5th Sunday in Lent – April 10, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Ezekiel 37.1-14Psalm 130Romans 8.6-11John 11.1-45

By David J. Lull

Focal theme:
Ezekiel 37.1-14 draws us to a God whose justice is a love that does not give up on a disobedient people—a God whose love calls for justice for captives and outcasts. According to Psalm 130, it is safe to cry to such a God “out of the depths,” and to wait a word from this God. For God’s word will be “a word of hope.” It is just such a God who will deliver Israel, and all people, from all their sins. According to Romans 8.6-11, a life of faithfulness to God’s love manifest in Jesus Christ is possible because of the transformative presence of God’s Spirit in those who seek to conform their lives to Christ’s faithful service to God’s love. John 11.1-45 illustrates that God’s power over life and death is the salvation of the world, that the salvation God wills for the world is life, not death, and that this salvation is available now in, with, and through Jesus, who has God’s power over death and is the life over which death has no power. [The following commentaries are informed by Marti J. Steussy, Psalms; John B. Cobb, Jr. and David J. Lull, Romans; Cobb et al., Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus; and Cobb, Spiritual Bankruptcy.]

Ezekiel 37.1-14
The present form of the book of Ezekiel came together in the 2nd-4th centuries bce during the period of Greek rule in the eastern Mediterranean world. Its traditions span from the time of the prophet Ezekiel, who was among those deported from the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon in the 6th century bce (1.1-3), to end of the 6th century, when the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Judeans to return to Judah and rebuild their temple. This political context helps us correct the popular interpretation of the vision of the “valley of dry bones” as a message about the resurrection of individuals from the dead. It is about hope for a nation in an otherwise hopeless situation after a crushing national catastrophe: the imperial Babylonians had defeated them, destroyed their temple, and deported many of them to Babylon, where they remained for almost a century.

After a brief introduction (1.1-3.15), the book of Ezekiel unfolds in two main parts. The first (3.16-33.33) focuses on remembering the past before the national catastrophe, which is interpreted as God’s judgment for Israel’s sins (3.16-23.49), and a pronouncement of God’s judgment on other nations (chapters 24-33). The second main part (chapters 34-48) focuses on the hope of reversing the consequences of the nation’s past, based on God’s promise of deliverance and restoration of the nation after the catastrophe. This part of the book consists of two parts (chapters 34-39 and 40-48), both of which deal with God’s promise to reestablish the nation in its own land. The vision of the “valley of dry bones” falls between a section on Israel’s impurity, God’s holiness, and restoration of the nation in a renewed land of abundance and safety (36.16-38); and a section on reuniting the nation and establishing an everlasting covenant of peace (37.15-28). This vision of the “valley of dry bones” is about the revival and restoration of “the whole house of Israel” (37.11). The promise of its reconstitution gives hope to the people in exile. For God’s promise to be realized, the Persian king must defeat the Babylonians and release the Judeans from captivity; and the Judeans must play their part in carrying out God’s vision for the future. If the Judeans were to continue being assimilated into hegemonic cultures in foreign lands, their identity and God’s honor would be at risk.

To keep your focus on the upbeat tone of this vision, let the wonderful imagery and rhythm of the song “Dry Bones,” based on the traditional spiritual, “Dem Bones,” play playfully in the background as you ponder this hopeful vision’s themes.

The foot bone connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone connected to the shin bone,
The sin bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the hip bone,
The hip bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the shoulder bone,
The shoulder bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Them bones got up and they walked around.

(1) The first theme is that remembering the past opens up the possibility of breaking away from past mistakes and taking up a more hopeful future. Forgetfulness of the past leads to repeating past mistakes, with continued catastrophic consequences.
The original context focused on the nation, but individual and collective human actions are among the causes of national catastrophes. In the case of the kingdom of Judah, the people entered into foreign alliances that turned sour and engaged in economic injustice. The prophets interpreted these actions as unfaithfulness to God and disobedience of God’s commandments. Their example offers us an occasion to reflect on the need to repent, individually and collectively, from actions and patterns of life contributing to national and global economic and environmental crises. By analogy, we can also meditate on the “dry bones” in our personal lives.

(2) The second theme is tied to the first. Hope for the “valley of dry bones” comes from knowing God, God’s character, and God’s vision for the future by listening to God’s word. Twice we hear God say, “…you shall know that I am the Lord” (37.6 and 13); and the last line of this vision is “you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act” (37.14). That’s a major theme of the book: God says “know that I…” 71 times in the book of Ezekiel! For Israel’s prophets, Israel’s future was based on God’s righteousness and justice—that is, on God’s love, especially for the poor, widows, orphans, and strangers in the land. Once again, we are drawn to a God whose justice is a love that does not give up on a disobedient people. We are drawn to a God whose love calls for justice for captives and outcasts.

