Outside time so present in all time

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.”

 

 

 

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Christ brings life and light

Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Why, just before we celebrate the Lord’s Passion, should we be given this story of the raising from the dead of Lazarus? (Jn 11:1-45).  Are we meant to see it as an allegory or image of Jesus’ own passion? If this is the case, how does it help us to understand that death and resurrection, for there are significant differences between the two and the implications of Jesus’ own resurrection would anyway be quite different.

Perhaps we need to start with John’s carefully laid scene, in which we are told details of the family of Lazarus and his sisters; the place, so close to Jerusalem and the Lord’s own passion; and above all, of the intense affection Jesus had for this trio. In giving us this material, surely John wants us to identify and understand what is happening; for he never just idly throws in details and those details give us hints of the significance of this supreme miracle – the raising of one dead to life and of its implications for Judaism.

Then there are the accounts of the behaviour of different people. First, the typical cluelessness of the disciples; their fear for the Lord, lest by returning to Judaea he should fall foul of the authorities who recently hounded him out of the area. They want to shield and protect him – he wants to face the Jewish authorities; the time for the show-down has come! Hence the elliptical statement about there being 12 hours in the day when one can see and the night in which one can’t, ‘without the light’. Already in John 8 Jesus had told them “I am the light of the world.” The time for him to act decisively has come and he wants to challenge the authorities! The disciples don’t understand that Lazarus is actually dead, so Jesus has to spell it out, at which point Thomas wants everyone to go up to Judaea and face the authorities, ‘to die with him’, presumably with Jesus who is in danger and an over bold statement for one who would later deny the resurrection until he had actually felt the places of the nails on Jesus’ risen body, and clearly didn’t really know what he was talking about.

Is this then a story about the gradual development of understanding and belief in the resurrection of Jesus; a story which begins with Lazarus and will only end with the much more dramatic return from death of Jesus and the beginning of the Christian community, the community of the resurrection?

Clearly the two stories differ significantly, for Lazarus would anyway die again, indeed the Jewish authorities would seek to murder him precisely because he was such a potent witness to Jesus’ power beyond death. And Jesus, as we know, was raised from the dead to live eternally and give eternal life to all. Yet resurrection ‘on the last day’, as Martha puts it, was widely accepted by Jews at this period, so why was that of Lazarus, and indeed Jesus so significant? Of course, those responsible for the death of Jesus, the Sadducees some of whom were the High Priestly family, did not accept resurrection in any shape or form, so we can see why Lazarus would have been such a problem. The majority however clearly believed in some form of ‘eternal life’ with God, but, from what we know of Jesus’ teaching, quite clearly he taught a much more intimate and lively relationship than anything most Jews believed in, as we know from Paul, we are to be made ‘heirs of God’; ‘sharers in the divine nature’.

Jesus’ conversation with Martha seems to point to the crux of the difficulty. She speaks of the resurrection of believers ‘on the last day’, but Jesus takes this belief onto an entirely new plane: “I am (the divine name) the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Thus believers in him ‘live’ whether alive or dead.

Jesus claims that in his own being, even now he has power over eternal life with God. Martha acclaims him as the Messiah, the one from God who would bring in God’s full reign on earth with all its implications in the here and now for his followers. For Jews awaiting the eschaton, the full reign of God on earth, were looking for real and material benefits in the near future, here and now on earth, and not in some far distant ghostly paradise.

Something momentous and very un-Jewish is going on, but at that point we do not quite see what it is. Everything is still left at the level of promise and expectation. But when faced with the much more raw grief of Mary things change. Jesus has spoken of his power as “I am the resurrection and the life”, now we see what that implies, as, moved by pity, he responds to Mary’s grief by raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus can and does overrule the barriers between life and death and returns Lazarus to full bodily life then and there, and by so doing speaks eloquently of his own bodily resurrection which will come about after his passion and death. In his actions, by his prayer to the Father, the ultimate glory of God is to be revealed in the Son who can raise from the dead a beloved brother and will himself rise to confound both his and God’s enemies and the power of evil.

