AZT was the first drug used to treat HIV, being licensed to treat HIV in 1987. It wasn’t a miracle cure. In those early days, it could only be counted on to increase lifespan by about a year. But at the time any improvement in survival was something. Then in 1996 the whole landscape of HIV infection changed. With the introduction of regimen using a combination of medications called antiretroviral therapy, HIV became a manageable disease – those affected could live a long and normal life.
When this new therapy was given to those with full-blown AIDS, physicians and nurses began to see what they called “the Lazarus effect.” What does the Lazarus effect look like? Well, people on the verge of dying from AIDS return to their jobs and to their families; limbs that are mere bones gain muscle and come back to life; those who are near death start to live again. The whole fabric of society is transformed. It is a change that is happening over and over again, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of people in that region receiving adequate HIV treatment continues to increase, going from about 100,000 in 2004 to 15.4 million by the end of 2017. The raising of Lazarus wasn’t just an event that happened two thousand years ago; it also happens in the here and now.
Resurrection in the here and now is certainly not something Martha and Mary expect in today’s gospel reading. They both tell Jesus that their brother wouldn’t have died if Jesus had just been there, yet they don’t seem to expect Jesus to do anything about it at this point. When Jesus says to Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha responds: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” She doesn’t understand resurrection as something that happens here and now.
I think we often slip into that same mode of thinking. All will be made right one day, in the future, in heaven. That’s when we will know what eternal life means; that’s when we will experience a glorious resurrection. But Jesus isn’t content with a new life that takes place only in the future; instead, Jesus becomes the source of life for Lazarus in the here and now, calling Lazarus out of his tomb and back into the arms of his friends and family. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says. There’s not a qualifying tense on that verb.
Just as access to essential medication for HIV transforms a whole community, the resurrection of Lazarus has an effect beyond Lazarus alone. Mary and Martha are assumed to be single women living in a patriarchal culture. To be without their brother would have made them vulnerable in first century Judean society. Many of the Jews there that day follow Mary out to meet Jesus and then on to Lazarus’ tomb; they see what Jesus does and they believe in him. The raising of Lazarus changes many lives.
At first glance, it seems the liturgical committee was confused when they put these readings together for this Sunday. What are we doing reading resurrection stories in Lent? We haven’t even arrived at the cross yet, much less at the empty tomb. But on closer examination, these readings seem fitting for this Sunday just before Palm Sunday.
When Jesus gets word of Lazarus’ death, he’s on the other side of the Jordan River, having fled from Jerusalem because the people there were threatening to stone him. When Jesus decides to return to Judea, the disciples respond with disbelief, maybe even disapproval: “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” But Jesus goes, and that decision seals his fate. Because, as we read later in the gospel of John, some of the people there the day Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead went and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. The Pharisees and chief priests become scared that the Roman government will respond to this Jesus of Nazareth by destroying the temple and the whole Jewish nation. We’re told that “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” This was the risk Jesus took in practicing resurrection while he walked this earth.
Many scholars say that Jesus doesn’t go back to Judea immediately upon hearing of Lazarus’ illness because he plans to raise Lazarus from the dead as a sign to the world. In Jewish tradition it was believed that the soul hovered near the body for three days after death, so waiting until Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days would leave no question as to the miraculous nature of raising Lazarus from the dead. But perhaps there’s another reason Jesus doesn’t leave immediately and go to be with his friends. Perhaps during the two days that Jesus lingers on the other side of the Jordan he ponders the risk he is taking, comes to grips with what returning may mean, undergoes what some call a Gethsemane experience. In the same way, maybe, just maybe, when Jesus cries at Lazarus’ tomb, he is expressing deep grief not only for the death of Lazarus, but also for the fate that he himself will inevitably endure. Could this be the time Jesus comes face to face with the cost he’ll have to pay for the life of his friend?
Life for Lazarus in the here and now comes with a cost. For Jesus, and for Lazarus. Because in the next chapter of John we hear that the chief priests plan to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was because of him that many were believing in Jesus.
Living a life of resurrection in the here and now came with a cost for Jesus and Lazarus, and it does for us as well. Giving of ourselves, being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, doesn’t come cheap. It demands all that we are. Just look at Kious Kelly, an Emergency Department nurse at Mount Sinai in New York City. For weeks he worked as a nurse supervisor without taking a break – transporting patients, moving beds, helping the other nurses with whatever they needed. At least until he himself contracted Covid-19. He died this past Tuesday.
In this time of Covid-19, I am so grateful for the people who are the hands and feet of Christ in such a public way – EMTs, physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, intake staff, food workers, gas station attendants, grocery store employees, and more.
For most of us, though, our callings do not require that we physically put our lives on the line in service to others – either in this time of pandemic or in other times. Still, any time we work for transformation (in our own lives or in the world around us) – any time we live a life of resurrection in the here and now – we will experience loss. After all, there is no resurrection without death, no new life unless something else passes away. That’s why disruption of the status quo can be so threatening. Sometimes the loss we experience is small, a mere inconvenience or discomfort. Sometimes it radically upends our whole life.
Perhaps the liturgical committee knew exactly what it was doing by putting today’s readings on this Sunday in Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday, and we will read the Passion narrative. We will come face-to-face with the reality that living a resurrection life in this world can come with a cost. But it also comes with a promise: that if we follow this path to its end, we find nothing less than life itself – bone-rattling, grave-opening life that transforms the world.
How might Jesus want to raise you from the dead in the here and now? Where is God wanting to breathe new life in our world today? Is there an associated cost that seems too great to pay? Can we find the courage to trust that on the other side lies joy and healing and life?
Living in the time of a pandemic brings loss and death into our public consciousness. Our lives are being disrupted neither by our choice nor by the choice of God. We are experiencing a loss. This is a hinge moment. When we get to the other side of this pandemic, we will need to reform our social structures and communities. Instead of reflexively returning to our previous state of affairs, I hope the cost we have paid might, in some way and at least to some extent, be redeemed by the life-giving decisions we make at that time. May healing and resurrection await us.
 D Nash, M Yotebieng, AH Sohn, “Treating all people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa: a new era calling for new approaches,” Journal of Virus Eradication, published online November 15, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6248848/.
 “New York nurse dies from coronavirus; co-workers blame a lack of protective gear,” 10TV WBNS. Published online 3/27/20, https://www.10tv.com/article/new-york-nurse-dies-coronavirus-co-workers-blame-lack-protective-gear-2020-mar.