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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

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John’s Jesus then provides us with the “new and improved” theology: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”


APRIL 2ND, 2017, FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

A critical reading of Scripture shows us that we profess a constantly evolving faith. It’s always on the move. Just when we think we’ve nailed it down, we read the next author and discover it’s shifted once again. Because our sacred authors are committed to sharing their ever-changing insights with us, we have no choice but to accompany them on their unique faith journey. Nowhere is this movement clearer than in today’s well-known gospel pericope.

Though I learned very early in my grade school religion classes what exactly was going to happen to me when I took my last mortal breath, our Christian sacred authors never attended those classes. We know from I Thessalonians 4 - the earliest Christian writing we possess – that Paul thought Christians who had the misfortune to die before Jesus’ Second Coming would simply have to spend time in their graves awaiting that event. They would rise only when he/she returned.

The first two evangelists – Mark and Matthew – never say anything which would contradict Paul’s theology. But by the mid-80s when Luke writes his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, faith in the risen Jesus’ imminent return is beginning to wane. We hear in Luke’s narrative of Stephen’s martyrdom that Jesus comes for him at the moment of death; he doesn’t have to wait for the Parousia to have that glorious experience. In some sense, Christians can now expect to have their “personal Parousia” when they die.

John takes Luke’s theology one step further when he writes his gospel in the mid-90s. He uses Jesus’ raising of Lazarus as the vehicle to convey it. In her conversation with Jesus, Mary gives the “old” theology. “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” John’s Jesus then provides us with the “new and improved” theology: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

All who study John know about his knack for pushing “realized eschatology.” In other words, what we expect to happen only at the end of time – the “eschaton” – John presumes is already happening right here and now. In regards to the afterlife, he’s convinced such an existence is already part of our lives even before we breathe our last. In this particular passage, he demonstrates his belief with a sign: Lazarus is alive though he physically died.

Our sacred authors have come a long way from the 6th century BCE days of Ezekiel when there was no belief in an afterlife as we know it. For Yahweh to return all the exiled Chosen People to the Promised Land, he’ll have to actually open up some graves, pull them out and bring them back. But this will be a unique resuscitation; only these particular Jews will experience it. Everyone else’s life will still definitely end with their physical deaths.

Yet even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, now that all people have a chance to achieve eternal life, we’re still not 100% certain in what that life consists. Paul can assure the church in Rome, “. . . The one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” But we know from his I Thessalonians theology that, unlike Luke and John, he doesn’t expect that life to begin until after the Parousia.

Knowing the biblical history revolving around faith in an afterlife, why would we believe that John has provided us with the last word on the subject? Presuming the topic is still evolving, this is one case in which we can validly ask, “What do you think?”

 

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