Br. Maximillian Esmus, n/OHC
Or so it seems for the moment. It’s worth recalling how the story continues. We left off hearing that many of the Judeans who witnessed this sign believed in Jesus. But in the very next verse we read that “some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.”1
This raising of Lazarus, Jesus’s ultimate act of healing, proof that God’s life-giving power reaches even beyond the grave, is, for the religious authorities of Jerusalem, the very last straw. In short order, a council of hand-wringing Pharisees is called, a price is placed on Jesus’s head, and the deadly machinery of betrayal, indictment, and crucifixion is set in motion. The council also makes a plot to kill the now famous Lazarus. They’ll do anything to halt the ongoing spread of Jesus’s ministry and message.
They thought to themselves, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”2 The Pharisees likely were not wrong in this calculation; oppressive imperial regimes tend not to favor large-scale popular movements such as the crowds following Jesus. In all honesty, if I, like the Pharisees, were faced with the potential destruction of everything I hold dear, my home, my livelihood, and my most cherished religious practice, would I act any differently? Would I really hear with the ear of faith, and discern the word of God in Jesus and follow him? Or would I, too, be busy plotting a strategy for my own survival? I don’t know.
These readings bring up for me the fundamental question of faith: What does it mean to be faithful? To be faithful is to follow where God calls, and to do as the Lord commands, as best as I can discern it in this present moment. Faith is the abolishment of fear. Not abolishment in the sense of the denial or elimination of fearful feelings, but the choice to let God alone be the guide of my actions, not my felt needs or wants or doubts.
We have an example of faithfulness in Ezekiel. God challenges him, “Can these bones live?” and he gives an endearingly tepid response: “O Lord, you know…” Not exactly a electrifying statement of faith. Ezekiel seems not quite ready, at the intellectual level to say “yes” to the impossible, but his true faithfulness lies in the fact that he spoke God’s word to those bones anyway. Imagine how silly it would feel, prophesying to the inanimate; that is, until they actually start to come alive. Imagine announcing to an exiled people their impending restoration, when no evidence of any such thing is forthcoming. As impossible as it might have seemed, Ezekiel spoke the prophecy.
Turning back to the start of the Gospel, we have an example of faith in Thomas the disciple, who said, “let us go and die with him.” He doesn’t seem swelling with hopeful belief here. Yet it doesn’t matter – he went, and got the others to follow.
Examine the faithfulness of Mary, and of Martha, who, when told her brother will live again, mutters, well yes, there is the resurrection at the end of time. It’s relatively easy to believe in a distant, far off vision. But today? Here? Jesus says, “Yes, right here and right now. The resurrection and the life is standing here talking with you. Do you believe that my followers will have life?” Again, she gives a kind of sideways answer: “Yes, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” She stops short of expressing hope in seeing her brother again. The sisters do not doubt Jesus’s power, but remain wedded to the quite true fact that no life can reenter a body which is already stinking from the processes of nature.
At least, those are their expressed beliefs. But look at the sisters’ actions: Mary does lead Jesus to Lazarus’ tomb. And despite her complaint about the stench, Martha does have the stone removed. They cooperate with Christ’s saving acts anyway.
And look at the faithfulness of Jesus himself. His heavenly Father intends him to reveal God’s glory, and Jesus lets nothing get in the way of letting God guide his actions to this end. Let’s go back to the beginning to the story. Why do you suppose, after hearing of Lazarus’s illness, Jesus stayed two days longer where he was? He could have gone right away in secret and ministered to him. He actually tells us plainly why he delayed: That God’s glory might be revealed. Waiting two more days allowed time for word of the death to spread throughout Judea, time for a large number to travel from Jerusalem to Bethany to offer their condolences. I think Jesus paused to ensure that the maximum number of people would be there to witness his ultimate sign.
Jesus must have known that the crowd would include people who would report him to the authorities, that this act would greatly increase his notoriety and hasten his death sentence. He also must have known that before long, Lazarus would become a target as well, and grief would once again visit upon this beloved family of Bethany. Jesus knows that their lives, like the lives of all his disciples, will be marked by pain and trial. So he weeps with them, and for them. How easy it would have been to turn aside in order to preserve his life, in order to avoid endangering the earthly lives of his disciples! But no. Nothing would dissuade him from acting in complete faithfulness to his call to speak God’s Word to Lazarus, to his sisters, and to the crowds.
Faithfulness is about the choices we make. Belief, in terms of intellectual beliefs or even gut intuitions, may or may not be present at the moment faith is called for. I’m learning that those sorts of felt certainties are a rare gift from God which, in any case, I am ready to receive only after I’ve made the choice to act in faith.
I, for instance, feel no certainty at all that everything will work out to God’s greater purpose in this viral epidemic. I cannot at present see how God is going to bring new life out of this experience of disease, which is ravaging bodies, ravaging families, and in the necessary steps taken to reduce its spread, ravaging our economy, leaving many wondering how they will make ends meet in the coming months. I, sometimes, can accept the world as it is as part of the gift of life. And sometimes, I struggle to understand how a world that features deadly viruses, cancers, and a host of natural disasters, is the same world that God created and called “very good.” My capacity to articulate belief stops short of saying, “all shall be well.” I just don’t know.
I think God is teaching me, in today’s lessons, not to be overly concerned that I do not feel God’s presence, that I cannot see how God is working, or that I cannot make myself believe in seemingly impossible outcomes. My lack of understanding God’s ways does not preclude me from faith. Faith means choosing to act in a way that demonstrates trust in God. To act under the assumption that God loves me more than I could possibly know or feel.
Faithfulness means not waiting for God to take away all my fears and set the conditions just right before I agree to respond to his call. Faithfulness means discerning and doing God’s will while experiencing fear and doubt. And upon doing it, faith means not clinging to the outcomes of my efforts. Our model in this is Jesus himself, whose efforts to inaugurate the Reign of God, when judged by human standards, ended in utter failure. We are called to the kind of poverty of spirit that commends into God’s hands the fruits – or lack of fruits – of every work, grasping at nothing.
So my prayer today is not for the right mental states or for the comfort of emotional security. I pray for the grace to love what God commands and to do it. I pray we all may have the strength to discern what is the will of God, and respond accordingly. Where does this strength come from? From love, the love of Christ that dwells in you by the power of the Spirit. Richard Rohr put it this way:
"Love has you. Love is you. Remember that you already are what you are seeking. Any fear ‘that your lack of fidelity could cancel God’s fidelity, is absurd.’ Love has finally overcome fear.”3Grounded in love, may we answer God’s call, the same call given Ezekiel: to speak forth God’s holy Word to one another, inviting the Holy Spirit to come enflesh our dry bones and breathe new life into our world.
1. John 11:46
2. John 11:48
3. Richard Rohr, "Love is Stronger Than Death," Friday, March 27, 2020