The Fifth Sunday in Lent E. Bevan Stanley
March 29, 2020/ Year A
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
COVID19 is commanding much of our attention this Lent. Indeed, it almost seems as if protecting ourselves and our loved ones from infection and helping our neighbors in any way we can has become our Lenten discipline. It is frightening disease and we do not how bad it will get or how long it will last. We can never be sure if we have not breathed in the virus and may be carrying it to those we love.
When I read the collect for this Fifth Sunday in Lent I was struck by the phrase, “among the swift and varied changes of the world.” That is certainly where we are: among the swift and varied changes of the world.” Certainly our worlds hare changing swiftly. And what does the collect say we should be seeking? That “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found.” Many of us are discovering many joys in our forced “distancing” and self-quarantines. We are calling and Skyping and Zooming many more people than usual. We are cooking or taking walks or reading more. Maybe praying more or writing. And of course the truest joys are to be found in God, and that is where we try to fix our hearts. And to achieve that we ask God to give us the grace or gift to love what God commands and to desire what God promises. What does God command? That we love. And what does God promise? That we will live.
That we will live. This promise is the message of the prophet Ezekiel. In his epic vision of the valley of dry bones, he discovers that death is not the end. That our God is the God of the living. We recall that in Hebrew a single word means wind and breath and Spirit. The prophet calls the wind from the four corners of the earth, and the Holy Spirit comes and breathes new life into the bones. The prophet is explicit that these bones are the whole house of Israel. This is not about how each of us will transcend death. It is about the restoration of the nation that had been defeated by the Babylonians and taken into exile. This is about the renewal of people of God, the return from exile, and a restored community.
In the short passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, the apostle makes a sharp distinction between flesh and spirit. This requires some interpretation. The word he uses for flesh is σάρξ (sarx). He does not use the word σῶμα (soma) which means “body.” Soma is the word used in the phrases “the resurrection of the body” and “the Body of Christ.” The word for “spirit” is πνεῦμα (pneuma), which like the Hebrew means breath and spirit. Paul is not advocating a dualism that says the spirit is good and the body is bad. This is a heresy that was identified as contrary to Christian belief early on, although it does tend to reappear. It is not the job of religion to take us out of the physical realm into one of pure spirit. No. In Jewish and Christian thinking, one cannot be a human being without both a body and the Spirit. Instead, the distinction Paul is making is between the egoic self, which he calls the flesh and the true self, which he calls the Spirit. The egoic self is the one that tells the story of who I am and what makes me unique. I was born at a certain time into a certain family. I was raised a certain way and I have certain abilities and traits. I have had cert experiences and achievements. This is who I am. The egoic self is frightened of death and will become self-defensive when threatened. This egoic self is not false, but it is different from the true self. The true self is made in the image of God. The true self is made of stardust. The true self breathes with the spirit of God. The true self is united to God and all the rest of the created universe. The true self does not fear death for it cannot die. The true self can give itself away in love in ways the egoic self cannot. Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh, the egoic self, is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit, the true self, is life.” He goes on “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
This pandemic we are experiencing now is a chance for us to reflect on the difference between our egoic selves and our true selves. The aim of meditation and contemplative prayer is help us become more conscious of our true selves. To become more aware of our union with God—how we are in God and God is in us. This is the mystery of the Eucharist, that Christ is in us and we in him. The challenge is to connect the reality of the egoic self with the mystery of the true self. To put it another way we are called to have our lives be sacraments of the presence of God in the world.
This is the point of the story in John of the raising of Lazarus from death. Jesus deliberately stays away when he hears that his friend is ill. Then he goes to Bethany to bring him back to life. When Martha confronts him with, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” Jesus responds with, “I am the resurrection and the life.” His life is so intimately connect to the life of God that death has no dominion over him. Jesus passes this connection to divine life on to us. On the evening of the day when Jesus returns from the dead he will breathe on his disciples and say, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This does not mean that they will escape physical death. It means that their lives, our lives, are part of God’s life. It means that we participate in God’s eternal life now and always. It means that we can live this life out of the well spring of life that is our true selves placing our egoic selves in the service of God.
So here we are trying hard not to breathe on one another. And as our bodies keep six feet between each other, we find we can be united in the Spirit that share. Our true selves can be in touch with each other in new ways. We find God can “bring into order the unruly wills and affections” of our egoic selves. The dry bones of our society, our country, and our world can be revived and brought together. And we will hear Jesus’ words of liberation directed at us when he says, “Unbind him, unbind her, let them go.”
Pray with me again this wonderful collect: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.