The Resurrection and the Life
Lent 4 2023: John 11:1-45
Commentators often point to the difference between the raising of Lazarus and the raising of Jesus. While Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the latter will die again; when Jesus is risen, he will not. The raising of Lazarus constitutes a sort of miracle of healing, more dramatic than but still essentially like other healings and signs. The raising of Jesus however is not like others, or (merely) a sign, but the definitive act to which Martha refers in conversation with Jesus, the last day.
These stories in John are “signs.” In everyday use and in some modern hermeneutics, “sign” is a rather flat idea, where a thing just points to something else. Jesus’ signs in John could perhaps be (and often are) read that way, as simple metaphors. His interlocutors do often appear literalistic, like Nicodemus balking at the idea of a second literal birth (ch. 3), or crowds having their bellies filled (ch. 6). Then it can be tempting for the reader to nod sagely, knowing well that Jesus is actually referring to some other particular thing, a new birth, himself, etc. This is not wrong, but is (almost?) as inadequate as the initial, literal, understanding. It reduces the signs in John to a code: not x, but y.
John’s notion of a “sign” however is different. “Signs” in John are much richer than metaphors—they are complex, dynamic, and relational. The sign is not mere information, but transformation. We end up thinking differently about the sign itself, and about Jesus himself, and about ourselves. It would be misleading to treat the events, characters and even objects in these stories about people healed and saved as though they and the details are mere “props” or teaching tools, as the everyday sense of “sign” might tempt us to do. The specifics of the drama concerning the blind man, for comparison, were not a convenient means of underlining the foregone conclusion that Jesus is the light of the world, but present a claim about what “light” truly is.
Part of what is recast for us in this episode is resurrection itself, and by implication death itself. So the story of Lazarus combines an inherently powerful narrative with a purpose or theme which goes far beyond the events depicted. The similarity with last week’s Gospel of the man born blind extends to the comment by Jesus that the experience of Lazarus has taken place “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v 4b; cf. 9:3), and onlookers make the connection with that episode too (11:33). The raising of Lazarus will point to another very different raising, and to something essential to knowing Jesus, but not simply or neatly.
One confronting aspect of the Lazarus narrative is Jesus’ delay, for which he is rebuked by Martha explicitly. This foregrounds the risk of the false kind of sign, the apparent instrumentalization of Lazarus’ death as a pedagogical tool by Jesus. Jesus’ response to this situation makes it clear that things are not so simple. First there is reference to his love of Lazarus (v. 3), and then comes his personal response outside Bethany—the translations struggle to convey this: literally, “he groaned in the spirit and was troubled in himself” (v. 33b)—then his weeping (v. 35). This makes it impossible to treat the sign and its revelation of “glorification” of the Son as neatly justifying death, delay, or anything else. Why does Jesus weep and agonize when he knows what will happen, after all? The tension between suffering and glorification points to Jesus’ own death and rising also; the Cross will be necessary to glory, the exaltation of the Son, even though it is everything despicable and agonizing. Signs are not neat.
While there is far more to be said about this passage—because that surplus of meaning is inherent in John’s signs—what this one reveals about death, as well as about resurrection, is fundamental. To say that this weeping man, who feels sick to his stomach at the death of his friend, will be lifted up so that the world might be saved through him, signifies something for the Passion (sic) story in John, where Jesus otherwise seems so much in control of events, relative to his synoptic portraits.
So the raising of Lazarus is not just a puppet-play demonstrating Jesus’ power via Lazarus’ body, but a fully-fledged sign of what raising the dead costs. To affirm that Jesus is the resurrection and the life (v. 25) is thus not merely to affirm his power as greater than that of death and the grave, it is to confront the cost to him and to us all of death, our own or others’, before proceeding neatly to claims about that power.
We sometimes see in (e.g.) social media, not least from recovering evangelicals and not least as the Passion looms in the calendar, the idea that treating Jesus’ death as a saving event is reprehensible, because “he was actually killed by the Roman authorities for his subversive activities, rather than to take away the sins of the world.” There is an important point being made here, yet there is a colossal mistake too. John and his audience knew perfectly well why Jesus was killed, but they were also willing to believe that God was able to make this unjust and meaningless death into glory. Some forms of theology make Jesus’ death into an abstraction, and this is the problem; how and why Jesus dies historically is important. It is the loss of the tension between those two things, the historical reality of Jesus’ practice and the audacious claims of the nascent Church, that gets us into trouble.
When Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells us something about resurrection and life otherwise, as well as about himself. Resurrection and life are not immediate bliss, nor simply a proposition about post-mortem existence. They are life lived to the full, courage in the face of evil, hope despite the evidence, and faith that God can be at work in the worst of times and situations, and not only when things we like are apparent. This also means something about his death. While Lazarus’ death involves no (apparent) political violence, the story makes a claim about the possibility that suffering (and hence also oppression) must give way to glory; this is why Jesus’ own death in John is his being “lifted up.”
Martha and Mary experience Jesus’ recalibration of the sign itself, and of their faith in him, when he shifts faith in the resurrection from being a matter of future hope only to present reality, and presents Lazarus back to them alive. The sign of Lazarus is not a mere coded message to the effect that Jesus too will rise, but changes the nature of that rising for us in ways that go beyond timing. The resurrection of the Son addresses the same grief and loss—and politically speaking, oppression and violence—presented in this story and woven through human existence. The resurrection does not appear in history by denial of them, but transforms how we view them, and promises that God will overcome them, at the last.