March 29; 5th Sunday of Lent; Year A

5th Lent 19 20Death is a Doorway to Eternal Life

There are few things in life more permanent and guaranteed than death. Some would add taxes, but I think Malaysians can tell you that tax evasion is far easier than postponing and avoiding death. Despite the certainty of death, that doesn’t stop us from imagining what life would be like if death was only temporary, if one could actually rise from the dead. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought the whole world to its knees, brought global economies to a halt, caused nation-wide lockdowns in countries ranging from first world superpowers to third world nations, got me thinking about the scenario painted by post-apocalyptic zombie movies: reanimated human corpses roaming the world seeking to devour living flesh, a scenario that could one day actually become a reality. It was a frightening thought indeed.

Take that in for a second. You have just witnessed a guy get up from out of a tomb (that reeks) all wrapped up in linen (though that may imply a mummy sooner than a zombie – regardless; he’s undead). Or, he is Lazarus. Well, it is good to note that he is not the first case of a reanimated corpse reported in the gospels. There are three resurrection miracles - the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus (Lk. 8:41ff), of the son of the widow of Naim (Lk. 7:11 -15), and of Lazarus. In the first miracle, the girl had just died when Our Lord resurrected her. In the second miracle, the dead man was being carried in his funeral procession, presumably to his tomb. But Lazarus “had been in the tomb for four days already.” He was already stinking. So picture the reaction of the onlookers – here was a man who was already dead for four days, and before you know it, he’s up and about. Macabre. But unlike zombies who become mindless, flesh-feasting, and soulless creatures, Lazarus came back alive and went on with his normal ordinary life until his “second” death. I guess for him and for so many others who had returned from near-death experiences, life would be forever transformed. For better or for worse. We can choose to become better people, become more human, or continue to live as the walking dead.

The resurrection of Lazarus isn’t so much about the reanimation and resuscitation of a corpse as it is about a sign pointing in the direction of the One who openly declares, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” Those are words with most profound hope and joy for all of us. Those words are also a reminder that our focus is on the Lord’s own resurrection because it is the source of great power and favour, a power so great that it will one day raise up the bodies of all believers to Eternal Life! This is why Jesus allowed Lazarus to die in the first place. If our Lord had come earlier to heal him and prevent his death, what would that have achieved? No, our Lord who is the Resurrection and the Life deliberately chose to wait, so that the miracle which He would perform would not just be one that delays and postpones the inevitable, but a miracle that will mark the final defeat of death. But this demonstration of our Lord’s power over death was a sign of His own coming resurrection, and of Lazarus’s and ours as well.

This is at the heart of the Christian gospel, the good news we proclaim today, every Sunday and in fact every day of our lives. It is not just pointing to a historical event, but the resurrection of the Lord is primarily a saving event. The Lord may have defeated death momentarily in the case of Lazarus, but Lazarus would have to meet this fate once again. More than just this temporary reprieve from the sentence of death, is the final and ultimate defeat of death. The Resurrection of our Lord is more than a miracle and motive for faith. It is a saving event in its own right, since the dying and rising of Jesus together constitute the victory over sin and death. It is only through His risen life that we are brought into that “newness of life” which constitutes the fullness of our salvation. We have a share in this through our baptism, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). And in the second reading, Saint Paul assures us, “though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then He who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies, through His Spirit living in you.”

The miracle the Lord performed in raising Lazarus from the dead was not just for the benefit of Mary and Martha. His miracles were for the whole community and for us to know that He really was the Son of the living God, and that God’s true presence is among us. The gospel said that after this miracle, many of the Jews who had come to be with Mary and Martha, and had seen Jesus perform this miracle, came to believe that He truly was the son of God.

The raising of Lazarus is the last recorded miracle or “sign” in John’s gospel. Our Lord knew it would be. You and I might expect that the news of this miracle, brought back to Jerusalem by numerous eye-witnesses, would lead to the acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Messiah. But the Lord knew it would have the exact opposite effect. It demonstrated to His enemies just how great a threat He was. It would set into motion the events of Holy Week, the events which we commemorate in our solemn liturgy next week. Our Lord’s gift of life to Lazarus would ultimately lead to His own death. This part of the great divine commerce – Our Lord took upon Himself our humanity so that He may share with us His divinity; Our Lord died for us so that we may have life, abundant life, eternal life. Our Lord went to His death because He knew that this would accomplish more for us than what He had done for Lazarus – not just a simple resuscitation, miraculous though it may be, but a final victory over death that would last forever.

Death is but a doorway into eternal life. We need not fear the other side. We need not live in fear of dying from some incurable virus, or a sudden heart attack or a freak accident (like being crushed to death by the pulpit whilst preaching). We should not fear death because we don’t have to imagine how life would be like after death, or postulate a post-apocalyptic zombie scenario. No, we have it from the Lord Himself. We have seen it in the miracle of Lazarus. Death is not a dead end, an impenetrable breakwall. It is the doorway to eternal life with our Lord waiting for us on the other side. He proved to all of us that there is life after death, by bringing Lazarus back from the dead and by rising from His own grave on Easter morning. This is the Good News that all of mankind longs to hear. Death does not have the final say. Covid-19 does not have the final say. Jesus Christ does.