Vincent Van Gogh, The Raising of Lazarus (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

We hear all the time that what we want as Christians is a personal relationship with Jesus. And when people say that, if you’re like me, it makes you feel uncomfortable.

For the cynical, it can sound like having an imaginary friend, someone you make up conversations with as if you were really talking. At a deeper level, though, maybe the barrier is even more difficult to overcome: we don’t imagine that God could take an individual interest in us and our manifest imperfections. At best, God might be a benevolent employer who loves all of us equally, at an appropriate and necessary distance. But an intense love for us individually, the way we are? An actual desire to be with us and hear from us? Someone who will communicate that love to us in a way we can understand and feel?

For me, lately, there has only been one way past this “personal relationship” barrier. It has been to try to see Jesus’s actual personal relationships for what they are. Clearly, there were people in this world that he loved—not the way a master values a servant, but as a friend loves a friend, for reasons so deep they are hard to explain. This family of friends in today’s Gospel—Lazarus, Martha, Mary—is the one that has come alive.

They weren’t his disciples, or at least, not among the twelve. They don’t seem to have followed him from place to place in his public ministry. And yet, he returns to them, knows them all well, stays with them; they tolerate and even welcome his traveling disciples. Even after he made his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we’re told he went back to the nearby village of Bethany that night—perhaps to their house, a refuge of love in what he knew were the last days of his life. He seems to have turned to them the way we turn to those closest to us, the people we would want around when there is a crisis.

At a time when all of us are suffering, worried at best and genuinely afraid at worst, we would love it if God would take all this away.

What were they like? We know the gospel story about Martha and Mary having their domestic squabble about who wasn’t working hard enough. Maybe they were all three that way: open and passionate and argumentative. If we can picture this home of theirs, a place of normal humans where Jesus just liked being, where he could relax and be himself, maybe we can begin to see that even now, a relationship with him might be not only possible, but something that would change how we experience God.

And yet being a friend of Jesus, having that personal relationship, loving him and being loved by him, did not save these friends from suffering. “If you had been here, our brother would not have died.” It’s a bitter thing said to Jesus by these people he loved, and he doesn’t explain why exactly he stayed away so long. Even Lazarus himself, sick and then dead and then dragged back to life, goes through an awful ordeal. So even these great friends of Jesus have a crisis, and their relationship with him has to deepen into something new, and hard for them to understand.

At a time when all of us are suffering, worried at best and genuinely afraid at worst, we would love it if God would take all this away. And yet all we have to see us through is this relationship of love, one that doesn’t leave us. God is still taking a compassionate and individual interest in us, even in our fear and distraction. We would love to know why there is suffering for us, but all we are given is a relationship where we can literally say anything, and be ready to hear almost anything. It’s not a simple relationship or always an easy one. But it is always there.

A few verses after Lazarus’s return to life, the gospel says of these three friends that they gave a dinner for Jesus. It makes me like them even more—their instinct to have a party to celebrate the friendship that even death didn’t destroy. We’re at a moment right now when dinner parties aren’t possible. But in these next few days, picture one anyway, and the kind of relationship of love that sustains you the most. And say something out loud to a God who wants nothing more, and nothing less, than that same kind of relationship with each of us.

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal.

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