Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
We all remember during the Cold War and the commentaries on the space exploration adventures of the Americans and the Russians. The Americans told us about the astronauts, their homes, careers and of course in great detail – so far as it was telegenic – the details of the mission.
Soviet Russian commentaries were more prosaic – generally on the lines that the systems were “Functioning normally.” It was as if they had launched into space an assemblage of frames, panels and circuits and, together with the odd life-form, and it did not really matter whether this was a cabbage, a dog or a cosmonaut. They did of course feel for their space personnel as deeply as anyone else, but this was concealed behind a mask of cold and clinical objectivity. They might of course have been right in avoiding the media circus, but that is another matter.
Our readings, however, also present us with the tension between life and normal functioning.
In Ezekiel, the prophet describes how he was set down in a valley of dry bones and was asked whether they could live. After an evasive answer, the Lord says, more or less: “Well, watch” and the bones came together to form a great army.
But the question remained: are these alive? They might move and function but did they live? This time, Ezekiel was commanded to summon the breath of God to indwell each person – and only then were they really alive.
Life was more than having bones and organs that fitted together with the correct nerves and sinews. It was about breath – seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, thinking, knowing, believing, loving. The whole person had to be there in order to live and that meant all organs and all capabilities of the human soul.
For Jesus, the life and death of His friend Lazarus were also matters of intimate personal concern, so much so that he drew Lazarus into His revelation of Himself, and for this reason delayed going to him and so Jesus permitted Lazarus to die.
In this sense, Jesus was treating Lazarus with great honour and respect, as He allowed Lazarus’ illness to point to something far greater than he could have imagined.
It is not as if Jesus could not raise the dead and had not done so. He had raised the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7: 11 – 16) and He had raised the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8: 41 – 56), but these raisings had taken place on the day that these had died or on the day following. Normally the dead were buried within a day of their deaths in order to avoid local contamination by decomposing bodies.
By this time, Lazarus was dead beyond recall. His death was more than a coma or unconsciousness and in the understanding of the time, an interval of this kind meant that he was far beyond resuscitation through prayer. The soul of the departed was regarded as being wholly within the realm of Sheol and beyond the power of prayer or good works.
To raise Lazarus at this point therefore was to demonstrate that Jesus was far more than just another rabbi or prophet. Jesus’ person and ministry and authority were of a wholly different order, and His task was far more than good works or sound moral teaching.
Jesus did not just have life: He was life. He did not just live: He was life personified. His body did not just exist or function, but was filled with the Holy Spirit who empowered Him for the work of His ministry.
And that work meant pointing beyond what the people already knew to what they could never have guessed and yet which, when pointed out, was so obvious.
For Jesus, life was more than existence or the absence of death. It was power and authority over death itself. Whereas in human eyes, death was the final denial and absurdity, in Jesus it was a translation and an interval in the providence and grace of God.
What been committed in the Garden of Eden, Jesus would undo in Himself. The choices made freely in that Garden would be reversed, first as Jesus wrestled with His mission in the Garden of Gethsemane, and finally on the cross.
But Paul points to something more than the resurrection of the dead, in that he speaks not so much of life after death as life before death.
The life lived to self, motivated by fashion and passing emotion, driven by bodily appetite and blind social conformity is already dead. It may have some passing satisfaction and even amusement and it may be able to summon some kind of intellectual coherence within its own parameters, but it is essentially over before it has begun.
On the other hand the life lived within the province of Jesus Christ, and filled and empowered by His Spirit is something else.
It now has a different kind of motivation and sense of being and belonging. The life that we have is intended to be brought to completion and significance by the person of Jesus, indwelling each disciple, who is led deeper and deeper into the purposes and mysteries of God.
Now it is defined by the holiness and justice and majesty of God, and is not under the condemnation of corruption or compromise. It is open to life of a wholly new kind, seeking to give and to forgive, and to do and to be what in itself it could not imagine or aspire to being.
This is the life that Jesus came to bestow. It is not always free of tension as we encounter the stresses between what we are used to and what we now belong to. It still faces questions and doubts and even temptations, yet we are all called into this realm by the gift and calling of God rather than what we can deserve or earn.
But then this kind of life is also the outworking of that kind of love: it has no limit is giving, and it knows no limit in serving.