No concept is more restricted by the limits of our human nature than the life Jesus offers his followers. What exactly is that life?
In the 1960s epic movie Barabbas, the title character asks Lazarus, years after the event narrated in today's gospel passage, "What's it like being dead?" Jesus' resuscitated friend responds, "How do you explain to a fetus in the womb what it means to be alive?" In such a situation you're talking about two different concepts of life. The second has yet to be experienced in a fetal environment. It's impossible to describe.
Our Christian sacred authors faced a similar difficulty when they tried to explain the life which comes to us when we die and rise with Jesus.
Ezekiel didn't have that problem. He simply guarantees his community in exile that Yahweh will one day bring them back to live in the freedom of the Promised Land. He's so certain of this that he assures his people that not even death will stop God from carrying out this promise. If need be, Yahweh states, "I will open your graves, have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel."
Paul, on the other hand, goes beyond the restoration of life his readers have already experienced. The Apostle reflects on the brand new life which is at the heart of the existence Jesus' disciples now live. It's not just a return to an ideal past life.
Though Christians live in the same world as non-Christians, Paul assures his readers, "You are not in the flesh; you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you . . . . If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness." Paul believes that even before our "mortal bodies" come to life after our physical death, the deepest part of ourselves - our spirit - has left its old life behind and stepped into the new life Jesus promised and experienced.
Writing about 40 years after Paul, John carries this idea several steps further. The last gospel writer is a proponent of "realized eschatology." He believes that much of what we're expecting to happen in the future - especially after death - is already taking place right here and now.
Today's exchange between Jesus and his grieving friend Martha is a perfect example of John's "new and improved" theology. "Your brother will rise," Jesus assures her. She then echoes the "traditional" first century belief, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day."
At this point, John's Jesus leads Martha down a new road. "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even if they die, will rise, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
Not only are we assured that our faith in Jesus will one day bring us eternal life, it's bringing us that life long before we leave this earth. In some sense, we're also called to "come out" of our old ideas of eternal life and, like John, explore new ways in which Jesus' life is already being realized and experienced now.
Many wonder what motivated such a significant theological change. The answer is simple. Jesus' earliest followers weren't restricted by a set of established dogmas and doctrines. They relied on what I mentioned above: their day by day experience of the risen Jesus being a part of their lives. Some of us more modern followers of Jesus believe falling back on dogmas and doctrines is enough to get us into heaven. We forget that because our ancestors in the faith put their trust in their faith experiences they actually were able to recognize the heavenly life invigorating their daily lives.