This year’s Lenten journey for me has been one where I have been reminded over and over again we are physical-temporal beings. The reminder started for me at the Ash Wednesday service: the very physical act of receiving ashes and being reminded that from dust we first came and to dust we will return.
This was a direct reminder of how temporal our lives are. My profession, my whole life, reminds me of the integration of the spiritual and physical, daily seeing people in pain, physically putting my hands on them and watching their whole demeanor change because the physical pain is less or gone. Then little things, like the fact that I’m wearing glasses for the first time in my life and all the gray hair that just keeps coming back no mater how much I cut it.
All distinct reminders that time waits for no one.
I’m continually reminded of my grandmother who is suffering under the devastating effects of the terrible disease of Alzhiemer’s. My pastor, Doug, said it best last Sunday when he said that Lent is a microcosm of our faith journey.
It wasn’t much before lent that we found out about a 4 year little boy named Ben, whose mother Aimee and I went to college with, had been diagnosed with a stage four Glyoblastoma – a very aggressive brain tumor. This tumor was in fact so aggressive that a mere 3 weeks after the Neurosurgeon removed half of the mass it doubled its original size. In the midst of this pain, anxiety, and astonishment that this little boy will not get to see his fifth birthday the family found out that they are expecting another child.
Whether it’s a story like this or one of the countless other stories that have heart wrenching implications, most of us would easily identify that something in our current situation isn’t right. And it’s easy to start asking the why question trying to discover an answer that would somehow alleviate the foul taste in our mouths towards the limits of our physical bodies.
The truth of the matter is there is a debt that all mortals pay. Death is going to come for each of us eventually. It’s a little easier to accept when a saint has lived a full and faithful life and passes at 99, but not so easy when you consider that little 4 year old boy begging for a miracle. Death and the trouble of this temporal life are not fun topics to address. But there is hope.
Let start with the Old Testament text we have a rather odd story, but a very descriptive story about a mortal and some dry bones in the bottom of a valley. There is a lot of interesting things that are happening here. I find it interesting that Ezekiel is addressed as mortal while the conversation is fleshed out.He is reminded of the problem of his temporality as he sees something astonishingly hopeful.
There is a progression that flows through this passage the recognition of dry lifeless bones, then the bones begin to receive flesh, and these bodies begin to breath with new life.
So what is really going on here? The picture that is unfolding before us is a glimpse of the resurrection. This is eschatological in nature. This passage is about the physical resurrection that will take place at the time of the new creation when all of the cosmos will be redeemed. Pay close attention to verse 14.
14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
Where there was once death there is now life through the Spirit of the Lord.
Hold on to this verse as we jump forward to the New Testament text. Again we get to deal with matters of life and death, but in Roman’s we have an added feature that Ezekiel didn’t have, the privilege of knowing. In the Roman’s passage again we’re dealing with life and death. We’re dealing with the physical nature of our mortal, temporal body. But in the end, we are given a beautiful picture of hope through Chirst.
11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ* from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through* his Spirit that dwells in you.
Where there was once death, there is now life in Christ, and not just for some mysterious bones in a valley, but for all those who walk this life in His Spirit.
All three passages outline a relationship between death and life. Each deal directly with resurrection. In fact, each deals with the physical resurrection of flesh. In each of the passages we have something that was once dead that was physically brought back to life.
To understand the resurrection, particularly the resurrection of Lazarus, we should consider how Jewish and early Christian culture understood resurrection. This will help us to understand resurrection in our context. Then we talk about the hope that we have as Christians because of the resurrection.
In the ancient world, death was the end all be all. It was viewed as a one way street that could not be avoided or overcome. Once death arrived there was no way to break its power. In the largely pagan world of the Ancient Near East, there were largely two ways for understanding what happened after death, with a small percentage of the culture accepting a third option. In the first group, there were those who knew that death was the final act. When the last breath was taken, there was nothing left. That was it; you died and were gone – no hope.
The other side was looked more like the belief system of Plato and his philosophers. They asserted that the soul was essentially trapped in a prison of flesh and that death unlocked the prison and the disembodied soul would continue on – better than when it was trapped by the flesh. This idea brings some hope at least more than the previous option, but that hope was not for this world. Rather, it was hope of escape.
