The Fifth Sunday in Lent: A Sermon


“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Paul’s words from our second lesson give us a way of focusing what’s at stake in the other readings. The other readings, in turn, remind us that Paul isn’t spouting theory, but capturing Israel’s experience with God, before & after Jesus’ resurrection.

Our first reading comes from Israel’s exile in the bowels of the Babylonian Empire. To get into the spirit of the text, had our 2003 invasion of Iraq gone very badly, we could have spent the last twenty years with a large portrait of Saddam Hussein displayed at every major intersection, on every dashboard, and —if we were prudent— in our living rooms. What hymnody the Israelites are producing is coming out like this: “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” This is not a faith you either can or want to pass on to the next generation. The portrait of the exiles in this text is a vivid picture of “flesh,” flesh as human possibilities. “Flesh” is not evil, but it is limited, vulnerable, and tends to leave God out of the equation.

And this is precisely where Ezekiel’s vision picks up, taking the people’s self-description with utter seriousness. Precisely there, where hope has flat-lined, the Spirit begins to work. And before long there is a very large army. To set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

John gives us a story within a story. The inner story: Jesus, Martha, Mary & Lazarus. To set the mind on the flesh is death; in situations like this one, flesh can see no other option than death. What Jesus comes up against, particularly with Martha, is the natural assumption that we all know how the real world works, so that when Jesus shows up in the real world the most he can do is participate in the grieving process.

It’s the most natural thing in the world. We assume we know how the world works, and then sort out whether we think there’s a god, who Jesus was, etc., all within the constraints of how we know the world works.

Mercifully, Jesus doesn’t let himself be trapped, even by Martha’s theology, at once pristine and dismissive: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” —not that it’s going to do our brother any good right now. He goes to the tomb: “Lazarus, come out!”

Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa in the 4th Century, used to say that any god we could understand was not worth worshipping. Well, we certainly don’t understand Jesus. Why the delay in coming to Bethany? It’s there in the barely veiled complaint/greeting the sisters give Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Between this and last week’s text (“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”), some fear a darker possibility: we’re just props for an egotistical god. No. “Jesus began to weep.” Whatever is going on, the motor is God’s love.

Any god we could understand is not worth worshipping. And the God worth worshipping —my corollary— is going to turn our notions of the world upside down. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”(Hamlet 1.5.168-169) The C of E clergyman J. B. Phillip’s Your God is too small is as relevant to us now as when it was published in the mid twentieth century.

That, too briefly, is the inner story. The outer story is Jesus vs. the religious leaders. Setting the mind on the flesh is death —not only ours, but the death of others. In this case, Jesus. Recall Caiaphas’ brutal logic:“it is better…to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

That brutal logic still reigns. Affordable drugs? At the cost of the pharmaceuticals’ profits? Curb global warming? At the cost of the energy companies’ profits? So it’s just about evil CEOs and Boards? No: how long would the shareholders tolerate loss? It is better that one man/the vulnerable die than that we try getting off the tiger’s back.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Ezekiel and John have let us watch how that plays out. Flesh qua human possibilities: death & despair, both for ourselves and for others. Spirit. Not any spirit, but the Spirit who enfleshed Ezekiel’s bones to create a formidable army, the Spirit poured out by the risen Christ.

Ezekiel’s bones, Lazarus’ bones, and too many situations today where fear, anger, and the brutal logic of every-man-for-himself have the upper hand. As the psalmist put it “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord!” Too many situations in which our immediate response is some version of Martha’s “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

Last Sunday we heard Paul’s “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Whether at the family, local, or national level, what might the Spirit want to do with our bones? As in Ezekiel’s experience, the Spirit isn’t bound by our menus (“It’s either X, Y, or Z.” “It’s either what this or that caucus in Congress wants.”) As in the Exodus, the Spirit is good at making a way where there is no way.

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