Thursday, March 03, 2005

Lent 5A: Jesus wept

The Fourth Gospel, the one we commonly refer to as the Gospel according to St. John, is the only gospel that specifies an author. John, chapter 21, verse 20 reads: "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper..." And verse 24 of that chapter reads: "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them..." So, the Fourth Gospel was written by the Beloved Disciple, but that begs the question, Who was the Beloved Disciple?

In his book Lazarus and the Fourth Gospel Community (Edwin Mellen Press, 1996), Frederick Baltz argues convincingly that the author was not John but Lazarus. However, Baltz is not the first to argue this; William Hull made a case for this in his commentary on John in the Broadman Bible Commentary series (Broadman Press, 1973.

The text of the Fourth Gospel drops numerous hints about the identity of the author. Verse 3 of chapter 11 reads: "Lord, he whom you love is ill"; verse 5 reads: "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus"; and verse 35 tells us that when Jesus wept, the bystanders observed, "See how he loved him". And twice, in verses 33 and 38, the text tells us that Jesus was deeply moved by Lazarus's death.

The case for Lazarus' authorship is so strong, one wonders why anyone ever thought that John wrote the Fourth Gospel! Surely Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, would have been supremely capable of testifying convincingly of the love and power of Jesus. It would make sense that he would want to tell the story of Jesus as it is related in the Fourth Gospel.

But whether or not Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple is beside the point. What I want to emphasize is that Jesus is a person who had friends, who loved them deeply, and that the death of a friend moved him to tears.

I find that a comforting thought. Jesus was no stoic philosopher; he was not a stained glass saint or a plaster deity on a pedestal; he was a man who wept before the tomb of a friend.

Jesus had a wide circle of friends. He shared meals with them and told them stories. And with him as with us, the bonds of friendship deepened and grew strong. And when a person dear to his heart grew ill and died, Jesus grieved and wept.

When the vast stone of mortality rolls across the tomb of those we love, Jesus stands there weeping with us.

The surprising part of this story is not that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; that is what we would expect. The surprise is that Jesus wept.

If Jesus was the divine Son of God, if he was the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, then it would be a snap for him to turn water into wine, it would be routine for him to heal the blind, and he would surely be able to raise the dead with ease. What one would not expect him to do is weep. The story of Lazarus tells us what we already knew, namely that God in Christ has the power to raise the dead. But it also tells us what we could not have dreamed in our wildest imaginations -- that the heart of God is touched by human grief, that in the very heart of God are human tears.

I find deep comfort in the image of Jesus weeping outside the tomb of his friend, but the story, thank God, does not end with that image.

The story does not end with Jesus weeping outside a Judean tomb, for if it did, we would be, as Paul said, "The most miserable of human beings". The last word is not "Jesus wept"; it is "Lazarus, come forth".

Christ, and God in Christ, weeps with us in our suffering, but more, much more than that, he is there when we die to say to us as he said to Lazarus: "Come forth".