On the 3rd Sunday of Lent, the Gospel of the Samaritan woman was proclaimed. Last Sunday, the Gospel of the man born blind. Today, we hear the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus: the last and greatest of the Lord’s signs, prior to the still greater sign of his own death and resurrection. An action which will hasten the Lord’s death and which prophesies his Resurrection and ours. We feel the drama rising. Only two weeks to Easter.
The Gospel of John has a majesty about it, or rather the Jesus of John’s Gospel has something kingly, regal, stately about him; he is the Lord. Today’s Gospel describes a royal progress, punctuated by stopping places, “stations”. The account begins with Jesus and his disciples the far side of the Jordan, to the east. There he receives news of Lazarus’ illness. But he doesn’t rush to the rescue. He waits. By the Holy Spirit, he knows that Lazarus has died. He tells the puzzled disciples that this is all in view of the glory of God. Only then he says, ‘Let’s go’. So, the procession moves forward, making a two-day journey. The, they arrive at the outskirts of Bethany, the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, two miles from Jerusalem. There’s another pause, a second station. Martha runs out of her house to meet him and tell him what he already knows. Then her quieter sister, Mary comes out too, with all the family friends who had joined them. “Lord, if you had been here”, each of the sisters says spontaneously. There are tears everywhere; Lazarus was clearly a much-loved man. “And when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit, and greatly troubled.” Where is he buried? he asks. “Lord, come and see.” And he weeps himself. And the procession moves on again, and comes to the tomb, the cave where Lazarus is buried. It’s the third station, the graveside. Jesus halts and prays. And then with a great cry issues the royal command: “Lazarus, come out!”
St John can tell a story! And such a many-layered one, full of humanity, full of something more. It’s as if the Lord is rehearsing his own way of the Cross, which in the Gospels is another royal procession, with its own stations. And in both, there is sovereign encounter with death. He doesn’t prevent Lazarus’ death and he will not prevent his own. He lets the worse happen. He even lets Lazarus reach what the Jews considered a point of no return, four days in a tomb, decomposition, stench. The Lord, we’re being told, is more than a healer; he’s not just here to make life better. He has come to conquer death. And he enters into it completely. The three stations are ours surely. How often, unexpectedly, we hear the bad news regarding those we love: illness and death. Then, second station, there’s the gathering of mourners, the time of bewilderment and tears. Then, third station, the crem, the cemetery, the graveside, the “stone cold tomb”, the coffin lowered, death’s finality. Jesus avoids none of it. He weeps, and as St John Henry Newman put it so well, his tears, though tears for Lazarus, of one man for another man, of friend for friend, are even more. They are the human tears of God for all the grief of man. They are tears before the victory of death. And they include all the tears of history, down to the tears shed now in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria. The Lord shirks no suffering. He puts himself in the middle of it. He doesn’t magic it away; he fills it with his presence. He simply calls to faith. He speaks of seeing God’s glory. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die”. And he asks, “Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe”, Martha replies.
This Gospel has all the power of the original event. “Lazarus, come out!” “Unbind him and let him go.” This Gospel can spark multiple resurrections. It looks, of course, to the greater Resurrection we will celebrate in two weeks’ time: not just a return to this life, but the entry into a life beyond, definitive and irreversible, where death will be destroyed for ever and every tear wiped away. In the Eastern tradition, it’s read next Saturday, Lazarus Saturday, on the eve of Holy Week, pointing too to Christ’s resurrection and to the universal resurrection at the end of time.
And these “great” resurrections, Christ’s and ours, Easter and Parousia, include others, in the here and now, that presage them In our Western tradition, this Gospel, read today, at the Third Scrutiny of the elect, it looks to the resurrections of the heart and human life that come with faith and baptism.
In the Russian novel, Crime and Punishment, this Gospel does its work again (Pt IV. Ch. IV). At the novel’s turning point, the central character, Raskolnikov, asks Sonya, a prostitute, to read this Gospel to him. He has killed his own soul by committing a double murder four days before. HE has lost the connection to his faith. He’s dressed in rags, reminding us of Lazarus’ grave clothes. His accommodation is compared to a tomb. And as she reads, tremblingly, his faith is rekindled, his spirit revives, and he begins to take the path of Christian repentance.
In the week-long programme for survivors of abuse, called From Grief to Grace, the reading of this Gospel acts as a key moment of liberation, of unbinding.
Faith is a resurrection after doubt and confusion, hope is a resurrection after anguish, love is a resurrection after hatred. Forgiveness resurrects us. Christ, the Risen One, walks through history, through the land death stalks, scattering seeds of resurrection.
By gravesides, we pray: “Lord, you consoled Martha and Mary in their distress; draw near to us who mourn and dry the tears of those who weep…
“You wept at the grave of Lazarus, your friend; comfort us in our sorrow…
“You raised the dead to life; give to our brother (our sister) eternal life.”
Multiple resurrections, humble and great, in this life and beyond – and not one of us here who doesn’t need them! May this Gospel “easter in us”! May Martha’s words be ours: “Yes, Lord, I believe”!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 26 March 2023