On the way to Easter – Lent 5

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37.1-14
Psalm 130
Romans 8.6-11
John 11.1-45

In our journey towards Easter we have seen that Christ is anointed and made king by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has brought us into the communion and body of Christ, so that we are anointed with him and he with us. We have seen that Christ is our universal human-to-human mediator. He is the one who can hear and receive all other humans. The question to us is whether we are ready to receive through him the whole human race and created order as the gifts of God. Christ makes himself present only in this disguised form, so that our freedom to receive this life from him, or not to receive it, is entirely ours.

Consequently man is a mystery that cannot be controlled. It is not just man’s present, defined by the limits of our imagination, but his future that God has at heart here. God is guardian of our freedom: he does not let us give it away. We have seen man wrestle with the question of his own identity. We have seen this wrestling spelled out to us in terms of the accuser wrestling in the wilderness with Christ, Israel wrestling with Moses, Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well wrangling with Christ about where life can be accessed. Through these are many different encounters, we have seen man wrestling with the dark figure of his own future. This future is life with God. This week Lazarus anticipates Israel – All Israel will be raised and the Church will be raised.

In this last talk we will bring together some of these themes by looking again at the readings for the last Sunday of Lent. Our old and New Testament readings, from Ezekiel and John tell us about this resurrection. We will start with Ezekiel.

The hand of the LORD came upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…

I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.’ Ezekiel 37.1-14

Scattered across the valley floor lies all humanity. All human hopes are there. There lies Adam, and Abraham and David. There lie all previous generations and scattered amongst them all the Christians of all generations of the Church. The passing of time seems to bury everyone indifferently. And though we are momentarily alive to one another, you and I shall very soon join the rest, buried in history, to be regarded as dead and gone to the generations that follow us. God asks the prophet – do you think they have a future? Do they want a future? Only God knows, Ezekiel replies

But the Lord breathes into this world. More than that, God allows man to participate in this extraordinary event. So God tells Ezekiel to breathe and to speak to this world of dead bodies. As he speaking the words of life he breathes the Spirit of life into them and all these forgotten generations will stand up and live again and breathe again.

What is Paul’s response to this?

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. (Romans 8.6-11)

Finally in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John we have the long account of Jesus going to. Here we see the story of the garden of Eden in reverse, or reversed. Adam is dead and with him are all our hopes – but he is now brought to life.

A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Jesus began to weep.

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ (John 11.1-45)

If God can raise even one little Israelite, he can reverse death. Now the resurrection of Lazarus is only a parabolic demonstration of the power of God. The parable tells us that death is itself a god, a vicious little god, entirely parasitic on man. But if there are two Gods here, the God of Israel on one hand and ‘Death’ on the other. The question is simply which of them is the more powerful. Can the God of Israel can break the bonds put on Israel by Death? The answer is, that he can, if you want him to, if we ask him to. He does not force himself on us. He wants to know if we want life, that is, to have life, in his company, freely. All human hopes are played here by Israel, and Israel is played by Lazarus. Death is played by himself – the same figure we met in the first week of Lent as the serpent who personified the doubts of all creation and the Accuser, who was determined that God’s hopes for man could not possibly become true.

Christ’s conversation with all Israel is immediate. That they are dead and gone for us does not mean that they are dead to him. He can call and – if they wish – they can answer, and so rise, even from the dead. From transfiguration we see that Elijah and Moses are Christ’ lieutenants, who along with all the other patriarchs and prophets are always by him, though they are invisible to us. God can summon them, and they can obey him, and break death: nothing, no matter how dead, can resist the call and enabling power of God, as long as we wish to receive it.

II Past and bodies
There are, we might say, two ways of regarding each person we meet. We can regard them as individual or as a person. Behind the man or woman we meet we know that there is a larger body made up of their past. Each person has a hinterland, represented by the great number of other relationships. Our bodies are constituted by past events, the outcome of which is not yet fully knowable, for we may always take one another by surprise.

The Christian confession that we are body and soul suggests that we really can know one another (because we are present to one another as our bodies), but that we are not exhaustibly known to one another, because I can only grasp your present, not your past or future. Christians remember that many people make up the past. We are aware that they have prayed before us and they still pray. But none of the past is finally past. Christ has the power to make the persons of our past, the persons of our future: the resurrection of the dead is a transfer out of the past to unconfined life. Christ with the Spirit gives us a place in the communion of saints.

God seeks us. He does so for our sake, not for his. Because he is truly himself, independent of any relationship he has with us, he is able to give us the recognition that establishes us. If Christ thinks we are worth going out to search for and bringing home, then we are indeed so. If he is finally there to receive us, then we will indeed finally have life. As long as he is intent on us, we will exist. Since there are no constraints on him, or on his ability to pull us together and sustain us in being, we will have life without limit or end. Only the Father can recognise who the Son brings home, and call them by name with enough authority finally to settle who they are. While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and, filled with compassion, ran to him (Luke 15.20). If God comes to collect us, we exist. If he comes to collect the living and the dead, for the dead are not dead to him. The Holy Spirit brings us together in Christ to recognise the Father, and so to say that he, and no other, is the one who can do this – he has authority, he is Lord.

