Saturday, 5 April 2014

Thomas's Story: for 5th Sunday of Lent Year A

I was so scared in Jerusalem. The things Jesus said there made some think he was crazy. They nearly stoned him - tried to arrest him. We escaped with Jesus. We could have gone to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha lived – only 2 miles away - always a warm welcome there. But it was too near Jerusalem. We were relieved to retreat with Jesus out of Judea, back across the Jordan river - much safer. It was good to get away.

Then Jesus heard Lazarus was sick. He didn’t set off immediately to see him. Even with the danger we thought that odd. He loved that family - but he stayed put 2 more days. Eventually he said 'let's go back to Judea'. We tried to talk him out of it - afraid he’d be killed - but Jesus was determined. He said Lazarus was asleep. He had to go to wake him up. It didn't make sense. It made even less sense when Jesus said Lazarus was dead. You can't wake the dead! And we'd be too late for the burial. Why not stay safe - visit Mary and Martha when things got quieter? I was even more puzzled when Jesus said he was glad he hadn’t been with Lazarus sooner - that we'd soon have new reasons to believe. 'Let's go to Lazarus' he said. I didn't like it. It sounded like dicing with death, going near Jerusalem. But I followed Jesus. Once you've put your hand to the plough, you shouldn't turn back. So I said to the others, "Let's go with him, so we may die with him". It was partly a remark of despair, if I’m honest.

We went back. I was worried about the route - Jesus chose the highway. I'd have felt safer with the goat paths to avoid military checkpoints. Bethany was far too near Jerusalem for my liking. Climbing up through the Judean desert from the fertile Jordan Valley the land looked so dry. And that's how I felt - dry, pessimistic, finding it hard to cling to faith. I wanted to stay loyal, but was afraid. Living with Jesus was a roller coaster of emotions. We saw amazing signs, heard profound but simple teaching. Jesus could make you laugh, help you see things differently. What a privilege to be 'chosen' by him. I loved him. Some people hated him. As fast as he attracted followers he gained enemies. As we returned to the Jerusalem area I feared we travelled towards death. Even Jesus expected that.

On the way I noticed a dead goat, its carcass almost picked clean by the vultures. I thought of Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones and how the Lord said to Ezekiel, "can these bones live"? I'd have replied 'no way'. I thought about Lazarus. He'd be buried some days by now. We’d arrive too late for Jesus to heal. 'The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' Oh yes, I can find words to recite at a death, but it doesn't help the hollowness inside. As we walked I thought of how the dry bones became living people in Ezekiel’s vision and how God said, "I will put my spirit within you and you shall live..." I thought, “I could do with that hope, some of that new life now”. I didn’t expect to get it - not then.

We could hear wailing long before we reached the house. Lots of people grieved with Mary and Martha. The 30 day mourning period was in its 5th day. If only Jesus had returned sooner. Why did he heal strangers, but let his friend die? I can’t understand that. Martha said it all when she ran to meet Jesus, "...if you had been here, my brother would not have died". We’d arrived too late. At least we could offer condolences. I hoped Jesus would keep a low profile - surely no-one would arrest him for mourning with friends? We nodded when Jesus told Martha "your brother will rise again". We believed in resurrection at the last day when God makes everything new, as Isaiah prophesied. It's good to speak of that hope, but it doesn't make it easier when someone you love has died. But Martha had great faith and through her tears she said she believed what Jesus said.

What happened to me next is impossible to explain. It was like a window opening into heaven, God stepping into time, lifting me into something new. With Jesus I’d already experienced life with a capital 'L'. I loved him for that. He'd given me a new outlook, shown a better way to live and love. I was sure he was the One sent from God, the One we'd been waiting for. All the same, it still came like a lightning shock when he talked about himself as BEING LIFE. Was this blasphemy? I couldn't understand, but his words had an authority that filled me with hope. I could see Martha sensed what I did. It was like being in the actual presence of God when Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

I was standing near Jesus. I thought I knew him. But at that moment I knew that standing beside me was Life, the Life of God. Standing beside me was Hope, the Hope of God. Standing beside me was Resurrection. It was God bringing light into darkness, making all things new. I could have died happy at that moment. But, incredibly, there was more. 

It was when Jesus saw Mary and all the others weeping and wailing and singing laments - that's when he broke down. Jesus wept. All the way to Lazarus's tomb he sobbed his heart out – anger and anguish. I think Jesus wept, not only for Lazarus, but for others he’d lost and because he too would die soon. We cried too. I’d seen a lot of death. I'd been to lots of funerals, but never felt as deeply moved as that day. We all faced the stark reality of death’s sting – even Jesus.

When we got to the cave where they'd laid Lazarus, Jesus ordered people to take away the stone. I couldn't believe he meant it. Martha said what we all thought. There was already a bad smell. A human body should be allowed to rest in peace. But they did take away the stone. And Jesus did thank God for hearing his prayers. He'd been praying a lot on the way - but then he always did. When Jesus shouted for Lazarus to come out I couldn't believe my ears. Lazarus had died. He was bound in strips of cloth. We all froze, staring at the open tomb. If I hadn't seen it for myself I wouldn't have believed what happened next. Lazarus came out of his tomb.

Like everyone else, I was horrified. Dead people don't come to life on an ordinary day - only on the Last Day when the dead are raised. It must be a ghost I thought. But it wasn't. When they took off the grave clothes I could see it was Lazarus. He looked surprised to see everyone, as if he'd just woken from sleep and wondered what party he'd missed. We did party once we'd got over the shock and knew that Lazarus really was alive again. What a party! Later we heard that some party spoilers had slipped away to complain to the authorities about what Jesus had done. Some people are never satisfied - not even when someone rises from the dead. But many who saw what Jesus did, believed in him.

Later this made more sense, this sign of dying and rising, this sign of who Jesus is. But first we had to make another journey through fear, despair and doubt, from death to resurrection faith. It was a hard road but every step was worth it because it led to unimaginable joy. And I came to know that those who walk with Jesus in the way of the cross discover the truth of what he said, "I am the resurrection and the life". Do you believe this?



Notes:

Image Credits:

This reflective story is inspired by these readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent Year A (Passion Sunday)

Some of this material started as 4 short posts I published on this blog in April 2011:


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