I marked Easter this year by mulling on the Resurrection stories in the Gospels, and found myself led from those in John’s Gospel to John’s account of the raising of Lazarus, where I was struck by both the similarities and the differences between the stories of Jesus’ Resurrection and that of Lazarus.
In the story of Lazarus, Martha and Mary arrive at their brothers tomb with a crowd of witnesses. Lazarus’ body has been there for four days. Jesus commands that the stone in front of Lazarus’ tomb be taken away. Martha is concerned at the probable stench from Lazarus’s decomposing body, but nevertheless the stone is removed. Jesus commands Lazarus to “come out” and he does, still wrapped in his grave clothes. Jesus tells the onlookers to “Loose him, let him go,” and as a result many of them place their faith in Jesus. The story says nothing more of Lazarus save that later when Mary & Martha give a supper at home in honour of Jesus [not Lazarus!], their brother Lazarus is amongst the guests. Throughout the story the focus is on Jesus not Lazarus.
In John’s story of Jesus’ Resurrection, on the other hand, women visit the tomb where they had seen his body interred and find the stone covering the grave moved, the tomb empty, and Jesus’s grave clothes folded neatly to one side. There is no sign of Jesus body and no mention of a smell. It’s as if Jesus body was never there and yet they knew that it had been. There are no witnesses as to what has happened.
There is common ground in that both men died and their bodies were placed in tombs that were then sealed with a large stone. But the differences are considerable: Lazarus dead body was seen to be still in his tomb, and it stank, witnesses saw Jesus bring him back life, and life then continued as before for Lazarus. Jesus body had been in his tomb but then wasn’t, there were no witnesses as to what had happened, and later some of His followers claimed that He had appeared to them in various ways, such that they were convinced that He was alive, although not in quite the way He had been before.
It’s as if John is spelling out that Jesus’ resurrection was of an entirely different order from that of Lazarus who while physically restored, will still die one day. John is not concerned with Jesus being physically restored but with the fact that He restored his followers, filling them with confidence and hope, and then commissioned them to continue the ministry that he had begun, under the guidance of His continuing presence.
Mulling on the stories of Jesus Resurrection appearances in all four Gospels a number of themes emerged:
 Those who go looking for the dead body of Jesus don’t find Him.
 They mostly find its absence frightening.
 The Risen Jesus appears unexpectedly to others who were not looking for Him, although often they don’t initially recognise Him
 When those who have been met by the Risen Jesus, tell others who have not, they aren’t believed.
 But when those who have seen the Risen Jesus meet with others who have also seen Him they affirm each other..
 Doubting may be a prelude to faith in the Risen Jesus.
 The Risen Jesus forgives, restores, & feeds His followers, and goes on to commission them to continue His ministry.
 There is no mention of a message about Jesus followers themselves being raised from death.
The overall message is that if you go looking for Jesus, as the women did, you won’t find Him, and you may well be frightened by His absence. If others tell you of Him, you won’t believe them. But, if you wait He may find you…..although some will be doubtful. You will feel a deep bond with others who have had similar experiences. In the meantime meet together & remember His teaching & His actions, and continue with your usual daily life. You will be commissioned to carry on His mission. It’s a message that is always contemporary.
Moreover it describes a pattern that I recognise. It mirrors a number of experiences I’ve had over the years, in which I have been encountered by a dead or divine person, or felt a sense of oneness with creation. They often occur at times of stress and anxiety, when God can have seemed silent or even absent. They come out of the blue & took me by surprise. Others are dismissive of them, unless they have had one themselves. They are subjective and deeply personal experiences, but of such authenticity that their objective reality is difficult to deny. They are invariably affirming, encouraging, and life changing if taken seriously and trusted. I’ve also learnt that far more people have had such experiences than I had imagined.
The first time it happened I understood it as a personal word from God, there seemed to be no other explanation. But with the passage of time I’ve come to see it as an encounter with the Risen Christ. In essence the two understandings are the same, but the latter enables me to affirm that the Risen Christ Who appeared after His death to His followers has also appeared to me and that He continues to appear to people seemingly irrespective of their faith tradition or lack of one. The problem is not that it doesn’t happen, but that we mostly fail to recognise & name it for what it is. If we did it could be life-changing for us as it was for those first followers. It encourages us to:
take “ up my part in the unfinished tale
of Jesus ‘ risen life, once more renew
My little role within the coming kingdom.” [* Malcoln Guite]
In doing so we are following John in not being so much concerned with Jesus being physically restored but with the fact that He restores us his followers, filling us with confidence and hope, and then commissioning us to continue the ministry that he had begun, under the guidance of His continuing presence.
There is another question that John’s story of Lazarus raised for me. Jesus is described as loving Martha, Mary & their brother Lazarus. When He arrived at Lazarus tomb John tells us that Jesus wept, such that the onlookers said “how dearly He must have loved him”. John makes it clear that Jesus loved Lazarus and I wonder why he did so? An obvious answer, but not one that I’ve considered before, is that John is identifying Lazarus as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” and who was at Jesus’s side during the Last Supper? If so that could shed light on Peter’s question to His Risen Lord right at the end of John’s Gospel about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and what would be his fate, to which Jesus replied “If it should be my will that he stay until I come, what is it to you?” If the “beloved disciple” was Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from death, that question of Peter’s would make good sense.
I wonder if I can push this thought further? If Lazarus was the ‘beloved disciple’ present at the Last Supper, maybe that Passover meal was in part, to celebrate Lazarus’ being risen from the dead as a sign of the beginning of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had proclaimed? God had at last begun to act to save His people. Prayer in the garden of Gethsemane was then a time of prayerful waiting for the fulfilment of that Kingdom, as was Jesus silence before the High Priest. When nothing happened except his death, Jesus felt that God had forsaken him and that He had got it all horribly wrong. His being raised, and in a manner & with consequences very different from the raising of Lazarus then showed that God had vindicated Jesus & inaugurated something nobody had quite envisaged and which still awaits fulfilment.
- Malcolm Guite, in his poem response to Psalm 56 in his book ‘David’s Crown’: