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Saturday, April 1, 2017

Come Out of the Tomb!

Sermon by Fr. Joseph Mungai
Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 1, 2017
St. John the Apostle Awasi Catholic Church, Kisumu Archdiocese, Kenya

The hope of the Resurrection is the central
theme of the Scripture readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Ezekiel 37:12-14, Romans 8:8-11, John 11:1-45)

We can see the progression in Lenten themes from the thirst for living water (on the Third Sunday)  to the healing of spiritual blindness (Fourth Sunday) to our ultimate end eternal life with the risen Lord (Fifth Sunday). 

Death and resurrection are the themes for today. The Psalmist waits for Yahweh’s redemption both for himself and for Israel. Reporting his vision in the first reading, Ezekiel bears witness to the reanimation of
the dead Israel in preparation for her return to the Promised Land. He guarantees his community in exile that Yahweh will one day bring them back to live in the freedom of the Promised Land. He assures his people that not even death will stop God from carrying out this promise. Yahweh states, "I will open your graves, have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel."

The image of dry bones given Ezekiel writes about in our first reading, may well have come from an actual battle site -- probably after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 586 BC.

After a few years, the Babylonian soldiers uprooted many of God's people and dragged them into slavery in Babylon, some 750 miles from their homeland. This was the beginning of the period known as the Babylonian Captivity, or simply the Exile. 

Ezekiel was a priest of the Temple of Jerusalem up to 597 B.C., when he was deported to Babylon with the rest of the first deportees. In his vision, the release of the Jews from the captivity and slavery of Babylon is described as a rising from their graves to return to a new life in their own homeland. Through the prophet, God assures the exiles that they will live again. They will be raised from death and filled with life. They will experience new life, life that springs from God’s own Spirit. The prophet urges his devastated nation to look beyond that catastrophe to a future that vindicates God's justice and promises the restoration of the nation through the Spirit of God.

In the second reading, St. Paul reassures the Romans of a future resurrection to a life of unending glory for all those who during their time on earth have been loyal to God and His Son Jesus. This coming resurrection is won for us by the suffering, death and Resurrection of Jesus. Paul advises the Roman Christians to allow the Holy Spirit who dwells in them to renew and sanctify them, thus making them eligible for resurrection.
“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 indwelling Spirit of God, which we have received in Baptism, will release us from the "grave" of the flesh and allow us to live the life of the Spirit. The Spirit-filled life is a life of intimacy with God. In this passage, Paul stresses the empowering action of God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

In the Gospel, of all the miracles Jesus did, the raising of Lazarus ranks as the most astonishing to the people of his time. 

Traditional Jewish belief was that the soul of a dead person somehow remained with the body for three days. After three days, the soul departed and that is when corruption set in.

When Martha objected to the opening of the tomb, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (John 11:39), she expressed the common view that it was a hopeless situation. 

Is that why Jesus delayed coming to the funeral, to let the situation become “impossible” before acting on it? English Journalist G.K. Chesterton once said, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.” In the traditional Jewish thinking,  bringing back someone to life, who is already decaying is as unthinkable as the  Ezekiel’s vision of the field of dry bones coming back to life. 

For the early Christians the story of Lazarus was more than an indication of the future resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rose on the third day; his body never saw corruption. For them this miracle is a challenge to never give up hope even in the most discouraging of situations. It is never too late for God to revive and revitalise a person, a church or a nation. But first we must learn to cooperate with God.

How can we cooperate with God so as to experience Christ's resurrection in our own lives and in our own world? Faith. 

But that is not the point that John makes in this story. In fact, there is no one in the story, not even Mary or Martha, who believed that Jesus could bring Lazarus back to life after he was four days dead. No one expected him to do it, so expectant faith is not the emphasis here. Rather the emphasis is on cooperation with a miracle-working God by practical obedience and doing God’s will.

John's Gospel begins with a wedding and closes with a funeral. There are four primary characters in this story: Jesus and three siblings who were good friends of Jesus,  Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Jesus loved these friends. The funeral rituals of Jesus’ day were different from ours. When somebody died, there was no embalming. Instead, the body was wrapped in linen and, before sunset on the day of death, was put into the burial vault -- a cave carved into limestone rock – often with myrrh, frankincense and perfumes.  Then there was intense mourning for seven days followed by a less intense mourning period of twenty-three days. Lazarus’ sisters had sent word to Jesus that their brother Lazarus was ill and perhaps would soon die.

