Fifth Sunday in Lent | Believe! — Preaching Notes

April 2, 2017 (Year A) | Living Our Baptismal Calling Series
by Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser

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On this final week of our Lenten series, the lectionary gives us the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Practically speaking, the fifth Sunday in Lent begins preparing us for hearing the Easter proclamation, “Christ is risen!” and for our baptism into the faith in which this proclamation is the centerpiece, by foreshadowing what is to come.

In our series, alongside the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead comes the final part of our baptismal vow, which is to answer in creedal form what the church teaches us about our apostolic faith. Historically, those preparing for baptism on Easter had to commit to memory certain tenets of the faith, including its core teachings. Candidates for baptism were asked to confess their faith in response to three questions:

Do you believe in God the Father?
 I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
            creator of heaven and earth.

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
            [who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
            born of the Virgin Mary,
            suffered under Pontius Pilate,
            was crucified, died, and was buried;
            he descended to the dead.
            On the third day he rose again;
            he ascended into heaven,
            is seated at the right hand of the Father,
            and will come again to judge the living and the dead.]

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?
 I believe in the Holy Spirit,
            [the holy catholic church,
            the communion of saints,
            the forgiveness of sins,
            the resurrection of the body,
            and the life everlasting.]

As we studied this passage together as a worship team, and placed it alongside the creed from our baptismal ritual, what came into focus for us was to consider what it means to people to say that they believe in the resurrection of the body. One of the most helpful insights in the discussion came from my colleague, Taylor Burton-Edwards, who is a Greek scholar. Taylor pointed out that a more helpful translation of the creed, would be to say that we believe into these things.

Living Into Our Baptismal Faith
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

As we’ve noted several times throughout these weeks, the phrase that begins each article of the Apostles’ (and Nicene) Creed, usually translated “believe in” would be better translated, literally, as “believe into.” “Believing into” someone means entrusting one’s life to someone. 

What each article of the creed is really asking then is not whether we give intellectual assent to the idea, for example, that there is a God who created everything. That’s assumed, but it’s not the main point. The real question behind each article of the creed is whether we are prepared to entrust our lives to a God who, in three persons united in one Being, does or is like what each article of the creed asserts.

"I am believing into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

What does this statement mean to you, personally?

How would you unpack this statement if you were talking about your own faith journey?

What examples would you give as evidence of your believing into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting?

In John’s account, Jesus asks a similar question of Martha:

Jesus said 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. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:36-37 NRSV).

Martha is specific in her answer, and we must be specific in ours.

What does it mean to you that you are believing into the resurrection of the body 
and the life everlasting?

For some believers, the power of any story about resurrection rests in a literal interpretation. Somebody who was dead is now living for eternity:

  • I believe Jesus raised Lazarus, who had been dead in a tomb for four days, back to life.
  • I believe Jesus was physically raised from the dead.
  • I believe I will be raised from the dead too, somehow. That’s what it means to be saved. There is really no need to overthink or over-explain the specifics of how that  works.
  • I believe I’m going to be raised with Jesus and reunited with my dead family members.
     

Among the members of the worship team, our responses were not just different from this, but they were all different from each other. Likewise, I imagine if you asked five people from your congregation what that statement meant to them, you would get five completely different answers.

Jackson Henry spoke tenderly of having seen the resurrection of the dead in his family, in people he knows, and even in his own life. For him, rising with Jesus means more than the possibility of going to heaven to reside eternally with God at the end of his time on this earth. Resurrection is, for him, a daily opportunity to reclaim who we are as children of God and to overcome death in life every day.

He spoke of those he knew who battle daily with addiction: people he loves who cannot, no matter how much they want to, kick their habit. And yet, even in the midst of their own repeat failures, they believe there is hope. They are living into the resurrection by living into the hope and the promise that somehow, someway, some day, they will be set free from their sickness unto death. They will be made new.

People who are daily overcoming their problems in life are living into the resurrection as well. What is it they say in twelve-step programs? No one is recovered; rather, we are in recovery. None among us is done; we are all going on to perfection. We who are overcoming our problems in life are doing so by believing into a power greater than ourselves. Many are believing into the hope of the resurrection and the life that is offered in Christ. We believe that in Christ, all things are possible.

If we see resurrection only as something that comes after death, we miss the daily fruits of living into Jesus’ proclamation, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Taylor Burton-Edwards identified very closely with Martha. For him, it was encounters with the holy that have shaken his foundations. He had difficulty describing these encounters. He said, “There aren’t words.”

Encounters with the holy are experiential, personal, spiritual, and emotional. Jesus tells Martha her brother will rise again, and then he asks her if she believes in resurrection. She answers first in a general way: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Her response only becomes specific and personal when Jesus turns from conversation to personal experience, from general knowledge to holy encounter, by saying, “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. Do you believe this?"

For Taylor, the closest he could come to describing holy encounter was to speak of places where physicality intersects with spirituality. One place this happened for him was through encounters with icons. Specifically, icons of Jesus bursting out of the tomb, “the brilliant ones, not the faded ones.” Encounters with these sacred objects took him out of the metaphorical and into the physical. It is physical to look at an icon, to touch one. One does not have to venerate to be moved. He described having a physical response in these encounters with the holy: his skin tingled, he could barely speak, he felt overcome with love and emotion.

He went on to say that he experienced a holy encounter every time he came to the Table of the Lord. He found the experience of Holy Communion so physically and spiritually moving that he could hardly say the prayer without becoming overtaken by emotion.

It is like Martha, who—after this encounter with the holiness of Jesus, with his words, “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. Do you believe this?”—could only let what flooded her mind and heart come pouring out of her mouth: "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

Yes, Lord, I believe.
Yes, Lord, I am believing into you.
Yes, Lord, I am believing into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

For me, the power of believing into the resurrection is found in  love. I find the holy in encounters with love:

  • The miracle of love.
  • The miracle of being loved.
  • The miracle of people choosing to love instead of hate.
     

It is overwhelming, that God so loved the world, that God so loved me personally, that he would give his only son, that whoever believed into him should not perish, but have eternal life. It is overwhelming, that God would do this for any of us.

What does it mean to you that you are believing into the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting?

Well, it has been quite a journey through this series on “Living Our Baptismal Calling.” Are we ready to make our baptismal covenant? Are we prepared to renew our commitment to the vows made at our baptism?

Next week, beginning with Passion/Palm Sunday, we will begin our walk with Jesus through the final days and hours of his life on this earth. We will join the disciples in hearing his last words. We will gather with them for a final meal and receive a new commandment. We will watch as Jesus is arrested and tried, found guilty and crucified on a cross. And then, after three days, we will go with the women to the tomb, to anoint Jesus’ body for burial, and witness the miracle that gave birth to the church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant, by water and the Spirit.

 

Categories: Year A, Fifth Sunday in Lent - April 2, 2017

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