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5th Sunday of Lent Passiontide begins

31 March 2017


Ezekiel 37.1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8.6-11; John 11.1-45


Most merciful God, who by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ delivered and saved the world: grant that by faith in him who suffered on the cross, we may triumph in the power of his victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


THE long and detailed account of Lazarus’s illness, death, and miracu­lous return to life (John 11.1-45) shows Jesus in the grip of conflicting emotions in a way that is not mir­rored anywhere else in this Gospel. Its nearest analogues are to be found in the Synoptic Gospels’ descrip­tions of Jesus in the Garden of Geth­semane (Matthew 26.36-46, Mark 14.26-42, Luke 22.39-46); and there is a sense in which Lazarus’s death foreshadows Jesus’s own death and resurrection.

There is nothing straightforward about this, however, and readers are left puzzling over elements that seem inconsistent with human love and friendship, and yet fit coher­ently into a larger picture of sal­vation.

John begins with a deliberate connection between Jesus’s death and that of Lazarus, with a reminder of something that has not yet happened: Mary’s anointing of Jesus, as if for burial, at dinner in Bethany (John 11.2; 12.1-8). It would not be much use to anyone hearing or reading sequentially, but John, who expects a great deal of his audience, also expects that they will re-read, or reconsider what they have heard, in the light of significant information.

That small statement will be the key to understanding why there is a delay of two days, after the urgent summons, before leaving for Beth­any, even though “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11.1-6). It explains why the disciples are confused about sleep­ing and waking as a metaphor for death and restoration to life (John 11.11-12).

It will also account for the con­versation at cross purposes between Martha and Jesus: one trusting in the “resurrection on the last day”, yet grieving for her brother; the other suggesting that the resurrec­tion might be here and now (John 11.21-27).

This is all very well as a somewhat theoretical attempt to account for particular moments in the drama, but it is not true to human experi­ence of grief and loss. It takes a raw and nearly inarticulate encounter to force a confrontation between the careful allusions to the resurrection — and even to Jesus as the embodi­ment of the resurrection (John 11.25) — and the need to acknow­ledge that something devastating has happened, and that people are expecting the admired teacher and close family friend to act.

Mary kneels in tears at Jesus’s feet, followed by weeping mourners. She repeats Martha’s words, but is in no state to enter into a discussion about salvation (John 11.32-33). Coming face to face with such unre­strained sorrow seems to unlock the human response in Jesus, who, John tells us twice, “was greatly dis­turbed” (John 11.33, 38).

He, too, begins to weep, and, because public figures are never allowed private emotions, he must mourn against the background of varying opinion: does this mean love for his friend, or are these the insincere tears of a healer who could manifestly have intervened, but did not do so (John 11.35-37)?

At last, the story approaches its denouement, and all the tensions between the present and the end of time, the public and the private, the didactic and the miraculous, are focused in the scene at the tomb. Jesus prays aloud to ensure that the crowd knows that the glory of what is about to happen belongs to God (John 11.41-42, 45). Only if they grasp that message will they believe that Jesus is sent by God.

Then he calls Lazarus, who emerges in his grave wrappings. This, Brendan Byrne suggests, marks the difference between the resurrection of Jesus and what has happened in Bethany. The empty tomb will reveal only “linen wrap­pings” and a folded head-cloth, flung off by Jesus (John 20.6-7). Lazarus cannot unbind himself. He must be set free (Life Abounding, Liturgical Press, 2014).

It is the paradox of this episode that the “resurrection and the life” are now (John 11.25), but their liberating power is still to be real­ised. Paul grasps the paradox, and turns it into another paradox. He is working to reorientate the concerns of the Roman Christians who re­­ceive his letter. What he must persuade them to believe is that, by putting God before material anxi­eties and “[setting] the mind on the Spirit”, they will find a proper relationship with God (Romans 8.6-8).

His message may sound ethereal; in fact, it is practical. Allowing the Spirit to dwell in the human heart brings the promise of resurrection life to the mortal body. How that mystery unfolds is described in greater details to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15).


Dr Bridget Nichols is an independent scholar.

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