How Dead Can One Possibly Be?

Fifth Sunday of Lent


“[Lazarus] was dead; to begin with. There seemed to have been no doubt whatever about that.” So goes the opening line of Charles Dickens’ great masterpiece “A Christmas Carol.” I know I said Lazarus, instead of Marley. I just wanted to get the same point across. And then Mr. Dickens goes on describing what customarily happens when someone dies. “The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.” He wanted to make certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had clearly made his point—that the dead man was, in fact, dead, … “dead as a doornail. … This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.[1]” The point of the dead man being dead would be essential to Dickens’ story. And so it is with today’s story from the gospel of John.

Lazarus was dead. His sisters Martha and Mary had to have been there when it was officially determined, however that was done. They must have held his lifeless hands in theirs. They must have noticed that his chest no longer rose and fell as it had just moments ago. We don’t know what he died of, just that he was dead. Now not a few quick minds through the years have wondered that Lazarus could have suffered from something, some physical condition that presented all the visible indicators of death, but wasn’t truly death. I looked it up. It’s called the Lazarus syndrome, (duh) named after (take a guess) the very same man himself. It occurs when a person who had been declared dead just quite suddenly revives or “auto-resuscitates” after attempts at cardiopulmonary resuscitation have ended. The thing is, from medical records that have documented this occurrence, only 38 times since 1982, nobody is reported to revive past 2½ hours after being declared dead. And just for kicks, let’s say it’s possible to revive after twice, or three times, or even four times that. When Jesus came to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. And it should be noted that when Jesus was told of his illness, he stayed away two more days. Clearly Jesus had a plan, and he had to make certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that the dead man was, in fact, dead.

We may think we know what being “dead” is. We say it’s what happens when you finally stop breathing, when your heart stops beating, when you don’t wake up, when your body gradually goes cold, your muscles and limbs once flexible become stiff, and your eyes become cloudy. It is the opposite of being alive, which we are more familiar with. And since most of us prefer being alive to being dead, we avoid anything that may cause death. We feel the need to warn others lest they stumble into it accidentally. And we find comfort in assurances that bolster our perception that we are alive, that we can do what living things do—walk, talk, have fun, have a life.

So in the season of Lent, we are encouraged to embrace life, and nurture life, and cling to life. We hear about temptation and the enticements that lure us into darkness and death. We hear about sin, and the near occasions of sin. We are called to repentance and reform and conversion and transformation repeatedly through the holy season, and yet we are still not convinced it is meant for us. We still think it’s a message for everyone else.

So when we hear about the Samaritan woman at the well, as we did two weeks ago, and Jesus leading her to recognize her deeper thirst which he alone could quench, we are impressed. The Samaritan woman wanted simply to draw water to drink. But she met Jesus and went home with living water to quench her thirst unto everlasting life. Impressive work, Jesus. But we tell ourselves Jesus wasn’t talking to us because we’re already in church, and we’re listening to God’s Word, and we’re taking Eucharist regularly, and we know about that thirst he speaks of, and we know how to quench it, and you can only quench your thirst so much.

And when we hear of Jesus giving sight to the man who was blind from birth, as we did last week, we are impressed. The blind man was just minding his own business, and out of nowhere Jesus smears mud on his eyes and tells him to wash, and suddenly he can see! But the Pharisees refused to acknowledge that he was healed. All they saw was a sinner who was blind because of sin. And unwilling to get past their resistance to Jesus’ message, they had become blind. Once again, Jesus, bravo! We see what you did there. You healed physical blindness, to point out the blindness of the spirit. Impressive twist. But then we say Jesus wasn’t talking to us because we are on his side, and we do know about that blindness, and we’re pretty sure we’re not blind as were the Pharisees.

And today we hear of Lazarus, a man who was dead four days, and how Jesus raised him to life. Now that’s not something you see every day. Who would not be impressed? Something like this on your resume is bound to attract attention. Lazarus being dead four days should erase all doubt. Jesus is the real deal. But on the edges of the story, the Pharisees once again sat stoic and unmoved. They refused to acknowledge a powerful sign from God right in front of them, and what it could possibly mean. All they saw was an outlaw they despised. And yes, of course, it is impressive. Yet somewhere in back of our minds, we envy Martha and Mary for getting their brother back. And we think Jesus wasn’t talking to us because we already know about death, and we’re alive and well, so we can go our merry way.

But could we be missing some deeper meaning all along? Jesus raised a dead man to life. Is he perhaps offering us a life we don’t yet have? What Jesus shares with us is a better life than we know, God’s very life. But still, only the dead can be raised. Jesus is offering us a greater life than what we experience in our bodies. And for as long as we are not truly dead in that deeper non-bodily sense, Jesus cannot raise us to his life. Sounds extreme, but Jesus sets the bar high. Lazarus was dead four days. The death Jesus demands is our rejection of all that is not God, our self-righteousness, our lack of self-restraint, our lack of compassion for others, our hardness of heart—everything that is not God. For unless we are dead to ourselves and to the world, Jesus will not be able to raise us to life.

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” St. Paul tells us. “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit … if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” But the Spirit of God cannot dwell in us if some other spirit already dwells in us, the spirit of selfishness and the world. That is why we must die to selfishness and the world.

Now Martha was concerned there would be a stench. Her brother had been dead four days. But for our purposes, I say it’s movement in the right direction. There’s only one possible way to be dead. But once raised, there are countless ways to be alive.

So do you smell anything yet?

Rolo B Castillo © 2017


[1] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. http://www.pagebypagebooks.com/Charles_Dickens/A_Christmas_Carol