09 March 2008

Let's say that you are dead. . .

5th Sunday of Lent (A): Eze 37.12-14; Rom 8.8-11; John 11.3-45 (revised)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. My thanks to my regulars who pointed out lots of errors. I’ll do what everyone else is doing today: blame Daylight Savings Time!]

Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. It’s hard to tell that you are dead b/c you are still up and walking around. Talking, working, eating, sleeping. But you are dead. Though your heart pumps blood, it is empty—holding in a terrifying vacuum. Where your purpose should be, where your animating love should be, where your freedom should be—there is nothing. Dead quiet. Icy stillness. Nothing. . .nothing at all. Your bones dry. Your muscles wither. Your strength drains away. And you either cry in anger at the loss, or you die a little more b/c there is nothing to do. Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. But it is hard to tell b/c the circus of your life is choreographed to ballet-perfection, and your smile sparkles like a dead winter’s sky. Careful! Be very careful. Does that dead smile mean that you have strangled hope? If so, listen: “O my people, I will open your graves and raise you from them. . .you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from them, O my people!. . .I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .”

This is who we are, People of God! We are those who live in the spirit of the Lord. We are not made to live with dry bones or poisoned blood; we are not made to rot in the ground or to be scattered like dust to the wind. The grave is a temporary place, a moment’s rest, just a quick stop on the way to a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope rests in the promise of the Lord to breathe into us again the first breath of creation, His Word of over the void, and to re-create us anew; from the drying bones and rotting flesh of death, we are made to rise, to be refreshed, to be brought up again so that we might dwell with Him, body and soul, whole persons with Christ. And this promise of re-creation in the Word is not a promissory note that we must wait on to mature, an account that we sit patiently by waiting to balance: we are raised up now, lifted up now, brought to new life in the resurrection right now!

We have spent four weeks allowing the desert heat of Lent to reveal our temptations. Once uncovered, we know our weakness, we know how we can fall, how our hearts are emptied. But if your heart—that is, the very root of your link with God—if our heart is dead and still, an icy void—no revelation, no divine showing will move you to live again. That link to the Father must remain alive, whole, undefiled, and free. So, what do we do when we feel the spirit in us failing? Think of Mary and Martha and Lazarus—those loved by Jesus. Lazarus is sick and dying. Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that “the one he loves is ill.” Jesus calms their anxiety: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus waits two days and then tells his friends that they must all go back to Judea. They protest: the Jewish authorities are trying to kill you! He says, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”

If we walk in the darkness, we are blind. But since we walk in the light, we see: Jesus is going to Judea to lift Lazarus out of his grave, to bring him out of his tomb, and he does so so that his Father’s promise will be kept. Over his friends’ objections and despite their doubts, Jesus goes to the tomb and cries aloud: “Lazarus, come out!” And John reports to us: “The dead man came out. . .” The dead man walked out of his grave and lived. Because of “what he had done [many of the Jews] began to believe in him.” And because we too believe, there is no death for us, no grave to hold us, no tomb to jail us. Our ears are always open to hear the Lord cry: “Come out of your grave and live!”

Even so, how often do you feel the spirit failing you? How often do you feel the disbelief scratching at your heart? What is it that tells you to welcome the void? More often than not our faith in the Lord’s promises is challenged by sickness and loss. The very fact of our mortality, the reality that we will die, stands against His promise of life. There is nothing for us to do but die. And because our eyes are open and because we walk in the light, we see that this stumbling block litters our path. My death, your death is no death at all if we live and move and have our being in the Spirit. Paul writes to the Romans, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” Is this a wish? A fantasy? A dangerous gamble? No! It is our most precious hope, His most gracious gift—we live, and we live with Him forever.

Listen again to Ezekiel: “O my people, [you people here, right here, right now] I will open your graves and raise you from them. . .you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from them, O my people!. . .I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .” That promise is made good here this morning/evening in the Eucharist, right here in this celebration of the Lord’s last supper with his friends. Gathering together in his name, repenting of our disobediences, listening to His word spoken and preached, we are offer on the altar of sacrifice not only our first fruits, our material goods, we offer ourselves; we make of ourselves a true and living sacrifice, an offering made acceptable to the Father by His Son through the Spirit. We are the Body and Blood of Christ offering Christ to Christ through Christ for Christ so that we might be Christ in the world for others! And when we do this, our opened ears hear loud and clear the voice of God say, “Untie them and let them go.”

Though the Enemy throws scandal in our way, we are our own worst enemy. How hard do you work against your own eternal life? How often do you create—from thin air and dust—obstacles for yourself? How many burdens do you pile on your back? On the backs of your family and friends? Do you bind yourself with the minutiae of the Law that Christ himself fulfilled for you? Do you properly credit yourself as freed from the necessity of sin and death? How much do you labor to untie yourself, to find your own way out of the prison of sin? You cannot free yourself. You cannot bring yourself back to life. You cannot lift your tombstone and walk out of the grave. Why not? You cannot do for yourself what the Lord Himself has already done for you. When Jesus tells Martha that he will raise Lazarus from the dead, Martha accuses him of being too late, too slow to arrive to help Lazarus. Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha, ever practical, ever sensible, says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus corrects her saying, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. . .” He says, “I AM the resurrection” not “I will be the resurrection” or “I was the resurrection.” He says, “I AM the resurrection. . .” Present tense. Right now, he is life for believers.

Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. But it’s hard to tell that you are dead b/c you are still up and walking around. It is time for you to get angry with death, time for you to get angry with your hardened heart; it’s time for you, looking at the Cross and hoping on the resurrection, it’s time for you to join Christ, get angry and cry out: “Take away the stone!” And it is time for you to walk out of your grave, let your bonds be untied, and walk freely in the Spirit of a Father who gave His only Son for you. It is time for you to show the glory of the Lord!

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