From Death & Despair to Vitality & Life

During Bible Study this week, we studied the early church in Ephesus and were surprised to read about new disciples who “[had] not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” (Acts 19:1-2) Such a declaration is hard to imagine among Jewish Christians, but reminds us the early church was made up of not only Jewish, but also Gentile believers. The significant role of the Spirit of the Lord cannot be easily overlooked throughout Scripture, and that certainly is the case for the Lectionary Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

Picture by Sara Biljan Gaon, found on Flickr at longest reading this week – the Gospel lesson in John 11:1-45 – features the story of Lazarus’ dramatic raising from the dead by Jesus. Dead and buried in the tomb for four days, with death’s stench lingering, Lazarus had no hope by the world’s fleshly standards. With mourning in full array, Jesus also experienced the sorrowful emotions of worldly pain and loss. “If only you had been here Jesus…” Mary, Martha and the crowd all seemed to say.

Without God’s presence, the flesh fails and death ensues. While the details vary, the end result does not…the dry bones in the graves of Ezekiel (Ez 37) … the sinful, despairing Psalmist unable to stand and crying out from the depths (Ps 130) … the people living in the realm of the flesh, unable to please God (Rom 8) … the sick and dying, despite being close friends with Jesus (Jn 11).

But that harsh reality is not the end of the story; it is rather the beginning. When everything appears beyond hope and fully dead, the Spirit moves, making the dead new and alive. The Spirit reshapes and reconfigures everything we understand about despair and death, replacing it with vitality and life. The ruach – the very breath of life – which hovered over the waters “in the beginning” brought forth new life for those who would be settled in the land (Ez 37). That same Spirit lives in those who belong to Christ (Rom 8) and raises the dead (Jn 11), foreshadowing that Jesus’ resurrection would be a precursor to humanity’s. The Spirit represents vitality, energy, hope and life. Through the power of the Spirit, Jesus’ followers and the Church accomplishes far more than is possible in our own strength, and even far beyond what Jesus himself achieved (Jn 14:12).

This Lenten season during which we focus on our brokenness and need in anticipation of Easter’s renewal, these readings remind us of a glorious hope: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Rom 8:11). No matter the circumstances, no matter how dire the situation may appear, no matter how death’s stench threatens – we can put our hope in the Lord. God hears our voice and our cries for mercy, and we are not like those early Ephesus believers without knowledge of the powerful, life-giving, Spirit of the Lord!

For Reflection and Discussion: With which image of death and decay in these readings do you most identify, and why? What would it look like for the Spirit to bring vitality, power and hope to that situation? How do you relate the creative ruach of Genesis to the Spirit’s work in Ezekiel, Romans and John’s Gospel? What would be missing from your faith if you were like the believers in Ephesus who knew not of the Spirit? What role does the Spirit have in Ps 130?

This post on the “Spirit of the Lord” was based upon the Lectionary Readings for April 2, 2017 – the Fifth Sunday of Lent. These readings include Ezekiel 37:12-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:8-11 and John 11:1-45. The commentary was first published by Bat Kol as their Sunday Gospel and Readings Commentary on their website.