We have come a long way from Ezekiel’s promise (Ezek 37:12-14) of hope of return to their homeland to the exiles of the Babylonian conquest in the 6th century BC. Back then, no one even believed in resurrection to eternal life, and one’s only hope was in the future, through one’s children, and the prophet gives a heartening message to the exiles. In this reading then, we find a hint of the long, long journey to God which will find its end in the resurrection of Christ. St Paul too, (Romans 8:8-11), writing from the other side of the Resurrection, reminds the Christians of Rome of the need to live their lives within the dimension of the spirit, the spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and is even now living in them/us, despite the deadness of parts of our lives. We too, like the Roman Christians, need to remember that we are already, through the spirit, children of the resurrection.

Explaining the Resurrection

In the last two weeks a number of people have asked me to explain why the Risen Christ showed himself to the women and to his disciples in so many different ways that often seem quite strange, so I thought now would be a good time to look at them in more detail and answer some of the questions I have been asked.

First of all, it’s no good trying to understand the nature of the Risen Christ by comparison to any other human experience. The Resurrection is a unique moment and there is nothing like it, except perhaps the Big Bang when the Universe was created – another unique moment.  Sometimes we call the Resurrection the New Creation!

One person suggested to me that the Resurrection might be a Hologram, and then immediately he said it, realised this wouldn’t make sense. They didn’t know about “holograms” in those days, but they knew about ghosts, and the Risen Jesus says clearly (Luke 24:39) “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”  Yes, they can touch him, just as we heard last week when Thomas needed to touch him before he could really believe what was happening. Today’s Resurrection story(John 21:1-19) like some others, (Luke 24:30) also tells us that the Risen Jesus ate with them – which is certainly not something that ghosts or holograms can do!

Yet the risen Jesus also comes to them mysteriously even when the doors in the room are locked, so he is clearly not simply a body come back to life again! No, he is in some way transformed, and his transformed body is only visible to them for a short while at certain times. These times, the Resurrection appearances, are clearly given to them by God to assure them that this new Risen Presence of Jesus is absolutely real, and will last for ever.

St Paul says that we too will be transformed like this when we die, if we trust in the saving power of Jesus. And because he compares our transformation to that of Jesus, we can learn more about what the Resurrection is like from him. He writes : “But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?..  How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body…..    So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

But be careful here, for by “body” Paul does not mean our flesh, but rather our whole being. He wants us to know that when we die in Jesus, then as we leave the physical dimension and enter the spiritual dimension, we will be like Jesus, so that however much we are transformed, we still keep our identity.

One of the other Easter questions I was asked comes in here, because although, as we have heard, Jesus encourages them to touch him and to eat with him, he tells Mary Magdalene when she touches him, not to cling on to him. (John 20:17) Clearly this is because the Resurrection is not about clinging on to the past, of having Jesus back just as he was before, but is the power of God sending them all, and us, forward into an unknown future. We too can cling on to that part of our faith that has helped us most, and can be reluctant to let God take us on to where we would rather not go.

And that, you see, is just what the Risen Jesus predicts for St Peter at the end of our Gospel today, “Somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.” (John 21:1-19) Here, Jesus is pointing Peter on to that moment many years later in Rome when he will not deny Jesus as he had done previously. Jesus, by his threefold questioning of Peter, asking him 3 times “Do you love me” has purged Peter of his threefold denial and prepared him for his future role as the leader of the early Church.

Just as there are many different stories in the Bible of how the Risen Jesus appears to people in different ways, so it is for us. Although we may not see him, we still experience his Presence, and that Presence will be different for each one of us. Sometimes we need comfort and reassurance, and at other times we need to be challenged and given courage.  Of course, we may be challenged when we would rather be comforted, but in the long run God knows best, and we are better simply saying to him. as Peter said to Jesus “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” And Jesus says to us “Follow me.”