Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Promise of Resurrection

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37.1-14; John 11.1-45
St. Gregory’s, Long Beach

Today we begin the final leg of our Lenten journey – the journey to Jerusalem. For next week, on Palm Sunday, we enter with Jesus into Jerusalem, where over the course of what we know as Holy Week, we will witness betrayal, injustice, death. And after that, Easter. And the Resurrection.

Today’s readings give a glimpse of what is to come at the end of this long journey. A flavor of the final victory that is to come. The victory achieved by Jesus. The victory achieved for us.

Both our Old Testament and Gospel readings contain stories that juxtapose death with restoration of life. Stories of death overturned. Stories of death turned to new life, each told from a different perspective, with different emphases. The Valley of Dry Bones from Ezekiel entailing the bringing of renewed life on a corporate scale. And the raising of Lazarus from John entailing the bringing of renewed life to an individual. We also recognize that these stories foreshadow the Resurrection that we will celebrate in just two weeks. While foreshadowing the Resurrection, neither story is really that of true resurrection. They are really stories of resuscitation. While resurrection and resuscitation are synonymous, when looked at through the eyes of the Christian faith, there is an important difference.

While resurrection and resuscitation mean the restoring of consciousness, the restoring of life, from the Christian perspective, resurrection is the giving of new life. A new life that is only possible through Jesus Christ. New life that is only made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And not just new life, but eternal life.

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Ezekiel has a vision of a valley strewn with dried out bones. Ezekiel is a Hebrew living in Babylon during the time of the Exile. The bones are a symbol of the nation of Israel. Israel is not really dead physically, but is metaphorically dead in sin, having defied their covenant with God. Their punishment is to be scattered in forced exile in Babylon, a shadow of their former lives. However, just as God, in Ezekiel’s vision, could call together the desiccated bones, reassemble them, and breathe life into them, God is able to bring new life to the nation of Israel and its people. By the grace of God, by the breath of the Spirit, they will be returned to life as a people. As God’s people. They will be liberated and returned to live out their lives in their own land.

While Israel will be resuscitated to a semblance of its former self, this is not resurrection in our understanding of the concept. Israel, nor its people, will have eternal life as a result of God’s actions here in the Valley of Dry Bones. The individuals of Israel will live out their natural lives, then die. The nation of Israel will eventually fall.

In our Gospel reading, we hear of Lazarus, a beloved friend of Jesus, who has died. Jesus receives word of his death while some distance away. After waiting several days, Jesus is finally ready to go to Bethany to be with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. His disciples try to stop him, reminding him of the previous attempts on his life in Judea. If he goes, he will be putting his life at risk. (If only they knew.) But Jesus is not deterred. He knows what he must do. He must see his friend one last time. He must travel to Bethany, a mere two miles from Jerusalem. Bringing him ever closer to Jerusalem and to what awaits him there.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, after exchanges with both Martha and Mary, Jesus goes to the tomb where Lazarus has been buried for the last four days. To the dismay of those looking on, Jesus orders that the tomb be opened. What’s the point? He’s definitely dead. According to their customs, a dead body’s spirit remained near for three days. The fact that Lazarus is dead four days confirms he is long gone. Nothing can be done. Mary was right. If Jesus had gotten there a couple of days sooner, while the spirit was still near, available to re-enter Lazarus’ body, Jesus might have been able to do something to bring him back. Just as he had done with the daughter of Jairus and with the son of the widow of Nain. But after four days, with no spirit to enter the body, there is no hope.

Ah, but in Jesus, there is always hope. After the stone is removed, Jesus prays and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (Jn 10.43). And to everyone’s shock and surprise, he does! “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth” (Jn 10.44a). Lazarus is alive! Brought back to life!

Yet, as with Israel, 600 years before, while Lazarus was brought back to his former life, it was exactly that. His former life. He was not resurrected in our understanding of the concept. Lazarus would live out his natural life, only to die again at some point in the future. But then. Then, he would indeed ultimately experience resurrection through Christ, who in a matter of days would himself be resurrected, achieving resurrection and new life for all.

