Thursday, April 07, 2011

April 10, Lent 5, Keys of the Kingdom: Opening Your Grave

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Martha told Jesus that she believed that Lazarus would rise again on the last day. Martha and Mary and many Jews back then (except the Sadducees), believed in a resurrection like in Ezekiel 37. This vision of Ezekiel is the first suggestion of resurrection in the Bible, and it comes late, from the time of the Exile, when the Jews had been carried into exile by the Babylonians.

The Old Testament has no interest in the afterlife. It rejects the fixation on immortality that it saw in Egypt, with its pyramids and mummies and treasure chambers for the dead. Not once does the Torah mention the immortality of the soul and not one prophet suggests that your soul goes to heaven after you die. The Israelites believed that when your body died, your soul did too, and then nothing but a passive shadow of yourself went down to Sheol, where it wasted away until the last of your loved ones died, and then even your shadow ceased existence altogether.

The hope of Israel was not for heaven, but for the Promised Land, the land, the land, the land. Not immortality in heaven, but generations of their descendants enjoying their inheritance, sitting under the fig trees they had planted, keeping their names alive throughout the generations. Not immortality in heaven, but to live in comfort and die in peace in the literal Kingdom of God.

So the exile to Babylon was a theological catastrophe. To be removed from the Promised Land was a contradiction of their faith in God. An answer to this catastrophic contradiction was the vision of Ezekiel. The vision was a metaphor of returning to the Promised Land and the restoration of the population in the Promised Land. But the metaphor was so graphic and so powerful that it took on added meaning by the time of Mary and Martha. They believed that one day in the future, every Jew who ever lived would rise again bodily from the dead, and finally get the life that they were promised in the Promised Land. Like being born again. That’s the resurrection that Martha believed in for her brother Lazarus. Some day.

But Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here and now, when you listen to his voice. You live right now the life you hope to live some day. The Kingdom of God is here with him, right now. Listen to him, and be born again into it right now. Lazarus was dead, but listened to him, and was born again. Like the beggar born blind. Like the woman at the well.

His voice is the key. His voice unlocks the door of the grave. But even with the door unlocked, how can a dead corpse have the energy to hear the voice of Jesus and obey it? His voice conveys the power you need to listen to his voice. His voice is the key that ignites the life it opens up. We have his voice today. We hear it every week, right here, in different voices but a single voice. Just listen to that voice and let it generate new life in you. Listen to it even silently at home. The voice will come through, to open you and to energize the new life that is in you.

For the last few weeks I have been saying that there are two of you, that you simultaneously live two lives, your old nature and your new nature, the old you dying-away and the new you coming-to-life. Your two natures are as distinct as life and death but also are inseparable as life and death. They are both in everything you think and do. Your new you has to deal with your old you all the time. Much of the virtue of your new you is precisely in how you deal with your old you. Much of the joy of your new you is in dealing with the misery of your old you.

I am inviting you to believe that there is a new you rising in you by the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the old you still remains a part of you. You can’t just discard your old nature. You know the Bible never uses the metaphor of a butterfly for being born again, as if you leave the caterpillar behind and fly away. Your old nature remains a part of you, for your new nature to deal with, to process, and to forgive. Contending with your old nature is one of the good works of your new nature. Some Christians suggest that the new life in Christ is free and pure and happy and victorious. So when you feel your old self still so much in you, you start to doubt your faith, you doubt your salvation, you doubt the promises of God. You get cast down into the depths, like Psalm 130. What’s wrong with me, that my old self is still so strong in me?

One of the chief good works of your new nature is to keep on loving your old nature, even though it has to die away. It was for love that Jesus wept. The people saw him weep and said, “See how much he loved him.” Jesus wept for the death of Lazarus even though he knew that he would raise him from the dead. Jesus loved the old life of his friend, even though it had to die.

During the ten years of my ministry here I’ve made mistakes and done dumb things and hurt some people and had conflicts I should not have had. There are people who when I see them on the sidewalk, I feel myself turn red, and I think, boy did I blow that one. My old nature clings to me, and I often myself getting wrapped up in my grief and guilt.

And then I have to listen to the voice of Jesus when he says, Come out. I have to believe in my own resurrection, already, I have to believe in the new life that is in me. My new nature has to forgive my old nature, seven times, seventy times seven times, because of God forgiving me. Not excuse myself, not justify myself, but forgive myself in Jesus’ name, to unwrap myself from the negative power of what I’ve done, and to live within the positive power of the life which God is opening up to me. I have to believe in my new life in Christ. I don’t believe in my old life, and I do grieve it, but I can love it. Not to try to keep it alive, but as I love a dying relative.

I believe that part of the power of my new nature is for loving my old nature. Not liking it, but loving it. Not indulging it, not protecting it, but staying with it, working with it, engaging it. Sometimes it’s like there is a war in you, you have a lover’s quarrel going on inside you, but you still have to love the one that you are quarreling with. Faithfully dealing with your old nature is one of most important good works that your new nature does in the world.

Here’s a take home: One of the most important good works of your new life in Christ is to love the old and dying nature that lives on in you. Some of the most important forgiving that you do is to forgive the sin and guilt that lives on in you.

The fruit of this is that as you deal with your old nature, so you will deal with other people, so you will deal with all the pain and suffering and ugliness that is out there in the world. Also this: if you love it your old nature, you can let other people help you deal with it, you can let the Christian community help you unwrap yourself. Jesus told the community to unwrap Lazarus, it’s part of the sign, it’s an image of what the community of saints must do for each other. Your new life is not your life alone, it’s in community and for community. You don’t offer the community just your best self, just your new nature, you also offer it your old nature, not to be defended and preserved, but to be touched and loved and wept for and helped to die. And in return, to have to keep on forgiving the old natures of others in the community does not prevent your believing in their new natures too.

When at last you die, what dies is your old nature. Your new nature will live on. In the mind of God the new you is already living in the new heaven and new earth. The world of time and space may take some time to get there, but the mystery of the resurrection is that, in Christ, you are already there, where there are not two of you but one of you, simple and single, in body and soul, to live with integrity and internal harmony and love. It is be the victory of love, and we have that victory already.

Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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