Easter is more than death and resurrection. Jesus not only cheated death and returned to life. Jesus lives!
Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Do we believe this? The question is especially poignant today. We are living in a time of death, a time of suffering, a time of fear. The COVID-19 pandemic reaches into every facet of our lives and consciousness. Many will die. Many more will die inwardly from fear, grief, and economic ruin. Will there be a resurrection?
If we look more closely at the story of the death and resurrection of Lazarus as told in the Gospel of John, chapter 11, we can discover some insight to these questions.
When Jesus heard that Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha, who were all dearly beloved friends of Jesus, was sick and at the point of death, he said to his disciples:
“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
That is a powerful thought: that the purpose of a calamity of sickness or death may ultimately be to glorify God. To understand this, we need to follow the story to the end. After some back and forth with his followers about what Jesus meant with his words, and whether returning to Judea was a safe idea, Jesus cut to the point with his followers:
“Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
The scene on his arrival was chaos and grief. Lazarus had died. It was too late.
“Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
This is the point where Jesus spoke the powerful words of Good News:
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
In the story, Martha’s faith was rewarded, but not before experiencing grieving and tears together with her Lord and Savior. The sisters led Jesus to the tomb where Lazarus was already buried. There were many tears and weeping.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, Resurrection of Lazarus, 1896
Yes, the son of God, who planned to raise Lazarus from death, who knew he could conquer death, wept with his friends in the pain of grief. It was not a show; they were genuine tears of grief. Pain is part of healing, part of resurrection. There can be no resurrection without pain, death, and grief. Going through this pain is repentance, turning from death to life.
So how do death and grief lead to life? The words from the Gospel tell it best:
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
What can we learn about death and resurrection in our life today from this story? It would be glib to compare Lazarus’ death to all the deaths from coronavirus today. It would be presumptuous to hope for an immediate physical resurrection miracle for each life lost. It is never wrong to hope for a miracle; miracles still do happen and God still listens to prayer. We should pray in specifics for every situation in which we long for God to work his mercy and healing, as well as in general longing for an end to suffering in the world. And whatever happens, we know there a victory of life waiting for those who will die, even without resurrection here and now.
Yes, there will be death. And there is much in us that needs to die: our selfishness, our vanity, our running after meaningless idols. There is much in our society and culture that should die too: drug addiction, violence, prostitution, racism, nationalism, political divisiveness, disregard to the environment, greed, materialism, war, famine, disasters, poverty, hopelessness, mental illness, and despair. If only we could kill death itself, the final enemy.
But God can. Jesus can.
Photo by Martin Sanchez
Through his resurrection, there can be renewal and revival already now.
There can be a resurrection of hope, a resurrection of helping our neighbor. There can be a resurrection of community coming out of our isolation and quarantine. There can be a renewal of the church, the true fellowship of faithful brothers and sisters to break bread and be strengthened in the Spirit and Word of God. There can be a revival of all nations and cultures and religions through those who have learned that solidarity and love work better than soldiers and embargos.
This death and resurrection would truly glorify God. So let us pray this Easter that Jesus will “take away the stone” like he did for Lazarus, and “take off [our] grave clothes, and let [us] go.”
Jesus lives! We must live too.
J. Heinrich Arnold is a father and grandfather, as well as a pastor, physician assistant, teacher, and musician. He lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JHeinrichArnold.