Ezekiel 37:1-14 & John 11:1-45
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
And they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
The words of Scripture we hear on this Fifth Sunday in Lent vibrate with a unique beauty, power, and density. Bones and sinew; breath and skin and stench; illness and tears; rattling and sighing and loud, crying voices; graves opened, hands unbound, feet planted on native soil. These scenes from Ezekiel and the gospel of John captivate us again and again because the intensifying momentum of their drama unfolds amid the props and set pieces of the everyday. These are passages filled with the raw materials of familiar, sensory experience: bones fit together and sinews stretch; tears tremble and spill over; stench assaults and offends; breath makes hair stand on end. Bones and sinew, breath and tears orient us on the way through stories that become slowly less familiar, more surreal, more densely charged with a mysterious meaning rising from the deep. We blink and stare in disbelief as the invisible power, beauty, and density of God’s ways is made visible – so undeniably visible that our gawking melts into gazing as it is met by the unblinking eyes of Love. In John’s vocabulary, this is glory: the manifest presence of God.
Lord, he whom you love is ill.
Mortal, can these bones live?
This illness does not lead to death.
Rather, it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.
All suffering is God’s punishment for sin. This was an underlying belief in Jesus’ own day. Suffering is a divine payback for wrongdoing. Jesus confronts this notion. When he encounters a man blind from birth, Jesus is asked rather rhetorically, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”[i]
So why is there suffering? How many there are, the sources of suffering. Some suffering we clearly do bring onto ourselves because of how we are practicing our life with too much of this or too little of that, of deceptions and bad decisions, sometimes which turn into a tsunami of suffering. Yet when Jesus is asked the source of this man’s blindness, Jesus is not formulaic. He clearly says that suffering ipso facto is not a sign of God’s judgment or rejection. Jesus teaches that God “sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous; God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good.” Jesus says, all of us are “children of [one] Father in heaven.”[ii] God’s love is indiscriminate.
So what do we make of suffering? We clearly cannot avoid it. Study history; read the newspapers; recall your own life. Clearly, there is no escape from suffering until life is ended. For those of us who are followers of Jesus, suffering has a prominent and paradoxical place in our lives. Our theology hangs on the cross. Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers we must “take up our cross” and follow him.[iii] We will be presented with the cross. It will happen, and probably more than once in our lifetimes. We either face our cross, or we flee from it, but this is Jesus’ way for us: the way of the cross. The cross is an instrument of suffering before it becomes the way to life.
The sixth Temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, was rebuilt at Delphi in 320BC. Inscribed into the temple were the words “Know Thyself,” a popular pearl of wisdom, both then and now, attributed to a host of Greek sages from Pythagoras to Socrates, but whose origin has probably been lost forever. To “know thyself” has a variety of possible meanings, including as a warning against hubris or as a call to control one’s emotional life. But, the most compelling sense of that phrase, especially in light of the Gospel, is knowing who we are in the truest sense, the kind of knowing present in the depths of our heart. It’s this kind of knowing that allows us to claim our inner spiritual wisdom and authority.
In contrast to such inner authority, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day held religious and spiritual authority for the Jewish people. Jesus said they sat on the seat of Moses, possibly referring to an actual seat they taught from in synagogue, but certainly, metaphorically referring to their role in maintaining and passing on the tradition of Moses, particularly as expressed in religious law.
Jesus also said to follow the scribes and Pharisees teachings, but not do as they do, because they did not themselves practice what they taught. I suppose that’s not too surprising given how often Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites, both for their actions and words, even accusing those on the seat of Moses of hindering people on their way to entering God’s Kingdom.
In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34
I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate.
Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend.
When we’re watching a good movie, and find ourselves swept along by the story, it’s easy to see the movie as having a reality of its own. We forget that what we’re actually seeing is only light dancing on a screen, and we relate intimately with the people and situations of the story as if they were real. We can even become so absorbed in the story that on some level we think we’re in the movie, like when something scary happens and we jump as if we’re in any real danger.
We can describe this shift in perception between what seems real and is real as a loss of a certain kind of freedom living within us. We move from being freely aware of light projected onto a screen to being caught in a misperception, no longer noticing the light or the screen, but only seeing the story as it unfolds. This loss of interior freedom is usually experienced as a fun kind of escapism, and it’s often just what we’re looking for when we need to unwind a little. We might even get annoyed if something gets in the way of that experience, like when filmmakers try showing movies at high frame rates, and people complain that the movie looks “too real.”
The ancient desert monastics had a lot to say on the subject of interior freedom, and the consequences of losing that freedom. They called this interior freedom apatheia, and it meant for them no less than abiding in the Kingdom of God, being free to love God with all one’s heart, and being free from the kind of suffering born from being a slave to sin. They described how this interior freedom allows us to see God’s Light and Truth in the world, as when Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Wisdom consists in seeing every object in accordance with its true nature, with perfect interior freedom.” Evagrius Ponticus turns our gaze inward to discover our true nature, writing: “If you wish to see the transparency of your own spirit you must rid yourself of all thoughts, and then you will see yourself looking like sapphire or the color of heaven. But to do that without interior freedom is not possible.”
