Graphic by David Chen

God’s love has the power to give new life

  • March 23, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 2 (Year A) Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

How can someone be dead and living at the same time?

Death can take many forms and in the mid-6th century B.C. the people of Israel were dead as a nation. They were exiled to Babylon, living as captives among an alien people with a very different culture and system of worship.

They no longer had a land of their own, and the land played a vital role in their self-identity and relationship with God. There was the gnawing fear they would never see their land again and they would fade into oblivion as a distinct people. To die and be buried far from home in a strange land was unthinkable.

The vivid 37th chapter of Ezekiel painted a radically different future for them. God intended to open their graves, place the divine spirit within them and give them new life. Rather than referring to the resurrection of the dead at the end of the ages, this was a vibrant and hopeful metaphor for their future return to Israel and restoration of their temple and way of life. God was going to place them on their own soil — they were going to be restored as a living community, people and nation.

Death in its many forms can seem certain and irrevocable, leaving little or no hope. The negative events of one’s life can be crushing and annihilating. Disasters and chaos can overtake communities and nations.

It is important that people remain close to God in those times, exercising patience, trust, courage and generosity. Often these events have something profound to teach us, if only we are open to it. Eventually, the spirit of God will begin to blow gently but persistently through individual lives and human communities.

There will be hope; there will be a new life; there will be a productive future. God is not a God of death but of life. That is God’s continual intention for us. As the psalm assures us, God’s steadfast and unwavering love has the power to redeem and give life.

How can it be that those who are in the flesh cannot please God? In biblical terms, flesh does not mean our physical bodies but the orientation and quality of our lives. Those who live for themselves and are deficient in love and care for others are said to be living a fleshly existence. Being in the spirit is living in harmony with the spirit of Christ that dwells within us. A life in the spirit is a life of love, active compassion and orientation towards God and others rather than self.

The raising of Lazarus not only revealed the life-giving power of God that Jesus exercised, but also challenged human conceptions of death.

The events were carefully orchestrated by Jesus. He deliberately delayed responding to the frantic summons of Martha and Mary, thereby ensuring Lazarus would be dead when they arrived.

The two grief-stricken sisters were somewhat accusatory when they encountered Jesus. If you had been here — in other words, if you had come when we called you — our brother would not have died. Martha was positive that God would still give Jesus whatever He asked for. Jesus revealed Himself as the source of resurrection and life: “Whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

This self-revelation of Jesus, if taken in a literal fashion in reference to physical death, makes no sense at all. People who believe in Jesus continue to die, then and now, and those who have died do not give evidence of being alive. By death, however, John describes a state of life in which one is out of touch with the indwelling presence of God’s spirit and distant from God in heart, mind and awareness.

Never having really lived is far more frightening and serious than physical death. Jesus restored physical life to Lazarus, but offered eternal life to those believing and abiding in Him. Eternal life does not describe the length of life but its quality — living in the full awareness and experience of God’s presence.

We can experience eternal life in this lifetime, for Jesus came so that we might have an abundant and complete life.

Eternal life always begins in the present moment.

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