SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT, APRIL 10, 2011

The veils are out, and we are in a far different setting from last Sunday. Let’s take a moment to get our bearings: We are now five Sundays into Lent, just two weeks away from Easter. My favorite way to describe where we are is how my friend Fr. Ron Conner would say we are entering “Deep Lent.” Rose Sunday is behind us, and every step we take from here moves us with Jesus faster and faster, inexorably toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him there. Lent is intensifying.

You’ve heard me say before that Lent is about change. We “do” Lent not as an end in itself – not to give up chocolate for a few weeks so we can fit in those jeans – but as a means of change. Lent is how the church says we change and become what we are, namely the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. And transformation and change resound in today’s texts, as well. Ezekiel’s vision is about bones long since dead being changed into a living army full of the Spirit of God. John’s story recounts Lazarus’ change from dead man, literally a corpse, into a man alive. And Romans, too, is about change: Change in status from slaves to sin into slaves of righteousness. To keep Lent is to change. That’s why it’s fitting that today is what the Orthodox call “Lazarus Sunday” for the familiar story we read from John’s gospel. Like Lazarus, God is changing each of us from death to life.

But here’s the question: If Lent is about change -- specifically if God is moving us from death to life -- what then should our lives look like on the other side? Irenaeus famously said: “The glory of God is a man fully alive.” So what does a woman or man fully alive look like? From our texts, I want to tease out two ways that the Christian is to be “alive,” one ethical and one experiential: First, ethically, we are to be alive to righteousness; second, experientially, we are to be alive to the Spirit.

First, the ethical part: Christians are to be alive to righteousness. Paul, in Romans, writes: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves to righteousness. (Rom. 6.16-19) Romans 6 doesn’t fill in the ethical content of righteousness; we have to look elsewhere in the Bible for that. But Paul here gives us a “framework for thinking about why Christian behaviour matters, and how to put it into practice,”(1) and Paul sets up this idea by contrasting two different types of slavery – slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness. Americans typically think of the European model of slavery, which was race-based and slaves were usually captured and traded as property; but in the Ancient Near East another form of slavery was remarkably common, a “voluntary” slavery whereby someone could offer himself as a “slave” to another, say as a means to pay of a debt, something akin to indentured servitude. For Paul, people either remain slaves to sin and offer themselves to sin willingly, or they become slaves to righteousness and offer themselves willingly to follow Jesus’ teaching and commandments. Notice there’s no third way -- we can’t be a slave to nothing or a slave to something else. A man fully alive, to use Irenaeus’ words, is a slave to righteousness, one who is “alive to righteousness,” who willingly tries to live a godly life. It means being alive to the possibility of doing good works; to the possibility of growing in compassion, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and most of all love.

Two quick points we should make here: First, being alive to righteousness doesn’t mean our righteous acts make us worthy to stand before God; God gives us the righteousness Jesus earned in his passion, and in turn we live godly lives in gratitude for that gift. So the church has lost its way if we are what the world says we are – a bunch of spiritually proud do-gooders who think we’re better than our neighbors. Having righteousness given to us means our good behavior should never make us proud; we are humble and slow to judge others because we understand we wouldn’t be good if it weren’t for God’s gift of righteousness.

And the second point is a paradox: Willingly to become a slave is the only way we can really be free. There is a Prayer Book Collect for Peace which says “O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom . . . .”(2) What is freedom, after all? Modern western individualism says freedom is casting off all constraints, the ability to do whatever we want at any time regardless of the consequences. The church disagrees. Freedom, says the church, isn’t the absence of constraint, but willingly submitting to the gracious constraint of God which gives us the ability to be what we were created to be and experience the joy God wants us to have.

Tim Keller tells a story about being outside one day and watching a hawk riding the thermals, the columns of warm air that allow hawks to soar seemingly forever without effort. Now a modern western individualist hawk could say: “I don’t have to fly like that, I’m free to walk if I want to or I can just stay in my tree,” but that is to diminish the grandeur of the hawk. Hawks were made to soar, and to do anything else might seem free, but it’s not to really be a hawk. To soar requires submission to the laws of aerodynamics and physiology, but to soar is the glory of the hawk. We can think of ourselves as free to disregard what the Bible says will make us truly happy and go our own way; we did that in the Garden of Eden. But that choice makes us less than what God created us to be, namely the crowning achievement of creation, humanity reigning with God as vice-regents over creation, completely alive to righteousness.

