But for God – Reflections on the 5th Sunday of Lent 2014

Ezekiel 37:1–14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6–11
John 11:1–45

One thing I love about reading from four portions of Scripture, whether it is for Eucharistic Gatherings or Morning & Evening Prayer, is that it repeatedly demonstrates the constant connection between what has happened, what is happening and what will happen. Ezekiel 37, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45 are certainly no exception!

We have oft spoken about the ways in which God repeatedly reveals the truth or significance of what He is doing. We saw the fore-shadowing of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, for example, in the processional movement of Abraham up to Melchizedek, and in David leading the Ark up to Jerusalem. “Lift up your heads, O gates,” declares Psalm 24, “And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.” Indeed, the triumphal entry itself, was not the final fulfillment of these prophetic occurrences, but a progressive filling as redemptive history snowballs toward that moment when Jesus will once again approach the primeval doors of the Eastern Gate, this time not as a Suffering Servant but as the LORD of Hosts, the King of Glory! I want you to keep this type of historic thread in mind as we consider today’s passages.

Clearly God was invoking memories of Genesis 1 and 2 when he presents Ezekiel the vision of dried bones and asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Wisely diplomatic when speaking to His Creator, Ezekiel replies, “Lord, GOD, only you know.” Bringing to Ezekiel’s mind Genesis 2:7, God commands, “Prophesy concering these bones and say to them: ‘I will cause breath (ruach) to enter you and you will live….I will put my spirit (ruach) in you so that you come to life.’” And fascinatingly, only when truly alive will you know who God is: “Then you will know that I am Yahweh.”

Let us not leave the Ezekiel passage without noting the physical fulfillment of this symbolic prophecy: “This is what the Lord God says: I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them, My people, and lead you into the land of Israel” (37:12). Giving notice that this will be the realization of the New Covenant promise, God continues: “I will put My Spirit in you, and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I am Yahweh. I have spoken, and I will do it.” Let us not be tempted to think that this was finally fulfilled in 1948, rather we will see this fulfilled in that day when Jeremiah 16:14-15 comes true, when people will no longer speak of God as He who brought Israel out of Egypt, but as He who gathered all His people from the four corners of the earth.

The apostle Paul reminds us just what lifeless existence looks like: the mind-set of lifeless flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit-infused is “life and peace.” I love how God fills the word “life” with the same inhabiting Presence as He fills our rattling bones. Never should we read the “life” God provides as bare existence, rather it is the absence of hostility, the satisfying of want, the abundant life Jesus promised: His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge (and participation in) of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share/participate in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires” (2 Peter 1:3-4 HCSB)

The Gospel reading informs us not just that Jesus has power over death, but that He is compassionate and caring, that the demonstration of His sovereign power does not preclude His joining us in sorrow over the aches and longings of our too often spirit-devoid lives. Seeing our condition, seeing lives marred by sin, Jesus is deeply stirred in his spirit and moved to tears.

“As Jesus sees Mary and her comforters crying, the reality of what has happened hits him. Even though Jesus knows that he is the resurrection and the life, the tears and the loss affect him, and he weeps. This is one of those extraordinary moments when we see into the heart of the paradoxical things that Christianity says about God. Jesus is here to demonstrate God’s absolute power of life over death, and yet he reacts as we all do to a life cut short, to the desolation of losing someone we love, and sharing the pain of others who mourn him, too.

And it is this Jesus, human, shaken, mourning, who goes to Lazarus’s tomb and raises him from the dead. It is not an act of calm and majestic power, but an act of hope that love is stronger than death.”[1]

Let us not lose sight, however, of the fact that Jesus’ compassion was costly. His disciples remind him before heading toward Bethany: “Rabbi, just now the Judaeans tried to stone You, and You’re going there again?” In choosing to join Mary and Martha in their suffering the pains of a sin-broken world, Jesus is ensuring his own death: “Many of the Jews who came to Mary and saw what He did believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done….So from that day on they plotted to kill Him” (11:45-46, 53).

