Fr. Gregory – Homily of Sunday 29th March – 5th Sunday of Lent, A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Ps 129(130); Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45
The theme uniting all of today’s readings is resurrection. Ezekiel’s prophecy is directed to those who are enslaved in exile, who feel abandoned, bereft of family, kin and community, as isolated as the dead. To those in these depths Ezekiel speaks a vision of new life and restoration, of coming home.
It is important to see that this describes a vision of what will or can happen to us, here and now. In reading this passage with prisoners, often struggling with addictions to alcohol or other substances, often struggling to rebuild dying family relationships, or to be able to let go those that had ended – often not by their choice – Ezekiel’s vision of hope resonated powerfully, more so it seemed in that context than in our own, busier and more preoccupied, perhaps. Yet we too can often be in a moribund state – feeling isolated, or trapped by our haunting sense that we could have done otherwise; yet still feeling unable to change, to let go of what has gone wrong and dare a new beginning, to be stuck in an unhappy situation in a kind of death-like passivity. We need to be reminded that the Lord has put his spirit in us, and calls us to life.
In the story of Lazarus we see this call dramatized through Jesus’ actions. Yet Jesus pauses, not responding immediately to Martha and Mary’s appeal, so that through this God, and his Son, will be glorified. The disciples misunderstand, typically: by this point in John’s story of Jesus, as in the other gospels, his final approach to Jerusalem occurs against ever-growing resistance from his opponents. And Bethany, home of Lazarus and his sisters, is a scant two miles from Jerusalem. So Thomas’ pessimistic conviction that they go to die with Jesus isn’t so much fear of contagion, like that which now afflicts us, but rather of arrest and execution.
When Jesus arrives first Martha then Mary make a spontaneous confession of faith, in the same words ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. Mary is stuck in her grief, and that draws a compassionate response from Jesus; Martha who in this account seems the more hard-headed of the two also asserts her faith that Jesus can get whatever he wants from God, but when Jesus commands that the stone sealing the tomb be taken away she seems to revile from this ‘he will smell’. Jesus again affirms his identity with God ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ … ‘if you believe you will see the glory of God’ prays that the Father will hear his prayer for the sake of all those around the tomb, and calls Lazarus forth. And he comes, still bound in grave-clothes with a cloth over his face, and Jesus says to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free’.
Unbind him, let him go free. This sums up what we are hoping for in this holy season of Lent, that we might be set free from all that binds us, from all that holds us in the death of fear, shame, and sin, and freely go into life with God. That is what Paul means when he tells the young churches in Rome that if ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your bodies through his Spirit living in you.’ Yet there is in the detail here a distinction here between resuscitation and resurrection. Lazarus comes forth, responding even in death to the call of the One who gives life, but is still hindered by his funeral garments. In the resurrection of Jesus, which this foreshadows, the women will find the tomb empty on Easter day, but with the shroud and the folded face-cloth left behind. Lazarus is resuscitated, not resurrected, because resurrection, being lifted up into sharing God’s life awaits the outpouring of God’s holy Spirit by Jesus in his resurrection, into which, by the Spirit’s gift, we are caught up.
The story ends on a high note: many believed in him. But a little later we read, with typical Johannine irony, that the restored Lazarus’ life is in danger, as is Jesus’, by Jesus’ opponents wishing to destroy both the man and his message. At first they will appear to succeed, but God’s triumphant call to life eclipses the worst humans can do and establishes the resurrection, opens for us the possibility of sharing in God’s life through the Spirit of the risen Lord. God’s glory is shown by this – as St Irenaeus of Lyons said about 200 years later, ‘the glory of God is a human fully alive’ – fully alive in God’s Spirit, living a life orientated to God. Will we answer that call to life, or rather cling to the shadows of the tomb?