April 6 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fifth Sunday in Lent
Texts: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
Theme: We could play it safe this week and go for something like “The Resurrection and the Life”, so long as we remember that Lazarus was resuscitated rather than resurrected. A variation on that theme, entirely in keeping with John’s gospel, would be “From Darkness into Light”. But I’m going for “Coming Out for Jesus”, not because I want to be provocative, but because that is the phrase that came into my mind as I started to think about this week’s readings, and I heard again those astonishing words “Lazarus, come out.”
Introduction. We begin this week with the extraordinary vision given to the prophet Ezekiel of a valley of dry bones, relics of a vast defeated people of long ago. No one could be “more dead” than these people; yet the Living God can restore them to life whenever he wills to do so. In the same way he will raise up the people of Israel by breathing his Spirit into them. St Paul develops the concept of life in the Spirit, and of the Spirit living in us. And he reminds us that it is this very Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and will do the same for us. We finish this week with the fourth of the great stories around which the first half of St John’s gospel is structured. The Word of God reaches even those who lie entombed and brings new life to them.
Background. As I have continued to ponder these four great stories in the Fourth Gospel I have become more and more convinced that they are to be understood as a short course (in today’s terms, perhaps, a mini-series) on spiritual growth. The similarities in style, structure and narrative technique have long been noted. Their symbolism, particularly the use of darkness and light, is another link; but the thing that clinches it for me is what I might call the gradation in the series, the increasing “degree of difficulty”, as we might put it.
We start with an intellectual discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. Yes, Nicodemus is challenged very strongly to change his thinking, but not really much more than that. The woman at the well is challenged to do the same, but in her case the challenge becomes much more personal. She is “fully seen and fully known” by Jesus, in a way that has never happened to her before; and in that process she is fully revealed to herself. If spirituality is in part about being true to ourselves, then this encounter is a bigger, deeper step onwards from that between Jesus and Nicodemus. In terms of today’s theme, Nicodemus is called out of his rationalism and conviction that his faith can be developed exclusively through further study and thought. The woman at the well is called out of her present self-understanding, out of the role imposed on her by her culture, the neighbours, and the succession of men who have used (and probably abused) her over the years. She is called to a new vision, a new recognition of her true dignity and worth as a human being, so that she no longer needs to lead the lie others have imposed on her for so long. Jesus has revealed to her the divine truth about himself so that she can see the divine truth about herself.
There’s something else here, too, I think, beginning to develop in this series. The whole encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus remains private, between just the two of them, from start to finish. In this second story with the woman at the well we start to see the wider implications of the encounter. The disciples are drawn into the story in a way that shows that they are just as much entangled in their cultural prison as the woman is herself. And, of course, at the end of the story the woman who was probably ignored or even despised by her neighbours is transformed into an evangelist of great persuasive power. The healing of the woman leads to the healing of her neighbourhood.
The third encounter, the one between Jesus and the man born blind, takes us yet further along these different tracks. In one sense we can now see the increase in the degree of difficulty applies to Jesus’ actions. With Nicodemus Jesus “spars” intellectually with a learned man; with the woman at the well he shows prophetic insight into the personal history and circumstances of the woman; and then he restored the sight of a man born blind. It would be easy to overlook the degree of difficulty now experienced by that man, compared to that faced by Nicodemus and by the woman at the well. This man has always been dependent on others; he is still, it seems, in the care of his parents. He has known no other reality, and expected no other reality for the rest of his life. But now, suddenly, he moves from blindness to sight, from reliance on others to independence, and perhaps for the first time he experiences open criticism and aggression.
And we see how widely the ripples reach out from this encounter. The impaired vision of the disciples is there from the very beginning of this story; the crowds cannot agree among themselves as to what has happened, much less how it has happened. And, of course, the religious experts are driven into paroxysm of fury. The man has not only be called out of blindness, but also out of years of fantasy and wishful thinking and a false belief in how wonderful the world would be if only he could see. He is shown the truth of the human condition; but he is also shown the truth of Jesus’ identity. It is in the light of that truth, that he is empowered to begin his new, very different life.
And this week we have this extraordinary finale of our miniseries. Lazarus is quite literally called out of his tomb into the presence of Jesus himself. What is this story about? Again we are given at least some of the context in which this encounter takes place, some of it more implicit than explicit. What sort of life was Lazarus leading before he took ill and died? Was he perhaps entombed in that life, a comfortable no-risk existence looked after (grudgingly or otherwise) by his two sisters? Were all three of them co-dependent, as we might put it today? Certainly this story shows Jesus at “his Father’s work” with the sisters just as much as with their brother. In fact, Lazarus speaks not one word in this long narrative. He is the passive one; everybody else seems to have plenty to say and do. Is this story about Lazarus, or is it about all of us who are entombed in some sense or another?
