5th Sunday of Lent

On 1 April this year an item of news was circulated in the media, that eating seven portions of fruit and veg a day can prolong human life. This item was yet another in an ever-rising tidal wave of health advice flooding newspapers, radio and TV shows. Avoiding some food and eating more of another should prolong our lives, although some claims are mutually contradictory. The popularity of this kind of research comes from our natural, though hidden, fear of suffering and death. I love one comment made about that, by Mr Keith Moore of Suffolk: ‘Eat 10 portions a day, live longer, and end up being neglected or mistreated in an old people’s care home.’ Personally I think that if I follow all those pieces of healthy advice I will never die.

The quest for life never-ending seems to have accompanied humankind from time immemorial; magic potions, miraculous artefacts, special diets, cosmetics… the list of means used over the centuries is very long, and it continues to get longer. Many of the recent ones have increased life expectancy incredibly. But this arguably great development has unintentionally created or revealed new challenges to modern societies in the West, like increasing the pressure on government budgets or increasing the number of people affected by degenerative illness. This development has inadvertently opened the door to the very grim prospect of assisted suicide. Paradoxically, having looked for immortality, we are finding that death seems to be the ultimate path to liberation.

The story in today’s gospel seems to be quite strange in many aspects. When Jesus learns about his friend’s grave illness, he stays where he is for another two days, and when he eventually gets back, Lazarus has been buried for four days. Some people openly question his attitude: ‘he opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ Essentially we think the same when faced with pain of all sorts, mental or physical. Affected by them, we tend to question God’s love, as Lazarus’ sister Martha did: ‘if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’ It’s a very common idea that religious faith reduces the risk of suffering to nil – but that’s incorrect. Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, but that life will eventually end violently when he gets murdered at the hands of Jesus’ persecutors.

In today’s gospel, Jesus explains the nature of believing in him: ‘if anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.’ Jesus speaks about life reaching beyond death; immortality that never wears out or becomes an unbearable burden. The way to that life doesn’t pass by our mortal death, but leads through it. How do we know it’s true? We don’t know – but we believe that promise made by him. For some people this offer, having been presented for 2000 years, seems to be outdated and unattractive. But, unlike various diets or wonder-cosmetics, it presents the widely-tested genuine promise of life that never ends, reaching beyond our physical death.