Jesus had been preaching and teaching to a crowd who got angry enough at his words that they were ready to stone him. He tried to explain to them what he was doing, but they only got madder and more prepared to do him harm. Like at least one other time in his career, people who disagreed with him tried to kill him, but somehow Jesus miraculously walked through the crowd, escaping without harm. Since it seemed the better part of safety to get out of Dodge, as we might call it, he and the disciples got in a boat and made for the other side of the Jordan River, landing at the place where John the Baptizer had done his ministry. There he stayed and began teaching to a new group of listeners.
Then Jesus received a message from Mary and Martha in Bethany, near Jerusalem, asking him to come quickly as their brother, and Jesus’ good friend, Lazarus was very ill. The disciples were quite puzzled when Jesus remained where he was for two full days before leaving for Bethany. In response to their questions, Jesus reported that Lazarus was only sleeping. They must have wondered why Jesus got such an urgent message if it were only a case of sleeping.
In the Gospel of John, the writer often made things a bit more abstract or mysterious than the simple straightforwardness of the other three. His use of “sleeping” to the disciples meant that Lazarus was in the sleep of death and that Jesus’ delay in going to his friend was to teach them a lesson about belief. Jesus knew that the time was coming when they would have to remember the experience of Lazarus.
I wonder if Jesus was using Lazarus as a way to prepare his followers for his own upcoming death. In Judaism, there is the belief that the soul will rise when the Messiah comes to rebuild the Temple. Isaiah and Daniel referred to the resurrection of the soul. In the Jewish prayer book, much like our Daily Office, God’s mercy to those who are fallen, ill, bound, and dead, are part of the morning prayers.
You sustain the living with loving-kindness. You revive the dead with great compassion. You support the fallen & heal the ill. And You release those bound. And You fulfill Your faithfulness to those who sleep in the ground. Who is like You, Master of [all] powers, King, Who causes death & gives life & causes salvation to sprout. & You are trustworthy to revive the dead. Blessed are You L·rd, Who revives the dead. – Amida of Shah’rit / Morning Prayer of Regular Weekday *
That’s a part of a prayer I could easily make a part of my prayer life. It also makes me think a bit more about resurrection and what it means to Christians of all stripes, as well as the afterlife from other religions and sects. I know that in some denominations, the resurrection of the dead is only guaranteed to baptized members. Others believe that the resurrection of the body means that only complete corpses (no cremains, no missing parts) will be acceptable. There are times when I have questioned (and been questioned) whether one could lose their salvation and their chance at resurrection and ascension to Heaven to be with God because of misdeeds, unforgiven sins, or some ritual, rite, or promise not done correctly or even not at all.
Still, there is Easter and the resurrection of Jesus. I can’t think that it was a one-time event, given the teachings of Jesus himself and also the raising of Lazarus, an ordinary man. I can’t believe in Hell, as I have been taught that it is the place for unsaved souls, evildoers, and the like would be sent for eternity. That doesn’t square with what I know of a loving God who loves all, even when they cause God pain because of their actions.
The delay in reaching Lazarus was a foreshadowing of the three days of Jesus’ own internment, symbolic in number and as mysterious as a walking corpse who turned out to be alive.
I wonder, did Lazarus think about his first meal, once his mind had realized that he was no longer ill, was walking from the dark tomb into the light, and had his friend Jesus to thank for all of it. It would certainly be a celebratory meal, the best that Mary and Martha could provide on such a day. Instead of a Last Supper, it would be a First Supper, maybe not as sacramental, but just as much a celebratory event.
I don’t think I’m finished ruminating about what John is trying to tell me in this passage. I’ve got the gist, but I think there’s more to be dug out of it. I also believe that with every day that passes, I am one day closer to finding out if I’m right about Heaven, Hell, resurrection, and the infinite mercy of God. One day, I’m confident I will know that mercy in its fullness. In fact, I’m rather looking forward to it. I’ve got a lot of questions I have wanted to ask
Image: Resurrection of Lazarus. Rom, Catacombe di via Latina, 4th century. Found at Wikimedia Commons.