Ezekiel 37: 1-14; Romans 8: 6-11; John 11: 1-45
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All three of our readings today deal with the mystery of life itself. Ezekiel wonders, what is it that turns bone and flesh into a living person? The breath of life? But what is this breath? Is it the spirit of God? Our gospel reading tells of the restoration of life to Lazarus – who’s breath had left his body.
Paul’s words in our reading from Romans are perhaps a starting point. Paul uses the notion of two substances, flesh and spirit, taken from Greek philosophy: The material body is given life by an immaterial soul. Western philosophy came to be built on this notion, and with it an ethic which said that the soul was somehow pure and the body corrupting, to be subdued.
But recent science has opened up again these questions, for the material world is not the machine it was once assumed to be. Sub-atomic physics suggests that all of matter is energy, movement. Strange quantum ideas of fundamental uncertainty and communication at a distance have opened new imaginative spaces.
In medical science, the source of life remains elusive. Research has developed amazingly subtle ways of manipulating the life energy, causing some cells to die but not those next to them. I would not still be alive without such progress. Even as I write, scientists are working long, urgent hours to craft and test a new vaccine. But science struggles to determine what is present the moment before death and absent the moment after. They can manipulate this life energy, but they cannot synthesise it.
So life is a mystery, the most precious thing, which yet we can see only in its effects, not in its essence.
As I write there is an explosion of life around me, in leaf buds unfurling, birds full of excited song and nest-building. Leaving behind the old categories, we see the life of the spirit in all creation, not just the human soul. Is not all life both physical and spiritual, infinitely interwoven?
More and more we are discovering also the range of communication in nature, the secret webs of interconnectedness. And so we learn that life is in its mystery a common thing, not individual. Which is perhaps to say that it continues through the cycle of individual death and birth.
In this time of crisis, we celebrate that life is precious. All life, no matter how vulnerable, even as it slips away, we struggle to preserve it, as families, as a society.
Which brings us back to the story of Lazarus, and how disturbed, anguished – the word even means angry – Jesus is at the death of his friend. There is nothing he would not try, to hold back one ebbing life, even when it seemed too late.
If there is one good thing which has come in the midst of this current crisis, it is the suggestion that we put human life first, above economics. Let us hold on, tenderly, to the sacredness of all life at this threatened time, in our prayers and in our actions.