When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem… and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them… When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘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?’
In recent days we’ve watched the alarming increase in the rate of those infected with Covid-19. According to the World Health Organization, on 3 March some 10,000 people had contracted Coronavirus and 166 people had died (excluding China). By 10 March, that number was 32,000 infected and 865 deaths. By 17 March it had reached 180,000 infections and 7,500 deaths (again not including China, which had begun to see a reduction in cases). On 24 March it was well on the way to 400,000 cases and over 16,000 deaths. Three days later the number of infections had reached half a million, and the number of those who have died (including in China) exceeds 25,000. With numbers like these we can lose the human tragedy, seeing only statistics. Until we are brought face to face with a single human tragedy, as Jesus was in the village of Bethany. There Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died. No cause of death is given, though an infection or other contracted disease is perhaps most likely. Jesus is met by the grieving sisters, torn between faith and reproach ‘Lord, if you had been here…’. Perhaps this mirrors your own feelings: ‘Where is God?’ According to Jesus’ words earlier in the chapter, his delay in responding to the sisters’ appeal to hurry to Bethany was part of God’s greater – but hidden – purpose. To many in the crowd his absence was cause for reproach, ‘Could [he] … not have kept this man from dying?’ Yet though Jesus delayed his departure by two days, there’s no sign that he distanced himself emotionally from the tragedy of Lazarus’ death: ‘When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep.’ Likewise, we must not become emotionally immune to the unfolding human drama, and especially to the fact that each person worried for the wellbeing of a loved one, each hospitalisation, each essential worker giving 100% and more, each traumatised member of an intensive care team, each tragic death is a vital narrative, not merely a statistic. Like Jesus, we must draw close, and weep with those who weep, even as we hold to a faith in our heavenly Father which says, like Jesus: ‘I know that you always hear me’; a faith not afraid to challenge, ‘Where is God in this?’, but also not afraid to affirm, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ The gospel reading leaves us uncomfortable. Lazarus is physically raised; a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection. But many others are not. Resurrection stands at the heart of this reading, as it does in the other set reading for today, from Romans chapter 8, where St. Paul urges his readers not to root their lives in the flesh: the physical and mortal, but in the spiritual, the eternal, which is where true life begins and never ends. Jesus offers life beyond death, ‘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?’ Believing this does not immunise us to this mortal life, but enlivens the compassion, courage and care we offer one another now, when it is most needed.