Fifth Sunday in Lent

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Life Is Good

 

I am the resurrection and the life.   He who believes  in me, though he die, yet shall he live.   
John 11:25

These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.  
 John 20:31

The story of Lazarus’ restoration from death to life will be retold throughout the ages.   Among its memorable characteristics is its narrative quality, a story told as though recounted to the Gospel-writer by one who was there when Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out.    Jesus moved in a circle of friendships of which we have only glimpses:   the family whose daughter was to be married in Cana (John 2:1–11), the family of Peter, whose wife’s mother Jesus healed.  The mother of James and John, the wife of Zebedee, who felt free to ask for the best places for her two sons was no stranger (Matthew 20:21).  For one of the Twelve Jesus had such regard that from the cross His mother was committed to that disciple’s care (John 19:27).  The family, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus enjoyed Jesus’ friendship in an especially tender way.   Lazarus, He had raised to life after a fatal sickness and it was in their house that Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet with spikenard ointment and dried them with her hair (John 12:2).              

John is a book of signs.    The author tells us that Jesus did many signs that are not recorded in his Gospel, but that those he recounts “are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31)    The raising of Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus, standing as it does at the end of the narrative portion of John and thus as the prologue to the Passion Narrative of chapters 12–19, is the ultimate sign of the victory of life over death, the last enemy.   In the order of Jesus’ ministry it makes present the power of His promise to give life.     

           Each of Jesus’s signs or miracles has at least three purposes.    They display in the present the power of the age that is coming, making present now the life that will be when there will be no hunger, a sufficiency of the good things represented by the wine of Cana, no disease, and life eternal with Jesus.   Each sign has an object, a situation which the power and grace of Christ benefits in answer to faith, and finally, as with the restoration of Lazarus to life and the healing of the man born blind (John 9), Jesus’s signs display God’s glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father (John 2:11).   When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill He said: “This illness is not to end in death but is for the glory of God.”    Later He would say, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”    The reason evil is permitted to exist is so that by overcoming it the glory of God’s power and purpose may be displayed.   To the disciples Jesus says, “I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.”  

For from the moment when Eve took the apple, when in a deadly doublet to the angelic refusal man and nature fell, the one great theme of the Bible is the overcoming of death and all its consequences, the restoration of nature and man, the fruition of the history-long process that Paul describes in Romans eight, when creation, having been subjected― permitted to bear the consequences of our sin―not in despair but in hope will itself be set free from its bondage to decay, when we will be adopted as sons, and  enjoy the redemption of our bodies.   In Scripture, there is no chronology of salvation, but there is divinely revealed pattern through which all creation moves from death to life.   Death, although foreseen.  was not the will of God for mankind; the subjugation of creation to death was in Paul’s words, permitted by God “not willingly” but in hope.  

             Life is the grand theme of the created order.    So impressed were nineteenth-century scientists that they proclaimed ‘life’ a god, and took as a maxim “existence is its own justification,”  an idea that persists in pseudo-religions such as Scientology, in which ‘life’ is an amorphous natural substance that may show up as ‘life-forms’ on distant planets.  Indeed this belief in life that is a natural substance is so ingrained in post-modernity that the search for life that God did not create on some distant planet feeds the simple faith of millions.   Life, not the Creator of life, must be god.  

            This, being untrue, has caused the damage that follows in the wake of untruth.    Presciently, nineteen centuries ago the philosopher and martyr Justin in his Dialogue asked whether the soul is life or has life, pointing out that if the soul is life it would create other lives, much as Darwin or Herbert Spence might say the life force, the élan vitale of Henri Bergson,  has done.   But on the other hand, if the soul is not life, but is a partaker of life, life is something quite different from the soul.    Life is a gift to the soul.   When He created our first parents God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, life that Eve shared because her life was his life, so that in the beginning they shared one life.   And God caused to grow “the tree of life also in the midst of the garden” (Genesis 2:9).   The gift of life came with a provision, for God also planted the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the warning “in the day that you eat it you shall die.”    Then, writes Paul, death reigned from Adam to Moses, from the moment when Adam ate until Moses inaugurated the prophetic revelation that would declare mankind to be not only a creature of time and the earthly Jerusalem but a citizen of the Jerusalem that is above, destined to live in the presence of God forever.    Holy Father John Paul II once pointed out that the popularity of the words of Saint Irenaeus “The glory of God is a man fully alive,” popular in the seventies, was sometimes misrepresented by omission.   Irenaeus’ words are:  “The glory of God is a living man, and the life of man consists in beholding God.”  

            Why did Jesus hasten to the house of Mary and Martha when He knew that Lazarus was ill and knew that his friend would die?    Yet while still on the way He knew that Lazarus had fallen asleep, and that He would awaken him.   He told the disciples, “This illness is not unto death.”  When He arrived Martha professed her faith, but then adds her belief that Lazarus would live in the resurrection at the last day.    Jesus said, “He who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  Not that death is nothing; here, with Lazarus four days in the tomb, we are in the very presence of death.  But that the life lived on this present side of the door marked death will continue forever: The Lord’s words are: “shall never die.”    Death occurs and must that God’s command may be fulfilled, but death does not have the last word.  The gain of wheat must fall into the ground, but it will bear much fruit.  He who does not hold life in this world as the ultimate good will have eternal life (12:24–36).   And the power of this promise will be demonstrated when Jesus, having given thanks to His father, stands before the tomb and commands: , “Lazarus, come out.”  

          The raising of Lazarus had consequences.    It was   sufficiently well-known to convert some and to frighten others, who saw that its power would draw all men to Jesus, and that the movement that would follow from Jesus’ great sign would give the Romans occasion to destroy the temple (11:45=48).    Jesus’ sign was done was great deliberation.  After Jesus heard of Lazarus’s illness “He stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (11:5).   He had used the word meaning, “to fall asleep” when He first heard of Lazarus’s death; He had said “I go to awaken him out of sleep.”  This was the verb, koimaomai, linguistic ancestor of our word coma,  used by Christians to express the ambiguity of death, which to the elect was not the end of life but the anteroom to the life that would begin when Jesus returned, as in I Thessalonians 4:13, 15,  I Corinthians 15:6, 18, and II Peter 3:4.   

Jesus having used this word, the disciples will say:  “Lord, if he is asleep he will recover.”  To this Jesus replied, “Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe” (11:14–15)’ The complaint that Jesus, who had opened the eyes of the blind, might have prevented Lazarus’ death had its point (11:37).    Martha’s observation that she knew Lazarus would rise on the last day might have been taken as an opportunity to conclude the matter with comforting words.     But it was Christ’s will that Lazarus’ death be used not only to restore His friend to the great good that is life, but to show forth the glory of God and by this great sign to inspire belief.  “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life.” 

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