Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, March 29, 2020
When Israel was exiled in Babylon, Ezekiel had to to tell them that things were going to get even worse, that they'd become like a desert valley filled with dried bones. But after that, the Lord would revive them and breathe the Spirit into them again. This is the hopeful conclusion of that dire prophecy.
Saint Paul teaches that to be "in the flesh" is to try to earn God's grace by our own merits, while being "in the spirit" means letting God give us that undeserved grace.
In Saint John's gospel, the raising of Lazarus starts the chain of events leading to Jesus' death and resurrection. John uses the story to remind early converts of the life-and-death consequences of choosing to follow Jesus.
Our Liturgical Setting: Lent is almost over, as is our Sunday-by-Sunday tour of the Saint John's gospel. There the tension mounts between Jesus and his enemies. Were we doing this for the first time in our lives, we would be asking, "Must Jesus die? Will he be raised?" Today's gospel, John 11:1-45, marks a dramatic raising of the stakes. The lector should read it first because it governs the choice of first and second reading.
The Historical Situation: In 597 BCE, an enemy army uprooted many of God's people and dragged them into slavery in Babylon, some 750 miles from their homeland. Thus began the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or simply the Exile. The exiles' experience was painful, but Ezekiel's compatriots had been saying, "It's going to get better soon. We'll get to go home. This will all be over shortly." Ezekiel had to warn them that things were going to get much worse before they got better, that, due to their unfaithfulness, they had a fuller measure of suffering to endure. This came to pass when Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, destroyed Jerusalem, the object of the exiles' longing, in 587. Their hopes died. Ezekiel utters his now famous vision of the dry bones (Ezekiel 37: 1-14) in this desolate context. Today's first reading is the conclusion of that passage.
Proclaiming It: Given the depths of the people's despair, the Lord's promise of restoration and life is all the more bold. That's what the lector has to get across rhetorically. Make the last sentence stand out by pausing before it, then punch it out with utter confidence:
I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.
The Theological Background: Commentators have filled shelves with books about the meaning of "in the flesh" versus "in the spirit." In my opinion, the simplest and best explanation, and one consistent with the rest of Saint Paul's teaching, is that we're in the flesh to the extent that we try to save ourselves, earning salvation by our own works, by how well we keep rules, etc. That's proud and futile. Rather we're called to be in the spirit, to let the Spirit dwell in us, sanctifying us not by our works but by the undeserved grace of God, the only power capable of bringing life from death.
Ambitious readers can profitably savor Chapter 16: The Witness of the Spirit to the Spirit, in Paul Tillich's 20th-century masterpiece, The Shaking of the Foundations. He takes up the question of flesh and spirit most eloquently and convincingly.
Proclaiming It: Reading this to a congregation is challenging, especially where the sentences are long. Try to break up the long sentences into sense lines, pausing briefly where that will help the listeners follow. Vary your tone of voice to bring out the contrasts between life and death, spirit and flesh, righteousness and sin.
Mike Holdinghaus, American, 1951- ; Untitled, acrylic on Masonite, iPhoto. See the artist's photo of the work in a larger version on his Facebook page.
This page updated January 30, 2020