Psalm 130
In this psalm, we encounter the character of God—and it isn’t anything like the God of classical theism and its atonement theories developed in the Middle Ages! This psalmist’s God, preeminently responsive and relational, is a far cry from an impassive, unmoved mover. This God is attentive to the voice of those who cry “out of the depths.” The image of “the depths,” used here metaphorically for extreme despair, literally means “deep waters,” the place of forces that oppose God. This image implies that God is not the only force in the world, and that God must contend with opposing forces. Moreover, God’s very character is “steadfast love.” This God, who is love, does not “mark iniquities,” because “forgiveness” is part of God’s very nature. God’s justice is not punitive; rather, it is transformative, forgiving love, which neither keeps a record of sins nor desires punishment for them. God’s character of forgiving love, or loving forgiveness, has no need for “propitiation” (appeasement) or the shedding of innocent blood for the “expiation” of sins. A greater responsiveness than “pure, unbounded love” cannot be conceived. O “love divine, all loves excelling”!

It is safe to cry to such a God “out of the depths,” and to wait a word from this God. For this God’s word will be “a word of hope.” It is just such a God who will deliver Israel, and all people, from all their sins.

As I write this commentary, people in Japan are experiencing an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. Religious and secular voices from many perspectives around the world are crying “out of the depths.” Because the brute force of earth’s moving plates and tsunamis has caused enormous suffering to people, it might be tempting to identify the causes of these tragic events with forces hostile to God’s purposes. After all, they came up “out of the depths.” Such events might be why ancient Mediterranean peoples thought of the ocean’s depths as the place of menacing forces hostile to the gods. But science tells us that earthquakes and tsunamis are natural events. The suffering and tragedy are nevertheless real. The psalmist’s God, whose very nature is “steadfast love,” cannot possibly have willed so much suffering. The natural, brutal forces of nature have collided with God’s power and “steadfast love.” Perhaps some who are suffering from this collision can find solace and hope in the knowledge that their suffering has moved God in God’s own depths to accompany them in their depths and to offer them deliverance from their despair through God’s “steadfast love.”

Romans 8.6-11
Earlier in Romans 4, Paul wrote about “righteousness”—Paul’s term for a life of faithfulness—as participation in Abraham’s trusting faith in God’s promise to “call into existence things that do not exist” (4.17). In Romans 5-7, Paul wrote about the life of faithfulness as participation in Jesus’ faithfulness in his life and death. In Romans 8, Paul turned to write about the life of faithfulness as living in and through the Spirit’s transforming power.

As in Jewish Wisdom traditions, Paul contrasts two ways of life: setting “the mind on the flesh” and setting “the mind on the Spirit.” This is not a contrast between two “parts” of human nature, since Paul uses the unqualified Greek term pneuma interchangeably with “the Spirit of God,” “the Spirit of Christ,” and “Christ.” So, Paul was contrasting a life oriented to, animated by, and under the rule of “the flesh” and one oriented to, animated by, and under the rule of the transforming divine power of “the Spirit.”
For Paul, the term “flesh” referred to all soft tissue—skin, muscles, and internal organs—which together with bones and blood comprise the body, whose “members” are the source of passions and desires. None of this is “sinful” by nature; after all, God created them. Rather, they are “sinful” because a power, “sin,” has invaded them. They are “full of sin,” not by nature, but because sin easily invades the soft tissues and exploits their passions and desires.

The flesh is too weak to fend off the invasive power of sin, even with the help of the law. What the law could not do, God did in, with, and through Christ (Rom 8.3a). By “sending” God’s “son,” who was a human being in every sense, including possessing flesh invaded by sin, but who defeated sin in his flesh with his righteous act of faithfulness to the point of death, God decisively “condemned sin in the flesh” (8.3b). Christ’s righteous act of faithfulness to the point of death opened up the new possibility of life oriented to, animated by, and under the rule of Christ’s faithfulness, or, as Paul says, the Spirit of God and of Christ, which takes the place of sin in the flesh and gives life to “mortal bodies” (8.11).

Paul’s interchangeable use of the phrases “the Spirit of God” and “the Spirit of Christ” shows that Paul considered Jesus’ life of faithfulness to death as much a result of his own will and action as a result of God’s indwelling Spirit. Jesus’ faithfulness showed the full conformity of his will to God’s indwelling Spirit. Also, for Paul Jesus’ new life from the dead was an act of God’s Spirit. If Paul thought Jesus was “God” or “a god,” it would not have made any sense to say that the Spirit of God raised him from the dead. As “God” or “a god,” Jesus would have raised himself from the dead.

The same is true for the indwelling of the Spirit in the Christian’s life of faithfulness. For Paul, the transformative power of the Spirit dwelling in the faithful did not replace the active role of the human spirit, mind, and will. Rather, the Spirit transformed life “in the flesh” for those whose mind was “set on”—oriented and conformed to—“things of the Spirit.”

In our commentary on Romans, John Cobb and I wrote, “churches lose their souls to whatever extent they define themselves in terms of a new law, whether a law of beliefs or a law of practices…. If the church cannot … [‘rid themselves of legalistic definitions and argument’] and becomes, instead, a bastion of particular beliefs and practices, it will have cut itself off radically from its Pauline roots” (Cobb/Lull, Romans, 135). For Paul, a life of faithfulness in and through the Spirit’s transforming power was not about living by a moral code or law. For him, the alternative to a life of sin or moral laxity was not a life of conformity to a moral code or law. It was a life lived in conformity to “things of the Spirit.”

