Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday in Lent at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York. Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Romans 8
The thread through this rich set of readings this morning, is the Spirit of God that brings new life out of alientation, despair and death.
The Old Testament reading, the well known and delightful story of the dry bones, is clearly all about this thread. The dry bones in Ezekiel’s vision represent the disaster befallen the Jewish people and the reality of that disaster appearing to be the last word. The vision shows, however, that God has another card to play, the Spirit that can bring life out of disaster.
The thread continues in our psalm this morning. “Out of the depths have I called to you.” The writer knows deep pain, the desperate need of a word from God. That word comes as his soul, his spirit, waits and watches, and out of desperation, mercy and redemption is received.
In the piece from his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks with exuberance about the Spirit of God in contrast to human “flesh,” a code word he uses for anything in our lives that leads to death and separation from God. He encourages us, though, that even thought we live with and in the flesh, to have faith that the Spirit of God also dwells in us and, therefore, is available to heal separation and to raise us from the dead. “You are in the Spirit,” he dares to say, despite all signs to the contrary, even the flesh that is literally decaying toward death even as we live.
And finally there is the profound and awesome story of the raising of Lazarus. The Spirit is not mentioned except in Jesus own reaction of being deeply moved and troubled in spirit. Yet the Gospel writer John would not deny that it is the Spirit of God at work here, breathing new life into the dead Lazarus. The movement of Jesus’ troubled Spirit is to breathe that new life into his friend and command him to “come out.”
These are perfect readings as we come to a close in Lent. This thread of the Spirit of God that brings new life out of despair and death is precisely what we need to hear right now.
Lent has been telling us that something is wrong, ever since those words with which it began, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Lent has wanted to take us to the depths of our humanity, our despair, our separation, and our mortality. Lent has wanted us to have a troubled spirit. All these things are true, but the promise has been there all along as well. Psalm 51 was also a part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy closing with the words,
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Lent is never intended to be the last word, it is a way station on the journey, a path that is part of the journey. So our readings remind us this morning: despair, separation and death are never the end of the story for followers of Jesus. They are part of the journey, but they are not the journey’s end.
This faith all revolves around Paul’s assertion: The Spirit of God is in you. If you think about it, that is a pretty bold assertion. Remember Paul is writing in Romans to a group of people he had never even met. How did he know that this was true, that the Spirit of God dwelt in them? He knew it not because he knew them, but because he knew God. Whether or not the Spirit of God was in them was not up to them. It was up to God. And Paul knew that God was and is generous with his Spirit.
In the Church Year we do not celebrate the Holy Spirit until Pentecost at the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter. But it turns out that the Spirit has been what this “paschal time” in the Church Year has been all about—from the beginning of Lent through Easter Day to Pentecost. If we began with a troubled spirit, we will end with a vibrant spirit, and in between the Spirit will be known to be in us, with us on the journey as hope in the midst of despair, mercy in the midst of separation, and life in the midst of death.
The Spirit is in you. I hope you can hear the good news in that and that it does, indeed, bring you hope, hope enough to celebrate Easter in a couple weeks with true joy, the joy of the Spirit of God whom we all share.
But there is something unsettling here as well. This is not good news to everyone. The raising of Lazarus was the last nail in Jesus’ coffin for the religious authorities. He had to go. His unleashing of the power of the Spirit threatened their own power, their very way of life. To say the Spirit of God is in us is a very dangerous, even blasphemous, thing to say, worse to believe it is true.
We have, I think, our own inner religious authority who is equally as terrified by all this talk, who is somehow more comfortable with the reality of our despair, separation and death than with the prospect that there is within us this uncontrollable Spirit that may turn our world upside down. We may not like our despair, our separation and our death, but they are at least ours. It is sometimes a lot more comfortable to believe that we are separated from God, for instance, than to believe we are loved, that we have been made worthy for God’s own Spirit to live in us.
Why is this so? I think largely because being loved and carrying the Spirit makes us much more responsible. Love and the Spirit cannot be held as possessions. They must always be shared, and the chief danger in that, of course, is that they might be rejected. And if they are rejected then we might be seen to have been wrong about them, that they never were really ours to begin with. Better to hold them at arm’s length then to risk being hurt by them.
So the religious authorities after this story will begin the conspiracy to have Jesus killed, the ultimate holding at arm’s length. They said, “It is better for one man to die than to risk losing the whole people.” They said this out of fear of the Romans, that if Jesus kept stirring things up something very bad would surely happen and the Romans would clamp down.
As I said, we all have this voice of fear deep within us. We all have our inner religious authority full of doubt about the actual power of God in our lives, and afraid what the world around us might think if we started actually believing it and acting on it.
The next two weeks is meant to be a full frontal assault on that voice. We are to hear again and again, despite everything, that we are in the Spirit, the Spirit is in us, and, as Paul says at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans, “nothing can separate us.”
Let us hear that good news today. We are in the Spirit, the Spirit is in us, the Spirit who has the power to bring us out of separation and despair and death. Let us be prepared to shout it from the housetops come Easter Day, for that is the consequence of the proclamation that Christ is risen. If Christ is risen than you are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in you.