CNS photo/Nick Adams

The divine Spirit strengthens

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  • March 27, 2014

Death comes in many guises. Degradation, humiliation and oppression are considered by many as far worse than the literal cessation of biological life.

Ezekiel prophesied to the people of Israel exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC. They had witnessed the destruction of their nation and holy temple. As usual in such cases, they suffered abuse and slaughter in the course of the conquest and deportation. A generation had passed as a non-people — no land, no temple and no customary way of life.

Although some took to the new way of life, for many it was a living death. Ezekiel used the valley of bones and the many graves as a metaphor for the people of Israel and their plight. Death is definitive and irreversible except when God is involved. God will not only put flesh and sinews back on the dry bones but will also breathe the living divine spirit into them as a nation and people.

Note how closely the opened graves and renewed life are linked with being brought back to the land of Israel. To live was to have a land in which to dwell and the possibility of worshipping God and observing the Law in their accustomed ways. God’s Spirit will make them live again as a people, with a place and name.

There are exiles and “non-people” in our own time. In many respects, the uprooted and wandering refugee is an emblem of our age. In its own time, this prophecy was a source of hope and promise for those who were willing to believe — and the promise was kept. God is the author of life in many forms. God can grant new life after personal tragedy, illness, failure or emotional collapse.

When the divine Spirit is breathed into us we will find the strength to live — even thrive and flourish — despite what life can deal us.

Much later, Christian writers gave this passage a second life by using it to illuminate their understanding of the resurrection of the faithful dead.

When Paul said that those in the flesh cannot please God he did not for a moment refer to the physical human body. Being in the flesh or walking according to the flesh was a biblical way of referring to one with a selfish and sinful direction of life oriented away from God.

When one has the Spirit of God within, there is only one way to live that leads to happiness and eternal life: to follow the promptings and guidance of the Spirit. This leads away from self and towards God.

The enigmatic story of the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John also refers to a type of death other than physical. Jesus and the apostles arrived too late to save Lazarus. He was already four days dead. Strangely, Jesus had deliberately engineered events so they would be too late, a sign that this was to reveal God in a new way.

Jesus declared to Lazarus’ distraught sister that he was the resurrection and the life. He added something puzzling: Whoever believed in him would live even if they died, and those who lived and believed in him would never die.

On the surface, the statement makes no sense at all if we assume he was speaking of physical death. In fact, he was referring primarily to another sort of death far more frightening — separation from God, which is the life that most humans experience.

Jesus demonstrated that he was the Lord of life. He gave physical life to one who was dead. But by promising eternal life, Jesus challenged them to expand their concept of life.

Eternal life is far more than merely going to heaven. It is living consciously in the presence of God and experiencing God personally even in this earthly life. We can choose to be fully alive in God in this life or settle for a normal human life with all its pain and limitations.

This comes at a cost: the life-giving Spirit that Jesus promised his followers required that they walk in his ways and “abide in him.” This takes form in a life led by the Spirit and poured out in love and service. God intends to grant us life beyond what we could ever imagine.

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