HOMILY for THE 5th SUNDAY OF LENT
It is important that we all realise that the Death and Resurrection of Jesus that we are about to celebrate is not just an event in history. It is that, of course. It is history. It is an amazing series of events, events that even non-believers have to admit – changed the world for better or for worse – according to their opinion about the benefits or otherwise of Christianity. As Christians, we claim what Jesus says in our Gospel today (John 11:1-45) – that anyone who believes in him is brought into a special relationship with God that we call “eternal life.” And we mean by that what Jesus clearly meant, a “life” that both affects us now, but also takes us on, to be with God eternally, beyond our physical death. So Jesus says “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” – which obviously means that although we will die physically, as he does, the life, the eternal life, we have with him, cannot be destroyed.
However, I was asked a very good question the other day. No, not the one about people who are not Christians. As I’ve explained previously, the Church teaches that God’s offer of eternal life extends beyond those who explicitly believe, even though we would say that explicit belief in Jesus, belonging to the Church, is the better way. No, the question was this. What about all the people who lived before Jesus? How can they be saved, brought into eternal life, by something that happened after they died?
Now the clue to the answer lies in our 2nd Reading, (Romans 8:8-11) where Paul tells us to think about things spiritually. If we just think about the death of Christ in a worldly way – an unspiritual way – then we’ll never find the answer to this question. This is because, as I said earlier, looked at that way, Jesus’ death is just an event in history, and nothing more. Looked at spiritually however, the death of Jesus is also an action of God himself, who is outside time and space. That’s why we, 2000 years later, can still be linked to that event, still bring that event, because it is eternal, into our present. This happens most especially, as Paul tells us, when we celebrate Mass. He writes,“Whenever you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Cor 11:26) By which he means, that when we celebrate the Mass we make Christ’s death and resurrection present here and now. It is no longer just a past event to be thought about, but a present reality to be experienced, an event, a real presence for us now.
Now we can also apply this, in a different way, to those who lived before Jesus. Since all that Jesus does to save the world is an eternal event, it can also be present for all those who lived before the historical Jesus was born. Paul says this just before the bit I have told you about the Mass. He says, of the people of Israel way back 2000 years or so before Christ, nomads in the desert, that the water found for them by Moses in the rock, was an experience of Christ. He writes, “They drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (1 Cor 10:4)
Now looked at in purely human terms, the idea that Jesus was there 2000 years before he was born, is just crazy. But that is to think about it unspiritually. If we remember that the Jesus of history is also the eternal God outside time, then we begin to see what Paul was getting at. Just as Jesus is present for us now at Mass, so he was present for people before he was born in all sorts of hidden ways, so that every time someone was moved, with love and compassion for example, they were experiencing the eternal God who was and is Christ at work amongst them.
This is why St John in his Gospel emphasises what we call the “I am” statements made by Jesus. We had one today. Martha believes that people will be given eternal life at the end of time, but Jesus contradicts her saying, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” which means his eternal life is given now. In another place he says, for example, “I am the Bread of life” linking us to what I was just saying about Mass. But most of all, in a conflict with some of those who oppose him, and before he has spoken to Martha, he says “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) Of course, we also heard the same message at Christmas, when we heard Jesus described as “The Word” who was “in the beginning with God.”
This understanding that the Jesus of history is also the eternal God, is so important for us particularly as we look on beyond the conversation with Martha to the point where Jesus comes to the grave of his friend. We too face the tragedy of sadness and death at various times in our life, and are moved to hear that when it happened to Jesus, he “wept”, and that he spoke “with a sigh that came straight from the heart”. Now that rings bells with us, doesn’t it, because it is exactly what we do when faced with a similar sadness. But here again we must remember who he is, if we are to receive the full power of this. He is not just a man, he is also God. So when he weeps and sighs, it is not just a man, but also God who weeps and sighs eternally for all the sadness and grief that we humans face. It reminds us powerfully that we are never alone, that he is always with us and alongside us, in our joys yes, but also in our sorrows. And that he has always been and will always be present for all people who need him, giving them love and strength to face all that life here and now flings at them.
This is the heart of the Christian message, that the Jesus, whose death and resurrection we will commemorate, especially in the Holy Week that begins next Sunday, is also the eternal God entering into our human history to declare that he is present in all history “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”