This is a sermon for Passion Sunday, based on: Ezekiel 37:12-14, Romans 8:1-11 and John 11:1-6, 32-45.
Today we find ourselves in the fifth Sunday of Lent, commonly called ‘Passion Sunday’. In the old traditions of the church, Passion Sunday was the Sunday when the cross and the altar were draped with black and when Lenten disciplines and repentance became extra zealous.
But then, surprise, surprise: this morning/evening we find that our Gospel reading doesn’t even focus on any aspect of what we commonly call The Passion Story. In fact, today’s Gospel reading is about resurrection. It’s about the only other named person in the New Testament who experienced a form of resurrection: Jesus’ friend Lazarus.
And today’s Old Testament reading, used in our call to worship, paints an extraordinary picture of resurrection: Dry bones being breathed on by the breath of God to be reconstituted into living, breathing human beings.
Two reading about resurrection in Ezekiel and in the Gospel of John and two readings – in Ezekiel and Romans – that give us a hint of how this mystery came about in the first place. Ezekiel: ‘I will put my spirit within you and you shall live’ (Ezekiel 37:14) Paul: ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ (Romans 8:2)
The Spirit of God - the Spirit of Christ - is something powerful and life-giving. And for Paul in our reading from the letter of Romans, the Spirit of God was something that transformed everything: The Spirit transforms us, the Spirit transforms the world and the Spirit transforms the way that we look at the world.
The Flesh and the Spirit
A world without the light of the Spirit of God in it is a world where corruption reigns. When Paul uses the word ‘flesh’ he doesn’t mean to say that there is anything displeasing to God in the physical world. The word is really a technical term – a bit of jargon if you will – to mean human lives and societies that don’t operate by God’s rules. In other words, human lives and societies that don’t have the Spirit of God in them.
When Paul talks about ‘flesh’ he’s talking about a world, a realm, a way of thinking, where corruption reigns. By normal standards, by the standards of the world where corruption reigns, resurrection is not something that human beings experience: it is only something that we know by faith. It is by faith that we can imagine a resurrection world, a world where corruption does not have the last word, but rather abundant life.
Please don’t think that by using the word ‘imagine’ that I’m trying to make faith small. I’m actually trying to make faith big. When we imagine a resurrection world in the power of the Spirit, we are yearning with God for the kind of world that he originally intended for human beings: a world where the Law has been fulfilled. This is the world that Jesus imagined when he began his journey to Jerusalem and to crucifixion.
Except that it was the ‘rules’ of the world of corrupt flesh that were in operation during the course of Jesus’ trial by his own people and by the conquering Empire of Rome. And it was at the hands of this ever-present corruption that Jesus was executed: executed by the occupation army for sure but with the blessing of his people, and with the cooperation and denial of his close friends. In a world ruled by corruption, it is not just the corrupt rulers who participate in evil, but even those who see themselves as victims of evil, even those who are close friends of the victims.
In other words, you and I put Jesus on the cross just as surely as did Pilate or Caiaphas or Judas or even Peter. We all have guilt on our hands.
Jesus died because of our sins and Jesus died for our sins. But Jesus also died imaging – in the power of the Spirit – the resurrection life, a life where the Law of God has been fulfilled.
Jesus commended his Spirit into the hands of the Father because of his faith in this Kingdom of God, this Resurrection Life, which did not yet exist. And by his faith and his actions, he became the fulfilment of the Law and the Kingdom – although not yet fulfilled – was born.
A World where the Dead Rise
The American Methodist Bishop and theologian William Willimon said: ‘Most of the defences in our world assure us that the dead stay dead.’*
It is only in a world where the dead stay dead that power and influence can be used for the purpose of creating terror. You can’t terrorise a person who has no fear of death. And you certainly can’t terrorise a person who is looking forward to the resurrection life.
Such a person is free indeed.
And I think that’s why Paul tells us: ‘For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’ The Spirit of God is something powerful and life-giving. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, we are given the ability to imagine something that does not yet fully exist: the resurrection life, abundant life, the life that God has always wanted for his creation. And, in the power of the Spirit, we are given the means to learn to lose our fear of the corrupt world of the flesh.
And Jesus showed us the way to resurrection life, he showed us the way through the fear of death, and he unlocked the door so that we could enter the Kingdom of heaven.
This is what it’s all about: Jesus’ march toward the cross. It’s about the resurrection life, the Kingdom of God, the fulfilment of the Law. It’s about disarming the world of corrupt flesh by removing the fear of death. It is about hope, about forgiveness and about new life.
Next Sunday is Palm Sunday and, at that time, the story of Jesus’ march to the cross is a rapid one. Received as a king on Palm Sunday, Jesus is crucified five days later.
As the story of Jesus moves inescapably to the cross, we remember – as painful as it is to do so – that it was our sins that put him there. But we also remember in gratitude that in dying on the cross, Jesus opened the door to the resurrection life and to the coming Kingdom of God. And we remember that, in this life, he opened the door to forgiveness and to reconciliation with him.
As Holy Week draws nearer, I pray that the Spirit may draw especially close to each one of us so that we may be enabled to imagine the resurrection life. I pray that the Spirit will open our eyes to the ways that we collude with sin and corruption but also give us the assurance there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. And I pray that we will all be strengthened at the Lord’s Table as we meet him and remember him in the bread and wine. Amen
* William Willimon at: Sermon Nuggets: Lent 5A, March 9, 2008, http://home.twcny.rr.com/lyndale/Lent5A%202008.htm [accessed 8 March 2008]