10 April 2011
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
The first reading for today, as we just heard, is the familiar story of the Valley of the Dry Bones, from the book of Ezekiel. In it the prophet tells of a vision which he experiences as a message from God to the people of Israel. The vision begins in the midst of a valley that is filled with bones. For some reason, God seems to be unable or unwilling to act on the bones until Ezekiel gives them God’s message. First, God tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones, telling them that God would put breath into them and make them live. Then, Ezekiel is told to speak to the breath, telling it to come from the four winds and put breath into the bones. Finally, Ezekiel is told to speak again to the bones, now reconstituted into bodies, telling them that God will bring them up from their graves. The prophet tells us, ‘Thus says the Holy One, I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act.”
The ambiguity of English disguises the fact that the “you” in this sentence is plural. In the original Hebrew, it is clear that this prophecy is not about individual resurrection, but rather the renewal of a dispossessed people. Ezekiel is in Babylon, speaking to the approximately ten thousand exiles who have been driven from their homes in and around Jerusalem. Although a remnant has been left in the surrounding countryside, without their political and religious leaders, their peoplehood has been destroyed by the Babylonian conquerors. In Ezekiel’s vision, God’s promise is not that personal death will be overcome, but rather that the people as a whole will be renewed, returned to their own land and to a way of life that has died with the destruction of Jerusalem.
At least, that is how generations of Jews have read this text. But, in our lectionary, this reading is juxtaposed with John’s account of the raising of a single individual, Lazarus, from the grave. In this new context, the reading seems to change its meaning. Now, Jesus demonstrates the power of God, one person at a time.
I have heard it argued, sometimes by some of you, that when Jesus raised Lazarus, this was not a resurrection, but a revivification; that Lazarus would, in due time, die again. But I’m not so sure that this is the only way to understand this story.
Let’s look at it again.
Mary and Martha, who are also mentioned in the Gospel according to Luke and so must have been very important figures in the group around Jesus, send to Jesus to let him know that Lazarus is ill. They, of course, are expecting him to come quickly and heal their beloved brother. Instead, however, Jesus waits two days to even start out from where he was staying on the other side of the Jordan river, north of Jericho. He assures his worried disciples that the illness will not lead to death, but rather to the glory of God.
Eventually, Jesus does go to Bethany, but by the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died and been buried four days earlier. Martha meets Jesus on the road and reproaches him for delaying. She says that if only he had come earlier, her brother would still be alive. In response, Jesus asks if Martha believes in the resurrection. When she replies that she does, he says that he, himself, is “the resurrection and the life.” “Those who believe in me,” he continues, “even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Martha goes home to tell Mary about her conversation with Jesus, but when Mary meets him, she, too, reproaches him for arriving too late. Some of the bystanders seem to grumble, as well, saying that anyone who can make a blind person see could surely have healed Lazarus. We are told that Jesus is moved to tears at the grief of the sisters and their friends, compassionately entering into their sorrow. Finally, he asks some people to roll the stone away from the grave, and calls to Lazarus to come out. When Lazarus appears, Jesus tell them to unbind him and let him go, and the narrator remarks, “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
From here, the story switches its emphasis from the actions of Jesus and his friends to the reaction of the religious authorities. They are scared, seeing the wonder-working country preacher as a threat to the unity of the nation. But we don’t hear anything more about Lazarus from John until we see him again at the dinner on the night before Jesus’ arrest.
So why has the interpretive tradition insisted that the raising of Lazarus was not a true resurrection? After all, in this passage there is a lot of talk about resurrection. And there is no indication here or elsewhere in John that Lazarus will die again. I’m guessing that some serious theological confusion would have followed from asserting that Lazarus was resurrected before the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
But rather than follow that particular thread, I am more interested in examining Jesus’ statement, early in the passage, “I am the resurrection and the life.” For many years, I have wondered what, exactly, might that mean. Of course, I had some intuitions, but I never have been able to parse what it might mean for a person, a human being, to BE resurrection. How could Jesus BE life? It would obviously make grammatical, logical sense to say that Jesus is the agent of resurrection, or that resurrection comes through him, or something like that, but – until recently – I have been puzzled by this somewhat illogical sentence. And, no, I don’t think that there is any recourse in the original Greek. I checked. It’s just as peculiar.
A couple of weeks ago, however, I had an insight that I’d like to share with you. It’s still kind of unformed and certainly untested, so I’d be happy to hear what you think after I try to explain.
A few weeks ago, thanks to a link that Pat sent me, I watched an online video in which a young, hip-looking man was talking about what he believes. It turns out that the young man was the Irish theologian, Peter Rollins. Some of you may have heard of him, but I confess that I never had until that day. Here is my transcription of part of what I heard him say:
I’m so not a liberal. Because I’m with Paul. Paul is the first person to write this stuff down. He’s the first person to write Christianity. And what does he do? Does he talk about what Jesus says? No. Does he talk about what Jesus does? No. He has virtually no interest in who Jesus hangs out with. He has virtually no interest in what Jesus says. What’s he interested in? By the way, Why is he not? Because what Jesus says, good as it is, other people were saying similar things. Ask any rabbi. They’ll say, Well, he was a good interpreter of the Torah. Was he the first person to say, Turn the other cheek? No. Those miracles, great as they were, they were attributed to other people, before and after Jesus. So, if you are a good liberal, you’ll follow the teachings of Jesus, and that’s great. But . . . what’s Christianity at its heart? What it’s all about – this is Paul I am citing – is participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, that you die and you are reborn you are transformed, you are no longer the same. We are invited into transformation.
