Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 10, 2011 – St. John’s
The theme of resurrection lights from within each of the readings we have just heard. It is almost as if the Church cannot wait for Easter, that in our hearts we are already celebrating Christ’s resurrection and our own.
The three verses we have heard from the prophet Ezekiel need to be read in context. They serve as a kind of commentary on the great vision the prophet has had of the valley of dry bones. He sees very dry and disconnected bones strewn across a plain, a symbol of Israel in exile, her children scattered like the bones of a defeated army on a battlefield. But Ezekiel is told to prophesy over the bones: “Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord… Behold I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” And the prophet then hears a rattling sound and watches the bones take on sinew and flesh and skin, and then, at the Lord’s command, he breathes on them, and they come alive, a great multitude.
This is the vision which our verses illumine. Hear them now: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel… I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land, and you will know that I am the Lord.” Resurrection here–the bones reknit and given life again–is a symbol of the gathering of Israel’s exiles from all parts and their return to their homeland. The symbol worked in the same way when it inspired the Negro spiritual, “Dry Bones,” which could be sung by the slaves in this country when their fate seemed worse even than Israel’s in exile, when there seemed no more possibility of their gaining their freedom than those dry bones had before Ezekiel prophesied.
An article written a century ago quoted from a former slave from Kentucky: “And the preacher he’d ‘splain the word and read where Ezekiel say: “Dry bones goin’ to live again.’ And honey, the Lord would come a-shining through them pages and revive this old heart, and I’d jump there and then and holler and shout and sing and pray, and they would all catch the words, and I’d sing to some old shout song or war song I’d heard them sing from Africa, and they’d all take up the tune and keep long at it, and each time they sing it they keep a-adding more and more verses to it, and then it would just naturally be‘spiritual.’” And we can gain a whole new sense of what it might have meant to slaves to hear that “dem bones” would one day reconnect, the toe bone to the foot bone to the heel bone to the ankle bone to the leg bone to the knee bone to the thigh bone to the hip bone to th’ backbone to the shoulder bone to the neck bone to the head bone. “Now hear the word of the Lord!”
Our two New Testament readings affirm that resurrection is, or at least, can be part of our present experience. Martha believes that there will be a resurrection on the last day, but Jesus assures her that a resurrected life has already begun: “I am resurrection and life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die at all.” Life that will never end has already begun; eternal life does not begin the other side of the grave; it begins here and now, has begun already.
That is also the point of the beautiful passage from the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, which is a hymn-like celebration of the victory of Christ over sin and death. Even while we continue in this mortal body, the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is already imparting that life to Christians. Paul employs here the contrast between living according to the flesh and living according to the Spirit. This is not a reference to the body and to the soul; it is a difference in how one lives one’s life, in both body and soul. Paul describes “the works of the flesh” in his Epistle to the Galatians (5:16-26). They include sexual immorality, idolatry, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, envy, drunkenness. To become a Christian is to rise, by the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead, to rise from the death that those works constitute into a life marked by “the fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-discipline. More than a few people have come to know that to enjoy such blessings, when compared to how they had been living, something very much like resurrection from the dead had to happen.
And if there are some who feel that they are still buried in that living death, dead living, then the mystery we are preparing to celebrate at Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead, should come as a great assurance. The metaphor of our resurrection into new life rests upon the reality of his conquest of death, which displays the measure of God’s power and provides the assurance that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead will give us a life that cannot die. There is a lovely prayer at the beginning of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians that surely he continues to pray for us: “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-glorious Father, may give you the spiritual powers of wisdom and vision by which there comes the knowledge of him. I pray that your inward eyes may be illumined, so that you may know what is the hope to which he calls you, what the wealth and glory of the share he offers you among his people in their heritage, and how vast the resources of his power open to us who trust in him. They are measured by his strength and the might which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph 1:17-19). That we may know what is the hope to which God calls us: surely that is what today’s readings seek to bring alive in us: hope for resurrection into a life that even death cannot destroy.