5th Sunday of Lent
There’s a saying that good teachers first tell you what they’re going to do, then they do it, and then they tell you what they’ve done. That’s what the Lord does in the readings this morning. First he tells us through the prophet Ezekiel, “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live”. Then in the Gospel Jesus opens the grave of Lazarus and has Lazarus rise from it so that he may live. Then Our Teacher tells us what we can know from what he’s done: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”.
Actually, Jesus teaches us not one but two things when he says, “I am the resurrection and the life”. One is that resurrection and life are not just for the future; they are in the present. And the other is that resurrection and life become ours through union with Christ.
The first point in Jesus’ lesson plan for us this morning is that resurrection and life are not just future blessings; they are present. When Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise”, she answered (perhaps somewhat wearily), “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day”. As if to say, “Thank you very much, Lord, but I already knew that there will be a last day when everybody will rise again, including my brother Lazarus. But that’s a pretty long way off: how am I supposed to live in the meantime?”
Jesus tells Martha that he’s not talking about some far-off event. He’s talking about his own living Person, whom she knew, and saw, and trusted: “Rising again? And life? That’s Me”. And everyone who belongs to him is uninjured by death, and has in Christ a present and continuous life. Now.
If we take him both seriously and literally, Christ must not be thinking of immortality as we usually do. For him, the idea of immortality is bound up with the idea of life. Life is a present thing, happening now, and it continues just as God continues to exist. So Christ talks about life rather than immortality; a present blessing, not a future one; a life which will not end in death, but which will be as permanent as God, because united with the living God.
Christ thinks of eternal life not as a future continuation to be measured by millennia, but as a present life, to be measured by its depth. He’s talking about quality of life, not length of life. A life which is prolonged without being deepened by union with the living God is not a blessing. Life with God, and in God, is immortal by definition; life without God, Christ does not call “life” at all.
As evidence of this present continued life, Lazarus was raised from the grave, and shown to be still alive. No doubt Lazarus, like everyone else, will undergo that change which we call death. He will become disconnected from this vale of tears, but his life in Christ will not be interrupted. Worms may destroy his mortal body, but not his new life. That life is hidden with Christ in God, because united to the undying Source of all existence. That’s why Cistercians honor Saint Lazarus on July 29, along with his sisters Martha and Mary.
The other lesson for this morning is that eternal life is the kind of life that Christ gives to all who believe in him. St Paul expresses the mind of Christ (as Christ knew he would, when he knocked him off his horse) in the reading from Romans this morning: “If Christ is in you”, he says, then “the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you”.
Those who have learned to obey Christ’s voice in life will recognize it when they sleep in death. They will have discovered for themselves that it has the power to raise them out of spiritual death, and so it can also raise them from bodily death to a more abundant life than this world can give, for all the immortality projects that are floating around.
Maybe we once felt as if nothing could deliver us. We were dead, deaf to Christ’s commands, bound by bonds which we thought would hold us till we rotted away. We were buried out of sight of all that could give spiritual life. But Christ’s love sought us out and called us into life. Since we know that we are alive with a new life given by Christ and nourished by his Body and Blood, we know that the grave will be a temporary resting place.
For nothing in the present, nor anything still to come, can ever separate us from a love which has already shown that it is stronger than death.