Living as a Resurrection People Now
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
29 March 2020
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though the die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Whenever I hear the phrase, “I am the resurrection, I am the life, those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,” I think back to one of my Air Force assignments in Washington, DC.
As some of you know, I had the great privilege of serving in the Air Force Honor Guard for three years. While some of our duties included White House ceremonies, we only did those a few times a year. The majority of our time was spent at Arlington National Cemetery. Our job was to be the Air Force’s representatives to the family of the deceased. Our presence was offered, on behalf of the whole nation, as a sign of gratitude and respect for the deceased’s military service.
I can say, without an ounce of exaggeration, that during the course of those three years I spent more time outside among the graves at Arlington Cemetery than I did in my office. Most of the people we buried back then were WWII Veterans who had died from the normal causes of death in our society. Cancer, Heart Attack, Stroke, etc. Sometimes we buried someone who had died on active duty, usually during a training accident of some sort. Encountering death and a family’s grief was a normal part of my day. We could do as many as six funerals in one day. When I finished up my time in the Honor Guard, I had participated in over 400 military funerals.
Sometimes my role as Officer-in-Charge would be to stand at the foot of the casket, with the chaplain at the other end. Most of the funerals that were conducted were Christian burials. So, I would hear, sometimes as many as six times in one day, the words said during the Commendation portion of the burial office, “In sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, we commend to almighty God thy servant, and commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him, and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance upon him and give him peace.” As I stood there day after I day, I couldn’t help but wonder about the significance of those words. What did those words mean? What did they mean for the deceased? What did they mean for the deceased’s family members? Did they believe them? Were they comforted by them? Did I believe them? What did those words mean for me?
In many ways, my vocation to the priesthood was forged during those three years at Arlington Cemetery. But while my encounter with those words set me on the path that has brought me here today, my understanding of the meaning of the Resurrection and its real implications for how I was supposed to live my life were not as apparent to me then as they are to me now.
At that time, like many others I imagine, I viewed the Resurrection mainly as an intellectual statement about what I thought was true about life after death. I viewed belief in the resurrection as having more to do with whether I generally believed in the possibility of miracles or not. I looked at the resurrection as important to me mostly because it was something that I hoped would happen to me in some distant future, at the end of my life. But over time, I have come to believe that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is actually more important for shaping the life we have been given now, rather than thinking that its importance lies only in the hope we have for it in the future.
And this, I think is one of the points Jesus is making with the raising of Lazarus. When Jesus says to Martha, “your brother will rise again,” Martha says to him confidently, I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Here Martha affirms the Jewish belief popular among the Pharisaic sect at the time of the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time, on the last day. But, Jesus doesn’t wait to the last day to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus went to the tomb with them that very day. Jesus cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, Come out!” and Lazarus came out in his burial clothes.
The raising of Lazarus as well as the passage from Ezekiel and the dry bones are, of course, not only a sign and a foreshadowing of what God would do with Jesus, but what God would do for everyone who believe in him. But the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in front of Martha and Mary and his disciples that day is also important, I think, because their relationship with their brother and friend Lazarus going forward had to be affected by it. And, Lazarus, too must have been changed by it. Would Lazarus fear death ever again?
Many of us perhaps, might say honestly and confidently that we are not afraid of death. And, this may well be true. But can we see that we are equally indifferent to concerns of the flesh, which Paul tells us leads to death? Paul wrote in Romans, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.”
To set the mind on the flesh is to be too preoccupied with sinful and selfish desires–the sinful and selfish desires that lead us to focus on ourselves, our own happiness, our own pleasure, and our own security at the expense of loving God and loving our neighbor. And, this isn’t even just about the more obvious sins, like addictions to pleasure, food, drugs, sex, or work. To set the mind on the flesh is usually more subtle and more difficult to identify, mostly because concerns of the flesh are usually celebrated by our culture as good things we should focus on and care about. Such pre-occupations can be with our health, beauty, wealth, security, social status, personal image, and intellectual respectability. Focusing too much of our energy on those things can lead us to a spiritual death, if in our pursuit and concern for them they lead us away from loving God and each other.
