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March 18, 2017 - Death and Life

Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A Readings

Scripture Readings

I have had my share of funerals between both the parishes. There are many things I could say about each of these funerals. At one of them, the grand-daughter concluded her eulogy by saying what she would say to her grandpa when he was still alive. She said, “See you later, alligator.” Is it not precious that we can say that to each other as bury the people we love? Sometimes I think, though, that sometimes we take the reason for this hope for granted? Why is it that we can say, “See you later,” when people die? What did it take to get us to that hope? 

As Lent begins to come toward the end, the readings are gradually drawing our attention to the events of Holy Week and Easter – the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. However, we do not reflect on Christ’s death and resurrection for its own sake. The readings are also trying to communicate to us that our destinies are closely tied to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it is because of the death and resurrection of Jesus that this grand-daughter could say, “See you later, alligator,” to her deceased grandpa. There is a reason why we leave a graveside with hope.  It is because we believe in the words that Jesus said to Martha in today’s gospel reading, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Jesus is the reason for our hope. 

If we read the three reading very carefully we realize that as these readings talk about death and life, they are also talking about other kinds of death. Death has multiple meanings. Let me talk about the three kinds of death against which God is offering us hope. 

1. Death and Our Helplessness. Death is the most helpless of human experiences. There is no escaping the grip of death. The inevitability of death along with the pain of separation from our loves ones is the most saddening part of death. Mary, Martha and Jesus experience the pain of death in today’s gospel reading. And they all wept. Jesus too wept for Lazarus and with Mary and Martha. 

That day, Jesus offered Martha and Mary a way out the pain of death. Jesus asked them to believe in him. Very soon, he would takes the agony of death and nail it to the cross. He would take his own tears and the tears of the entire world and nail it to the cross. Not only that, but then he unites all those who believe in him into his death. And to those who unite themselves into his death, he also unites into his risen life. In that unity we move from death to life. 

At every one of the funerals this week, there were a lot of tears like there was the Mary, Martha and Jesus. But in the midst of all the tears there was also hope. None of the funerals ended with despair and hopelessness. Rather everyone left the church knowing that one day we will be with our loved ones again. Today, I want us to feel the liberation from death that Mary and Martha experienced at the resurrection of Lazarus. I want us to know that Christ has indeed set our loved ones and us free from death. 

2. Sin as Living Death. The second reading refers to another kind of death – sin. Paul lived at a time where the body and spirit were thought to be contrary to each other. The spirit was considered trapped within the body. Morality was really about taming and subduing the bodily senses so that the spirit can be free. That is why Paul says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit….” Today, we have a greater appreciation for the body and we try to harmonize the body and the spirit in our search for salvation. But Paul was not all wrong. He does capture the truth of the matter - that sin is a little death because every sin is separation from God who is life. Sin, if not forgiven and healed, has the potential to lead us to eternal death.

But Paul rejoices in the fact that God has found a way to liberate the entire world from the death of sin. As Paul says, “If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” In other words, along with our tears, Christ also nailed our sin to the cross. Christ’s death is the beginning of the freedom from bondage of sin. Paul invites us to unite ourselves with the death of sin on the cross. 

This Lent we are invited to enter into a very conscious process – that we recognize that sin is serious; that sin can destroy our body and spirit; that our freedom from the death of sin is at the foot of the cross; that as we become aware of the death and resurrection of Christ, we consciously unite ourselves to the redeeming death and resurrection of Christ. “If Christ is in you…” Paul says. Let us unite ourselves with Christ who sets us free. 

3. Offering Hope to the Alive Who Feel Dead. Ezekiel’s prophecy in today’s first reading was given in the context of Israel’s exile in Babylon. For these people, exile was like a death. Deprived of freedom, of worship, of the Temple, of the presence of God they think of themselves as dead. When Ezekiel proclaimed “I will open your graves and have you rise from them,” and “I will put my spirit in you that you may live,” he was not talking about a literal resurrection from the dead. The belief in the resurrection from the dead the way Jesus did was a later development. Ezekiel was drawing an analogy, providing a symbolic way of talking about liberation and restoration from exile. When the people of exile heard these words and their dead spirits were raised.   

Everyday we meet people who are alive but feel dead, don’t we? Those who experience chronic depression, despair, hopelessness, acute addictions know what it means to feel that deprived of life. Today, we are invited to be like Christ. Just as Jesus brought hope and liberation from the death of the body and the spirit, perhaps, we could bring hope to those who feed dead from the burdens of life. 

Fr. Satish Joseph