Though the theme of Sunday's three readings
is God-given life, each looks at this life from a different perspective.
Ezekiel, who knows nothing of an afterlife as
we know it, delivers Yahweh's promise to his fellow Jews during the
Babylonian Exile (Ez 37: 12-14). They eventually will return to the Promised
Land, even if Yahweh has "to open your graves and have you rise from
them, and bring you back to the land of Israel."
Those words often confuse us. The prophet is
not announcing a definitive resurrection from the dead, but a temporary
resuscitation. Yahweh will carry through on Yahweh's promise, even if it
goes against the "laws of nature."
Paul isn't speaking about resuscitation when
he reminds the Christian community in Rome that "the Spirit...will give
life to your mortal bodies" (Rom 8: 8-11). He's simply stating the
common, early-Christian belief that those who imitate Jesus' dying by
giving themselves to others are already experiencing a form of Jesus' life
right here and now, even before they physically die. "If Christ is in
you," he writes, "although the body is dead because of sin, the
spirit is alive because of righteousness."
We're experiencing this life as we hear these
words, the life our ancestors in the faith would have given their lives to
receive. Though the Spirit will give us a different, eternal life later,
Paul believes we should rejoice in the life we also have now.
John offers a third dimension of life (Jn 11:
1-45). One of the reasons John's Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is to
demonstrate that He can also raise us from the dead. But the evangelist adds
something to the mix, something quite radical in John's day and age.
The earliest Christian belief about rising from
the dead presumed Jesus' followers would have to cool their bodies in the
grave until He returned to claim them in the Parousia. Only then would He
collect them from their graves and take them with Him to heaven. Paul writes
about this in chapter 4 of the first piece of Christian literature: I
A change in this belief triggers the
Martha/Jesus dialogue in Sunday's Gospel. "Lord, if you had been
here, my brother would not have died," she says.
"Your brother will rise," Jesus
replies. Falling back on her old-time Christian belief, Martha responds,
"I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day."
Then Jesus gives the new-fangled resurrection
theology John's community had evolved: "I am the resurrection and the
life; those who believe in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who
lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
A few years before John wrote, Luke had altered
Paul's idea about our staying in the grave until Jesus' Second Coming by
composing a story in Acts in which Stephen, the first Christian martyr, sees
Jesus coming for him at the moment of death. Luke believed each disciple of
Jesus can expect to have his or her personal Parousia when they die.
John carries Luke's theology one step
further. No longer do we have to wait until death to be with Jesus. The life
we're expecting in the future has begun long before our physical death.
What we perceive as death is just a doorway into another way of experiencing
the life we already have.
Our readings tell us that the more we become
one with Yahweh/Jesus, the more we notice things about life which we never
perceived before. Just as we mature in our physical lives, our sacred
authors presume we more deeply appreciate and understand the life into which
our faith brings us. From Ezekiel to Paul, to Luke, to John, there are no
limits on this understanding.
One wonders where our biblical theology would
be taking us today if someone hadn't stopped adding books to the Bible in
the second century.