Second point: The second way we are to be fully alive is more existential: Christians are to be alive to the Spirit. At the end of Ezekiel’s vision, God tells him to prophesy, and say to [the dry bones], Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my spirit(3) within you, and you shall live . . . . (Exek. 37.12-14a) Notice how the metaphor changed in Ezekiel’s vision. First the bones were exposed in a valley, weathered and whitened; but now Ezekiel says God will raise the bones from their graves. What happened? The incongruity comes precisely because the bones are a metaphor, not a literal valley of bones. Ezekiel is prophesying to the children of Israel in exile, for all intents and purposes dead and in their graves because they are cut off from the promise of God and his promise to use their nation to renew the world. Ezekiel is telling them not to give up on the promise of God, but notice he didn’t say that religion would make them alive – not offering the right sacrifices, not worshiping in the right temple on the right mountain. What will make them alive is God’s spirit within them.

That’s the subtle difference between being alive to religion and alive to God’s Spirit. God doesn’t make us alive so that we can worship in this building with what we think are the right words and gestures and rituals. To be alive to the Spirit of God is to be in a living, dynamic relationship with God, and sometimes that’s a lot harder than mere religion. To be in a relationship means we have to know the person we’re relating to. Luckily for us, God has revealed himself to us in the Bible, so we don’t have to go any further to learn about him, what he’s doing in the world, what he cares about, what moves his heart, than to spend time reading this book. But we aren’t just people of a book, either. To be in relationship with God means to listen for his voice at all times and in all places. Did you know penguins mate for life? And even after long separations, families can each recognize each other by the sound of their calls," the noises they make?(4) That’s relationship. God may call us to do something different today than he did yesterday, so we must begin again every day to follow Jesus and be attentive to the sound of his voice every minute.

I’ll close with this: In today’s gospel Jesus is speaking to Martha, Lazarus’ sister, and he says: Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? (John 11.40) Walk boldly into Deep Lent with Jesus, and believe he will make you alive to righteousness and alive to God’s Spirit. And the life we live on the other side of Lent will resound to the glory of God, which, after all, is what we are designed to do. It’s how we ride the thermals and soar. Let Jesus pull us from our graves, see the linen strips that bind our hands and feet and the cloth over our faces, and say: “Unbind them, and let them go.”

Believe and become the glory of God, men and women fully alive.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Footnotes:

1. Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans: Part 1 (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2004): 117.

2. Serving God also makes us truly human.

To be true humanity, humanity must not be itself, and in order to understand his true being it must not look at itself. Our true being is extra nos et alienum nobis (Luther): it is “eccentric” and “ecstatic”; humanity is only truly human when it is in God. Then, and then only, is humanity truly itself . . . . When humanity enters into the love of God revealed in Christ it becomes truly human. True human existence is existence in the love of God. Thus also the true freedom of humanity is complete dependence upon God. Deo servire libertas (Augustine). The words “Whose service is perfect freedom” express the essence of Christian faith. True humanity is not genius but love, that love which humanity does not possess from or in itself but which is received from God, who is love. True humanity does not spring form the full development of human potentialities, but it arises through the reception, the perception, and the acceptance of the love of God, and it develops and is preserved by “abiding” in communion with the God who reveals Himself as Love. Hence separation from God, sin, is the loss of the true human quality, and the destruction of the quality of “being made in the Image of God”. When the human heart no longer reflects the love of God, but itself and the world, humanity no longer bears the “Image of God”, which simply consists in the fact that God’s love is reflected in the human heart.
-- Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology Reader, 3rd ed. (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2007): 469.

3. The word Ezekiel uses here for “spirit” is the same as the word for “breath,” which he used earlier when God said to "prophesy to the breath" to breathe on the bones so they would live. What does that remind you of? Creation – God breathes into Adam, and he is given life. Ezekiel is using creation imagery to show that God is going to put all things to rights and renew the world, and he’s going to do it through a people, here the exiled nation of Israel, and now through the church.

4. See "March of the Penguins - Father Reunited" at http://video.aol.com/video/march-of-the-penguins-father-reunited/3706648508.