We gain life by living in the Spirit

  • March 30, 2011
Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.

This is an image that speaks to the world today. We are haunted by images of mass graves, ruined cities and the victims of earthquakes, tsunamis and war. The vision tells us not to allow death to define us completely or fear of death to rule us. In God there is only life, light and love. Misery, death and destruction are not God’s doing nor does God allow it to be final. There is a future and there is new life — if we are willing and able to cleanse our hearts of negativity and fear and live in hope.

We begin living this new life by living in the Spirit. Paul contrasts those who live in the Spirit with those who live in the flesh. Flesh is a biblical metaphor for human limitations and tendencies. Those who live according to the flesh walk in fear, selfishness and negativity, and these traits certainly do not please God. The Spirit awakens us to the presence of God within us as well as the divine presence in others and in creation. With the energy and life of the Spirit we are more able to move beyond negative life patterns so that we can consistently choose the path of life.

Throughout John’s Gospel, there is a solid link between “life” and Jesus. The life in Him is the light of all people (1:4); He has life within Himself and can give it to whomever He pleases (5:26); and He is the way, the truth and the life (14:6). The giving of life is the prerogative and power of God and in this story of Lazarus Jesus will demonstrate in very dramatic fashion the divine power that resides in Him.

In a sense the story is staged — He deliberately tarries in answering the frantic summons of Martha and Mary in order to ensure that Lazarus will be dead when He arrives. This will be a “teaching miracle.” To Martha’s reproach that her brother would not have died if Jesus had been present He replies that He is the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Him will never die and whoever dies will live again, and with this Martha professes her faith in Him.

On the surface the statement makes no sense: believers die every day; death is a constant. He is not speaking of biological death but the death that we fear most: extinction and obliteration, separation from love and from God. The eternal life that Jesus promises is something we begin to experience in the present — it means living in the immediate presence of God and being deeply aware of it. In that sense death is not the great unknown: we are loved now and will continue to be loved even after our earthly journey draws to a close.