From the desk of the pastor — Homily on the Fifth Sunday of Lent
By Fr. David Ruchinski
“Lord, if you had been here, I’m sure this would never have happened.”
These words represent the most persistent and difficult question to plague people of faith throughout the ages. How do we reconcile our notion of a loving, compassionate, and all-powerful God with the reality of suffering and death?
Does God not see our suffering? Does God not care? Or is it possible that God has no power over the forces of suffering and death?
All three of these possibilities are posed in some form or other by the people in today’s Gospel, and their answers go to the very heart of the Gospel message. So, on this the last Sunday before the beginning of Holy Week, and in particular in light of the wide-spread and terrible suffering that many people around the world are currently facing, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time exploring the mystery of human suffering as it is contained in the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus.
To begin, let us listen once again to the deeply emotional statement made by both of Lazarus’ grieving sisters. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This statement is so important that it appears twice in John’s Gospel account. On face value it is an expression of faith — I know you could have done something, Lord, but you weren’t here. There’s the problem, isn’t it? You might have helped us in our hour of need, but you weren’t here. Both Martha and Mary give voice to that nagging suspicion that can plague any person of faith, that the death of a loved one is the result of God’s negligence. God ignores; God doesn’t see; God is absent. These doubts can disturb or sometimes even destroy our faith.
And yet Jesus says to His disciples, “I am glad for your sake that I was not there, that you may believe.” What could he possibly mean? How can the death of someone we love lead to an increase of faith?
We read in the Letter to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Heb 11:1). Death and suffering evoke faith because they force us to trust in something we cannot see or touch or control. They require us to submit to God’s Providence — an overarching plan that we will never be able to understand fully. Thus, on one level, we cannot ever hope to make sense of suffering. We simply have to trust that a God knows what He is doing.
And yet on another level, we realize that suffering, like other forms of evil, is not a part of God’s original design. It is the result of sin and the fallen world. Yet in a sign of the overarching power of God — even over the forces of evil — God can and often does bring something good out of the bad. Leave it to God to find a way to write straight with crooked lines. This is why Jesus waits two days before even setting out for Bethany and why He can say that He is glad not to be there before Lazarus died.
All of what I’ve said so far may be very disturbing. It may lead one to conclude that God is a cruel and callous parent. How could a loving Father stand back and allow His children to suffer, even to bring about some ultimate good? How can God sit back dispassionately and watch His children die? How can we be expected to put our trust in such a God?
The reality revealed in today’s Gospel is entirely the opposite of this cold, calculating God. Jesus is not indifferent to our sufferings. In fact the Gospel tells us that when Jesus saw Mary and Martha weeping and those who were weeping with them, He became deeply troubled. The translation we have doesn’t nearly do justice to the original Greek expression, which means something more like “He snorted in spirit.” It’s a deep, visceral, almost animal response. It’s a grief that wells up from the very depths of a man. It’s the kind of inexpressible, gut-wrenching sadness and emptiness that only someone who has truly loved can experience and that is why the Jews who saw Jesus weeping remarked, “See how he loved him.”
Yet immediately thereafter, others began to ask that question that echoes down through the ages, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
How many times has this question been asked by someone who has just lost a loved one? How often have we ourselves wondered, why does God allow these terrible things to happen?
Can’t you do something, God? Couldn’t you have helped? If you are truly God, how could you let such a thing happen to me?
Suddenly the voice of the Accuser enters in. “Perhaps this God you worship is not so powerful as you think He is. Perhaps you are a fool to hold onto your faith.” We hear the voice of the thief on the cross, “If you are the messiah, save yourself and save us with you.” We begin to doubt. We demand proof of God’s power. We need a sign, and the only sign we get is the sign of the cross.
How does the cross demonstrate the power of God?
This has always been the central and perplexing mystery of the Christian faith. St. Paul tells us that the cross was “a stumbling block to Jews and absurdity to Greeks.” And it could be the same for us if we do not recognize that the story of the crucifixion does not end in death. Rather it ends in the resurrection of which we have a hint and a foretaste in the raising of Lazarus. His is not a true and proper resurrection, in so far as he will die again some day. However, it does point to another final resurrection at the end of his lifetime. More importantly for our sakes it demonstrates that Jesus is more powerful than all the powers of darkness and sin, suffering and evil and death. This is the message and the power of the cross. This is what drew the early Christians to the Gospel. This is why so many were willing to suffer martyrdom joyfully for the sake of their faith. This is the true and enduring power of the Gospel, the good news we Christians have to share with the world.
If this is not the basis of your faith, or if perchance any of you have never stopped to think, why am I a Christian, I beg you today — right now — to look to the cross and ask yourself whether you can truly believe in a God who would become a man, for the sole purpose of dying in such a horrible way at the hands of His own people, in order to blaze for us a path to eternal life.
This, my friends, is our Christian faith. It is an answer unlike any other to the enduring question of human suffering. It is more than just a convenient response to a thorny problem. It is the Truth. It is the only Truth that can set us free from the prison of fear of pain of suffering and death. If you are prepared to embrace this Truth with me, then I ask you now to stand and let us together profess our faith.