Fifth Sunday in Lent

April 6, 2014
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Ezekiel 37:1-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 130
Reading 3: 
Romans 8:6-11
Reading 4: 
John 11:1-45
By Marjorie Suchocki

The raising of Lazarus is the culminating sign in John's "book of signs." The previous signs have been the miracles and the discourses succeeding them, in which Jesus interprets the signs, often including an "I am. . . " statement. Now, in this final sign, Jesus prefigures his own death and resurrection and gives his final "I am. . ." declaration within the book of signs. Consider the progression of these self-interpretive descriptions of Jesus:

John 4:26: I who speak to you am he (the Messiah).
John 6:35 and John 6:48: I am the bread of life
John 6:51: I am the living bread that came down out of heaven
John 8:12 and John 9:5: I am the light of the world
John 8:58: Before Abraham was, I am
John 10:7 and John 10:9: I am the door
John 10:11 and John 10:14: I am the good shepherd
John 11:25: I am the resurrection and the life.

The first identifies Jesus with the anticipated Messiah; the fifth identifies him with God by its startling allusion to God's words to Moses, "I am that I am." The amazing indication of each of the other statements is their insistence that God in Jesus is for our good. God is bread, light, a way, a guide--and finally, resurrection and life. If Jesus is the revelation of who God is, then the ultimate revelation is that God is for us, with us, a very present help in all our situations and needs. All of the language we so insistently apply to God that have to do with almighty power, might, and fear are wiped away in the compassionate "I am's" of Jesus. God is for us.

Using the "I am's" as a guide, look more closely at the story of the raising of Lazarus. We are to see how God is for us throughout this story. Note that Jesus waits several days before responding to the sisters' call to come; by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Does this mean that God forsakes us in our troubles? Hardly, for Jesus knows what is happening to Lazarus even while he is physically distant from him. Nor are we ourselves forsaken by God in our own times of trouble. God does not prevent trouble from happening: we are finite, we are fragile, it is not possible to live without some kind of trouble entering our lives. We all face the worst of troubles in the deaths of those we dearly love, as well as in our own impending death. God is not impassive in the face of our troubles: Jesus wept. God feels us in our pain; the love of God is empathic, a "feeling with." From this weeping, this "feeling with," come the words of Jesus: "Lazarus, come forth!" and then the command, "Unbind him." God feels with us for the sake of our own forms of here-and-now resurrection, our own capacity not simply to endure, but to overcome. The "unbind him" calls attention to the role of the community. God, feeling with us, returns to us realistic possibilities for moving on--but part of that ability to move on is given in and through the communities that surround us and unbind us. This means that in all cases of suffering, we who are the community are part of God's means toward finite resurrections in this life for those who suffer.

The story of Lazarus touches us with hope in time of trouble: God is with us; a community is with us. By God's grace, the community participates in the transformations, the resurrections, that God makes possible. This final sign in John's book of signs concludes with the transitional chapter 12, where the momentum builds toward the paradoxical moment of glory when "the Son of Man is lifted up": the crucifixion of Jesus. Chapters 13 through 20 draw us into that revelatory moment. Jesus the Christ is lifted on a cross, manifesting the suffering of God. There we receive the final "I am" statement in John: "I am thirsty." It is the ultimate revelation that God experiences our suffering. How else would we dare to suggest that God suffers, were it not for the astonishing identification of God with us that occurs in this most amazing of the gospels? God's co-suffering with us is no end in itself; it is rather the means through which God, knowing us so deeply, brings forth resources from God's own self that lead us toward our own resurrections. This is a sign that becomes reality throughout our lives in every trouble that we endure, with the intimation that resurrection is the ultimate reality in which and toward which we live. We will ourselves participate fully in God in that final resurrection toward which all our little resurrections lead. Glory indeed; amen.