And again we can see that the “degree of difficulty” has increased from the previous story, not only in the obvious sense of bringing a dead man back to life, but in the sense that Lazarus is called out of his old, comfortable, limited life into the true freedom of a child of God. I find myself thinking again of the paralytic at the pool whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” Did Lazarus want to be made well? Did he want to be called out by Jesus?
Which gets me to one last general thought. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the word “ecclesia” means “those who are called out”. Originally it had a political meaning; people were called out to be members of the council or ruling body. But I like the idea of remembering that Christians are those whom Jesus, “in a loud voice”, has called out of whatever entombed life we may have created for ourselves, or been imprisoned in by others, into the fullness of life always intended by God for all his creatures.
Ezekiel. I doubt whether the Book of Ezekiel is anyone’s favourite book of the Bible; and if it is I rather hope I never meet that person. But this story has got it all – including an insidious soundtrack that has invaded my mind from the Black and White Minstrel Show, or something of that ilk, so that I can’t read this passage without hearing “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones”! [And now you can hear it, can’t you?] It is clearly presented (in verse 1) as a “vision” or a “spiritual experience”, not a literal report sent back by a party of archaeologists or palaeontologists. And just in case we miss that point, and the constant reference to God speaking to Ezekiel (the mortal), the analogical significance of the vision is made clear in verses 11-14. The whole passage is a wonderful assertion of the creative, restorative, healing power of God, drawing perhaps on the story of the creation of Adam from the dust of the earth, and looking ahead to the resurrection to come. Is it embarrassingly naive for modern tastes? At Warrington, we walk through the graveyard to get to St Barnabas Church, in which we affirm our belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, and we are not at all embarrassed to do so.
Taking It Personally.
- At one level this valley can be seen as an image of hopelessness. Can there be any hope left in such a situation? That is essentially the question God puts to the prophet, whose answer is remarkable. We might expect the answer to be “No”. But the prophet rules nothing in or out, leaving the answer to God. What does that tell us about facing a “hopeless” situation?
- Can you recall experiencing “utter hopelessness? How did you get through it? Is hopelessness ever objectively real, or is it a label we use to describe our feelings about something?
- If God is real, can there ever be a situation that is truly hopeless?
Romans. St Paul draws the distinction between the physical and the spiritual aspects of our human life. He reminds us that the Spirit of Christ (the Holy Spirit) dwells in us; and, even more importantly, he reminds that that this Spirit is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. We have that Spirit, that power of resurrection, living in us NOW; and it is on that basis that we can be assured NOW of eternal life.
Romans. For some reason, as I read this little passage a vision came into mind of a plain weatherboard cottage sandwiched between two towering, important buildings. We might be inclined not to notice this reading, overshadowed as it might seem by the famous vision of the first lesson, and that magnificent story in the gospel reading. But that would be sad: this little passage goes to the very heart of our Christian faith, and St Paul pulls no punches. The Holy Spirit is not a sort of optional extra, to be acknowledged on the Day of Pentecost, but then put back on the shelf for the rest of the year. The Holy Spirit is the means by which the Father and the Son gather us up and bring us into the unity of the Holy Trinity.
Taking It Personally.
- Read slowly and prayerfully through this passage.
- Give thanks for indwelling Spirit of Christ. When are you most aware of the Spirit dwelling within you? When are you least aware?
- Ponder verse 6. Are we too much concerned with physical health (our own and that of others) and not concerned enough about spiritual health? When did you last go to your doctor? When did you last talk to anyone about your spiritual well-being?
John. All the elements we have seen in the first three stories are here again. Once again the disciples seem no closer to understanding Jesus than anyone else. There is another, strange enigmatic “explanation” from Jesus about the real purpose of Lazarus’ illness (verse 4), similar to the response he gave to the disciples’ question about the “cause” of the man’s blindness from birth. We see Jesus and the disciples talking past each other: Mary and Martha seemingly knowing the theology, but not able to believe it can apply in practice. Perhaps the new bits are the most appealing: Jesus weeps with those who are grieving; and Martha’s wonderful warning about the stench likely to come out of the tomb keeps everyone grounded! (Jesus might be the resurrection and the life, but dead bodies still smell awful by the fourth day!) And what a climax to the story! “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Taking It Personally.
- A perfect story for the use of imaginative prayer. Put yourself in the scene; listen; watch; experience. Monitor your feelings, particularly when Lazarus emerges.
- We can be entombed in many ways; by our fears, by our personal history, by the expectations of others, by our beliefs and convictions. What is your tomb made of?
- Now hear Jesus call to you in a loud voice, [your name], come out! How will you respond? And then the words Unbind him/her, and let him/her go. Are you willing?