Grace Episcopal Church
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
Ezekiel 37.1-14 Psalm 130 Romans 8.6-11 John 11.1-45
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” We hear these words from the Gospel at a funeral, reaffirming that just as each one of us is marked as Jesus’ own in baptism, we become one with Him in rebirth into life-everlasting. We hear these words at a funeral and we hear them again today, along with the exchange between Jesus and Martha, in which Jesus asks if Martha believes that He is who He says He is, and she replies, “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
“Yes, Lord, I believe.” That is the response to God to which we are all called. That is a response that some people will never make. At the end of the story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus cries out and Lazarus comes forth from the grave. The people standing by the grave see a man rise from the dead, and yet what does John tell us? “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.” Many? Many believed? That means that some did not, although they had seen with their own eyes Jesus exercise dominion over death itself, just as they had seen Him give sight to the man born blind (our lesson last week).
Some people did not believe. Some people don’t believe today. Some people will not believe whatever proof is offered them; just think of Richard Dawkins and his best-selling book The God Delusion.
We’ve just listened to the very long story of the raising of Lazarus, the story of the final sign described by John of how Jesus reveals His identity, authority, and mission. He’s once again said who He is, the resurrection and the life. He’s demonstrated His authority, even over death, and He’s again revealed His mission; the salvation of those who live and believe in Him. We’ve heard Martha confess her faith, “Lord, I believe,” and so why look now at those few, unnamed people in the story who despite all did not believe? It’s because when we examine resistance we learn about success; we learn more about what a life of faith means.
In Romans, St. Paul tells us that “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Now, when we first hear a contrast made between “flesh” and “spirit” it’s easy to think that Paul is saying that there’s something wrong with how we’re made, and that our human nature is somehow a bad thing. But that’s not what he’s saying. If you go back and follow all his argument, and not just the excerpt we have in our lesson today, it’s clear that what Paul calls “the flesh” is a way-of-living, a way-of-living in which we focus on ourselves. In other words, to live according to the flesh means to turn inward, away from God, and to believe and live as though it’s all about “me”. Living according to the Spirit means being open to God, open to the transforming reality of love through the Spirit.
Take Martha, for example. Here she is, in terrible grief. She’s suffered a terrible loss and is hurting, and yet her first words are those of trust: “I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” She’s not focusing on herself, but on God’s plan. She’s open to the Spirit, and so when Jesus tells her that He is the resurrection and the life, she says “Yes, Lord, I believe.”
Martha focuses on Jesus, not on herself and not on her loss. Writing after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension Paul says, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” He’ll give you life, and before His own death, Jesus gives this life to Martha, to Mary and to Lazarus; to Lazarus in the most literal sense of calling him back from the grave; to Martha and Mary in giving them the hope that “... everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Which brings us back to those who, having witnessed Jesus exercise dominion over death itself, still do not believe. What’s going on here? What’s going on is life according to the flesh rather than the Spirit; life in which everything is focused on self. Those who don’t believe are not necessarily bad people. They’ve just been doing a good thing, comforting Martha and Mary. But they have closed themselves off from God by focusing on what they do and how they can do it. They are not open to Jesus because they believe that they can figure out life by observing their own religious practices. In other words, they are “religious” but lacking in faith.
We are surrounded by people in the world today who do not believe. They’re the majority, and they always have been. What’s different about atheism today is not the arguments that atheists make, but that they have become militant, and believe the time has come to marginalize those who have faith. Some non-believers are real atheists; they debunk any form of religion, but most who lack faith claim to be “spiritual” people. In our world today “spirituality” is actually big business, whether this involves all the books you can find in the self-help section of a bookstore or Oprah telling folks how to be better people. Spirituality in our world today focuses on how I can become a better person, how I can grow if I can just figure things out by buying this book. In other words, spirituality isn’t about life in the Spirit but about life in the flesh; it’s about me; it’s about how I can try to improve myself through my own efforts, and if I just stay focused and try hard enough I can work my own salvation by becoming a better person. To which Paul replies, “To set the mind on the flesh is death ... the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God ... those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
I can’t save myself, and neither can you, and no matter how hard we try and what good people we are, we can’t save ourselves together, even in the Church. I cant’ save myself, we can’t save ourselves, but Jesus can, and He does; and not because we are spiritual people, but because of faith, because of the faith which says, “Lord, I believe.” And who is it to whom we say “Lord, I believe”? It is to the same Jesus Christ who is described in the Gospel today as weeping, as greatly disturbed and moved. This is the same Jesus who earlier in the lesson is described as knowing already that Lazarus is dead, and of knowing that Lazarus has died in order that God’s glory may be made manifest. So why is He crying? Is He crying because He loves Lazarus? That’s what the onlookers think, but let’s look back to the words we find before Jesus is described as weeping: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus weeps because of Lazarus, but also because of Mary’s pain.
Jesus weeps because of Mary’s pain. He shares in her loss and sorrow. He bears her loss and sorrow, and transforms that loss and sorrow into joy. He says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” He thanks the Father and then cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus does, but let’s ask the question: Is God’s glory revealed in Lazarus rising from the dead or in Jesus suffering with Martha and Mary?
The miracle of a man surrounded by the stench of death rising and walking from his grave is a miracle indeed. It points to the power of God and to the fact that Jesus and the Father are one. But the glory? The glory of God is revealed in the tears of Jesus. The glory of God is revealed in the fact that this same Jesus, walking this earth with us, is the God who shares in all of our pain and loss, who bears our pain and loss and lifts it up to the Father. The glory is revealed that we can participate in God just as He participates in us; that we can live by the Spirit when we get ourselves out of the way, to focus not on how we can be “spiritual,” but on how we can be open to the Spirit, that with Martha we can say, “Lord, I believe.”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
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