Readings for Fifth Sunday in Lent 9 March, 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Lent 5 Textweek

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

The raising of Lazarus I think, is a key story for us in the unravelling of scriptures, unravelling and revisiting them without the orthodox spin that has distorted them over the centuries. It’s one of those narratives that we can come to afresh. Here we all are, good Christians, observing Lent, journeying towards Easter, we are expectant with and expectant of resurrection, and then we find today we’re reading about it already in the story of Lazarus who’s been resurrected. Easter always seems to bring up the question, did it actually happen? Some will sit on the theological fence when they’re asked that question and some will defer to the certainty and to the authority of the Bible. Well today, we reflect on the promise of Easter: did Lazarus, already smelling from decomposition, come out of the tomb to live again? Did Lazarus really live again?

Maybe it’s the wrong question, and it’s asked entirely from the wrong perspective. What if we ask it this way: have I, have we, heard the divine voice calling, calling me or us to come out of the tomb, out of the tomb of mortality into the divine life? As I, as we wander through the wilderness of Lent, where am I, where are we? Are we in the tomb or are we alive in Christ?

John uses this narrative to reveal, in verse 25, "I am the resurrection and the life’. And to be in Christ, let alone to be the Body of Christ, we too will find ourselves as the resurrection and the life. Arguably, logically, we too must therefore experience death in order to experience the movement from death to life. Initially this movement was understood as an end of life event and it’s quite understandable - initially this was seen as an after life experience: there will be life after death. It’s a conclusion that’s been reached in many other faiths and many other cults; it’s the glimpse that gives us the whole notion of heaven and hell as the place after death, the place of resurrection. It also is the same glimpse that gives re-incarnation as an understanding, life after death. But over the years there’s been a deeper understanding and that’s led to other expressions of the same movement, such as those reflected in the rite of baptism – dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ – seeks to capture the movement of resurrection. We’ve also broadened our understanding in light of scientific enlightenment, so now we can express the movement as a dying of the ego, a dying of the self in order to give life to a more whole and more integrated nature. We speak in terms of ‘letting go’ in order that we might take hold of something new.

I think all of those are quite valid and helpful ways for us to contemplate and consider the movement of Lazarus from the tomb to new life, and there is or there might be even more to it. Just keep in mind John’s revelation, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. I think what John is seeking to reveal is a movement that is as radical again as the movement expressed in Genesis in the leaving of the Garden of Eden. This is not the fall of humanity, it’s rather a movement from the divine into humanity. In crafting this narrative to reveal through Christ the Easter promise of life’s fullness, John is revealing to us an expression of life fullness – being fully alive, fully divine and fully human. I wonder if John deliberately chose Thomas, the doubter, for the words that are put into Thomas’ words in verse 16 - "Let us also go, that we may die with him." In these words the doubter is the one who embraces the movement that is the Easter promise. Why Thomas? Perhaps it is in our doubts, in our questions that we have the opportunity to discover and unravel the truth. It’s not that scriptures are giving us a blueprint for life, but rather, they’re giving us an opportunity to reflect on life and to see our life reflected in the mirror of scripture.

Much earlier in history before the Gospels were written down, Ezekiel has a glimpse of the same insight. The tomb in verse 1 is in the middle of a valley full of bones and in verse 5 that same divine call, the promise that Lazarus heard, ‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’ In the wilderness of Lent, we seek out the same valley, that place in our inner landscape that is full of dry bones. I believe that we all know that place, I believe that we’ve all glimpsed it, and I believe that as most of us come towards it, we will either turn on the television or nick off to Garden City or sit down and watch the footie or the cricket, because it’s not a place in which we want to find ourselves because we also, like Thomas are a Swiss cheese of doubt. If I go there. am I then lost forever, do I become another dry bone in the valley of dry bones?

‘I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.’ Paul grounds the movement – which is a movement into the fullness of life, it’s not a movement after death, it’s a movement into life’s fullness in the eternal moment of eternity, the eternal now. Paul just brings it all together in one sentence: ‘To set the mind on the flesh is death, to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ The orthodox spin on that went down some dreadful back alleys. Church gets hung up on words like ‘flesh’ – it cannot help but associate flesh with sexual activity, just can’t get away from it. Mind you, church life, especially when you go back a bit, was so boring it’s understandable. You can imagine the monks sitting there trying to understand scripture, bored as absolutely stupid, thinking, ‘let’s just make this all about sex, let’s spice it up a little bit’. We have a clumsy understanding of the Gospel to work with, insights from those who thought the earth was flat, stories from prophets that someone thought were actual stories with dates and times in history. We’ve unbelievable narratives of decomposing bodies being called out, taking off bandages and being perfect again. These are stories of within; they are stories of within.

‘To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.’ It’s strikingly obvious: if our orientation is towards our mortality, we have set our mind on death, and we live n a culture that is even more bizarre - not only has it set its mind on flesh but it also wants to avoid death, so it sets its mind on preparing for and extending as long as you can, the bit before. We are encouraged from the moment a shekel passes our hand we’re encouraged to save up for retirement; our mind is constantly being orientated towards the flesh. To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace – another orientation, the divine call that will take us out if the tomb of mortality into the fullness of life, will free us up, will allow us to see the world so differently. And the journey through Lent is an opportunity, because as we journey and as we move, so too we change our perspective, the landscape changes as we move. As we miss things, as we let go of things, we re-mind ourselves of where we have been, where we have come from, and as we turn, re-minded, so we look to a landscape that is unknown, for the journey will take us to a place yet to be discovered.

We have a little while to go before we get into Holy Week and a contemplation on the Easter mystery. In the time that we have, let us seek out the valley of dry bones and let us listen from that very place; let us listen from the place that entombs us. Let us listen with all our doubts, with all our failings and seek the response of Thomas, so that when we come to Easter we too can say, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris