5th Sunday of Lent, Year A

Readings

Jesus just raised a man from the dead. And there is no doubt that this man was dead. He was not sleeping, he was not comatose, he was dead. His body would have been cold, and people are not stupid. Even had Jesus left immediately, he would still have arrived two days after Lazarus died. Add in the two where he dilly-dallied, and by the time Jesus was there, everyone knew that Lazarus was really, actually, and truly dead.

It is incredible and extraordinary that Jesus rose a man from the dead! The Jews certainly thought so, and if we were to see Jesus do it, we would think so, too! It is unheard of. And yet, I am going to spend the rest of this homily trying to convince you that it ultimately doesn’t matter.

Argument Number One: Lazarus ends up dying again. We don’t think about that much. Martha and Mary are mourning and weeping in this story, and then Lazarus gets raised, and we all rejoice. But a few years later, the scene will repeat itself. Lazarus will die. Martha and Mary will weep. And Jesus will not be around to raise Lazarus a second time.

So if Lazarus is just going to die again, why would Jesus raise him in the first place? Let’s consult the words of Jesus himself: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” And to his disciples: “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To “glorify the Son of God”. “That you may believe”. It seems that, according to Jesus himself, this miracle is supposed to help us believe that Jesus, the Son of God, has power over life and death.

Okay, fine. Argument Number Two: Death. Just a few weeks ago, I had to do a funeral for a 26-year-old woman who finally succumbed to an auto-immune disease that she had been battling since childhood. She was young, joyful, vibrant, and a perfect candidate for Jesus to raise from the dead, for another few decades of life. And yet he did not. We all know somehow who has died before their time, like Lazarus had, so if Jesus has power over sin and death, why does he not use it? What’s the point of showing it off in today’s Gospel if we are not going to benefit from it?

But if we believe that God is good and loving, AND HE IS, and we believe that Jesus has power over life and death, AND HE DOES, there has got to be something that we are missing here.

Enter our second reading. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Now be careful with St. Paul, here. He is not a dualist. When he says “flesh”, he means all those things opposed to God or corrupted by sin, and when he says “spirit”, he means all those things enlivened by God. Even so, we might infer from St. Paul here a deep truth about our salvation in Jesus Christ: it seems that God has chosen to save us in the spirit, and not, at least immediately, in the flesh. This is why, even though Christ has saved us, each and every one of us still dies. And why we still experience illness and old age and all of the other corruptions of the body. God did not save us by removing the flaws of the physical world, including death. He saved us, instead, by giving us his own divine life.

Here is St. Paul again: “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” What he is saying here is essential. St. Paul is saying that, even though we still suffer from disease and death, our true source of life is now in the spirit. To say it another way, Christ has conquered death, but in a way that we never expected. Not by patching up our first source of life, the body, but by giving us a second source of life, the spirit, which is far more powerful and infinitely more life-giving that the first. Jesus conquered death by giving us the spirit of God.

Once more from St. Paul: “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” We can read this in two ways. The first is eschatological: at the end of time, at the Resurrection of the Body, those who allow the Spirit of God to dwell in them will be given a new and glorified body, freed from disease and death. Yes, true. But I think St. Paul is also referring to the here and now, in addition to the hereafter. If you allow the Spirit of God to dwell in you, then he can give life even to your mortal bodies. He can give you grace and comfort and peace even as you face illness or death. Jesus has power over life and death because he can give life even in the midst of death.

All of this is to say that, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the fact that a man came out of his tomb was ultimately meaningless, because Jesus just gave him back his first, flawed, fleshly life. What mattered is that, by raising Lazarus, many people came to believe in Jesus, and these people were given the Spirit of God, and it is the Spirit of God that can give true, pure, and unending life. Jesus did conquer death that day, but he conquered far more than just the death of Lazarus.

So, finally, we have to ask ourselves a question. Do we feel free from the power and oppression of death? Do we actually feel that freedom? We are all baptized. We all have the Spirit of God dwelling in us, a spirit that was strengthen in our Confirmations and is enlivened each time we receive the Eucharist. But have we allowed this Spirit to conquer death in us? See, we all experience death every day. For some of us it is the actual loss of a loved one, but for so many of us it is actually a marriage on the rocks or an unfulfilling job or financial difficulties. Each of these is a form of death, all the more painful because it lasts for so long. But Jesus has shown us today that he has the power to destroy death by giving us life through the Spirit. The Spirit of God is more powerful than death! Pray for the Spirit of God in your lives! Pray to be open to his presence, to allow him to conquer these deaths in you. God wants to heal you, but you have to let him in; you have to open up and let him do the work.

Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Everyone who lives and believes in him will never die. Let him know that you are sick. Ask him to come heal you. And don’t worry if it seems to take a couple of days before he shows up.

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