Hebrew name Eleazar which means “God’s help.”  In this encounter, Lazarus (the one whom Jesus loves) is the representative of all those whom Jesus loves, each one of us, with the whole of humanity.  So just as Jesus gives life to his beloved Lazarus, so we have faith that he will give life to all those who he loves, to each one of us.  Lazarus, in other words, stands for us all: each one of us who longs for God’s help in our lives, the very meaning of his name.

We find in the pattern of Lazarus’s dying and rising something very familiar to each one of us; because through our baptism each one of us has already died and risen with Christ.  That does not mean that we will not die again, when our bodies become too frail to continue, but it does mean that when we who have already been resurrected through our baptism die a second time (as Lazarus died once again) we will live on this time in the eternal life of God’s love.

This is what baptism means for us – that no matter what happens to us after our baptism, we have been joined to each other and to Christ in a way that can never be separated.  Through our baptism (just like in this story of the raising of Lazarus) we have been raised to new life, we are a new creation, not dry bones in a valley as Ezekiel saw in our first reading this morning, but living parts of the Body of Christ, each known and loved and valued to God.

Which leads me on to one further thought.  When Lazarus was raised from the dead he did not suddenly lose all of the problems which are associated with living. It can be hard for us to live with the disappointments and pain of this world. Lazarus was not somehow immune to those pressures ad problems after Jesus raised him back to life. But I am fairly certain of this, that after this resurrecting experience of the love of God, Lazarus no longer feared what would ultimately happen to him – because his fear of death was matched by the greater experience of his being raised to life; which in itself is an invitation to each of us, to live like Lazarus, not in fear but in hope and in faith, not just as we approach Holy Week, but in the whole of our lives.

Just as Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, as a sign of the fuller resurrection which was to come, so through our baptism we have each been made alive with Christ, (resurrected in him), not just for ourselves, but to live as signs of what joyful hopeful resurrection life can look like for everyone.

So this morning we are sent out from this place on the final stage of our Lenten adventure, remembering that as we approach the journey of Holy Week which is to come, we do so with the hope of this glimpse of resurrection which we find in the story of Lazarus.  And we are called again each one of us, through this encounter, to live in hope and not in fear – because we like Lazarus have already died and been raised to life in Christ through our baptism. The next death for us will be momentary, because eternal life has already begun for us.

Death has no more dominion over us. The power of God is greater than any other power which can stand against us.  We are already living (like Lazarus did before us) the resurrected life of the love of God. Take heart, do not fear – God is faithful: eternal life has begun in you!