But doctrine that is Christian teaches that Christ is always with the Holy Spirit. He belongs to the Holy Spirit, and may only be known within that community that the Spirit sanctifies for the purpose. Then Christ cannot be isolated because he cannot be separated from the whole people of God. We have received our knowledge of what it is to be human, from Christ. Now we cannot detach that knowledge from Christ or from the present life of his body, or from the worship, sacraments and gifts and offices of the Church. The saints and teachers of the Church are not dead, because the Holy Spirit has pressed them into our service, and they are made good for us now. Each of the teachers recognised by the Church represents a bundle of skills which we need. They are Christ’s skills, and the teachers of the Church are the mode in which Christ allows us to learn to use them. The Spirit has to dispense the teaching of the Church to us through slow process of our sanctification: this teaching is not so much inert data, but the mind of Christ for the world now. It is not mediated as either as contextless data or skills, but by dedicated relationships with persons sanctified for the job. The resurrection of the dead, that is being supplied to us in this imperceptible way, is the communion of saints.

III Raised to freedom
It is not simply Christ’s (divine) exercise of power that saves us, but his power exercised in service that allows freedom. He exercises his freedom in waiting for each one of us. The endless reserves of the Holy Spirit enable Christ to wait, specifically, for you, and for me. Christ can make the choice freely at each moment, whether he is indeed willing and ready to be for us, individually, so that we may indeed become particular and unique creatures. So he also waits until each of us decides that we will follow. We are confined by our mortality. We have to want to be free of death and so pray to exchange one master, death, for the other, Christ. So the Holy Spirit enables to call Christ. Because Christ holds out this life and gives each of us all the time we need to take it from him, it is not an unilateral imposition. We do not lose our identity it in accepting it, but rather we gain our identity, for in time his act for us becomes our act too.

The Spirit assists Christ with this long wooing so he is able to outlast the resistance each of us puts up. He waits for us to consent to receive Christ and with him our salvation. Subordinating himself to everyone of us, the Holy Spirit makes the communion of God visible here on earth, by faith. The Spirit makes this communion present as many persons who, being sanctified by him as his witnesses, can never be absorbed into the world. The difference of the Church from the world, is essential for the world. It is the act by however God prepares the world for its future, for this sanctified plurality, the Church, is the foretaste of the future plurality of the world.

Though we may all be situated in history, in-turned, dead to one another, we are not trapped in it for we are not secure from the call of God; we will be raised and brought to face one another, both with those we wanted to avoid and those we assumed were dead and gone and could not be raised. Nothing in all creation has the power to remain dead before God. We will yet become human, for with much more patience that we can imagine, our resurrection is waiting for us.

Our life here is the holy life. If we are holy the world will see it. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes the Church holy, and only the holiness of the Christian people can hold out to the world what it does not yet have. If we do not feast on the whole Word and power of God we let down our society, and are too weak and confused to be able to help them for whom we have been put here. But if we tune out the noises of the world for a bit, we will hear heaven, which is all the earth wants to hear.

The life-work of the saints is not established until we have grasped for ourselves what they want to give us. They not only know something that we don’t know, but they know something about us and have something for us that we don’t yet know and don’t yet have. They tell us that we do not have to establish ourselves or create an identity for ourselves in the face of the world. Our identity is given by God who has a far higher view of us than we have of ourselves. All the people amongst whom I will find my identity, are gifts given by God, and we must receive them as such. Each person, in particular each saint, brings us some part of this good gift of God to us, and with it some part of our very own identity. By the faithfulness of this company of witnesses the gospel has dropped into our lap.

But when we allow that our predecessors in the Christian faith have been faithful, and have handed on to us a fair representation of the faith of Jesus Christ and his apostles, an extraordinary adventure opens up to us. But of all people how has this extraordinary thing come to us so we find ourselves here, saying and singing these things, that God has spoken and speaks now to us? Why us? How do we get to call God ‘Father’? It is not obvious that God is Father. We call God this because only because Jesus did.

‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me’ (John 11.41-42) .

‘Father’ is a name, and part of the name ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. This non-transferable name relates to the narration of the event of Israel and Jesus. Their story reveals this complex name. It must always disturb us that the name of God is so odd. All the pressure is to look round for another less controversial, less unilateral name, one on which we can all agree. But …

God has named us and called us. He gives us life and breath as we participate in his calling and naming by which all things come into existence, and in that hearing and replying by we recognise and learn to love one another. This God called us first – he called us into love and existence. We do not exist before love, for it is love that brings us into being. All love friendship, relationship and good order are derived from the friendship that God is to us.

This love comes with its own definition. It is not for us to give love its definition. If it was down to us to fill this love with meaning that it did not have, it would not be love, but be a new law that we would have to keep, and this would not be kind, but another imperative to our narcissism, autonomy and tyranny. This love is not controllable by us.

