No concept is more restricted by the limits of
our human nature than the life Jesus offers His followers. What exactly is
In the 1960s' epic movie "Barabbas,"
the title character asks Lazarus, years after the event narrated in Sunday's
Gospel (John 11:1-45): "What's it like being dead?" Jesus'
resuscitated friend responds, "How do you explain to a fetus in the
womb what it means to be alive?"
In such a situation, you're talking about two
different concepts of life; the second -- outside the womb -- has yet to be
experienced in a fetal environment, so it's impossible to describe.
The authors of the New Testament faced a
similar difficulty when they tried to explain the life which comes to us
when we die and rise with Jesus.
Ezekiel didn't have that problem (Ezekiel
37:12-14). He simply guarantees his community in exile that Yahweh will one
day bring them back to live in the freedom of the Promised Land.
He's so certain of this that he assures his
people that not even death will stop God from carrying out this promise. If
need be, Yahweh states, "I will open your graves, have you rise from
them, and bring you back to the land of Israel."
On the other hand, Paul (Romans 8:8-11)
reflects on the brand new life at the heart of the existence Jesus'
disciples now live. It's not just a return to an ideal past life.
Though Christians live in the same world as
non-Christians, Paul assures his readers, "You are not in the flesh;
you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you....If Christ is
in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive
because of righteousness."
Paul believes that even before our "mortal
bodies" come to life after our physical death, the deepest part of
ourselves -- our spirit -- has left its old life behind and stepped into the
new life Jesus promised and experienced.
Writing about 40 years after Paul, St. John
carries this idea several steps further. He believes that much of what we're
expecting to happen in the future -- especially after death -- is already
taking place here and now. The exchange between Jesus and his grieving
friend Martha is a perfect example of John's "new and improved"
"Your brother will rise," Jesus
assures Martha. She then echoes the "traditional" first-century
belief: "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last
At this point, Jesus leads Martha down a new
road: "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me,
even if they die, will rise, and everyone who lives and believes in me will
never die. Do you believe this?"
In some sense, we're called to "come
out" of our old ideas of eternal life and, like John, explore new ways
in which Jesus' life is already being realized and experienced now.
Many wonder what motivated such a significant
theological change. The answer is simple. Jesus' earliest followers weren't
restricted by a set of established dogmas and doctrines. They relied on
their day-by-day experience of the risen Jesus' being a part of their lives.
Some of us modern followers of Jesus believe
falling back on dogmas and doctrines is enough to get us into heaven. We
forget that, because our ancestors in the faith put their trust in their
faith experiences, they actually were able to recognize the heavenly life
invigorating their daily lives.