|Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt Vincent van Gogh|
In Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary the Gospel readings for Sundays in Lent include three lengthy episodes from John’s Gospel. They all relate personal encounters with Jesus, through which a deep theological point is revealed. On the third Sunday, Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman at the well. On the fourth, it is the man born blind. On this, the fifth Sunday in Lent, it is the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an encounter not just with an individual, but with the whole household at Bethany – Mary, Martha, Lazarus -- all special friends of Jesus.
In each of these stories there is a miraculous element, and the dramatic nature of the miracle intensifies from one episode to the next. Jesus, somehow, knows the Samaritan woman’s personal history without asking. This impresses her greatly, but it pales in comparison with the miraculous gift of sightedness to a man who had never been able to see. The restoration of Lazarus from death to life is more dramatic still, and the Gospel writer goes into slightly unpleasant detail in order to banish any suggestion that this was mere resuscitation.
|Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones Gustave Dore|
In considering miracles like these, it is easy to be deflected into wondering whether they happened quite as they are described, and whether there is some ‘naturalistic’ explanation. This is understandable, given contemporary ways of thinking, but it is of the first importance to see that these are ‘signs’, and not merely ‘wonders’. That is to say, this is one of these occasions when we should remember that ‘actions speak louder than words’. What these miracles have to say -- to everyone -- is more significant than the undoubted benefits they brought to particular individuals.
What do they say? The lessons that surround them give us a clue, especially this week. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones into which the Spirit of God breathes life, places Jesus’ raising of Lazarus beyond mere revival and into the context of redemption. Paul’s commentary in Romans invites us, indeed challenges us, to look past physical health and strength. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. . . . If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness”. Lazarus’s corrupting body is not the only form of death. Nor is it the worst. Jesus displays God’s creative power in a spectacular act of reversing the normal processes of nature. But the point is not to give Lazarus a few extra years. It is to show that a quite different life-giving transformation is on offer and, paradoxically, to warn us against clinging desperately to this mortal life.