The resuscitation of Lazarus reminds me of Daylight Savings Time in which the government gives us an extra hour’s sleep in the Fall, but takes it back in the Spring. Jesus restored Lazarus to life, but only temporarily. Eventually, Lazarus was destined to die again; perhaps, he deserves our pity. Dying is a lamentable experience; dying twice is more than anyone should have to bear.
This last of the seven signs in John’s Gospel isn’t intended to be a sign of futility, however. It is a teaching sign about Baptism, but like the previous six teaching signs it is ambiguous and prone to misinterpretation. Some of those who witnessed this event came to faith in Jesus (John 11:45), while others turned against him. (John 11:46-53)
Baptism itself is a somewhat ambiguous sign. Not all people perceive Baptism as the necessary path to faith, and not all people experience the same effects from Baptism. If every baptized Catholic showed up weekly for Sunday Liturgy, churches and church parking lots would have to be expanded by a significant degree. Some people seem to hit the ground running in the life of faith, while others struggle to get up to speed.
The intentional ambiguity in the story of the resuscitation of Lazarus speaks about several aspects of the Church’s perennial experience of preaching the Gospel. One of the several aspects of this teaching sign is of particular pertinence today in the United States.
We live in a very fragmented and conflicted society. American politics has been reduced to factional infighting. Neither conservatives nor liberals can agree any longer among themselves about what it means to be conservative or liberal, and our fractious politics might be the least of our problems. In this country we pride ourselves on our respect for diversity, but this might be nothing more than a smokescreen to hide what is actually our deep-seated xenophobia.
In the realm of religious practice and belief there is a similar degree of fractiousness and conflict. A local inter-faith social justice organization called F.A.S.T. advocates with city and county governments for simple considerations for the poor and disadvantaged. Their goals are modest but virtuous; they try to convince local government to take obvious measures such as moving bus stop benches into locations more convenient for the elderly and mobility impaired. Their work seems like the sort of thing that everyone would support, but they have many detractors. Some of their most vocal opponents are church members. Who would oppose the idea of helping elderly people get to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment? The answer is, “Someone would.”
There is a great deal of pluralism within Catholicism, as well. Individual Catholics disagree vehemently with one another about what constitutes a Catholic life. There is also a great deal of confusion and disappointment among Catholics. Many practicing Catholics face the heartbreak of watching their adult children walk away from the practice of the Faith.
The first generations of believers were surprised and disappointed by the fact that not all those whom they evangelized accepted faith in Jesus. The ambiguous nature of the resuscitation of Lazarus points to the unavoidably mixed results that the Church will always experience in its mission to the world. Despite the Apostles’ conviction that faith in Jesus as Savior was the only choice that is both faithful to God and neighbor, many people still did not believe. As both Jesus and his Apostles met with opposition and disappointment, we should not be surprised when we have the same experience. The resuscitation of Lazarus is a necessary reminder of the inherent limits of our abilities: despite our best efforts, not all people will respond in faith to the preaching of the Gospel.
It doesn’t seem plausible that the Church will ever convince everyone to come to the Faith. It seems much more likely that some people will believe, and others will choose not to believe. Perhaps, we should consider this to be the normal state of affairs in this world. God gives each person free will; it stands to reason that believers should respect both this divine gift and its exercise by individuals.
Every believer would love to see the whole world come to faith in Jesus. This, however, is nothing more than an utopian wish that will never come to fruition. Living faithfully in a pluralistic world, then, must consist of something other than experiencing perfect success in our efforts to evangelize. Again, the ambiguity of the sign of Lazarus provides us with pertinent instruction.
Jesus’ words bring new life and renewed faithfulness toward God and neighbor. This belief is non-negotiable in Catholicism, and it applies universally. This belief is the reason we seek to evangelize the whole world, but it also imposes a requirement on our daily lives. Our faith in Jesus requires us to be reconciled with the unavoidable pluralism in the world. Lacking a spirit of reconciliation toward others – especially toward those who do not share our beliefs or values – we can very quickly fall into the trap we wish others to avoid. If we do not trust God enough to be able to deal constructively with the normal pluralism of society, we do not trust God enough.
To evangelize means to proclaim the good news of renewed faithfulness and new life. To insist that everyone believe in exactly the same way we do is to proclaim our own personal opinions. Evangelizing is God’s will for us and the world. Imposing our personal opinions on others is our will. It is God’s will that saves the universe, not our own. Just like Lazarus, we face the prospect of dying (spiritually), a second time if we substitute our will in the place that belongs only to God’s will.
Baptism invites us to a life of trust in God, adherence to the teachings of Jesus and guidance by the Holy Spirit. We enter into that life by leaving the tomb of our own will, and entering the freedom of God’s will. Both our faithfulness to the new life of Baptism and our success in evangelizing depends on our adherence to God’s will alone.