When I was a sophomore in college, I received the news that a friend of mine—whom I had known from the age of 5 and who went to the same school as I did from Kindergarten through that sophomore year of college—succumbed to a rare type of cancer and died. Within six months, a mutual friend of ours was killed in a car crash. My first response was not quite denial, but postponement. “I can’t deal with this right now. This is something I don’t need.” Then I felt a great deal of anger. In my mind, I railed against my high school friends who weren’t as close to either of the deceased who didn’t understand. I opted not to talk with college friends who couldn’t have known what I was going through…and then resented that they (some of whom had no idea anything had happened) weren’t more sensitive or didn’t ask me what was going on. The anger persisted for a while, but it eventually faded.
Perhaps the one exception to that fading was in my relationship with religion. I guess you could say I was angry at God, but I’m not sure that is really what I experienced. I was angry with people’s vision of a God who had no room for weeping. I raged against the God who insisted I acknowledge that my friends were in Heaven and thus had absolutely no room for tears, or grief, or delayed coping with their absence. Sadly, rather than share those feelings with people who offered me well-meaning but nevertheless trite platitudes and oblivious “encouragement”, I failed to share it with them. Perhaps my saving grace was that I did vent my anger to God, and did receive some modicum of comfort as I realized that those versions of God were false. This Sunday’s recalling of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was instrumental in my prayer.
There’s a simple invitation repeated throughout John’s account of Jesus’ ministry: “Come and see.” Jesus invites Andrew and another disciple to see where he is staying for the Sabbath rest. Philip invites Nathaniel to come see Jesus. The Samaritan woman invites her fellow villagers to come and see the man who told her everything she had ever done. Behind each of these invitations is God’s hand extended to us, beckoning us to come and know more fully who God is, who we are, and who we are called to be. Yet today’s passage from the John’s gospel account is a bit different. This time, it is the community inviting Jesus to come and to see instead of the other way around. Come, Lord. Come and see death. Experience loss with us, o teacher.
As a younger man I clung to that small selection of text. There was something about it that resonated as truly glad tidings in the midst of grief. This week, the good news that I hear is that Jesus obliges to that “Come and see” invitation. Jesus doesn’t back away from death. Even more radically, as we enter into Holy Week next Sunday we reflect on the God we believe not only witnessed death, but experienced it himself in Jesus. God’s hand outstretched for us doesn’t recoil when coming up against the fruits of sin like poverty, discrimination, self-righteousness, or legalism, nor does it withdraw at the inevitable final destination sin holds for its thralls: death. Instead, when we reach out our hands, God’s hand touches our own, grasps us, and pulls us in.
So much of my time in my own faith relationship and in ministering to others’ is to open my eyes and ears to God’s invitation to come and see. That means being present to ways that God calls me to live out the Gospel that I might not think of immediately (or at all) and/or that challenge me. It means being engaged and present in uncomfortable situations, whether in conversations or in reaching out to people with whom I normally don’t associate. It also means engaging more fully in prayer, following Jesus’ own example.
As I delve into that invitation, though, I take great comfort in this weekend’s story as I remember that God’s invitation to come and see is a two-way street. In times of need and grief, our shared faith does not profess a God who is aloof, distant, shining immaculately while we are left to suffer in the dinginess of this world. We belief in a God who is truly Emmanuel, with us.
My hopes for myself and for all of us are threefold: to be inspired by this truth and invite the Lord more frequently to come and see in our lives; that we might have open hearts and minds to accept the invitation to come and see God indwelling in others, both through knowing their sorrows and their joys; and that we might take the risk to invite others to come and see us as we are, and recognize that God’s love is already with us just where we are.