5th Sunday of Lent (A)
Update, March 29, 2020: It occurs to me that in this period of social distancing, isolation, and quarantine, the most loving way to heed Jesus’ command to “Take away the stone” (albeit, virtually and from afar) from our friends, family, and even strangers who are experiencing life-restricting grief and despair is through regular check-ins in, texts, FaceTime (or whatever app you prefer) in order to offer each other life-giving loving support and encouragement.
Originally published in 2017
In a reflection on the Lazarus story, the late theologian, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, wrote, “Resurrection (…) is not so much a theological problem as it is a religious experience. It is not an extravagant miracle happening out there; it means the transforming presence of Jesus within us.”
Stuhlmueller does not spend much time discussing the veracity of the Lazarus story in this reflection; he does not go to lengths to affirm Jesus’ power to return life to his dead friend, as told in John’s gospel. He simply states “Jesus did raise Lazarus back to life.” The Lazarus story is less about the facts and more about coming to believe in Jesus and our role in helping others come to believe. It is here that we experience resurrection.
For many, it is comforting to want to read bible stories as if they were factual accounts of historical events. We imagine that biblical times were an isolated era when the atmosphere crackled with divine sparks, a time of angels and miracles and Prophets and heavenly signs. A time very different from our own, we believe. Why, we wonder, did Jesus walk the earth in that particular time in history? Why not now? Perhaps we just are not paying attention.
This is not an invitation to debate whether or not the Lazarus miracle is based on actual events of Jesus’ earthly ministry or a symbolic foreshadowing of Jesus’ impending death and resurrection. But I propose we ask better questions of the text, and allow ourselves to be more curious.
Stuhlmueller wants us to consider the experience of resurrection of the living: those transformative, spirit-led events of our lives. “The resurrection is not completed when our dead bodies are raised to life but when the spirit of Jesus dwells within us, yet, not simply within each of us individually but within all of us as one family.” 
“Within all of us as one family.” This is a story not only about coming to believe in Jesus, but a story about community. It is a guide for those who experience periods of despair and suffering and those who companion them.
Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that their brother was dying. They begged him to come to their aid, to save Lazarus. They put their faith in him. But Jesus did not come; he intentionally stayed away, and Lazarus died.
How often have we been Martha and Mary, begging Jesus to hurry to our side because we or our loved one is nearing the end of a long and fruitless struggle? To be perfectly clear, how often have we wondered why Jesus allowed our worst fears to come to pass?
And then, in our grief Jesus shows up at the gate of our heart, and joins us in our sorrow. Martha and Mary confronted Jesus, they were confused and angry. Why did he abandon them in their time of need? Why, indeed. And in that dark confrontation they reaffirmed their faith in Jesus and the hope for new life was inspired within them.
In recent days, I have been struck by the implicit role of community in the Lazarus story, and in each of our resurrection stories. Consider where you have witnessed a resurrection. You have likely participated in one. Perhaps in your marriage, your family and friends, your church, workplace, in the people you serve, or a stranger?
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
He required the participation of those present, that Lazarus’ friends overcome their reluctance, doubt, and fear of the stench of death, and that they summon the strength to take away the stone that divided the living from the dead.
“They took away the stone.” Do we have the strength to help take away life-restricting stones in service to one another? Stuhlmueller asks, “Are we convinced that new life will come out of our profound collapses?”
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus did. How loud must Jesus be for us to hear him? Listen! It is directed to us.
Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
In Jesus’ other miracles, most recently in the healing of the man born blind, Jesus physically touches the ones he saves. But in this story, it is the friends who do the touching. “Untie him and let him go.”
We are each bound up in our burial cloths, limited by what binds us: our way of thinking, our sense of purpose, our abilities—or lack thereof, our prejudices, and the ever-increasing limitations we use to restrict ourselves and others from the fullness of life: all these bindings need to be loosened and we need to allow others to help us remove them.
The gospel don’t tell us the rest of the story. We don’t know what Lazarus does with his newfound life. It is not important. What is important is what we do with ours. How loud does Jesus need to be?