How little does Lenten discipline cost us? Might even these small deprivations be a participation in the sufferings of Messiah? Only by virtue of His life-enabling Spirit can our feeble efforts become life-enhancing tools; but with the Spirit’s breath within us, our efforts are invigorated and blessed, a sharing in the divine nature St. Peter tells us. Therefore, since we are in Messiah, we are a new creation, and we may participate in God’s ministry of reconciliation; God making His appeal through us.

What are we without God’s Presence? Bone-dry and stinking, desperately calling from the depths, hostile to God and unable to please, dead in sin and languishing in lifeless ignorance of the Good News of God—of His presence, His character and His actions. This is the message of Lenten reflection, but for His presence, but for His inspiring love and life-giving Spirit, we are but spent ashes, lifeless dust, arid expanses, waterless river beds made for a purpose but devoid of life, our solitary efforts amounting to ought but a putrefying lump of decaying flesh. But lift up your heads you lifeless gates, be lifted up you dead wooden doors, lift up your voices you muted stones, for the King of Glory approaches: let Passiontide begin!


[1] Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections: Year A (London: SPCK, 2004), 52–53.

Surprised by NT Wright… in more than one way

Jason Byassee has written a wonderful biopic on N.T. Wright, former bishop of Durham and now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. The article, titled “Surprised by NT Wright”, is available in full only to paid subscribers, unfortunately, I might add.NT-Wright

There is much to marvel at and to appreciate, but I was struck by several paragraphs which are still haunting me.

“Then the crown jewel: three chapters on the heart of Paul’s theology. Here the sum is greater than the very impressive parts. Theology, argues Wright, is something Paul pioneered. Jews and Romans could talk about spiritual matters such as fortune, or unseen powers that require our placating. But theology does work among the earliest Christians (and us) that it never had to do for their predecessors. Theology does the work for Paul that circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath did for the old Paul, the zealous Jew Saul of Tarsus. It marked out a community as distinct from the world. It still does—just not nearly as biblically in most cases as Wright thinks it should.”

Would Wright himself agree with the summary statement that theology for Paul (or us) does the work that “circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath” did prior to Christ? That seems too glaringly gnostic for anyone of Wright’s historical acumen to buy. Furthermore, the dualistic dichotomy that it predicates between our head and the conduct of our lives would be a devastating blow to integrated, wholesome living.

“But Jews of Paul’s time were nowhere near so individualistic, so obsessed with the next life, so unfamiliar with grace as were the late medieval Christians. Instead of teaching about souls being saved from hell, say the NPP scholars, Paul is centrally teaching about God’s faithfulness to Israel. He is showing that Yahweh is a God who keeps his promises, and so can be trusted to fulfill his promises in history. NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God. Paul doesn’t say not to do them because you’ll go wrong and think you’re earning salvation. He says not to do them because the Messiah has come and the world is different now. All people can worship Israel’s God and should do so together without ethnic division.”

This paragraph starts off so well; it highlights nicely why the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) appeals to so many Millennials and Messianics—folks who recognize that there is a diseased root somewhere in our theology. But it turns unbiblical with jarring rapidity, suggesting (at least in Byassee’s evaluation) that Paul was tweaking our reason for not keeping God’s laws. Which conflicts violently with the statement of the preceding sentence, “NPP scholars actually think the works commanded in the law are good gifts from God.”

I found the man described in Byassee’s article incredibly winsome, but I was alternatively delighted and disturbed by his description of Wright’s conclusions. I’m wrestling now with whether my reading of N.T. Wright is more or less accurate than Jason Byassee’s.

“It’s very Anglican,” he says of his hope to make justification, heaven, and Christ’s return more biblical. He’s engaging critically with a doctrine, saying it’s been wrongly understood, then going to the biblical sources and coming back to that doctrine with greater conviction.

And here again, I find something from Wright that resonates with me deeply.