“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That accusation is thrown at Jesus twice the story of the raising of Lazarus – once by Martha and a second time by her sister, Mary. Its prominence in the story might tell us why St. John included the raising of Lazarus in his recounting of the gospel when Matthew, Mark and Luke did not. St. John is writing at a time of turmoil in the early Church. There were divisions between what we might call liberal and conservatives. There were some Christians who thought the Church had gotten too hide-bound, too set in its way and were suggesting that they needed to think in more modern, more hip ways. There was an undercurrent of racism where Jewish Christians and non-Jews each believed that they were not given sufficient respect by the other. There was pressure from outside forces, from the government which questioned the values and morality that the Christians were trying to incorporate into the larger society. So the challenge “if you had been here my brother would not have died” resonated with the experience of St. John and his community. If Jesus was here why were we going through such difficulties? If Jesus was here, shouldn’t things be better?
Ultimately, therefore, the story of the raising of Lazarus is not so much a miracle story designed to show forth Jesus’ divine power. Rather, it is a story about the identity of Jesus, about who he is and how we connect with him. Not the miracle, the man. Certainly the story does contain elements which suggest his divine nature as the son of God. He has knowledge of the condition of Lazarus from afar even without Facetime or Instant Messaging. He insists that by trusting in him they will see the glory of God. Martha calls Jesus the Messiah, the son of God, the one coming into the world. He names himself as the Resurrection and Life. In his prayer he claims intimacy with God who he calls Father. And, of course, there is the divine power summoning Lazarus back from the stench and darkness of death. Jesus is staking a claim as someone who has power over life and death. John concludes the passage by telling the result: Many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
On the other hand, this passage contains some of the most human aspects of Jesus. He is someone who has friends in the family of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. He had eaten at their house and Mary had anointed his feet. He had to cope with the opposition he was facing that threatened violence against him. He had disciples who worried about him. He became very emotional, was “deeply troubled,” when he saw the grief that his friends were going through. He even wept when confronted with the reality of the loss of his friend, Lazarus. He had to confront the reality of seeing his friend “bound hand and foot” in a burial cloth. While the divine power was apparent there also beat a heart which was full of compassion, which felt for the suffering of others, which had its own emotional wallop. Jesus was not above it all, wafting on some divine cloud but immersed in the pain and sorrow so common to the human condition.
All of this suggests that the story of the raising of Lazarus is a concrete example of the article of faith that Jesus was both the Son of God and the Son of Mary – a person with both a divine and human nature. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made while at the same time someone who went through the life, suffering, death and burial that characterize the human condition. St. John told this story to remind his community, and us, what faith in Jesus means: that God is not above it all but feels what we are going through, that because of Jesus we can be sure that God hears us whenever we call out in prayer, that God can make a way out of no way. The Jesus that we believe in weeps when things are terrible and acts to reverse that terror by bringing grace and mercy into the most dire of circumstances.
Whether it was sixty years ago as in the case of St. John’s church or 2000 years as in ours believing in Jesus being here with us now, today lies at the heart of faith. Instead of saying, “Lord if you had been here my loved one would not have died” we pray “Lord, thank you for being with me in my loss and my grief. I know that you weep along with me, that you feel what I am going through. And I trust that the new life you won for us will one day bring us together into glory.” Instead of saying, “Lord if you had been here my family would not be having all of these problems” we pray “Lord, I trust in the promise you made to be with us always until the end of time. While I don’t know how to deal with this situation I have confidence that you can bring light into the darkness we are now feeling.” Instead of saying, “Lord if you had been here I would not have gotten sick” we pray, “Lord, when you walked the road to Bethany you were aware of the illness that your friend was going through. I trust that you will accompany me with your love and take away the stone of fear and unbind my anxiety.” We can no longer say “Lord if you had been here” at all for there are no “ifs” about it. As the song says, Jesus is here right now, right now.