Not everyone was happy about the resurrection of Lazarus. According to John’s Gospel, the fact of that miracle caused great crowds to flock around Jesus, and the chief priests grew jealous and afraid. They plotted to kill Lazarus, thinking that this would make the crowds go away. They didn’t just want to ignore his resurrection. They wanted to undo it. But they plotted impotently. The very next day Jesus entered Jerusalem, and those crowds that had been following him because of Lazarus lined the streets. More crowds gathered, and learned about the raising of Lazarus. And the plotters looked at each other and said “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!”
Included in that “world” that was chasing after him were some Greeks. They went to Philip and asked him to get them an interview. But when Philip and Andrew approached Jesus with the Greeks’ request, he launched into a short monologue about his glorification and his death. He ended by saying that “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Including, presumably, the Greeks. But they never got to see him. Instead of granting them the interview they requested, he went away and hid from the crowds.
It’s clear that this story is all about the resurrection. Lazarus’ resurrection is the event that gets the story moving, that keeps the crowds engaged and terrifies the chief priests. But I think it is also a story about idealism. The crowds flocked to Jesus because they thought he could teach them how to escape death. In essence, they were right, but not in the way that they thought. Jesus didn’t become a renowned resurrection man, traveling from place to place, raising the dead. He taught people how to escape death by emulating his example – by presenting himself as an ideal for them to subscribe to, the ideal of the human being who truly is human, living a life that truly is life. In other words, he invited them into idealism.
Idealism is a powerful force. Robert Jay Lifton tells a story about a series of interviews he conducted with a young soldier in 1969. This soldier had been present at the My Lai massacre, that morning of terror in a small village in Vietnam when American soldiers killed more than five hundred innocent people, grandmothers and babies. The soldier whom Lifton interviewed had refused to fire, refused to participate in the slaughter. He didn’t think that this absolved him of the guilt of the event. “There’s no way I can feel that I was separate from the whole thing,” he said, “especially when I didn’t do anything to stop it myself.” But unlike the soldiers around him, his comrades and friends, he couldn’t bring himself to shoot. Lifton wanted to know why.
He discovered that the young man was a lapsed Catholic. He had drifted away from the church, but his childhood religious training had convinced him of the sacredness of life. He was a man who felt comfortable in his own company, and didn’t have much need for the approval of others. But most of all, he was a man who truly believed in the Army. He had joined the Army after flunking out of college, during a time when his life was falling apart. He loved it. He excelled at being a soldier, and was quickly promoted. He wanted to make the army his career. He had completely bought into the idealistic image of a soldier that the army presented to him. He believed in it. He believed what he had been told about what a true soldier would and would not do. And it was this sense of military honor that kept him from killing old men and women and small children in the tiny, innocent village of My Lai. He was saved from becoming a murderer by the fact that he was an idealist.
Christian idealism has the same scope and power. It can help us reach for life even when we’re surrounded by death. I heard a story this week about a man whose wife recently died. She was fairly young, in her late forties. They were a very loving couple, and she was an exceptionally good woman. A social worker for many years, she and her husband had adopted numerous children and taken in foster children. She knew she was dying, and she did her best to prepare her husband for this fact. He would come and visit her in the hospital, and she would try to send him away. “Don’t you want me here?” he’d ask her, and she’d say, “Yes, but I want you here,” gesturing widely with her hands. Meaning that she wanted him to go outside the hospital room and act widely in the world, attending to all of the responsibilities that they’d taken on together, fostering all of the relationships that they’d formed together. After she died, he grieved deeply. But he was also able to say that she had won. All that time when she was in the hospital, he thought that she was losing. Losing the battle for life, and maybe even losing all of the potential in her life, all of those possibilities that her disease was taking away. But after she was gone, he realized that she had won. Because she wasn’t afraid to die. Because she died so gracefully and beautifully. And because she was an idealist. She believed in living her life according to the idealism of Christ. Taking care of people, treating the world with love, worrying as much about the good of others as about her own good. And she believed in the resurrection. Her idealism went so far as to even deny the power of death.
Christ came to teach us profound idealism. But idealism is a funny thing. We rarely succeed in living out our ideals. The man whose wife died couldn’t fully accept, as she was dying, that she was moving into the resurrection, even though he shared her ideals. The soldier in My Lai couldn’t figure out how to make others act according to his ideals during those hours of terror and grief. Like Jesus, our ideals are always slightly elusive, slipping away to hide from the crowds. But that doesn’t invalidate them. An ideal doesn’t lose its power just because it can’t be fully lived up to. An ideal’s power come from being, well, an ideal. Always just a little beyond our grasp. Always the focus of our aspiration, even if it remains hard to accomplish. But we move forward, chasing the ideal, and we get a little better at it all the time. More than that, we’re protected from people and events who are anti-idealistic. From the chief priests. From screwed up judgment and false orders. From a world that would tell us that death is simply death, and that there is no possible response to it other than grief. We strive towards our ideals because, by doing so, we become the people who we are now and, step by slow step, the people who we hope, someday, to be.