In his exchange with Martha, prior to raising Lazarus, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 10.25-26a). He is revealing the fullness of himself in this passage. This is his foretelling of what will happen very soon – in a town just two miles from where he is standing – when he is himself resurrected. This is his promise to Mary and to all of us that from now on, death has no meaning. That through him, through his resurrection, those who believe in him will share in his resurrection. This is central to who we are as a people. So much so that at every funeral, we begin with the words “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.” For we are first and foremost a Resurrection people.

This is indeed the beginning of the end for Jesus. For it was his actions in raising Lazarus from the dead that was the final straw. Immediately after the scene in today’s Gospel, the chief priests and Pharisees, having heard what happened in Bethany, convene a council to discuss their concerns about Jesus. To discuss his most recent actions. The results of that council? The chief priests and Pharisees resolve to put Jesus to death. This event of raising Lazarus, in John’s account of the Gospel, is the final action that sets in motion the events that we now know as Holy Week.

Our annual Lenten journey is specifically designed to parallel Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. All the readings for the successive Sundays in Lent bring us ever closer to Jerusalem. Not just in terms of the stories of Jesus’ travels and the events that occur on his way to Jerusalem. Our Lenten readings also reveal more and more of who Jesus is as the Messiah and what he is destined for in Jerusalem. And how those events directly affect us, his followers. In this way, the Lenten journey, the journey to Jerusalem, also parallel our own faith journey, as individuals and as a community.

We each have our own journey that brings us into the life of faith. Some from birth – a path already laid out due to being born and raised in families of faith. For some, the journey begins later in life, brought about by an encounter, a particular event, a conversion experience. We are individually called to make this journey of faith. Just as Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls to us. He calls us to come out of our old way of life into a new way of life focused on him. Like Lazarus, we hear his voice and respond. We seek to step out of that old life that entombs us, into the light, into his presence.

While those journeys are as unique and individual as we are, our formal entry into the life of faith, into the Body of Christ, is the same – through baptism. Going down into the water of baptism, we die to self, and thereby share in Christ’s own death on the cross. Rising from the water of baptism, we are born to new life, and thereby share in Christ’s resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

While Jesus ultimately made the final leg of his journey alone – abandoned by his friends as he was arrested in the Garden on Maundy Thursday, condemned to die alone on a cross on Good Friday – we do not make our journey to Jerusalem, our journey of faith, alone. We see this particularly in the story of the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus called him out of the tomb, he did not walk out into an empty place. He comes forward into the arms of a community who welcomes him into new life. And Jesus says to that community, “Unbind him, and let him go” (Jn 10.44b). In other words, he is telling them that their job is to help Lazarus assimilate back into the community of faith after this amazing transition from one life to another.

This is an incredibly important part of our faith journey. That we do it together, in community. The journey of faith is not an easy one. As we leave an old way of life, we leave all sorts of things that seek to tie us to our past life. Things that seek to entomb us in that old way of life. But we cannot allow those things to hold us back from our advancing ever forward to Jerusalem. And to do that, we need our community of faith to be there for us, to help unbind us, to free us from that which entombs us, from that which may deter us – unlike Jesus’ disciples who sought to deter him on his journey. In this, we help each other in the resurrection process. For it is a process. It is not just resurrection at the end of the ages, but ongoing resurrection as we continually move forward in our calling to follow Christ to Jerusalem and beyond. 

Like Lazarus raised from the dead, our baptism into new life does not mean that we will not die. Like him, we will first have to be unbound from those things that get in the way of this new life. And then we must live out our normal span of life, then die, before fully entering into the resurrected life. The life we live in the meantime is our own journey to Jerusalem. It is our own journey toward Good Friday and our own death. It is our own journey to Easter and to the fullness of life that the Christ’s resurrection promises and holds for us. The promise of victory.

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