On any day you can look into the classified advertisements in the newspaper and you will see announcements of births and announcements of deaths. You will never see a report that somebody who had been executed, whether by firing squad, or lethal injection, or decapitation, or electrocution or hanging – in short, somebody who has been executed by professionals, has returned to life. Occasionally a person who appears to have died revives – but not if someone has thrust a spear into their heart.
No, we know that death is permanent. There are three incidents in the gospels where Jesus brought people back to life. The first concerned the son of the widow of Naim. Jesus met the cortege carrying the body to the ceremony. He was moved to pity, and revived the boy. Was he really dead, or in some kind of catatonic trance? We can’t tell at this distance. The second case was that of the daughter of the synagogue official, Jairus. Jesus was brought to her a short time after she had been pronounced dead, and restored her to life. 2000 years later we cannot be sure that she really had expired.
The case of Jesus’ friend Lazarus is different. When he got word that his friend was ill, Jesus said: This sickness will end, not in death but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of Man will be glorified. Instead of hurrying to Bethany to see Lazarus, Jesus stayed where he was, on the far side of the Jordan, for two more days before saying to his disciples: Let’s go to Judaea. Then he told them: Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him. By the time they reached Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. When Jesus ordered them to remove the stone from the entrance to his tomb, they did not want to: they were sure decay would have set in by this time. As you know, when Jesus called: Lazarus, come out! he did so, his feet and hands bound with bands of stuff and a cloth round his face. They had to untie him.
Since Jesus had told his disciples clearly that Lazarus was dead, he must have been. Needless to say, word of this got around. Some time later when Jesus was back in Bethanyhaving a meal with his friends: A large number of Jews heard that he was there and came not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Everybody wanted to gape at Lazarus, you see. No word of Lazarus’ is recorded in scripture, so we don’t know if he was happy to be back in the world of the living. Furthermore, he was going to have to die again in order to enter into eternal life.
This morning, in St John’sgospel, we’ve read the story of the discovery of the empty tomb. It was Mary of Magdala who made the discovery and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved. When last heard of, Peter had been able to go into the high priest’s courtyard, thanks to John, but it was there that he denied knowing Jesus three times before cock-crow and, filled with remorse, went outside and wept bitterly at his own cowardice. John stayed close to Jesus, and he was the only one of the Twelve who stood with the Three Marys at the foot of the cross. He seems to have been close to Peter too, because when Mary Magdalene came running with the news she found the two of them together. At this point in the gospel everything speeds up. So Peter set out with the other disciple to go to the tomb. They ran together, but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first. John seems to have been the youngest of the Twelve, so we can understand that he could outrun Peter. Nonetheless, he respected Peter as leader of the group, and waited for him to catch up and enter the empty tomb first. Peter just saw the way the grave cloths were disposed … Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in; he saw and he believed. The evangelist adds that: Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead.
At Mass each day this coming week we will read accounts of Jesus appearing to different groups of people after his resurrection. What is striking is that he never showed himself to the members of the Sanhedrin, or to the chief priests, or to Pontius Pilate – not to any of the people who had brought about his death. It may be helpful here to recall that, during the Last Supper, Jesus, talking about his departure from this world, said: Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be one who loves me; and anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and show myself to him. In other words, Jesus was only going to show himself after the resurrection to those who already believed in him. In this morning’s first reading, Peter explained to Cornelius and his household that he was one of the witnesses to Jesus’ death and to the fact that three days afterwards God raised him to life and allowed him to be seen, not by the whole people but only be certain witnesses God had chosen beforehand. Now we are those witnesses – we have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.
Their testimony is not just to a unique historical event. Peter goes on: It is to him that all the prophets bear this witness: that all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name. The Acts of the Apostles record several of Peter’s sermons, and in them forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ is a constant theme. It is not spelled out in this passage, but I think we all know that if we have been forgiven, it is up to us to live from now on in the way that we failed to do in the past. In other words, we must avoid sin and glorify God with our lives henceforth.
I don’t suppose any of us are terrible sinners. I hope we have never committed a mortal sin. In the passage from the epistle to the Colossians that we heard just now, Paul seems to envisage adults who have recently been baptized. Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven … Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. This requires some explanation. First of all, in urging the reformed Colossians to look for the things that are in heaven, Paul is not telling them to spend all their time praying. That is the task of contemplative religious. The rest of us have to earn a living, raise a family, take part in civic affairs – and so on. We should consecrate each day to God with the Morning Offering; we should be conscious throughout the day that we are always in God’s presence – and that awareness should control our behaviour. It’s not that God is a policeman, but rather a loving Father who would be pained if we turned away from him to sin.
Insofar as anyone who has committed a grave [i.e. mortal] sin may be said to have died, that person on being pardoned is not unlike the son of the widow of Naim, the daughter of Jairus, and Lazarus: brought back to life. The same is true of a person who has just been baptized: he or she lives a new and different life in Christ. And when we pass from this world into eternal life, we shall share some of the glory of Christ. For the moment, as Paul writes, our beautiful spiritual life is hidden with Christ in God.
If you heard me on Thursday night, you may remember that I spoke about our participation in the Eucharist as building up, or strengthening, the Christian community. It’s Baptism which brings us into that community; it’s the other sacraments which nourish the life of the community. But it is thanks to Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that each of the sacraments receives its power. Let us never forget that the central belief of all Christians is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who suffered death and returned to life. On this feast the Orthodox greet each other with the words “Jesus Christ is risen” to which the reply is a thunderous “He is risen indeed!” And we can add: Alleluia! (Quentin Howard)