In today’s Gospel Jesus raises a corpse after four days. To the Jews inconceivable. For they believed the soul remained with the body just three days after death. Then corruption sets in and the soul departs. So when Martha objects, “he has been dead four days“, she is underlining how futile is this quest. Lazarus is dead beyond all and any reasonable doubt. Perhaps that is why Jesus delayed- to remove any doubt about the miracle that would follow?
Jesus rose on the third day; his body would never know corruption. So, this miracle is not a mere foretaste of Christ’s resurrection. No Jesus is telling us; it is never too late for God to restore the dying person, the dying faith or, dare I say it, even the dying congregations of this world!
Because the Church in the affluent West is dying in many places, especially where modernism is rife. What, but decay in the body of Christ, are the abuse crisis, the growing lack of faith even amongst clergy, the loss of vocations, the loss of two generations of youth, the closure of parishes and the emergence of human politics encouraging conservative and liberal division where only language of truth and error should exist?
There is no getting away from it. The Western Church is in poor health. We minister at a time when many congregations are decaying like the stinking cadaver of Lazarus. I emphasise Western because, in Africa and Asia and in the Middle East where people are bravely dying for Christ- the situation is quite different.
And as the church suffers decline so many issues get thrust on us by the media. Homosexuality, contraception, celibacy. It is quite boring. Because where confusion exists on these issues we only find a side show. It is symptom not cause. And what is actually killing the church in the West has nothing to do with sex or politics. It is the modernist heresy. That desire to water down God’s truth to embrace worldly belief. Yes too many have forgotten, or are wilfully ignoring, what it means to be Christian.
This incorporation of secular ideology into the body of Christ is, unsurprisingly, proving cancerous. It causes confusion first and then, usually in the next generation, complete loss of faith. In the Protestant world we see a total embrace of unscriptural innovation -where Catholics flirt with it. The language of scripture is kept but the practice of Christians is skewed. So that we now have a situation in which more churches today will celebrate ‘fair trade week’ than Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. More Christians are passionate about ‘gender issues’ than in leading souls to Christ. It is this ‘worldly thinking dressed up in Christian clothing’ that is destroying Churches. Because – put bluntly- you cannot serve two masters.
I have a name for it; Christianity-lite. Out go parts of scripture deemed tricky or uncomfortable and the intellectual pursuit for truth. In comes a reliance instead on feelings and sentiment. Out goes authentic worship of God and in comes celebration of the community; all puppets and balloons. Out goes healthy respect and fidelity to tradition, in comes a glorification of novelty. Out goes personal devotion and in comes entertainment. Out goes self control and obedience in comes permissiveness and indulgence.
It doesn’t bring pleasure to be critical. And whenever we do highlight such issues we need to remember what Father Nicholas emphasised last week; that despite the many flaws in the church, of which we are part, we have a duty to love her and serve her. But we serve her too by being honest and confronting hard truth. And the hard truth is that too many churches no longer offer the fullness of faith; only watered down mush. The faith is not being taught in it’s fulness, it is not being believed in it’s fulness and it manifestly is not being practiced in it’s fulness.
And so we find nominalism and institutionalism ruling where zealous faith in Christ should exist. It is folly because part time faith produces no fruit. You cannot serve two masters. The more a church dumbs down – the more pointless it becomes. Like salt without saltiness, to use the biblical metaphor. What’s the solution? How do we reverse the decline? The answer is not what you might think. We might imagine more faith in God is required- but our Gospel today suggests the opposite. What we need is obedience despite our lack of faith. Let us explore the text..
The raising of Lazarus taught that healing comes when we are obedient to God not when we believe. Because nobody, not even Martha, believed Jesus could raise Lazarus. So faith was not really the answer. It was obedience, the doing of God’s will despite profound personal doubt.
Jesus issued three commands; each obeyed to the letter. ‘Roll away the stone.“ Did they understand why? No! It was four days after remember. But they obeyed. The modern church must learn from this. We should stop expending so much energy claiming to know God’s will and start leading lives of simple obedient witness to the faith of the ages- yes even to the parts that challenge us. Less chiefs -more Indians. After all how is it obedience if we only pick and choose what we prefer.
It means trusting God. Believing scriptures are inspired. Remembering whose church it is. It does not belong to conservatives or liberals. Not even to the Pope. It is not a human institution. It is divine. The Church belongs to Jesus Christ and to him do we own our ultimate fidelity. To the faith he has revealed. To the faith the Apostles handed to us. Not a bastardised form suiting the proclivities of the world.
“‘Lazarus, come forth!’. Even the dead find life with God. Even the rotten are dearly loved by God. That is very important. And it is something Pope Francis has made clear in his pontificate. We must not rigidly turn away from those who do not share our belief. We must pray for those who hate us, reaching out in love that our obedient witness and examples of holiness might inspire them. Mercy has such an important role to play as we call people together in Christ.
“Unbind, let him go“. Lazarus had no hope of unbinding himself. He was wrapped like a mummy. But in unbinding Lazarus- who was unclean-the people became part of the miracle. Here is a sign to us. We must be prepared to get dirty as we roll up our sleeves in the work of mission. Taking on us the smell of the sheep, to quote Francis again. Daring to be messy as we come alongside other in compassion and warmth. But holding onto the faith we proclaim- not putting it aside and giving in to nominalism.
To conclude; the Christian community, in many places, has fallen victim to death. Many are trapped in a tomb of modern hopelessness and decay, in bondage to sinful habit, slothful attitude and weak faith. Only God’s miracle can save them. But Jesus is ever ready for that miracle. And we must ever be ready to deliver it.
So; are we ready to co-operate with God? To roll away the stone between us and others? To take the first step in reaching out? To unbind that we may be free? If so two things are essential- our Gospel tells us today- obedience and charity.