The account of the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:17-44) is another of those passages in the Gospels with which we are so familiar that it is possible to not give it our full attention. And yet it is the perfect example of God’s mercy at work and our co-operation in how this mercy is manifested to others.
After putting His spirit in Lazarus to give him life, Jesus tells the community to unbind him and set him free. It is also the community who remove the stone from the tomb. What can we learn from these details about what Jesus asks of our ‘community’— Christians– in our modern-day society?
The name Lazarus in Hebrew means “God has helped” and Bethany means the ‘house of the afflicted.” The house of Martha and Mary has been afflicted by the death of Lazarus and Jesus is able to help them. But Jesus expects great faith from the sisters before carrying out the miracle and then expects them to play their part in it: the stone to the tomb must be removed by human effort, as must the winding cloths be unbound. Only human effort can truly set Lazarus free. The community must work with Jesus on this.
How can we work with God to unbind those afflicted in our families and circles of friends but also in our wider society and global community? To be able to begin to do this first we need to unbind ourselves from the many limitations with which we become tied up. Both the limitations we place on ourselves through fear, anxieties and insecurities and the limitations placed on us by others, either to make their authority felt or to try to control the roles each of us has to play in society. Once we have, through prayer and effort, removed those things which limit us, we are better able to work to unbind others, to ease their afflictions.
Who do we know who is afflicted by pain or suffering of some kind or afflicted by the hopelessness of their current situation? As we approach Holy Week perhaps we could reflect on what we can do to ease their affliction and work with God to bring them his mercy. More challenging is to consider the question ‘who is afflicted but is not someone we personally know, and how can we help to unbind them?’ In our post-referendum society we don’t need to look very far for this answer. All those afflicted by hate crime, racism, misogyny and xenophobia need our help to be freed from this by our support of organisations which tackle these issues, and those who support people afflicted by this, as well as by reporting crime and by us speaking out against the elements of the media whose language seeks to keep people bound up by hatred. Jesus died so that all may have life to the full. God gave life to all but it is down to us to ‘set people free’ from what is holding them down.
Whilst the general population is distracted about the EU negotiations, long-planned cuts to a wide range of benefits come into effect this week, cuts which will afflict millions. Those affected will be on our doorsteps, perhaps even in our families. We are able to unbind people from the effects of these cuts through both our campaigning to amend or reverse them and by our support of organisations which alleviate the effects of poverty. We can expect the numbers of people using furniture projects, debt advice centres, soup kitchens, food banks and clothing schemes to rocket. What can we do to support their work?
The resurrection of Lazarus began with the rolling away of the stone to the tomb. Only once the way had been unblocked could Jesus bring Lazarus out of the grave and tell the community to set him free. To truly be able to effectively help those who are afflicted perhaps we need to remove the stone that keep us in our ‘tombs’ first. The tomb of indifference, of apathy, of despair that we are hopeless to achieve anything. We are not helpless because, like the people of Bethany, God is working with us. God puts the seed of life in us all and asks us to keep it unfettered, to set it truly free so that we can do the same for others. So, as we remember the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus this Eastertide, let’s start work on moving away our own stones.