Fifth Sunday in Lent, rcl yr a, 2020
EZEKIEL 37:1-14; PSALM 130; ROMANS 8:6-11; JOHN 11:1-45
The Revd Dr Preston Parsons

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth,
and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

It’s extraordinary to me just how quickly many of us have been able to adjust our lives. And to no small degree. Even me, as an unreconstructed introvert, who loves few things more than a soft couch, a good book, and a record on the turntable—I’m finding this to be a big change to my life. Some of us have come closer quarters than ever to those we love. Others most certainly feel the distance of our inability to visit loved ones in care homes. Some of us have more work to do than ever, and some of us find ourselves at home without much to do at all. There are very few aspects of our lives that haven’t changed.

This is a good thing, or perhaps more accurately, we are doing this for good reason. We do these things for others—that others might have life. We wash our hands, stay home, and we don’t gather in groups so that the coronavirus doesn’t spread and then threaten our lives and the lives of others.

It’s hard not to see our readings through this circumstance—this effort of preserving health and life. And all three of our readings, each but the Psalm, speak in some way to life, and what it is to live.

In our Old Testament reading, we have Ezekiel prophesying to the valley of dry bones, bones that hear Ezekiel’s prophecy and rattle, and then come together, and are then are covered with sinew and flesh and skin. And finally the once-dead bones breathe, such that the vast multitude “lived, and stood on their feet.”

Paul in Romans, too, writes of our bodies, bodies that are “dead because of sin,” except for the Spirit that dwells within these mortal bodies. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,” says Paul, “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

And then in our gospel, we have the story of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus who becomes sick and dies, only for Jesus—in great distress—to cry out “with a loud voice,” saying, “‘Lazarus, come out!’”  And for Lazarus to come out, “his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”

It’s that last moment that I’d like to speak to today. That moment between Lazarus being raised to life, his hands and feet bound with cloth, and his face wrapped with cloth—the moment between being raised to life and his unbinding.

Sadly, we are still early on in our response to COVID-19. And we’ve done a lot of good things to preserve life and health. But we are already seeing frustration set in, in some places. The most glaring frustration is the call to “get the economy going again,” even at the expense of the lives of others. I think we quashed that pretty quick in Canada, but the sentiment may well return. I’ve read of others complaining that they can’t have dinner parties—this from a prominent theologian!—saying that there is more to living than simple biological life.

In a way, I think the question is right—is there more to living than the preservation of biological life? Our readings gesture, at least, to an answer to that. What happens in the valley of dry bones isn’t simply a bunch of once-dead people now experiencing some sort of biological regeneration. The story of the valley of dry bones is about the God who brings a nation, a whole people, Israel, back from exile and back to life—a people restored to the land, restored to Jerusalem, restored to religious, economic, cultural, and social life.

Paul doesn’t speak just of living some kind of biological life either. Elsewhere Paul speaks of life in the Spirit, gifts of the Spirit, as such things as wisdom, knowledge, faith, service, and teaching, among other things. So to live in the Spirit is to be alive to God and God’s calling.

We can see an analogy of this in the raising of Lazarus. First Lazarus is raised simply to biological life: he gets up, and comes out. But Lazarus comes out bound. That is, one can experience the simplicity of biological life as Lazarus did and yet be bound. There is more to living than biological life—and as such, Jesus asks that Lazarus not simply live, but to be set free. “Unbind him, and let him go.” And Lazarus is let go from the simplicity of biological life that he might live. And he does. We will find Lazarus later at the anointing of Jesus’s feet by Mary, and eating with his friends and his Lord. Lazarus is set free to enjoy a social life, and a life of following Jesus.

So for those who are asking the question,“is there more to life than survival?” They are asking the right question. Many of the answers I hear, though, are deeply misguided. There is indeed more to life than biological survival—and I hope we can come through the other side both surviving, and having remembered what it is to live.

We can do both, and should do both—we can do all we can to preserve biological life and health, as we do those things that make for true human being, and human thriving.

We would continue to pursue the truth—so sorry students, you do need to keep studying. And yes, you do need to keep reading your book for the book study.

We would continue to pursue what is good—I’m deeply concerned that we appear to think that the preservation of life means turning refugees away at the border. I’m sure we can find a way to preserve life and health and care for others in distress. I’m concerned to find out that the preservation of the life of some may be at the expense of the most marginal members of our communities.

We would continue to pursue what is beautiful, and to find ways of experiencing beauty for its own sake. We can’t gather for Spiritus, but we can listen to music. Heck, we can even get those dusty guitars out of our closets. We can read a good book.

Because we can do both—we can preserve basic biological life, and not lose sight of humanising activities like the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful. What would it be, to come out the other side of this, having survived, but having forgotten what it is to be human?

And so I would encourage you not, as we seek to preserve life, to forget what it is to live.

These sorts of pursuits—the pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful—are ultimately ways of keeping our eyes set on God, on the One who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Alongside caring for your neighbour, this desire for God is found above all in doing such terribly useless things as prayer and worship.

And so take the time to pray with others, even at a distance, to pray for others in need and distress, to worship the God worthy of praise. Love your neighbour as yourself, and love God with all you have.

Lest we to forget how to live in these circumstances—and we live by such things that free us to grow into the life of God, by way of his Holy Spirit—through that which is true, and good, and beautiful.

The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth,
and his face wrapped in a cloth.
Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”