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.