5th Sunday in Lent / March 29, 2020 / Richard E. Holmer
1st Reading Ezekiel 37:1-14 / 2nd Reading Romans 8:6-11 / Gospel John 11:1-45
Who Are You, Jesus?
There is a question that is implicit in each of the gospel readings appointed for this season of Lent, readings we’ve heard these past five Sundays. The question that keeps arising in various ways is this: “Who are you, Jesus?”
Back on the First Sunday in Lent, when Jesus is alone in the wilderness, the devil questions the identity of Jesus. If you are the Son of God, the devil says, prove it: Turn these stones into bread. Jump off the pinnacle of the temple. Are you really the Son of God?
The next Sunday a Pharisee, Nicodemus, comes calling. He says to Jesus: Based on what you’ve been doing, it sure seems that you have come from God. But when Jesus starts talking about being born from above, born of the Spirit – a Spirit that blows where it chooses – Nicodemus is bewildered and says, “How can these things be?” In other words, “Who are you and what are you talking about?”
On the Third Sunday in Lent we heard the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman he meets at a well. At first she is skeptical about Jesus. When Jesus offers her “living water,” she asks, “where do you get that living water?” When she returns to her town, she asks the people, “He cannot be the Messiah, can he?”
Last week we had the story of the man born blind. The Pharisees are very suspicious about this man’s healing. They are certain that Jesus can’t be from God, because he broke the Sabbath by healing the blind man. When they ask the blind man what he says about Jesus, he answers: “He is a prophet.” When they bring the man in a second time, the Pharisees say, “We know this Jesus is a sinner.” The man answers: “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. I do know that I was blind and now I can see.
Today, the two close friends of Jesus, Mary and Martha, are questioning Jesus. What took you so long? Why didn’t you come when you heard our brother was sick? The implied question is: Don’t you care, Jesus? Some of the onlookers in the crowd wonder out loud: “If Jesus could heal the blind man, why didn’t he keep Lazarus from dying?”
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Time and again, people are wondering about Jesus, trying to figure him out, trying to make sense of this man from Nazareth. Jesus rarely attempted to explain himself. He let his words and his actions speak for themselves. Many had questions about Jesus. Jesus had questions of his own for them.
We heard one such question today. In response to Martha’s genuine frustration and profound grief, Jesus says to her: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Then he asks the essential question: Do you believe this? She answers: “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God.”
At the conclusion of the long and winding narrative of the blind man and those who questioned him, Jesus is alone with the man he has healed. He asks him this question: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” The man answers: “And who is he, Sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus replies: “You are looking at him.” And the man says, “Lord, I believe.” And he worships him.
The Samaritan woman at the well struggles to decide who Jesus is. She remarks, “I see that you are a prophet, Sir.” And a bit later she adds, “I know that Messiah is coming – and when he comes he will proclaim all things to us.” Jesus replies: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” When she shares her story with the townspeople, they also come to believe: “We believe and have come to know that Jesus truly is the Savior of the world.”
And recall what Jesus says to Nicodemus after their conversation: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”
People who meet Jesus wonder about him and ask: Who are you, Jesus? Through his words and actions, Jesus reveals that he is the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior, the Resurrection and the Life. Yet this revelation carries with it a question: Do you believe? It is the essential question, for the Gospel is Good News only for those who believe it, who trust it, who take it to heart. Whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. This is the message throughout the Gospel of John.
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The question, “Do you believe?” is akin to the question the Lord asks Ezekiel in our First Reading. Ezekiel is gazing upon a valley full of dry bones – the vanquished of Israel, whose hope is lost, cut off completely. The Lord asks: “Can these bones live?” That is: “Is there any hope?” “Do you believe that Israel can be restored?” Sure enough, God breathes life into those bones, “and they stood on their feet, a vast multitude.” God says, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live . . .”
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Right now we are living through a time of crisis. Things are uncertain from one day to the next. Millions are out of work. People are being killed by an enemy that we can’t see. Such times are a challenge to faith. What we took for granted a few weeks ago cannot be assumed today. We may wonder: Where is God? (Who are you, Jesus?)
In times of crisis it is common for leaders to speak up and reassure their constituents by saying: “We will get through this.” It’s a good message. It’s an important message that can confer both confidence and calm during a time of distress. “Don’t panic. We will get through this. It needs to be said.
The thing is, no leader can be certain how or when or even if all of us will get through this. Some, perhaps many, will die. The economy might be slow to recover. Everything may not quickly go back to the way it was. Maybe it will. It’s too early to tell. However, there is another one who assures that we will indeed get through this. Jesus speaks to us the marvelous good news: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Friends, this is the gospel Christ proclaims. We will get through this, whether we live or die.
By all means, we must do everything we can to preserve life. Every person, every life, is precious. Yet in Christ we know that death does not have the final word. St. Paul puts it this way: We do not live to ourselves and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. (Romans 14:7-8)
As I said last Sunday, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a reality gospel. Jesus doesn’t promise a quick fix to our troubles. Jesus isn’t a magical genie, who comes to do our bidding. The gospel doesn’t provide a way to bypass pain and suffering and grief. (See how much sorrow there is in the story of Lazarus: his sisters are troubled and heartbroken. Even Jesus is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” Jesus weeps openly.)
The reality gospel is that no matter what happens to us, we will get through this. Christ is Lord on both sides of the grave – in our life now and in the life to come. When we say, “I believe,” we have a way forward – following Christ.
Living the gospel doesn’t mean pretending there is no stress, that there is nothing to be concerned about. I grieve for all those who have lost friends and relatives. I am concerned for all the healthcare workers who put their lives on the line each day. I wonder about the lasting financial impact of this crisis. I worry about my grandchildren: their health, and the world they will grow up in.
When I get bewildered and anxious, I can wonder: Who are you, Jesus? And he says: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Christ called Lazarus to life – and he calls you and me: calls us to believe the gospel and to live the gospel.
Thanks be to God.