Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel who proclaims that the Lord will open graves and raise those who have died. John’s Gospel tells the story of Lazarus. Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, were friends of Jesus. At the start of the Gospel Jesus was summoned as Lazarus was ill; Jesus insisted that Lazarus would not die and delayed his trip for two days. During that time Lazarus died and by the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been buried in a tomb for four days. At the sight of Mary’s tears, Jesus also wept. When he approached Lazarus’ tomb he instructed that the stone covering the tomb be rolled away. He then commanded Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and he did. Many who witnessed this came to believe.
I hope I’m not alone in this, but I love the Harry Potter books (and yes, the movies). I appreciate the genius of JK Rowling, for her ability to create a world that fascinated millions of us. Along with others I loved the process of seeing these children, tweens, teenagers, and finally young adults learn how to claim and stretch their powers of magic.
And I found myself asking this question: As they progress as wizards in this magical world, is there anything they won’t be able to do? I found my answer fairly soon. For all their power, no one had the power over death. In the first volume we learn that Harry’s parents were killed by Voldemort. Others died in the series but the point is clear: Wizards’ ability to levitate, expel demons, hide the truth from us muggles, and defy laws of physics. But their powers have a limit. Once someone dies, they are not coming back. Death is irreversible.
And let’s face it: we’ve all wanted this power. When I was 21 my beloved maternal grandmother died of a heart attack. Some would say she “spoiled” me but I always found her kind and generous and I cried when I got the call that she died. Three days later I entered the funeral home for the viewing. Lying there she looked like my grandmother and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe it wasn’t too late give her CPR and bring her back. I wished I had the power to do that.
Clearly I didn’t, and to be fair my grandmother probably still rejoices that I didn’t have the power to jerk her out of Heaven and return her. She’s no doubt happier that she’s spending her time preparing a place for me and her other grandchildren.
But the concept of eternal life, the idea of life after death, gives hope and joy to all of us. From our earliest days we’ve confronted the reality of finite lives. Some of us gain the blessing of long lives, others believe our lives end too soon, and others mourn the early deaths of children and infants.
As Christians we’ve spent our entire lives believing that our earthly life promises a small percentage of our eternal life and that when we die we will go to Heaven, be reunited with our loved ones, and spend eternity in a place with no suffering or end.
And while that’s a comforting belief we need to recognize that this was not the belief of the hearers of Ezekiel and John. For them, once this life was over, that was it. Death played the last card.
And that, to our ears, appears horrifically unfair. Some of us live long and happy lives; others live long lives in horrific despair. And so many live lives cut short much too soon. As a hospice chaplain I presided at the funeral of someone whose 15 days on earth were filled with suffering. Nothing was more unfair than the pain she endured, to say nothing of the pain her family suffered.
Left to our own devices, almost nothing points to an existence beyond this life. Ancient Greeks believed that we are all spirits and that earthly life was a punishment for some transgression. For them, death was a liberation. Those who heard Ezekiel had a vague belief that when the Messiah arrived those in the grave would come back to life, but their belief was far from universal. In other words nearly everyone else expected nothing after death.
In this context those who witnessed how Lazarus came back to life must have been puzzled. From our perspective we can see this through clear eyes: just as Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, so he will do the same for all of us.
While this is true, I think it’s simplistic. It’s true that Jesus did bring Lazarus back to life, this Gospel is much more complex, and I think it’s instructive for our lives as disciples.
I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s an honest question to ask how much Jesus knew of his role as Redeemer. Speaking only for myself, I believe that Jesus’ role unfolded for him gradually, and that at the beginning of his life he did not fully understand who he was.
Today’s Gospel makes a great deal more sense through this lens. We begin with an ill Lazarus in Bethany and Jesus nearby; when first learning of Lazarus’ illness Jesus downplayed it. In fact, he hesitated for two days before coming to see him.
And once he did arrive, he found that his beloved friend had died and was buried in a tomb. Then we see the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Did he weep as an act of theatre? Did he weep out of empathy for Mary who also wept?
Or did he week because he had not yet gotten the message that he had the power to bring Lazarus back to life?
This Gospel shows Jesus at his apex: just as he brings Lazarus back from the dead, so too will he do this for all of us. In two weeks we will celebrate Easter when Jesus’ Resurrection foreshadows the resurrection we will all experience. But I think it means more than that.
I believe that just as Jesus comes to fully appreciate his role, so do we. We are not called to live our lives passively awaiting our death and birth into eternal life. That would be too easy.
Do we have the power to bring someone back from the dead? Yes we do, and if you doubt this, ask a teacher. Death does not limit itself to heartbeat and respiration. Death of hope, death of a belief in ourselves, death of a future exist in so many of our lives. And if death does not find a home in us, good for us. But death probably does exist in people we know.
And when we find someone who sees no future, for whom physical death lags decades after spiritual death, this Lazarus calls us to be Jesus. Because if Jesus understood his role only when he recognized his power to bring Lazarus back to life, so too can we.
Believing we will all end up in Heaven calls us in one of two directions. We can choose not to care what happens to another because we will all end up in paradise. Or we can use whatever gifts we’ve been given to make Heaven happen to everyone we meet.
OK, maybe this this hope is ambitious. But it makes us more powerful than everyone in the Harry Potter series.