The Gospel According to John is, from first to last, an exposition on who Jesus is. The book lays out the evidence that the man Jesus came from God and bears the power of God in the world.
The story of Lazarus is in some ways the culmination of Jesus' self-revelation. It isn't really a story about Lazarus at all. In the preceding chapters of John, Jesus has claimed
For that last assertion, the religious Jews were prepared to stone Jesus to death. That's not just an expression of their anger. Stoning is also a statement of the charge which they laid against him. Jesus insists that they declare the charge openly. They do and John quotes them: "You are only a man and you claim to be God."
It is a true saying that Christianity is a personal religion. Many times, the phrase "personal religion" is misunderstood as referring to our own self. The person who makes Christianity personal is Jesus of Nazareth.
These Jews who wanted to stone Jesus did understand what he was telling them. There was no failure in communication, but they did not want so personal a religion. They did not believe in a God who wandered the city streets as they did themselves.
Jesus eluded the authorities for the time being by escaping to the comparative safety of the district across the Jordan River. This area was the same region where John had baptized and where he had been the first person to declare who Jesus was and where he had come from.
The whole background of this story shows that is not a story about Lazarus. It is a story about Jesus and it is told (as Jesus himself says) "so that you will believe."
It happened that Lazarus became sick. We know almost nothing about Lazarus except that he lived in Bethany, that he fell sick, and that Martha and Mary were his sisters. We also know that all three siblings were close friends of Jesus, so when Lazarus fell sick his sisters wrote to Jesus.
The sisters wrote, "The man whom you love is ill." Lazarus, we are sure, could also be described as "the man who loves you", but they wrote "the man you love." The phrase which they chose helps us to remember that this story is not about Lazarus. The key point is not that it was Lazarus, nor that Lazarus was a friend to Jesus (or a brother to Martha and Mary), but that Jesus loved Lazarus.
When Jesus heard the news, he remarked to his disciples that the ending of this story was not to be about the death of Lazarus but about the glory of God. It was Lazarus who became ill, and it is true that Lazarus died, but these are not the central point of the story.
A short time before, Jesus had said much the same thing about the blindness of the man in Jerusalem. Jesus denied that sickness or disability were punishments meted out in a continuing judgement. Not everything which happens to us is about us. Rather, they are opportunities for glorifying God.
I say that everything which happens is an opportunity to show the glory of God.
If we are to talk about a personal religion, we should remember that for Jesus religion is about the glory of God.
When Jesus decided, after two days of delay, to return to Judea and to Martha and Mary and Lazarus, the disciples were confused. Why did he want to put himself back under the power of the Jewish authorities, who wanted to kill him? To be honest, at that time the disciples had more faith in the operations of the Jewish and Roman officials than they had in Jesus. They were confident that if Jesus returned the officials would find a way to kill him and that would be the end of their dreams.
Thomas at least showed loyalty: If the teacher went back to die, then the students should be willing to die with him. Thomas did not yet have faith in Jesus, but at least he had personal loyalty to him. How often do we fail to go even so far?
Jesus did not rush back to visit his sick friend Lazarus before he died. Maybe if Jesus had rushed back at the first word of Lazarus' illness, if he had slipped into Judea in the night to be with his friends, maybe then the disciples would have understood. That would have been a very personal response, and a very human one. But it would not have been the basis of a religion which is about the glory of God.
When Jesus first arrived at Bethany, he stayed outside of the village. This may have been part of his strategy for eluding the authorities until the proper time. Or perhaps Jesus wanted to talk to the sisters, without the press of the gathered friends and family, before he raised their brother. In any case, Martha first and then Mary went to meet him somewhere outside the town.
When Martha meets Jesus, she expresses her faith in him. "If you had been here," she says, "my brother would not have died." This says much more than Thomas said across the Jordan. Martha has faith in Jesus' personal power over life. This is personal religion at its most basic; Martha's faith is placed in this person who stands on the road near her village. She has faith in the power of this person, Jesus, and she believes in his personal concern for her brother.
Jesus responds by making this faith even more personal. Jesus' response sounds at first like the comforting remarks any rabbi or minister would make at the death of a brother: "Your brother will rise again," he says. Martha's mind goes at once to the belief in the resurrection of the just when the Day of the Lord comes. But this is not quite what Jesus had in mind. Jesus is not talking about some vague future in which we can all hope and take comfort. No. Jesus says, "I am the resurrection." Martha must let go of comfortable religion and put all her faith in the person. Jesus says that the power of God exists in his person. This is truly personal religion: God in the person of Jesus Christ.
It is comfortable to settle for those parts of faith that are only relevant far in the future. Someday the just will be raised to life again; someday God's justice will right all wrongs; someday we will live forever in harmony and peace. It is comfortable to live with those aspects of religion which make few demands on how we live out our lives from hour to hour, day to day. Jesus did talk about those "somedays", although he made them sound far less comfortable and nearer at hand than we often do. In this story, there is none of that. In this story, Jesus speaks only about what is personally present with Martha outside Bethany. The resurrection for Lazarus is not in the vague future; the resurrection is present in the person of Jesus.
"Do you believe this?"
Later, when Mary meets Jesus, she expresses her faith in him using almost exactly the same words as her sister. "If you had been here," Mary says, "my brother would not have died." Jesus' response to Mary is to sigh, and to cry, and to ask, "Where did you lay him?" This is truly personal religion: God who comes to us and cries with us.
There is more to be said about Mary's personal bond with Jesus, but that more properly belongs in Mary's own story 2 chapters farther on.
The other people who were there did not share the depth of faith that Martha and Mary had, but they were able to see some glimmer of the truth. "See how he loved him," they said. These relatives and acquaintances may not yet have put their own faith in Jesus, but they did not miss the personal relationship which Jesus had with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Some went farther, and said, "This is the person who opened the blind man's eyes. Couldn't he have kept Lazarus from dying?" The friends gathered there may not have understood who Jesus really was, but they had already formed the beginnings of faith in the works he had done.
Jesus did not want only glimmerings and beginnings. It was too late in the day for that; Jesus was already at the edge of Jerusalem where he would be betrayed and crucified. Jesus insisted that the people truly understand the claim that he was making and the relationship that he was offering. Therefore, he goes up to Lazarus' grave and calls him out.
Who was this person? This was a person who claimed power over death and life. This was a person who claimed to carry the glory of God with him. The Jews who had wanted to stone Jesus nearly had it right: This was a person who claimed to be God.
This was also a person who loved his friends, who cried with them and sighed with them, who talked with them quietly at the side of the road. This was a God who claimed a personal relationship with his friends.
Jesus is a person who still loves his friends, who after roughly 2000 years still knows us as friends and talks with us, still cries and sighs and laughs with us, still has power over our lives and our deaths. This what we mean when we say that Jesus is "Light from Light, true God from true God" who "for us and for our salvation… became truly human".
It is a true saying that Christianity is a personal religion, but it is not we who make it so. The person who makes Christianity personal is Jesus of Nazareth.