The Word in Peace, Fifth Sunday of Lent: The sinful path towards resurrection

Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

I am the resurrection and the life:
whoever believes in me,
though he should die, will come to life;
and whoever is alive and believes in me
will never die.” – John 11:25-26

I am writing this in a state of sin.

Sin is death. I might not get struck by a lightning bolt for it; that would be an easy way out. No, sin has the twisted purpose of destroying me from within. Sin makes me crave more sin, creating a vicious cycle of dependence and despair. My lusts, my cravings, my greedy acquisitions, my self-centered acts, they create no sense of fulfillment. Instead, there is emptiness. And I seek to fill that emptiness with more of the stuff that emptied me in the first place.

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” Paul tells the church in Rome in this weekend’s second reading (8:8). There are few worse feelings than believing that you are a prisoner of your own desires, that there is no hope for wholeness, no sense that there can be a relationship with the God that is the Ground of Being. I know; I’ve been there. Sin makes me want to avoid God, holding the fig leaves like Adam and Eve, when I really need to seek God the most.

But the beauty of it all – and here is where I come across as a 1940s revival preacher – is that sin need not be the end. Death is not the end. Resurrection is not just something that we hear about in a homily before the kids go out and hunt for eggs. It is a rebirth away from sin that is available to all who echo the psalmist:

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.” (130:1-2)

We are deprived of the greater context of the first reading. If we look earlier in Ezekiel 37, back to the start of the chapter, we see the prophet standing in a macabre scene: a valley filled with dry bones. This grotesque image is a metaphor for the Israel of the Exile, a nation whose own petty shortcomings left it vulnerable to foreign invasion, exile to a foreign land and the destruction of the Temple by foreign powers.

But before we reach the mass reading, there is hope. God asks Ezekiel whether the bones can come to life, a question that the prophet answers in the only way he honestly can: “That’s above my pay grade, God. You’re the only one who can answer that one.” (paraphrasing v. 3)

And then resurrection happens. God tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones, saying:

“Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: See! I will bring spirit into you, that you may come to life. I will put sinews upon you, make flesh grow over you, cover you with skin, and put spirit in you so that you may come to life and know that I am the LORD.” (v. 5-6)

The bones come together and form into an array of people, the reborn nation of Israel. God then tells Ezekiel to prophesy again (this time in words that actually appear in the first reading):

“Thus says the Lord GOD; O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.” (v. 12)

In Christ, Paul continues to the Romans, “although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (8:10). But Jesus himself takes that a step further in the Gospel reading by actually bringing somebody back to life.

It is easy to focus on the resurrection of Lazarus alone in the story; it’s not every day that people come back from the dead. But I think we miss the big picture if we do not look at the other characters in the scene, especially Lazarus’ sister, Martha. After receiving word that Lazarus is on his deathbed, Jesus takes his time responding. By the time he and his disciples arrive in the town of Bethany, Lazarus has been buried for four days.

When Martha sees Jesus, she expresses her grief, because she knows that he could have healed her brother. But she also expresses her belief in the resurrection, which Jesus had been preaching. She would have been justified if she had been angry at Jesus for taking the scenic route to save her brother, but instead she accepts the fate of Lazarus because she knows that somehow, some way, he is with God. (John 11:21-24)

What faith! And what growth! Recall that this is the same Martha who Luke introduces to us as the woman who frets over the details of hospitality while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feat and listens to his teaching. (v. 38-42) Martha’s faith has become a resurrection itself, as she moves on from the cares of the world and culture and confesses her faith that Jesus is the Messiah. (v.27)

We all know what happens next. Jesus commands Lazarus to emerge from the tomb. He does, almost comically, hopping blindly as he is tied up and his face is covered by burial cloths.

Resurrection comes in more forms than just raising the dead. Saul of Tarsus experienced resurrection when he changed from a persecutor of Christians to Paul, the great missionary of the New Testament. Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, who as chief minister of the Muslim League in Calcutta, had instigated anti-Hindu violence, found his resurrection after sharing a house with Mahatma Gandhi and learning that followers of both religions could live in peace together. Alabama governor George Wallace, the former poster child for resistance to Civil Rights reforms experienced resurrection in his conversion and subsequent appointment of African Americans to his cabinet. Trident nuclear attack submarine missile designer Robert Aldridge experienced resurrection when, after a crisis of conscience, he resigned his job at Lockheed and inspired the anti-Trident movement.

Am I heading towards a resurrection? I believe so. But I have to be vigilant in remembering that there are forces in this life that will always try to steer me away. And only God can keep me focused on that goal, if only I would ask.

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