Few months ago, my youngest brother (who had just graduated from High School last week) told me that he wanted to become a priest like me. Hearing that, I was so excited about him, so I asked him to take the entrance exam for the seminary. He did, and I heard he passed the exam. But then last week, after his graduation ceremony he wrote to me a long message on Facebook, and he sent it to me many times. He might have pressed enter many times to make sure the message would get to me. He apologized to me saying that he is having second thoughts on entering the seminary, because he now wanted to take another course instead. I was a bit disappointed to be honest. But he wrote in his message something that I couldn’t believe my 18 year old brother would say. He said: ‘I realized that you don’t have to be a priest to be closer to God.’ Then he added: ‘Even a person who has no education can still get closer to God if he wants to.’ I thought: ‘Wow! That’s a profound realization! He’s now speaking like a priest.
I’m sharing this with you because it is true that God doesn’t look at our transcript of records, or our diplomas, or the titles we have before our names, to consider us as his friends and to make us holy.
His offer of friendship is open for all, rich or poor, young and old, male or female. And the good news about being a friend of Jesus is that we can be assured for of being guided on the way towards holiness and towards eternal life.
On this 5th Sunday of Lent, Jesus is inviting us to accept his friend request. If we accept his request of friendship, we would never be disappointed.
Our gospel today is a wonderful testimony for us on what this friendship with God in Jesus means for him and for us.
As a friend, Jesus would face all risks just to show us how much he loved us and cared for us as his friends. We could see this quite clearly in his friendship with Mary and Martha and Lazarus as we heard in the gospel.
As the gospel tells us, Jesus loved them (cf Jn 11:5). As his friends, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus updating him of their brother’s ill-health. But this time too, Jesus could no longer get out in public so freely. Some people threatened to stone him to death (cf Jn 11:8) because they couldn’t take the truth of who he was and what he was standing for.
But when Lazarus died, Jesus took the risk of appearing in public again, despite death threats he received. Because of his great love for his friends, he decided to go and be with his friends in their grief and also to show them what he has to offer them as gesture of friendship and solidarity in times of grief. For the disciples, for Thomas anyway, that was a suicidal move by Jesus, so to speak. So we heard the doubting Thomas here saying: ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’ (cf Jn 11:16).
Jesus wasn’t shy of showing how much he loved his friends especially Lazarus. One way and it is the only instance in the gospel a specific mention of Jesus weeping. Jesus felt the pain and sadness of the death of a close friend.
This is a great source of consolation for us, because this goes to show that God is with us in our sorrows, in our grief, in our disappointments and frustrations. This shows us that God is not indifferent to our pains and to our sorrows. He is our friend, one with us, accompanying us, staying close to us all the time.
Being our friend too, Jesus can be our great confidante. We can express ourselves completely and honestly to him. We can even vent out our frustrations to him. This is one thing that reminds me of the late Bishop Joe Grech. In our informal audience with him, he would often say to us then- seminarians words to this effect: ‘In your prayer, you can even get angry with God, as long as you don’t leave him behind.’ It is alright to express our hurts and pains to Jesus, even those pains, hurts and disappointments we feel to have been inflicted by God himself. We must never be afraid of expressing our deepest feelings to our God. He wouldn’t argue. He just listened and the do something about it. The sisters Mary and Martha in the gospel were in a way venting out their disappointment to Jesus. When Lazarus fell ill, the sisters sent a message to Jesus notifying him of what happened. They must have expected him to come at once and cure their brother. But he didn’t. We can only imagine their frustrations and disappointments when they said it not only once but twice, right in the face of Jesus: ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ The sisters were true to themselves before Jesus, so Jesus allowed them to witness first-hand one of the greatest miracles recorded in the gospel: raising the four-day old dead person back to life.
However, just like any other friendship, in order for our friendship with God to develop and grow into a real and a personal one, the relationship should be mutual. We just can’t leave God do everything for us. We also need to do our bit. St Augustine said put it rightly: “God who created us without us, cannot save us without us.” In other words, we can’t just sit doing nothing waiting for God to extend his hands of friendship and salvation for us, without us extending our hands to receive his offer. He doesn’t force us, he only invites us. He doesn’t drive us towards him against our will, he only draws us to him with due respect to our freedom and freewill.
This is one reason why Jesus asked the people around him at the site where Lazarus was buried to ‘remove the stone away’ themselves. If he could raise the dead back to life, he could easily move the stone away without lifting a finger. But he asked some help to remove the stone to symbolize that our active role in the story of our salvation. We have the duty to remove the stone away- the stone of selfishness and indifference.
Another way to grow into real friendship with Jesus is to keep in touch with Jesus always in prayer. The sisters did this, they sent a message to Jesus updating him of their brother’s situation. And because of that personal communication with Jesus, Jesus was moved to do something about it. He went to console them. And he even raised their dead brother back to life. He revived their hopes that have started to fade.
One more way to grow in friendship with Jesus is to help the modern ‘Lazarus’ in our midst today. We have the people who are bound by despair and hopelessness. We need to share with them the hope that we have through the resurrection of Jesus. We also have people whose lives are blocked by the huge stone of addiction, obsessions, or of any other forms of enslavement. We must help them find a way out, in our own way, in our own capability and capacity.
As we continue our Lenten journey, let us reflect on this passage from the gospel of St John: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13).
As our friend, Jesus lay down his life for us. As his friends, are we also willing and ready to lay down our life for Christ?