John the Baptist saw Jesus this way, recognizing him as the one who would free us from the slavery of sin. And since Passover celebrated the delivery of the Jewish people out of slavery he thought of Jesus as the Passover Lamb, exclaiming here is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
When we consider sin, what typically comes to mind are the actions we take, or even the thoughts we have, that are judged as immoral or unethical, or that violate some aspect of religious law. Sin can also refer to a state of being. When John says Jesus takes away the sin of the world, he intentionally uses the singular form of the word “sin,” referring to the condition of being a slave to sin, blinded by our own willfulness instead of willingly letting our eyes be opened to God’s Kingdom. In other words, this condition of sin is what the ancient monks would have described as the lack of interior freedom, and Jesus was offering a way back to this freedom.
John’s two disciples don’t seem to have recognized Jesus the way John did, but they did trust John, and so they followed Jesus. Gazing upon them from that place of interior freedom, Jesus felt moved to ask the two what they were seeking. They answered by asking where Jesus was staying, although a better translation of the original text would give the sense of abiding, as in “Teacher, where are you abiding?” Of course, Jesus was abiding in God’s Kingdom, and in what’s probably a reference to Jesus giving sight to the blind, he responds “come and see.”
Then we’re given what might seem like an odd detail. The disciples abided with Jesus at around four o’clock in the afternoon. In the Greek text, that line reads as “The hour was about the tenth,” with the dramatic emphasis landing on that final word. Many bible translators must have assumed we’d want to know what time of day that meant by our clocks, but keeping with the original text opens a richer layer of meaning.
The theologian Rudolf Bultmann, for example, suggested the tenth hour was symbolic of a coming to wholeness or fulfillment. St. Augustine saw the number ten in a similar way, while also recognizing it as a symbol of ancient Jewish Law. He understood the tenth-hour reference to mean that by abiding with Jesus, the Law had been fulfilled.
The Law had covered the moral and religious transgressions referred to as sins in the plural, while Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law amounted to addressing the underlying condition of sin. As the Passover Lamb of God he offered his disciples the way out of bondage, freeing them from that condition of sin. Interior slavery becomes interior freedom, and this fulfills the Law, because while abiding with Jesus in God’s Kingdom that long list of sins just doesn’t seem like much of a problem.
In chapter 8 of John’s gospel Jesus tells some of his Jewish followers that the truth would make them free. They respond indignantly saying they’ve never been slaves to anyone. And this was one of Jesus’ toughest jobs, convincing people who think they’re free that in truth they’re still enslaved.
Jesus responds to them saying “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
By “free indeed” Jesus means abiding with him in God’s Kingdom, that place of interior freedom from which we see God’s Truth clearly. We’re “free indeed” when we’re no longer enslaved to the sin mentioned in John the Baptist’s original proclamation. Jesus takes away sin, and it is the sin of the world. The world, or more specifically being attached or overly identified with the world, is the sin we’re freed from when we abide with God in Christ.
It may help in describing this interior freedom and the sin of the world to revisit the movie metaphor. Imagine you’re watching a movie and you become so completely caught up in it that you forget, on some level, that it’s only a movie. Your awareness shifts from watching light move across a screen to seeing only the story as it unfolds, a story that seems very real. The movie represents the world, and the enlightened screen represents the Truth of God’s Kingdom.
If we’re in the world, but not of the world, then we participate in the world, experiencing all its ups and downs, while also having the interior freedom to see the world as an expression of God, seeing God’s Truth in all things, including ourselves.
On the other hand, if we’re in the world and of the world, then we’ve become enslaved to the world, forgetting that the world in all its many forms is an expression of God’s Goodness. If we’re of the world, we might even believe that our identity in the world is who we really are, forgetting our Truest selves as children of Light.
The good news is that Jesus offers us a path back to interior freedom. This path, though, is counterintuitive in its simplicity, especially in our culture of extreme busyness, productivity, and the need to always be doing something. The way of Jesus, it turns out, is mostly about doing nothing. That’s one reason Meister Eckhart called the way of Jesus the Wayless Way, because it’s not about getting somewhere or doing something, but about coming to rest where we already are.
It might not seem obvious, but if you’re completely absorbed in a movie, forgetting it’s just light on a screen, your mind is expending energy and effort to sustain that illusion. Or look at it this way, if you’re watching a movie, caught up in the story, how much effort does it take to notice the movie as just light on a screen? It takes no effort at all, just a shift in awareness which happens quite naturally when we’re at rest.
Abiding in Christ, in God’s Kingdom, is the fulfillment of God’s greatest wish for us. God wants us to reclaim our interior freedom and be free from the sin of the world. God wants us to escape the slavery of sin and abide in the eternal Peace and Joy of Christ beyond understanding.
We fulfill God’s wish for us, receiving this amazing grace when we follow where Jesus leads, abiding with him and finding deep rest for our souls. When we let ourselves rest in God’s presence, we let go of all the ways the world has us in its grip, so we’re free to be in the world, but not of the world. From this place of rest, we allow God to heal us and make us whole, dying with Christ, and rising as new creations in Christ.
