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The Spirit of God Dwells in You

A sermon preached by Jay P. Rowland on Sunday April 2, 2017 at the First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.  Scripture texts: Romans 8:6-11 & John 11:1-45.  This sermon presents material from Rev. Nathan Nettleton’s sermon “Signs of Unimaginable Life” published online at (2014)


The Spirit of God Dwells in You

Jesus and his disciples are forced to flee Jerusalem due to the increasing violence being directed at Jesus.  He narrowly escapes being attacked and arrested.  When they reach safer territory across the Jordan, word reaches Jesus that his dear friend Lazarus, the brother of his dear friends Mary and Martha, is very ill.

Surprisingly, Jesus chooses to stay where he is for two days rather than go to Lazarus. When Jesus tells his disciples it’s time to go there, the disciples are worried because Lazarus lives so close to Jerusalem.

By the time Jesus reaches Lazarus he has been dead and in the tomb four days.  Even at a distance from town, Jesus can hear the wailing and screaming of the grieving women.  Before he reaches their home, Martha runs to meet him, then a few moments later Mary does too. Both of them lament that Jesus was not here to save Lazarus.  As Jesus approaches the tomb, Martha warns him that the smell of death is strong.  Seeing the tomb, breathing the smell of death, hearing the loud, eerie cries of the grievers and the quiet sobbing of Martha and Mary brings Jesus to tears.  Then Jesus prays aloud to God for all to hear, then cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus come out”.

Lazarus emerges from the tomb, his face covered by burial cloth, with strips of it wrapped tightly around his entire body.  Jesus says to those standing there dumbfounded, “unbind him and let him go.”

Given the violence building against Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus knows he is being watched closely by the religious authorities.  Anything he does from now on will feed their growing resentment and vehemence.  He knows that raising Lazarus from death will ignite their growing fury.  In the verses immediately following this scene, John reports that word about Lazarus reaches the chief priests and the Pharisees in Jerusalem. They call a meeting which concludes with their plan to put Jesus to death (John 11:47-53).

As Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the religious authorities are looking for the first opportunity to arrest Jesus and hand him over to the Romans.  Knowing how severe the reaction has become, perhaps Jesus waited two days before going to Lazarus because he was deeply conflicted about what to do next.  Clearly Jesus loved Lazarus and knows he can bring his friend back from death.  But Jesus also knew that doing so would put Lazarus in mortal danger and bring even more grief to his sisters.  John later reports (12:9ff ) that these same leaders did indeed plot to return Lazarus to death.

Perhaps Jesus took two days before going to Lazarus in Bethany because he was thinking and praying (and praying and praying), asking God if it would be better for everyone if he left Lazarus to rest in peace.   There will be no turning back after this.  The raising of Lazarus in John’s account is comparable to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in the other gospels where Jesus asks “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But if there be no other way than that I drink it, your will be done.”

Raising Lazarus from death sets in motion the events that lead to the death of Jesus.  But this action of Jesus points to the same God who spoke to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones.  Like the Spirit of God breathing life into the bones in Ezekiel, the raising of Lazarus directs everyone’s attention to God. As Nathan Nettleton puts it: “Death is no match for the power of God’s contagious aliveness”.  The Apostle Paul adds to the witness when he proclaims that the One “who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also– through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

Typically during Lent we are more or less preparing to face not only Jesus’ death but our own death.  And while that can be fruitful spiritual grappling I want us to also consider carefully whether we are truly alive right now … or in the grip of death.

Everything Jesus says and does in the gospels points to God’s radical aliveness, a life-force that is so vigorous and unquenchable that it can and does and always will oppose death.  This isn’t to suggest that we should all pretend that death doesn’t bother us.  The Lazarus story and Jesus own prayers in Gethsemane both reveal how troubling death was even for Jesus, and makes it very clear that death is a powerful spiritual force.  Beyond death’s capacity to kill the body, it does nearly more damage well before death by provoking fear and anxiety which deplete both the spirit and the life in the body.

Yet Paul protests, “the Spirit of God dwells in us”.  Nathan Nettleton proclaims “the life-force of God is so utterly alive, that even being dead cannot quench it … Jesus shall be raised to life, crucified body and all, because God’s aliveness is so overwhelmingly alive that death can do its worst and still find itself entirely impotent.”  Death may win the day, but God takes everything after that.

One scholar (Paul Achtemeier) notices that Paul cannot imagine any form of our human life apart from the body. Whether Paul is speaking of [this] life or [resurrection life], he always assumes we will have a body.  Body allows for our existence as individuals in relation to others…. [it also signifies] our continuing communicating with others and with our ‘world’ whether that be in this world or the next.”

“And so, the [resurrection of Jesus] Christ results not only in the transformation of us as individuals, but also in the transformation of the world to which we belong.  And this is what makes the function of the church so important: namely to be the place where such a transformed ‘world’ is [recognizable] to us. For Paul there is always a social dimension to the [resurrection of the] “body”. …  the new life we now share in the Spirit (which overcomes sin’s stranglehold) is precisely that life which we shall have in full at the final re-creation of reality when our total being will be transformed in God’s new world (Romans 6:11b). That is the life we now share because of the presence of God’s Spirit among us (Romans 6:9a) [i]

Jesus invites us to join him in this extraordinary aliveness, not just in some future time, but starting now.  When Jesus draws Lazarus back towards life, he’s doing what God did in the sight of the prophet Ezekiel, and what the Apostle Paul proclaim: the Spirit of God dwells in God’s people right now.  So no matter what happens, our future is in God’s hands.  Because the Spirit of God dwells in us, we shall overcome.

This gives us a different perspective on life.  It presents us with the opportunity to practice growing into that aliveness; and practice we must, for life has a way of beating the hope out of us.  So each day we practice living for God, we practice living expansively and generously, filled with Spirit of God, the love and mercy we see in the crucified and risen Lord.  We practice living courageously for God.

The God-life is so powerful that even though Jesus is killed, death leaves only a “flesh wound” on his body, says Nathan Nettleton again.  Jesus carries those wounds in his resurrection body, yet he’s powerfully alive.  Yes our body too will show the scars of this life, but these will become reminders of the struggle after death is swallowed up by God’s love.

Jesus stands among us here and now, the risen crucified one reaches out a scarred hand to us, calling us to come forth from our tombs, calling us to be unbound by fear or desperation, drawing us into his own aliveness, gathering us at his table where he comes to nourish us with the bread of life that was broken for us, and with the wine of mercy poured out for us.  The Table of the Lord is the table of life without limit.

Again today and forevermore, Jesus invites us to eat and drink life in all its fullness starting here at the Table of God.

[i] Paul Achtemeier, Interpretation: Romans, p.132-134, both paragraphs.  Parentheses mine.