How do we know what “things of the Spirit” are? Quite simply, they are “things” of the Spirit of God and of Christ. The general term for these “things” is “righteousness”—first and foremost God’s righteousness (Rom 3.21). What is that? It is God’s love manifest in Jesus Christ’s faithfulness to the point of dying for the impious, sinners, and enemies of God (Rom 5.6-11). Living in conformity to “things of the Spirit” is about living in conformity to Jesus’ faithfulness. It is a life of faithfulness to God’s “pure, unbounded love,” a “love divine, all loves excelling.”

Living in conformity to the Spirit of God and of Christ is possible because of the real presence of God, Christ, and the Spirit in those who seek to conform their lives to God’s righteousness and Christ’s faithfulness. A life of faithfulness to God’s love manifest in Jesus Christ is possible because of the real presence of God’s “pure, unbounded love,” a “love divine, all loves excelling” in those who seek to conform their lives to God’s love and Christ’s faithfulness.

John 11.1-45
Funerals are a popular setting for reading the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, as is Ezekiel’s vision of renewed life for the “valley of dry bones.” But, to set these stories in the context of a funeral misses their primary focus on the transformation of life here and now. That also obscures the role of this story in the wider narrative of the Gospel. As a result, it misses the reality of who Jesus is. So, let’s begin by exploring the role of 11.1-44 in the Gospel’s narrative.

Chapters 11-12 either belong to the conclusion to Jesus’ public ministry, since 13.1 marks the beginning of the narrative of Jesus’ “hour” to “depart from this world and go to the Father”; or they are a bridge between narratives of Jesus’ public ministry and the “hour” of his death and resurrection. By looking at what comes right before and after this story, we can see its importance in this Gospel’s interpretation of Jesus.

  • In the preceding narrative segment (10.22-42), Judean leaders confronted Jesus in the temple with the question, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” When Jesus responded with “the Father and I are one,” Judean leaders “took up stones again to stone him,” because Jesus’ blasphemous reply claimed that he was “God” (or “a god”). After Jesus’ rebuttal, he escaped before they could arrest him. Then we are told that “many believed in him.”
  • In the following narrative segment (11.45-54), Judean temple authorities condemn Jesus to death. The narrative continues with a story set in Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown: Mary anoints Jesus, foreshadowing Jesus’ death and burial (11.55-12.11).
  • So, 11.1-44 is wedged between stories about those who seek to put Jesus to death because “many believed in him.” As a counter-challenge their belief in the finality of the power of death, this story demonstrates Jesus’ God-given power over life and death.

As in the narrative style typical of this Gospel, a misunderstanding, voiced by Martha (11.24), leads into Jesus’ revelation of the work God sent him to do and of who he is: Jesus is “the resurrection and life” (verses 25-26). This entire story illustrates the truth of these verses.

  • Because only God has power over life and death, this story illustrates that Jesus has God’s life-giving power and that he has God’s power over death. [Verse 39 reflects the belief that a dead person’s spirit or breath lingers for only three days, indicating that Lazarus was beyond resuscitation; and 11.41-42 echo 9.31.]
  • This story illustrates that God’s power over life and death is the salvation of the world, and that the salvation God wills for the world is life, not death.
  • That salvation is available now in, with, and through Jesus, who not only has power over life and death: Jesus is the life over which death has no power.
  • The “resurrection and life” available in Jesus is not only “the resurrection on the last day”—and that is not the primary focus of this story. The “resurrection and life”—two terms for one thing—is the transformation of life here and now.
  • This story could be made to offer comfort to those who face death and/or to those who grieve the death of loved ones. But its primary function in this Gospel is to invite people to allow Jesus’ life-giving power and power over death to transform their lives here and now.
  • As in Rom 8.6-11, the new life Jesus gives is not a life of conformity to law or a moral code; rather, the new life is Jesus himself. It is Jesus himself who transforms the life of those who seek to live in conformity to him.

The narrative segments right before this story (10.22-42) and after it (11.45-54) serve as a warning that conformity to Jesus’ life of faithfulness to serving God can be costly. The cost we may be asked to bear is the cost of serving God’s love for the world, a love that desires abundant life for all. Powerful people and systemic forces make up “national interests” and the global economy. They are formidable adversaries against serving God’s desire that the whole world have abundant life. Humanistic values that undergird serving the poor, immigrants, people of color, and other “marginal” people, who are treated as surplus or expendable, are increasingly denied a role in today’s global economy. Those who advocate for them are dismissed as “socialists” and face political death. Those who advocate for ecological values in today’s global economy are dismissed as enemies of economic growth and development and face political death. It is important—no, essential—for churches to be prophetic voices in today’s world by conforming their ministry and mission to God’s love for the whole human and ecological world.

Serving God’s love for the world begins with loving one another within our communities of faith. Churches that lack love for one another will not be credible witnesses to God’s love. Churches that see themselves as guardians of otherworldly myths and legalistic practices are neither credible nor faithful witnesses to God’s love. The Gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent invites and calls such churches to be transformed by Jesus’ “resurrection and life,” so that they can faithfully serve God’s love for the human and ecological world.

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.