Abiding in Christ is the fulfilment of God’s desire for us, and the fulfillment Jesus brings us as his disciples. Our hope is that we follow Jesus’ Wayless Way back to our true home, God’s Eternal Kingdom, where we bear witness to God’s Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in all things.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus uses images and metaphors that would have been familiar to his original audience in describing the kingdom of heaven, his mission, or the nature of God. This particular metaphor of Jesus as the good shepherd would have elicited knowing nods of the head, not only from the shepherds in the crowd, but from everyone present, all of whom would have been familiar with the life of the shepherd.
The problem for us is that, 2000 years, an industrial and technological revolution, and hundreds, if not thousands of stained glass windows and icons later, the image of the good shepherd has lost much of its power. Today when we encounter the image, we see Jesus, with perfectly coifed hair; clothed in gleaming, pure white; holding a fluffy, white lamb in his arms. Gone is any sign that the life of a shepherd was difficult, dangerous, and dirty. In the winter, exposed to the elements for days on end, the life of the shepherd was cold, wet, and miserable. In the summer it was hot, dry, and miserable. Summer and winter, the days would have been long, often lonely, frequently dangerous, and always dirty. If it wasn’t the weather to be contended with, it was boredom and loneliness, on the one hand, and the dangers of predators on the other hand, and always there was the dirt, the muck, the flies, and the smell. And then, there were the sleepless nights and days during lambing season.
Eight years ago this month is when my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now sagely dismissing my crisis.
I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts…my old answers just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.
Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. Some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angelsong. Cold, dark, silent nothing. But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. I felt destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. And it was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered, and I was made new.
In this Gospel passage and elsewhere, Jesus speaks about our resurrection from the dead as a promise. Jesus speaks like a Pharisee. Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed in bodily resurrection in the “age to come.” That’s about hope for the future, what the church calls “the hope of heaven.” I’ll come back to that. Meanwhile, there’s something unique about Jesus’ teaching about the resurrection. Our resurrection is not just a future event; resurrection is for now. Resurrection informs or reforms how we live today. Saint Paul called it “resurrection power,” in the here and now.[i] Resurrection power. Resurrection is about hope for the future and about power for the present.
In the last 50 years or so, three novelists have captured the imagination of the English-speaking world, and beyond: C. S. Lewis in his Narnia Chronicles, J. R. R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and J. K. Rowling in her Harry Potter novels. All these stories have one theme in common. Power. The exercise of power, the need for power, the source of power. Why the “power” theme has so captured the attention of young and old alike is not because people are powerless. It’s not because these tales give us an imaginary respite from being overwhelmed by the powers that be. It’s much more the opposite of that. Power is of our essence, though many people do not recognize or accept this: their own power. We have been given power.
Holy Cross Day
Jesus was convinced and, ultimately, convincing of others that on the other side of death is life. Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[i] Here’s the best way for us to lose our life on Jesus’ terms: surrender. Surrender being god of your own life to Jesus Christ.The only way to live life is to allow Jesus Christ to live within us. This was St. Paul’s discovery. In his writings, St. Paul uses one particular phrase more than 85 times: “…in Christ.” He speaks of living his life “in Christ.” “No longer” living life on others’ terms, or even on his own terms. He’s “no longer” doing that. St. Paul says repeatedly he’s now living his life “in Christ.”[ii]
Live your life inside of Christ, who lives inside of you. Surrender your life, surrender your destiny, and take Jesus at his word: that life for you will come out of death. Your dying is the gateway to real life. You will face death many-a-time in this life. Life some days, some seasons, can be such a killer. And that is the very cross that Jesus is sharing with you. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside you, and you will absolutely, positively, undeniably, miraculously discover how life comes out of death.
There’s two ways to know this to be true about Jesus’ way of the cross: how life can come out of death for you. For one, remember your own life experience. The principal founder of SSJE, Richard Meux Benson, wrote: “A disciple asks Christ, ‘Teach me the law of the Holy Cross, the mystery of our redemption.’ To which Christ replies, ‘My child, you must learn this mystery by experience: Take up your cross and it will teach you all things.’”[iii]And so for you. Your cross is your teacher. Where can you recall how your breaking has been your making, how your dying has led to your rising, where life – real life, amazing life, abundant life – has come out of something that just killed you? This is not about resuscitation; this is about resurrection, the resurrection of your life. Draw on the miracle of your personal experience, how life, absolutely transformed life, has come out of death in your own past. That cycle will repeat: death and life; death and life.
Secondly, if right now you can find no hope but only suffering and desolation in the cross you’ve been handed to carry – what is just killing you now– surrender your life and surrender your death, your many deaths, to Jesus. The weaker you are, the more powerless you feel, the more you will be able to understand this. You have nothing more to lose. Live your life inside of Christ who lives inside of you. He will embody you and enable you. This is Jesus’ way, the way of the cross. And it’s within reach. It’s within Jesus’ reach for you. And that he does: reaches out for you, carries you, makes good on his promise that life, amazing life for you, that comes out of death. It does, and it will.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
[ii]Saint Paul speaks of the radical turnabout in the management of his former life, using the term “no longer” more than 25 times.
[iii]Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824-1915).