The story of the raising of Lazarus appears only in St. John's Gospel. It differs from the other stories of Jesus raising people from the dead in that it takes place four days after his death. In the synoptic Gospels, the raising of the daughter of Jairus and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain take place within twenty-four hours of their dying. In the former case, the corpse of the little girl is still in the family home lying on her bed. In the case of the widow's son, Jesus meets the funeral procession as it makes its way to the burial site. Keep in mind that the cultural norm for this time and place would have been to bury or entomb the body with twenty-four hours of death. After burying the body, the mourners would sit in the home of the deceased and mourn the individual for seven days. They would be accompanied by friends and professional mourners who would weep aloud. When Jesus comes to the home of his friend, he finds the sisters of Lazarus doing just this.
The Gospel of John appears about sixty or seventy years after the resurrection of Jesus. The community is grappling with what is for them a serious problem. Whereas they had once believed that Jesus' return would be imminent, they are now not so certain that what he had told them was true. They had not expected to experience death; however, as the time for Jesus' return is delayed, more and more members of the community are dying. Almost all of the eyewitnesses are gone. Martha speaks for the community when she says to Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." (John 11:21b) In other words, if you had not returned to the Father, this sort of thing would not be going on. With the help of Jesus, she also speaks the faith of the community: "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world." (John 11:27) It is important for us to remember as we read this story that Martha makes this faith statement BEFORE Jesus raises Lazarus.
Through this story, the evangelist is explaining to the community that Jesus did not come to do away with physical death or mortality; rather, Jesus came to transform our lives. Therein lies the crux of our faith. We are all human beings, and as such, we will all die a physical death. However, we shall live on with the Lord, and at the end of time, we will be blessed with a body that will never die. This is the core of our faith. Our life on this earth is simply a prelude to a life with God. For the sacred writers, death was separation from God. It is important for us to remember this whenever we encounter passages about "death." When Adam sinned, he was separated from God, denied access. He was expelled from the garden so that he could no longer walk with God each evening. However, through Christ, we have been granted access to the garden once again, and we can walk with God ourselves.
As one of the Eucharistic Prefaces states: "Life is changed, not ended." Jesus transforms our mortal lives to those of immortal beings who live with God.