Fifth Sunday in Lent Year A—29 March 2020
The Reverend Canon Professor Scott Cowdell, Hon. Associate Priest
Ezekiel 37: 1-4; Psalm 130; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.
In Australia today we don't only have pubs with no beer but churches with no congregations. The last time this happened was a hundred years ago, in the face of another deadly virus, the Spanish Flu. Then as now self-isolation and social distancing played a major role in keeping death at bay and society intact.
Today's readings are all about death and its overcoming. For St Paul, there's none of our modern scientific understanding of death as a natural process wired into cell biology from the beginning of life on Earth. Instead for St Paul, in his hugely influential interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, death only enters the world because of sin. This calls forth Paul's wonderful vision of Christ and his Spirit in our Epistle today, giving life to our mortal bodies—overcoming the power of death for those who are joined to Christ, which of course Christians are in our baptism. Today we should welcome Paul's pastoral theology if not his biology. He's telling us about a powerful matrix that links us to Christ, body and soul, securing us against the power of death, and Christians can testify to this in their own lived experience. This matrix is the life-giving love of God that never gives up on us, and never lets us go.
Not if we're gasping for breath in ICU. Not if we're sunk deep in depression, freshly unemployed perhaps, and going quietly spare, as many are in Australia and around the world. People discover this life-giving love of God even when they're in the darkest, emptiest place, as Oscar Wilde did in Reading Gaol when he made his own the words of today's Psalm 130, the De Profundis: "Out of the depths have I called to you O Lord: O Lord hear my voice".
God's life-giving love won't be confined by all the envy and rivalry that typifies our modern Western market economy, either, with its culture of scarcity and indifference. Now, at least scarcity and indifference keep a lid on the escalation of mob violence in modern societies—everybody's too self-obsessed to get too wound up. But there's a downside to these conditions for those who've been described as 'outcasts from exchange', the losers in our global economy. Many of them will soon find themselves in the valley of the shadow of death, economically if not medically.
Friends, the life-giving love of God not only heals and restores individuals but it can reset and rebuild a society, as we see in our Ezekiel reading today with its valley of dry bones—God's people defeated, imagined as the remains of a slain army. This makes me wonder about what sort of society, what sort of world we'll have when all this is over, and in Ezekiel today we see how God answers this question. God's life-giving Spirit is at work on the dry bones, reknitting not only individual lives but also a community—because, friends, this is what we see when we look into the Trinitarian community of God's love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And, of course all of God's life-giving love is superlatively on display in today's well-loved Gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples risk the murderous threats of their enemies to be there for their friends, Martha, Mary, and their brother, and Jesus weeps in solidarity with their grief over Lazarus' death. John's Gospel gives us this passage as a foretaste of Easter, when God wades in in person to put our death-haunted and death-dealing human condition to rights, and to break death's power over us in every single one of its strands: psychological, cultural, economic, and symbolic as well as physical.
God's great miracle in the face of death, then as now, is the transformation of our imaginations, the strengthening of our faith to face down fear and confusion, and the capacity to wrestle a blessing from the many challenges of our present time. Let this Eucharist that we celebrate, which is Christ's generous self-giving in the face of so much scarcity and indifference … let this Eucharist be a sign for you, whether you're near or far; let it be a sign that the threat of death and its cultural echoes needn't haunt our imaginations, or diminish us, or disempower us.
The Lord be with you …