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5th Sunday of Lent

19 March 2020

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

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JOHN speaks of Jesus being “disturbed” on three occasions: here; at the grave of Lazarus, when he prophesies his own Passion; and at Judas’s betrayal. “These are moments when Jesus encounters the majesty of death and rubs against the might of darkness, which it is his task to wrestle with and overcome” (Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week).

The miracles of Jesus are signs of his overcoming that might. Each, however, is a partial and temporary victory. Lazarus, although raised by Christ, will die again. Like all of Jesus’s miracles, this foreshadows something greater: his paschal triumph over sin and death, and the new creation that it inaugurates. We receive the first-fruits of that new creation in the work of the Spirit and the life of the Church.

In his miracles and his paschal triumph, Jesus confronts us with good news, not merely moral exhortations. The Kingdom is a dawning reality: a divine gift, not a human achievement. Our calling is to receive and participate. It is only after their desertion and denial — only after he has been enthroned at Calvary — that Jesus’s disciples will understand this. Each Passiontide, we make their journey our own so that we can understand these truths at a new depth.

As we have seen in our readings from John’s Gospel this Lent, it is those who know the greatest vulnerability who are most receptive to this dawning reality of God’s Kingdom. That seems true of this family at Bethany, who are particularly close to Jesus. When they send for Jesus, the sisters describe Lazarus as “he whom you love”. Lazarus may have been profoundly disabled: he does not speak at any point in John’s Gospel, unlike the two unmarried sisters with whom he lives. As Jaime Clark-Soles explains, the use of the imperfect tense in verse 1 of our reading also suggests a chronic condition (“John” in Sarah Melcher et al., The Bible and Disability: A commentary).

Martha tells Jesus that she believes in the hope of an eternal future for her brother: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” In the miracle of raising Lazarus, she experiences the dawning of that future within human history. John’s narrative emphasises the materiality of the death as Martha exclaims, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” Jesus responds by proclaiming that his eternal Kingdom is about to become visible within our current existence: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

Precisely because it takes flesh within human history, the dawning of the Kingdom disturbs its hierarchies of status and power, provoking often violent resistance. The life that really is life opposes death and overcomes it. Not coincidentally, the reaction of earthly hierarchies is to put that life to death. It is Jesus’s raising of a man from the dead that makes the chief priests and Pharisees plot Jesus’s death, and we are later told that “the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well”, because the miracle of his raising was leading so many to faith. The Kingdom of God may be a gift, but it is costly to receive.

Our epistle also speaks of humanity’s resistance to the Kingdom: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.” As St Augustine explains, to have our minds set on the flesh is to idolise “lesser, transient goods”, which all “must some day be lost”. The tragedy of sin, exposed in those who plot Lazarus’s death, is that, in clinging to these lesser gifts, they reject the greatest gift of all.

Like the raising of Lazarus, Ezekiel’s vision in the valley of bones foretells the dawning of God’s new creation. It comes at a moment of utter desolation. Mary and Martha lament Jesus’s absence at the moment of greatest need. As the bones of Israel’s armies lie scattered in the valley, the Lord seems to have forgotten his people.

Here, too, the timing and nature of God’s deliverance is unexpected: an astonishing disruption of the old order of sin and death. The Lord declares “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (Ezekiel 37.14). At the moment of greatest desolation, a new light dawns that will overcome “the might of darkness”.

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