On receiving the message, Jesus waited two more days so that the will of God might be demonstrated and God glorified by His Son. At last, Jesus went to the house of Lazarus, knowing very well that his friend had died. 

On his arrival, Jesus pacified Martha with one of the most treasured of his teachings, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus offers “eternal life,” which begins with faith now and lasts forever in its fullness. 

Then Jesus asked one of the most important questions found in the Bible, “Do you believe this, Martha?” Martha answered, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha confessed her faith in Jesus, Who had revealed himself as the Resurrection and the Life. Her faith did not depend upon seeing her brother raised from the dead. Proof begets knowledge and confirms faith. Faith does not rest on proof but precedes it. As John writes this story for the persecuted early Christian community, Martha represents that grieving community in asking the perennial question: "If Jesus gave us eternal life, why are believers still dying?" The story of the raising of Lazarus is a consoling response: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me even if he [or she] dies will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.”

To effect the miracle, Jesus issues three commands and all of them are obeyed to the letter. First, Jesus said, "'Roll away the stone.’ … So they rolled away the stone.” 

Did they understand why they had to roll away the tombstone to expose a stinking corpse? You bet they didn’t. But it was their faith in Jesus expressing itself not through intellectual agreement with Jesus but through practical agreement with him -- through obedience. 

Why didn’t Jesus command the stone to roll away all by itself, without bothering the people? We don’t quite know. All we know is that divine power seems always to be activated by human cooperation and stifled by non-cooperation. As C.S. Lewis said, “God seems to do nothing of Himself which He can possibly delegate to His creatures.” God will not do by a miracle what we can do by obedience.

"Roll away the stone, unbind him and let him go.” There are so many dark areas in our private lives. We often bind ourselves with chains of
addiction to alcohol, drugs, sexual deviations, slander, gossip, envy, prejudices, hatred and uncontrollable anger, and we bury ourselves in the tombs of despair. 

Sometimes we are buried in the tomb of selfishness, filled with negative feelings such as worry, fear, resentment, hatred, and guilt. Jesus asks us today to seek his help to loosen those chains and come out of tombs of our own creation. Is there an area of life where hope is gone? Why not invite Jesus to visit this area?

If we want Jesus to visit our dungeons of sin, despair and unhappiness, let us ask Jesus during this Holy Mass to bring the light and the power of the Holy Spirit into our private lives and liberate us from our tombs.

Are there times when we refuse to let God enter into our wallets, fearing that faithful
tithing will endanger our savings? When we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Jesus will call our name and command us, "Come out!”  

“Lazarus, come out!"  This is good news to someone who is addicted to a chemical substance or to unsavory habits. “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for the person who has lived an empty life, “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for the tired, the hurting, the person at his or her wit’s end. “Lazarus, come out!” This is good news for all of us. “Lazarus, come out!” This can be the beginning of a new life.

"Lazarus, come out!’ and the dead man came out.” We do not know what transpired in the tomb. All we know is that Jesus is immediately obeyed. Lazarus gropes his way out of the dark tomb even with his face, hands and feet tied up in bandages. Even a man rotting away in the tomb can still do something to help himself.

The third command again is addressed to the people, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Even though Lazarus could stumble out of the tomb, there was no way he could unbind
himself. He needs the community to do that for him. By unbinding Lazarus from the wrappings of death and setting him free,  the community is accepting Lazarus back as one of them.

Many individuals and communities have fallen victim to the death of sin. Many are already in the tomb of hopelessness and decay, in the bondage of sinful habits and attitudes, in the bondage of tribalism, clannisim and nepotism. Nothing short of a miracle can bring us back to life in Christ. Jesus is ready for the miracle. He himself said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10).

Are we ready to roll away the stone that stands between us and the light of Christ’s face?  Are we ready to unbind (i.e. forgive) one another and let them go free? 

How can we live this life of Jesus now? Jesus offers us His life at every Mass, every time we receive the sacraments, every time we pray, every time we read Sacred Scripture.
Jesus gave us the sacraments to lift us up to everlasting life. Allow Jesus to lift you up to new life.

Have a blessed week.

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