A stained-glass window depicting "Christ the King and Lord of the Universe" is seen in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Wilmington, Del. CNS photo/Chaz Muth

God's Word on Sunday: Christ opens believers to God’s world

  • March 24, 2023

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 26 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

For many people, dying far from home in a strange land, especially as a captive, is too grim and sad to even contemplate. 

Often no expense or amount of energy is spared in bringing home the remains of fallen soldiers so that they can rest in their homeland. It is with this understanding that the passage from Ezekiel can be interpreted — it was given to those living in exile in Babylon. 

The land of Judah and their former way of life were becoming dim memories for many, and two generations had already been born in Babylon. The image of God opening the graves and putting the divine spirit into the dead is linked with the first 10 verses in this chapter, that of the vision of the valley of the dry bones. In that vision, Ezekiel sees a valley filled with bones of the dead. God breathes the divine Spirit on them, and they come to life, complete with sinews and flesh. 

The valley of the dry bones was a collective symbol for the people and nation of Israel. During this period, salvation was thought of in collective terms and was tied to the land. Although these texts were used later, especially by Christian authors, as prooftexts for the resurrection, it is doubtful that this was their original intent. At that point in history, there was not a developed belief in the resurrection of the dead. 

Ezekiel’s message to the exiles was clear: Although the nation and people of Israel were in a sense dead and non-existent, God would bring them to life and restore them, both as a living force and a nation. They would return to their homeland and to a radiant and happy future. It was a message of hope in a very dark time, so perhaps it was also meant for our own time. God is the author of life and gives life in many different forms. God is alive, and so are we.

If those who are in the flesh cannot please God, it would seem that none of us can, for we are all embodied. But in biblical terms, living in the flesh means being oriented away from God and towards the bodily appetites and the self. It is a form of life — if it could be called that — without a real awareness of God or an understanding of spiritual things. 

The gift of Christ’s Spirit changes all of that in a dramatic manner. A new world opens to the believer — the world of God, the world of love and service, the world of meaning and an assurance that we will be raised to new life. Living in the Spirit is living with one foot already planted in the world to come.

In some respects, the raising of Lazarus is as strange as the valley of the dry bones. Jesus deliberately delayed responding to the call of Martha and Mary concerning their dying brother. By the time He arrived, Lazarus was already dead. There is reproach in the voice of Martha as she said that if He had been there Lazarus would not have died. Jesus assured her that her brother would rise again, which she understood as referring to the last day. But He revealed that He Himself was the resurrection and the life. Whoever believed in Him would live even if they died, and those who lived and believed in Him would never die. 

On the literal level, the statement makes no sense. People die all the time — even the most holy and faith-filled. But as is often the case in John’s Gospel, all of the words have a different dimension to them. He does not mean death in the biological sense, but death as distance and separation from God. Those who believe in Him will always be alive in God; physical death is of little consequence. 

Standing before the tomb, Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out, which he did, to the amazement of all. But this was not to dazzle the crowds; in John’s Gospel, all of the signs that Jesus performs are statements about His identity and divinity. And here it is obvious that just as God is the author of life, so is Jesus.

Jesus offers us new life — eternal life — even while we still live. With that promise in mind there is nothing we should fear.