As you can imagine, when someone begins with “I’m so not a liberal” my antennae immediately go up, wondering where the person is headed. Too often, it’s an attack on my most dearly-held values. But from the rest of what Rollins said, and what I’ve picked up by doing some casual research on who he is and the implications of a Christian life that he is trying to articulate, it seems that he believes that a radical living out of love and justice and compassion are central to Christian faith. But I was so struck by his assertion that participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is somehow divorced from the life of Jesus before his death on the cross that I could not get beyond that simple fact. I found myself wanting to yell at the video – yes, transformation, but transformation into what????
And, despite Rollins’ sweeping, characterization of Paul’s writing, actually, Paul does tell us – we are to be transformed into becoming more like Christ. While many scholars do agree that nothing recorded about the life of Jesus was particularly unique, it is nonetheless true that only by knowing what Jesus said and did, who he hung out with, that we can begin to be more Christ-like. But somehow, at least in this clip, Rollins doesn’t say that.
A few weeks ago, at the beginning of Lent, Marjory showed us how the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness can teach us the shape into which we are being transformed. Reminding us that it isn’t necessary to believe in the literal truth of a story in order to learn something important, she showed several ways in which the confrontation between Jesus and Satan tells us something about the character of Jesus.
Whether we believe that Satan is an objectively real being, or simply a convenient way to name the inner voices or forces that invite us to do things we know won’t be good for us or for others, Jesus is shown overcoming the temptation to reduce human beings to their physical needs; the parallel temptation to forcibly ignore physical realities; and the temptation to illegitimate power over others. It is precisely because these temptations are NOT special to Jesus – that all of us face them in one way or another – that the story matters to us. When we remember how Jesus faced – and faced down – these temptations, we are strengthened in our own attempts to respond faithfully to the constant temptations in our own lives.
In this season of Lent, we recall a number of stories from the life of Jesus that reveal who he was, what he thought, and how he acted towards others. We began on Ash Wednesday, with admonitions and instructions from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us, Beware of practicing your piety in front of others; don’t look dismal when you fast; don’t store up treasures for yourself on earth, for where your treasure is, there will be your heart, also. In this collection of sayings, Jesus reveals his deepest ideals, his vision of how we are to be together in the reign of God.
After the account of the temptation in the desert, the lectionary gives us Jesus telling Nicodemus that he must be born again – or from above or of the Spirit – on order to see the reign of God. For Jesus, God’s love for the world is self-evident, and he wants to share that awareness with everyone. Is the love of God as self-evident to each of us as it is to Jesus?
Two weeks ago, we heard about the conversation that Jesus had with the woman at the well. It is often pointed out that he is shown talking with the woman in a way that most men would not have spoken with women at that time. He respectfully asks her to give him some water, and treats her with dignity, even when she doesn’t quite understand what he is trying to say. Although she may be slow to follow his enigmatic references, he never mocks her or belittles her, or even rolls his eyes. We can learn a lot from this patient willingness to keep finding new ways to say the same thing, until the person that Jesus is talking to suddenly sees something new.
And, last week, we heard of Jesus giving sight to a person who was born blind. When his disciples assume that the blindness was due to sinful behavior on the part of the person or the parents, Jesus gently corrects them, telling them that it is not because of sin, but so that God’s works might be revealed. Then, he uses the almost shockingly common elements of saliva and earth to heal the blind person. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, or call attention to himself, he simply does what he needs to do and then walks away. As with his refusal to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, Jesus refuses the temptation to be spectacular.
These, of course, are only a few of the many stories about the life of Jesus that we read in the Gospel accounts. When I first heard Peter Rollins say that Christianity is primarily participating in the death and resurrection of Christ, I didn’t know why I was so uncomfortable. Because he’s right, of course. If we say only that Jesus was a good man, if we only do our best to follow his teachings and do not participate in his death and resurrection, then we are not Christians.
But I would like to suggest that the inverse is also true. If we say that we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but do not also participate in his life – both before AND after his passion and resurrection – then we are also not Christians.
And this, I think, is what those enigmatic words that John attributes to Jesus, and that I have found so incomprehensible, might mean. When Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” perhaps we can understand it as a reminder that the resurrection and the life go together. For us to be transformed, knowing, or even admiring or attempting to follow, the life and teachings of Jesus, alone, is insufficient. But believing in his resurrection, alone, is also insufficient. It is only in understanding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a unity, and in allowing that unitary story to penetrate deep into our own lives, that we become Christians.
Which brings us back, in an odd way, to Ezekiel and those bones. Earlier, I said that the raising of Lazarus leads us to think about individual resurrection, whereas Ezekiel’s prophecy was originally about the renewal of a dispossessed people. But, ultimately, becoming a Christian is less about individual salvation than about becoming part of a new people, the people of God. As this new people, we are no longer defined by national or ethnic origin, but rather by our membership in Christ’s Resurrection Body, which is – as our Stewards commitment statement reminds us – simultaneously a limitless reality overflowing with eternal grace, and fragile, temporal, earthen vessel.
The mystery of Jesus Christ is that he is both the actions and teachings that are recorded in the Gospels AND the one who lives again wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Both the life AND the resurrection, held together in a single story. Jesus is the resurrection and the life – at last, I think I understand.