Since Jesus Christ is the full definition of the love of God, he safeguards the mystery of human life. Because of him only I may not presume that I already know you, know what you use you are, and define, manage, manipulate and control you because if I do, it will inevitably towards ends that focus around me. The Christian confession that I am not a god myself, you and I are gifts of God to one another, means that this God, who has called you into existence-and-fellowship will protect you from me, and all my attempts to make your existence revolve around me, are vain.

That the only name that can protect us from one another is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has to be taught and learned, just like all the rest of this faith. Use of this name, might put some people against us, and we who confess it in public worship do so with our hearts in our mouths. But that is just as it should be. Not everyone knows this, or agrees with this, or likes this. It is not too obvious to need saying and that is why we have to say it, and that is why we gather here, to be faithful witnesses in our turn, who give thanks to God for all that exists.

IV The Spirit and worship
We said that Christ is the whole Christ, and so we may not divide Christ up into content and affect, or into theory and practice, or into worship and social outreach.

The worship and confession of God is the first concern of the Church. Only its involvement in this worship that makes the Church holy and therefore gives it something that it can offer to the world. What it can offer is the freedom and reason of God. Christ does the work here and we are his passengers. We do not know or comprehend or control Christ or his worship. But this worship and liturgy generates all our public activity. Our activity is just a particular expression of the liturgy of Christ. When we are dispatched into the work and its weekday activities it is not because the worship service has ended. The liturgy does not come to an end, but always carries on above our heads. But we are made into that liturgy so that worship and service can enter each of the weekday environments and there be the whole truth of God and his people and their worship. Each of us is the whole singing congregation, in miniature, and we continue to sing to God.

All our outreach is the work of the Holy Spirit who hides and glorifies Christ and conceals and reveals us in it. He alone knows who we are and therefore what the end of activity is. Our activism and weekday life flows out of that cup. The Spirit allows us to come to know one another in freedom and without coercion.

The Spirit frees us for one another and set us down before one another. He does so by an act of power. He is almighty and he uses that might in a patience which can be broken or out-lasted. Due to his patience we will finally be freely content to be free and freely in communion with one another. We may not set the power and the love of God in contrast or play down the power of God, for it is the power of the resurrection, that is his ability to separate us from evil and redeem us.

The secular ‘theology’ that animates our society, and promotes activism over worship, sees Christ as the old and the Spirit as the new. It contrasts Christ as the past and the Spirit as the future. It assumes that we always have to move on, to whatever is ‘new’, by which it means give up on the past, and abandon all human history and life as a failed experiment. But the past and the future are held together by the Spirit and cannot be divided and set against one another like this. If we separate the future from the present we make the present of no account, just as though it were all a vast mistake and a huge waste. But God’s effort and our human will not be waste. It will be redeemed. The present will be raised and the present and the future will be aspects of the life and communion of God – so we are indeed finally present to another and always open and future to one another – because there is more to discover. It is based on the belief that Christ acted in the past. Now his action is no longer live but is borne away from us by time.

V Eucharist
We said that we may not divide Christ from his people, the head from the body. He is the spring and head-waters from which the whole Church flows, and he is our captain and leader. He considers his people to be part of himself, so that when we see the Church, we see him. Of course the Church is a dark parable of that future glory, but nonetheless that future disguises itself for us in this way. Only if this is so has Christ actually made any difference down here on the ground. Only because the Christ on the ground, the visible and institutional Church, is Christ, and is the fact that God has confronted all humankind.

These Lent talks have pointed to the gathered community of God’s people. It is the whole Christian body that says these things, and it does so in every act of Christian worship, breathing the Spirit of life, just as Ezekiel was told instructed to do for the scattered bodies of Israel. This worship will raise these generations and sustain them in life without end.

I have been quoting some of the words which the Church says and which you say, every time you meet together in worship of God. We say these words together in our public eucharistic assembly every Sunday morning – remember each Sunday is an Easter. We say it out loud so the whole world can hear. We bring to the world the voices of those it has not heard. We have said that there is no gap between Christian worship and Christian action. Worship is not theory and practice.

The whole story of the coming of man to God that has been sketched out for us through these readings. The whole story is set out for us again in the readings for Palm Sunday, in the form of Jesus entrance to Jerusalem. The Lord takes on all other earthly powers, gives himself to them and is seized by them, overcomes them and then up the rule of God. the passion of Jesus is the form the ascent of man to God takes. The story is repeated again in the readings of the Easter vigil that take us through to Easter morning. Nine readings that take us from Genesis (creation, Abraham and Isaac) through Exodus, through Ezekiel again to Zephaniah, alternated with psalms and canticles. They end on this from Matthew (28) – ‘After the Sabbath as the first day was dawning there was a great earthquake for the angel of the lord descended from heaven came and rolled back the stone. The angel said to the women Do not be afraid Jesus who was crucified is raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you.’

Our resurrection is waiting for us, and with it the resurrection of the whole world. It is our extraordinary privilege to be witnesses to this, and this is why we look forward to every time we say ‘Christ is risen’. Alleluia, Come Lord Jesus.