Today’s Gospel is a drama in three acts. First, there is the illness of Lazarus—during which Jesus seems unwilling to respond. Then there is his death, followed by Martha’s encounter with Jesus. The drama concludes with the raising of Lazarus.
At every point the dialogue is gripping. Jesus declares that his friend’s illness will not lead to death, something his disciples must have struggled with when they found Lazarus was already in the tomb. There are the pained but faith-filled words of Martha when Jesus makes finally his appearance. And of course we hear Jesus praying directly to his Father as he stands at the entrance to the tomb.
We could reflect and pray for hours on any one phrase from this magnificent Gospel passage. Certainly the Church intends us to think about the Resurrection of Jesus, to which the raising of Lazarus is obviously connected, especially as Easter draws near.
But I would like to preach on just two words from St. John’s powerful text. The two words are “unbind him.”
Unbound is the title of a book by the Catholic layman Neal Lozano, who helps people struggling with evil in their lives. He and his wife speak internationally about the Gospel message of deliverance from sin, promoting five keys to freedom.
I believe there’s a need for this ministry in many lives, but there’s no time to talk about it today. But the first of the five keys described in Unbound is the essential one: repentance and faith.
Jesus is speaking to the Church when he says “unbind him.” The Church is called to free us from the sins that bind and encumber us—the sin that clings to us and restricts us, as the Letter to the Hebrews says (12:1).
But we are not passive, like Lazarus; we must repent personally of wearing the burial shrouds of sin, and have faith in Christ’s ability to restore us to life by his merciful forgiveness.
This is the time in our Lenten journey when we decide whether we’re going to make the effort to go to confession. The first of our two penitential services is this Thursday, at Holy Trinity parish, and the second is next Tuesday, here at Christ the Redeemer. Do we hear the Lord calling us to come out from the cave and into the light?
Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote that our modern world of instant communications, instant food, instant diets and instant-beauty aids often makes us think of repentance as instantaneous transformation: “We are rotten one moment, pure the next.”
He says this is bad psychology, “because it leads us to think God accepts us only after and because we have reformed. It leads also to discouragement because we soon see how quickly we fail after we had repented.”
But Archbishop Sheen, one of the great preachers of the 20th century, reminds us that the Prodigal Son did not say to himself: “I know what I will do. I will work myself back up by my own bootstraps, make myself acceptable again and then I will return to my father.”
“No, he went back a repentant, but not yet fully reformed, prodigal. We must think of repentance as a beginning rather than an ending, as a change of heart that only gradually leads to a change of ways. Repentant sinners are still sinners, but the difference is, they no longer want to be sinners.”
Doesn’t that make it seem easier to approach the sacrament of reconciliation?
During these final weeks of Lent, the Church hears the Lord’s call to unbind and untie her members from sin. Each of us should hear him call “Come out!” Even though our bodies are dead because of sin, as we read in the second reading, we know that God’s spirit will give us life.