Faith in God brings eternal life

  • March 6, 2008

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 9 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

The Spirit of God — the Divine Breath — first appears in the opening lines of Genesis. It is an instrument of creation as it blows across the chaotic primal waters. This same spirit (or breath, as the Hebrew word is the same for both) made humans into living beings. And as the psalms insist in several verses, if this breath were to be withdrawn for even an instant we would return to dust. So it seems that there has never been a time when we were without this spirit, and yet the readings seem to suggest that it is something new.

Why? The reason for this is the different role that the spirit of God is playing in these three readings. Ezekiel was written during the exile in Babylon and its vivid and sometimes bizarre images are focused on the return from exile and a restoration of the nation of Israel. Reading this passage with this in mind, it is apparent that it is not referring to the resurrection at all. God proclaims that He is returning the people of Israel to their land. Even the dead will be included, for the lonely graves of the exiles in Babylon will be opened so that they can also return. The spirit of God that will be placed in them is collective and inclusive: the entire nation will be restored, and the people will enjoy new life.

Who belongs to God and who is pleasing to Him? Not everyone, Romans suggests. Only those who have the Spirit of God within them qualify. But does not everyone have that spirit in them? Doesn’t everyone belong to God? “Pleasing” and “belonging” in biblical terms refers to the enhanced relationship with God made possible by the reception of the Spirit by the faithful. God’s displeasure with those living according to the flesh does not mean that there is something evil about our bodies. Living according to the flesh is not the same as living in the body. Flesh is used as a metaphor for all that is mortal, limited and bound by the world. Fleshly living is oriented away from God and others and towards the self. The Spirit that God draws us into an adoptive relationship as true sons and daughters of God. Living according to the spirit is a life directed to God and to others — a life motivated by love.

How do we handle the stark reality of death? The doubt and insecurity of our own time adds a special poignancy and urgency to this question. We are confronted daily with images of so many innocent dead: the victims of war, terrorism, natural disaster and famine. We must be wary of glib answers that trivialize suffering and death, but it is also clear that John’s Gospel can illuminate our understanding. The raising of Lazarus is as strange as it is miraculous, as it seems to have been carefully orchestrated by Jesus. He deliberately tarries for three days when He receives the plea to come at once to the aid of His sick friend. If He had gone immediately His friend would not have died but then there would have been no real story to tell beyond another of His many healings. Jesus wanted to make absolutely sure that Lazarus was dead before showing up at the funeral. He arrived amidst tears, anguish and reproaches so intense that it seems to have even gotten to Jesus a bit, causing Him to shed tears even though He was in total control of the situation.

The confession of faith that He coaxes from Martha is strange and nonsensical in its literal form: those who believe in Jesus will live even though they die, and all who live and believe in Him will never die. Obviously Jesus does not mean physical death, for many believers have died since those words were uttered, but meaninglessness and separation from God. Revivifying Lazarus is a powerful symbol and proclamation: all life is in the hands of God and His emissary Jesus and God does not deal in death. Death should not make us despair or lose hope and we should not allow it to stifle joy in living. Those who have faith are alive in God and will live forever.