Saturday, April 5, 2014
Resurrection. (Lent 5, April 6 2014)
Homily: Year A Lent 5, April 6 2014, St. Albans
Readings: Ezek 37.1-14; Ps 130; Rom 8.6-11; John 11.1-45
Last month at one of our St. Al’s @5 services, we talked about “Hell”. We talked about our images of hell, and where they come from. We talked about how when Jesus refers to hell, he uses the word Gehenna, which is the name of a real place. Gehenna is a valley on the southwest side of Jerusalem which serves as the city dump, the place where garbage is burned. Now when we talk about hell, we usually think of it as the opposite of heaven, don’t we. If you’re good or saved or whatever, you go to heaven when you die, but if you’re not, you go to hell. That tends to be the way we talk about it. But we found it interesting at our St. Al’s @5 service to note that when Jesus talks about hell, the opposite of hell isn’t heaven, it’s life. It’s better to enter life, Jesus says, than to go to hell.
So after we’d talked about this a bit, someone asked the following question: If the image that Jesus uses for hell is the city garbage dump, and the opposite of hell for Jesus is life, then what does Jesus have to say about heaven?
And I thought for a moment, and then I answered, “Not much.”
It’s not that Jesus never uses the word ‘heaven’. He does sometimes, he uses it to contrast God’s place and context with ours, such as when we pray “Our Father in heaven”. But when Jesus, and many of the Biblical writers, want to talk about what we usually refer to as the “after-life”, the main image used isn’t that of ‘heaven’, but rather, ‘resurrection’.
As a priest, I’m often asked about heaven, or whether I believe in life after death. A few years ago I was the spiritual care person at West Carleton Secondary School. I used to spend an hour every week at the school, hanging out and talking to staff and students, sometimes about spiritual questions, more often about whatever was going on in their lives. Sadly, during my time there, one of the students, a well-known, popular, 18 year old was killed in a car crash. I spent a lot of time at the school that week. Students would come up and speak to me, many of them dealing with death in such an in-the-face way for the first time, and by far the number one question they asked was about what happens when you die. Is there life after death?
And I would usually answer them by telling them that yes, I believe that there is life after death, and that even though I don’t know what that looks like or how it works exactly, I believe, as St. Paul did, that nothing, neither death nor life, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.
But this week as I was reading the scripture texts that we just heard together, it occurred to me that I could have said more. That I do know more than I thought about what life after death looks like. Because the primary way that the Bible talks about the life that endures beyond death is by using resurrection language, and today’s texts are full of images of what resurrection looks like.
Our culture speculates about heaven, and it asks about life after death and when it does so, most of the images used don’t actually come from the Bible. Images are drawn various sources, whether it’s images from Greek or Norse mythology, or the Christian literature of the Middle Ages such as the image of St. Peter asking questions at the pearly Gates.
But Jesus doesn’t talk about “life after death”. He talks about new life, or life in the kingdom of God, or ‘zoen aeonion’, literally, the “life of the ages” which we usually translate as eternal life. And the way he talks about this new life that endures beyond the grave always has present as well as a future component, an aspect that is knowable and can be grasped now.
And when Jesus talks about this new life that endures beyond the grave, he doesn’t talk about heaven. Instead he talks about resurrection. And again, perhaps surprisingly, he does so in both the future and the present tense. Resurrection has immediate implications, it is not just a future hope.
“Lord, if you had not been here, my brother would not have died,” Martha says to Jesus. “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”
Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
Martha replies, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Martha’s belief, her understanding is that resurrection is something that takes place in the future, something after death, something that will happen on the last day, beyond the confines of the time and space of the age we live in.
But what Jesus says next is emphatically in the present tense. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And then Jesus performs the first of two acts of resurrection in our gospel today. He calls for Mary, and when Mary hears that Jesus is calling, she is raised. We translate it “she got up quickly”, but the word is actually egeiretei, the same word used for Jesus’ resurrection on Easter. Mary’s despair is transformed into hope in Jesus’ presence and she rises, the first image in today’s gospel text of the power of resurrection.
The vision of Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament reading provides us with another powerful image of resurrection.
“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones, and they were very dry.”
What do you see when you imagine this valley of dry bones?
I recall three years ago when I read these words it was same week as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and my thoughts immediately went to the scenes of devastation I had witnessed on TV. Homes, buildings, entire communities flattened. Dead bodies washing up on shore. An interview with a 70 year old man whose home and business had been destroyed, who laments that it’s too late for him to rebuild. People whose life had been sucked out of them, whose despair and sorrow had reduced them to bones, very dry bones.
Of course, you don’t have to go to Japan in the wake of a tsunami to find dry bones. All around us are people whose lives have run dry. So many things in this world can suck the life out of us. Mental illness. Grinding poverty. Broken relationships. Loss of jobs, loss of loved ones. Disease, and disasters. Loneliness. Despair.
I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. Most of us have experienced it, if not in our own lives then in the lives of those we love. Dry bones.
Ezekiel knew exactly what he was looking at when he was taken to the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel had been forcibly removed from his home and taken into exile. He had lost his prominent position as a priest of the Temple in Jerusalem. His wife had died. He and his people had endured siege warfare in Jerusalem and suffered through two years of famine and disease. The Babylonian army had finally breached the city walls, destroyed the Temple, massacred thousands and destroyed the city. A surviving remnant had been marched off through the desert to a foreign land, Ezekiel among them. They were a traumatized, despairing people. They were the walking dead, completely cut off, a people in exile. They were dry bones.
And God says to Ezekiel, “I have a message, a prophecy that I want you to give to these dry bones. Tell these bones, tell the exiled people of Israel, tell those who have suffered devastation in Japan, tell the depressed and the lonely and the broken and the suffering, tell those who are without hope and all those who have had the life sucked out of them, tell them this:
“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause my spirit to enter you, and you shall live.”
And there was a noise, a rattling noise and the bones came together, bone to bone, and flesh came upon them and skin covered them. And God’s ruach, his breath, his spirit came into them and they lived and stood on their feet.
This too is an image of resurrection. Resurrection is when a people in exile return home. Resurrection is when people who are cut off are reconnected. Resurrection is when God’s spirit enters you and you live.
That’s what Paul says too in the reading from Romans. You need to know that there is a new reality says Paul, and that new reality is that the Spirit of God dwells in you. And if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you then you have life. New life. Resurrection life, life that can never be taken away, not even by death.
And just in case we still haven’t gotten the message about resurrection, Jesus says to them, where have you laid him? He goes to the tomb, commands them to remove the stone, and cries with a loud voice “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man comes out, raised to new life.
I don’t know what heaven looks like and I don’t know much about life after death. But there is a power in our midst and I’ve had a glimpse of what it looks like. It is a power that can transform despair into hope, that can bring home a people in exile, that can raise a dead man, that can breathe life into dry bones. That power is the power of resurrection, and it is not something that we can only anticipate in some distant future. It is with us, here in the present, with immediate implications. It is our new reality and our new life.