The events of the past week have had us all, not surprisingly, setting our minds on things of the flesh. We watch the number of global Covid-19 cases rise, we watch the death count rise. We have anxieties about the economy. One goes to the grocery store now wondering what will be out of stock. We worry about the lack of medical supplies for our health care providers. We wonder how we are going to homeschool our children and work at the same time. We wonder what we will do if we lose our job. We wonder how we should spend our money now in an uncertain economy. We wonder if we are carrying the virus and don’t know it. We wonder if we will encounter people who have it on a walk or at the store. We worry about our families and friends who are at high risk for serious illness. We wonder what we are going to look like after two months without a haircut. We wonder how long all this will last and how much worse it will get before it gets better. It is not unreasonable for us to wonder about such things. But focusing too much on them can drive our behaviors in the wrong direction. Focusing too much on matters of the flesh drives us to act out of fear and despair, rather than out of faith and hope.
But, as Paul says, if we set our mind on the spirit, we will find life and peace. And, as Christians we can do this, because setting our mind on the spirit leads us straight to our belief in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Setting our mind on the spirit, is to know that the reality of Christ’s resurrection is not something that matters to us only when we die, but informs how we live our lives now, every day. Believing in the resurrection means having a belief in a God who has never abandoned his people. Believing in the resurrection means believing in a God who does not allow sin and death to have the final word in our lives. Believing in the resurrection is believing in a God of abundance, a God of grace, and a God of mercy. It is believing in a God that has already given us everything we already need, the gifts of faith, the gift of hope, and the gift of love. With those three gifts there is no amount of suffering or hardship or sacrifice that Christians cannot endure. We have the testimony of thousands of Christians who have gone before us, not only the martyrs of history, but of the millions of faithful men and women throughout the ages, who have each endured in their own ways and in their own historical context the difficulties and challenges of their generation. Whether it has been persecutions, plagues, earthquakes, floods, genocide, or wars, the faithful Christian knows that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed and transformed by God’s love. New life comes out of death. That is the message of the Resurrection. And it doesn’t just happen at the end of time. It happened 2000 years ago. And, it’s happening now.
The surest way of setting one’s mind on the spirit is to pray. It should be the first thing we do every morning and the last thing we do every evening. This is one of the reasons we are offering Morning Prayer and Compline six days a week right now. To help us as a faith community to set our mind on the spirt. In prayer we orient ourselves to God and to our neighbor and away from solely thinking about ourselves. We’ve had dozens of people write to us and tell us how grateful and helpful the offering of these daily offices have been.
There are other things that we can do, to set your mind on the spirit and live as a resurrection people now. We can think of what and how much we buy, mindful of our neighbors and those more in need than ourselves. We can write down the names of those we know who are the most physically, emotionally, or financially vulnerable right now, and think about ways to help them. Perhaps you can buy them groceries, call them, have a meal delivered to them, pray with them over the phone. You can also make donations to non-profits, support the local businesses that are still open, and commit to still paying your pledge every week.
In the time of economic uncertainty it is very tempting to hold back one’s financial support for the church, but this is to set one’s mind on the flesh and not on the spirit. As we have always taught here at St. John’s, pledging isn’t about paying the bills, it is about equipping the church to do God’s work in the world. When you made your pledge back in October, it was a spiritual act of faith and hope in God and the church for 2020. Has your faith and hope changed since then? Will you continue to support your faith community and God’s work, even during uncertain times? Such a commitment is an act of setting one’s mind on the spirit.
But perhaps the most important thing you can do, to set your mind on the spirit, is to be calm and to endure whatever inconveniences and difficulties that this crisis has caused you with cheerfulness. Setting our mind on the spirit is to not contribute to other’s panic and anxiety, or engaging in catastrophic thinking, or spreading misinformation. Setting one’s mind on the spirit is to trust in God and act as people of faith and hope and love.
I will close by leaving you with an image, one that I hope you carry with you over these next few months. I ask you to imagine, that every morning when you wake up, you hear God calling your name. I want you to hear God calling you with the loud and commanding voice that he used to command Lazarus to rise and come out of the tomb. I want you to imagine hearing God’s voice calling you, each and every day, out of the tomb of fear, and anxiety, and pre-occupations with the flesh and the things you can’t control. Hear God saying to you, “Come Out!” Hear God’s voice calling you to live as a person of the resurrection each and every day. Hear God calling you to set your mind on the things of the Spirit, embracing the new life God gave you in your baptism. Live today and tomorrow as a resurrection people, knowing you don’t have to wait until after you die to experience new life and peace. Amen.