Lent 5 6th April 2014 Year A
John’s gospel scholars believe contains within it seven great miracles, seven being a sacred number, commencing with the changing of water into wine at Cana in Galilee and culminating in that which we have read here, the raising of Lazarus. This great final miracle is understood by John as something which prefigures of course the greatest miracle of all, the raising to life of Jesus following the crucifixion.
The ancient world was different to us in its attitude to resurrection. While some of the sophisticated elite rejected the idea of any physical resurrection the majority regarded resurrection as not only possible, but desirable. This was the case in both the Jewish and pagan world. The idea of resurrection was fairly recent for the Jews. Indeed at the time of Jesus not all believed in it, the most obvious non-believers as we read in our gospels being the establishment represented by the Sadducees. The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, understand death as the end with any survival after it being an unsought shadowy existence in Sheol. The idea of resurrection came into Judaism from Zoroastrianism, the prevailing religion in the Persian Empire. Zoroastrians survive today primarily in the Parsees of Mumbai. Once it entered Judaism however the idea of resurrection took hold. This was especially the case during the Maccabean period when in the Jewish revolt the fate of the many righteous who suffered led to the questioning of the orthodox idea that in this life the good prosper and the evil suffer. The solution was to transfer God’s righteous judgment to an afterlife in which good would come to the righteous while the evil would be punished. This however of course was not resurrection back to earth but to heaven
Within the pagan world belief in resurrection was quite widespread. Many believed in dying and rising gods: Demeter, Dionysus, Osiris, Innana, Isis and Adonis among others, but also in mortals who had been raised such as Hercules and Asclepius with the last named was held to have the power of resurrecting others. So widespread was this belief that the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr could only argue that the resurrection of Jesus was unique by claiming that all other resurrections were done in the power of the Devil.
The Bible actually has a very limited list of persons who are said to have been raised from the dead. Apart from Jesus, they are all presumed to have subsequently experienced another normal human death experience from which they did not return. Elijah raises the dead son of a widow at Zarepath (1 Kings 17:17-24). Elisha raises the dead son of pious woman from Shunem (2 Kings 4:18-37) while accidental contact with the bones of the virtuous Elisha raise a dead man to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). Jesus, other than our account here, raises the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43) and the dead son of a widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17), while the faithful dead are raised at the time of his death (Matthew 27:53). Later Peter raises Tabitha from death (Acts 9:36-43) and Paul restores Eutychus to life after an accidental death (Acts 20:9-12).
We may or may not have difficulty with the literal physical resurrection as given in this story among these others but we need remember however that the miracles in John’s Gospel are understood as signs meant to point beyond themselves to something deeper. For this purpose John builds his narrative accounts around them. They therefore are not meant to be some unbiased reporters’ factual accounts.
First John understands this as a fulfillment of that which he has had Jesus say earlier. ‘The time is coming, and indeed is already here when the dead will hear the voice of God and live’ (John 5:25). As stated earlier, belief in some general resurrection at the end of time had become widespread in Israel. Martha gives testimony to that when she says replying to Jesus’ statement that her brother will live again, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’ (verse 24). In bringing about this resurrection Jesus is showing that this culminating time has already come. As distinct from the other gospels where the eschaton or end is seen as future John develops a ‘realised eschatology’, an understanding that sees the end as already being realised in Jesus. Thus in Jesus the great final act of resurrection begins to take place.
In Jesus John is telling us resurrected life has already begun. This of course is not without cost and therefore we read of how to bring that life Jesus must enter into the dangerous place, in this case Judea where they had already tried to kill him (verses 7-8). Thomas is made to then make the discipleship statement that John wishes his readers to make; ‘let us go with Jesus that we may also die with him’ (verse 16). This is the call to discipleship to which John wishes his readers to commit. In like manner Martha is made to say, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (verse 21). John is telling us that where Christ is there is no death. In case you don’t get it the first time around John later has the other sister Mary repeat the same words (verse 32). To the future hope of resurrection John next has Jesus say, ‘I am the resurrection’ (verse 25). Resurrection is centred in him and rather than being merely a future hope it begins now. Jesus, rather than the eschaton and the final judgment, is the determining point for resurrection. The statement ‘I am’ is crucially important. God, who could never be named by the Jews was understood as the ‘I am’ (see the original encounter with Moses at the burning bush. Exodus 3: 14). When Jesus all those ‘I am’ statements, as he does so often in this gospel, no less claim is being made by John than in him the divinity of God is present. Next Martha is made by John to declare that which as a profession of faith he wants all his readers to declare; ‘Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God come into the world’ (verse 27).
The story of course culminates at the grave where Jesus raises Lazarus. The parallels with Jesus’ own resurrection are very deliberate from the question of ‘where have you laid him’ (verse 34 c.f. 20:15) to the style of grave with the stone needing to be rolled aside. With that stone rolled away Jesus cries in a loud voice. This voice the Jewish people would have known as the ‘dabar’ the word of God which never returns empty (Isaiah 55:11). This same ‘word’ we have seen brings life to those dry bones in the desert. Jesus finally announces that Lazarus be freed, the Greek word used (luo) having a double meaning of freeing or destroying. In freeing Lazarus Jesus is destroying death.
Our story then calls us on to discipleship with Jesus, even if we ‘may die with him’ because it affirms that in him the power of death is overcome. We are to oppose all in our world which stands as the power of death, from our personal relationships, violence, war, poverty, power politics and dominance that we need to oppose. In Jesus the final time of life has begun. We are able to do so in the confidence that life, not death, has the final word. Let us like Jesus be life givers. John Queripel