Anticipating Easter: Life in the Spirit!
There is nothing in the world my father hates more than rats. I know this from experience. When I was a teenager, a local flood had caused the sewage to back up into the basement. Aside from requiring significant clean-up, the flooding had allowed a rat to get into the house. I remember sitting with my dad, who was a policeman, at the kitchen table in the late hours of the night waiting for the rat to show himself in the opening to the rafters that had not yet been sealed off during a kitchen remodeling project. Together, we sat silently for an hour or more, my dad aiming his gun at the opening, ready at any moment to shoot the rat. In the end, we went to bed defeated.
The next day, dad set a trap to catch the filthy rodent alive. In no time at all, the rat found the bait and entered the cage of its doom. My father took the vermin outside and announced to his boys, who were fascinated by the proceedings, that he was going to show us how to kill a rat. He filled a 10-gallon bucket with water and then lowered the trapped rat into the bucket. “We’ll leave it there for a while,” he told us. We went inside. After a long interval had gone by, we went back outside to the drowned rat. As my dad lifted the cage out of the bucket, a soaking wet, dead rat lay at the bottom. As he opened the cage and dumped the rat on the ground, my father said, “That… is how you kill a rat!” But as the rat hit the ground, it suddenly came to life and began to scurry off. Stunned and angered by this turn of events, dad grabbed a metal shovel that was nearby and chased the rat down. It did not survive his shovel attack.
We still laugh about dad telling us how to kill a rat, and we have passed the advice on to the next generation. “You trap it, and then you nearly drown it, and then you let it go and attack it with a shovel.” The kids always get a kick out of the story!
Perhaps I should call that poor rat Lazarus. He was briefly “recalled to life” as Charles Dickens writes about Dr. Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. But, like Manette and Lazarus, the poor rat did, alas, ultimately die. While the story of Lazarus conveys important information about Jesus’ identity—One who has power even over death—it is not ultimately a story of resurrection. Concerning his identity, we have the powerful exchange between Martha and Jesus. Martha said to him, “‘I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus told her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God…’”
Revived from the dead, in one sense Lazarus resembles the poor rat in my story more than the Resurrected Christ. After all, Lazarus was revived but not transformed into the new body that is no longer subject to death that genuine resurrection, in the Christian sense, entails. We have a miracle here—“the Son of God [was] glorified” by raising Lazarus from the dead—but it is not THE miracle. That will only come at Easter.
Taken together, today’s readings are pointing our attention to something else besides the raising of the dead. They want us to know HOW to get there. Ezekiel makes it clear that it is God’s doing, and that the source of life is the Spirit: “Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them… I will put my spirit in you that you may live… thus you shall know that I am the LORD. I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.” In the Psalm, we come to see that this work of God is a work of mercy: “For with the LORD is kindness and with him is plenteous redemption; And he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.” Paul brings this all together in his letter to the Romans: “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
This, then, is really the focus of the readings: not revival of the dead—mere resuscitation, which even my rat experienced to some degree—but life in the Spirit, which is not subject to death. Here, I must confess I have been unfair to Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus by comparing him to a lowly rat! Lazarus, after all, was in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, who even wept at his death. This alone is what brings a person beyond sin and death and into the heart of the Trinity. Only in the Spirit of Christ can sin be forgiven and the fullness of life received. This, indeed, is the meaning of Lent: to turn from sin and believe (as Martha did) in the Gospel. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Editorial credit: Freedom Studio / Shutterstock.com for the Raising of Lazarus image.