It gets interesting when we bring the word “resurrection” to the table in the ancient world. The word in it Greek, Latin, and other equivalents was never used to define a life after death, like some of the Greeks believed in.
Resurrection was used to denote a new bodily life after some-sort-of afterlife. This is important to remember when we look at Lazarus’s story. In the ancient Judeo-Christian world, resurrection was two-stage event. There would be death, something that would happen after death, which we have only the vaguest concept of, but then eventually there would be new bodily life.
With this in mind, let’s look at the gospel text. There are few interesting things that strike me as odd or maybe simply interesting. First, I have a few questions about the passage. Why did Jesus wait? He received news that his friend was dying. By this time everyone pretty much knew Jesus could heal the sick. Why did he wait those extra two days?
Next, why did Jesus have to explain the fact Lazarus had died twice? You would have thought the disciples would have caught on to the ways that Jesus spoke by now.
Next, I find it interesting that both Martha and Mary blame Jesus for their brother dying. “It was you, Jesus; you didn’t come. He died; therefore, it’s your fault that he died.” Since we’re on the subject of Martha, it is interesting that when Jesus mentioned the fact the Lazarus would rise again that Martha, being a good Jewish women, immediately assumed that his resurrection would be on the last day at the new creation, even though in the previous breath she had just made the statement to Jesus that, basically, in so many words, I know you can bring him back. This just goes to show how deeply ingrained the idea of a physical resurrection was in the life a typical 1st century Jewish person.
By now you’re all thinking how many more questions can he ask about these verses? The truth is, a lot. John is the only gospel to record the resurrection of Lazarus, which raises even more questions. This whole section of John is very intriguing to me but let’s get to the good stuff. Lazarus, after being dead and buried for 4 days is resurrected.
Jesus did it. He took a man where there was once death and now there’s life. Physical resurrection of the flesh. He stood up in the face and death and showed that he had power over the temporal world and that his abilities were far more powerful that death itself by returning life to the flesh and bones of Lazarus.Jesus waited to show us one of the deepest truths of His power: He brings life to deadness, and, as for this miracle, this was only a type of resurrection, one that led to more normative human life. But, there is a resurrection to come that will be fully restorative, one like no person, save Jesus has experienced.
So what does all this mean? What are the implications of a physical resurrection? Let me first be very clear. We are talking about the resurrection of the physical. Something that will eventually happen. I am by no means suggesting that this is something that happens at the moment of death and I’m not entertaining what is currently happening to those who have gone before us. That’s a different conversation for a different day. What I would like to do is ask some basic questions surrounding resurrection in the Christian paradigm.
Who will be resurrected?
According to John and Paul everyone.
When will the resurrection happen?
At the new creation, when the new earth and the new heaven are joined to together, with God the Creator redeeming the entire cosmos. The new world will be once again exactly what we need and want. Fit for our service with our new bodies, we will eagerly get to doing the work of the kingdom tending the new earth.
What will the new body be like? This is where I get excited. For the answer I have to look at Paul in 2 Corithians 4:17 where he notes that these bodies will carry the weight of glory. Beyond that we look to our Lord. After his resurrection something had changed. He looked different but the scars in his hand, feet, and side were still present.
The new body is no longer subject to sickness, injury, decay, or death. None of the destructive forces will have any power over the new body. Perhaps the most important thing to remember when we’re talking about the subject of the new body is to remember that our existence currently is physical and spiritual existence and so shall it be when we receive the our new bodies. We will not be disembodied souls floating around on clouds wearing flowing white robes playing harps. We will be experiencing what we are now, except more fully and without flaw.
Imagine, no more glasses or gray hair, no more pain, no more Alzheimer’s, no more little 4 year boys dying of aggressive brain tumors. This is the life that awaits us, a life not unlike the current life we presently live, but a different life where the entire cosmos is renewed, redone, redeemed. A return to the Garden. This is the life that awaits those who have the Spirit breathing life into our flesh and bones.
Where there was one death, there is now life.
As we began to move towards Holy Week and the conclusion of Lent let us reflect on the power of God the Father, the life giving breath of the Spirit, and the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us through dying a very physical death in order to secure the new life and redemption of the entire cosmos.