The work of the Spirit makes God’s love for the cosmos worthy of trust. – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 11.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)
Readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent bring us into the arena of the decisive battle between the dominions of life and death in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Fear of death and its power to destroy life hangs over the Gospel narrative. When Jesus learns that his friend Lazarus is near death, he appears to dally until he knows that he is actually dead. Wary disciples warn Jesus against returning to Judea, where his enemies had recently tried to stone him. Confronting the reality of Lazarus’ death and the anguish of Mary and Martha, he is overwhelmed by his grief. Those who had come to console the sisters and knew of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind are dismayed by his failure to come quickly and restore him to health. Even after he has raised Lazarus, death maintains its grip on the attending crowd: the chief priests and Pharisees, fearful that this sign will stir up the people and bring down the wrath of the Roman garrison upon both the nation and its temple, set immediately to planning Jesus’ death (John 11:45-53).
Readers who have followed him on our Lenten journey will recognize that Jesus brings to this confrontation the powers of the dominion of life. Throughout the story, Jesus seems to speak from another script. His delay has redemptive purpose. Witnesses to the healing of the man born blind will have eyes to see that, just as God listens to sinners, so Jesus’ has heard the troubled sisters’ anguished pleas and shares fully in their grief. The “living waters” by means of which he healed the man born blind are meant for many others, and for much more than such healing of individuals. He has given them to Samaritans as well as Jews, creating new community that overcomes their divisions—indeed, as he disclosed in conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, he promises to bring such waters to all, so that they might worship God in Spirit and truth. Sent by God the Creator out of love for the cosmos, he went to Jerusalem to restore those waters to all the people in the land, from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. For they are Spirit-bearing waters, like those at the creation of the world. Now he has come to his friends in Bethany outside Jerusalem to reveal in the face of death that he is nothing less than “the resurrection and the life” and to show them “the glory of God.”
Thus the powers of the dominion of life stand strong over against the powers of the dominion of death. But it is important to ask, at this point, what actually is at stake in this conflict, and what we can hope to come of it? Lazarus dies of natural causes, like most human beings do, and he lives to die again. Jesus does not raise him to eternal life, at least not in the most literal sense of that term; this is not in that sense a final victory over the physical power of death. What it is, rather, is illuminated by recalling what we learned regarding death early in our Lenten journey from the reading of Genesis 2, in connection with Jesus temptation in the wilderness. “Death per se,” it was argued there, following Terry Fretheim’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden,” was a natural part of God’s created world” and “accordingly cannot be regarded as a punishment for human sin.” The “exclusion of the human pair from the tree of life nevertheless does serve to make them realize the full reality of their death,” which gives rise “to an ever-deeper distrust of God.” Trust in God’s word, as we saw, was the overriding issue in the original temptation in the garden and of Jesus’ temptation as well. “Unlike Jesus in his temptation” we found, Adam and Eve did not trust “the word of God that set limits to their use of creation,” and so went against God’s will for their relationship with creation. Created to serve life in the Garden, and thus to help God in its completion, humans instead became agents of disruption and hardship in relationship to the nonhuman creation. The consequence is “dissonance in every relationship, between humans, humans and God, humans and animals, humans and the earth, and with the self (shame)” (Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, p. 75).
Life and death then become rival spiritual dominions that bid for human allegiance. . . What Jesus refused in his temptations, accordingly, was the dominion of death: the possibility of starvation in the desert, the death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple, the desire for imperial control over all the wealth of creation: each of these offers from Satan could draw Jesus under that dominion, each brings into play the power of death over life. What Jesus affirmed in refusing the temptations, on the other hand, and, as we shall see in his further journey to Jerusalem, was the dominion of life (See our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2014).
The raising of Lazarus accordingly shows what we can hope for in the face of death, whether our own or that of others we love. There is at least this: however wrenching it might be for family and friends, and however commonly it occurs in the creation, death need not be reason to lose faith in God as creator, as the Lord, the giver of life. Active here in the raising of Lazarus is the Spirit, in the words of Elizabeth Johnson that point to the connection of the narrative to our concern for care of creation, “made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself” (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 139). We discern in the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus the pattern of relationship that is at the heart of care for all creation. It is the work of the Spirit that makes God’s love for the cosmos through the gift of his Son worthy of trust.
But the decisive battle between the two dominions is yet to come. Whether in facing one’s own death or that of others we love, there is available to this faith no sanction for visiting death upon those who stand over against us, either through indifference or through enmity. That is nevertheless what happens to Jesus. Unlike Lazarus and as his disciples feared, Jesus will die a violent death at the hands of his enemies. When the chief priest and the Pharisees meet in council to consider what to do about Jesus in the wake of his raising of Lazarus, this is precisely what they propose:
What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “you know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:47-50).
There is deep irony to this, of course. As John notes, Caiaphas thus prophesied “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.”
The readings that accompany the Gospel this Sunday accordingly anticipate a dramatic expansion of the significance of this conflict. The first lesson from Romans reframes the conflict from the perspective of the Apostle Paul, beyond the cross and resurrection, as between “the mind set on the flesh” which is death, and “the mind set on the Spirit,” which is “life and peace.” And that sharpens the contrast: “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God”, but “if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” And the promised outcome is then even more glorious: “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:6-11). The extravagant hopes for the creation awakened by the prophecy of Ezekiel and celebrated in readings of the Vigil of Easter are on the horizon: all creation will be restored, body with soul, skin and bones as well, and the people will be returned to the soil they are to serve and keep (Ezekiel 37:14). With Jesus and the Psalmist we wait on the Lord, “For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (Psalm 130:7).