March 23, 2020
The Lent 5A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 11:1-45 from the Lectionary Gospel; Exodus 37:1-14 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 130 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 8:6-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 14
Author: Scott Hoezee
Sample Sermon: “Just about Everywhere” :
In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from I Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And then he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!”
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
Indeed it is. And in this COVID-19 season as worldwide death tolls get updated on the hour, we hardly need much reminding of all this.
But it’s not just this strange time of a pandemic. At all times and in all seasons few things make headlines like lots of deaths. An earthquake hits Haiti and in the span of a few seconds tens of thousands of lives disappear. A tsunami hits Asia and our minds grow numb as the death toll mounts higher by the day: 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, a quarter of a million. But those are just the big events. The relentless fact of death can also be seen in the everyday. You never open the newspaper’s Obituary column only to see the word “None.”
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
So is the denial of death, of course. Don’t look your age, defy it, the make-up commercials say. You’re only as old as you feel, the old aphorism asserts. Meanwhile people hope to defy death by being put in cryogenic frozen storage, by getting themselves cloned, by hoping to transfer their consciousness into a robot like Mr.Data on Star Trek and any number of loopy ways by which to attempt an end run on our common human denominator. But all to no avail. They say that when prisoners arrived at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, some were told that there was only one way out of Auschwitz, and that was up the smokestack of the crematorium. But in a dark yet true way, the same could be said for all life on this planet: there’s only one way out and that is via the cemetery. Birth, someone once said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
It’s everywhere in John 11, too. And not just in the obvious place where Lazarus was buried. There is a whiff of death when John reminds us in verse 2 that Mary anointed Jesus with perfume. That actually doesn’t happen until the next chapter but when it does, Jesus makes clear that this is a burial anointing for his body. The specter of death is visible when Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has died and again when Thomas invites the disciples to go and die with Jesus since they anticipate some kind of a lynch mob to meet them in Bethany.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
But nowhere is the choking reality of death on better display here than in what Jesus encounters once he at long last arrives in Bethany. You could hear the sound of the crying a long ways off. The whooping cries of the professional mourners mixed with the heaving sobs of Mary, Martha, and others. Sorrow creates its own kind of presence, doesn’t it? We’ve felt it as pastors when walking into that hospital room, that living room, that funeral parlor. It’s like walking into a layer of wet gauze. Grief is palpable and engulfing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it more than once when I have barely made it back to my car before dowsing my steering wheel with a lot of pent-up tears I had been holding back.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and it surely was in Bethany that day. Jesus encounters Martha first. Perhaps recalling a time when Jesus chided her for staying in the kitchen too much, Martha is the first one to leave the house. But it’s difficult to know just how she meets Jesus. It kind of looks like she meets him with some measure of unhappy disdain in her voice, but then again, we’ve all seen deep grief come out as anger, haven’t we? “Well there you are! It’s about time. This whole thing could have been avoided had you just shown up when we first called you. I know you could have healed Lazarus same as you’ve done for lots of people who mean a whole lot less to you than he did!”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus offers. “Lord, if I had wanted a Hallmark card . . . Of course he will rise again at the last day when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But I’m hurting this day, Lord!” And that’s when Jesus says it. He fixes Martha in an unusually intense stare and makes a claim so bold, it brooks no middle ground in terms of its being true or false: “Martha, I Am the resurrection and the life. Now. Today. Martha, I Am the roll that’s called up yonder and I am now. Do you believe this, or does that sound like a Hallmark card yet?”
With trembling lips and a quivering chin, with tears leaking out from her eyes for the first time since she encountered Jesus that day Martha says, “Yes. Yes . . . I do believe that, because I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the future of the whole universe that has come into the world.” It was a bold thing for Jesus to say and a bolder thing for Martha to buy into. But even so, within minutes, when Jesus sees also Mary and then the others, he loses it. He didn’t make it back to the car. He weeps.
He weeps not because he doesn’t believe his own words. He weeps not because he has forgotten that he’d be having tea and cucumber sandwiches with Lazarus within the hour. No, he weeps because as the Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made, he knows more keenly than anyone there that day that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. He didn’t say “Let there be light” in the beginning to end up with a world so full of darkness and sorrow. He weeps for the same reason you cry when you see your kid trying to be brave on the playground even though he’s just been taunted and insulted by some other kids, taunted in ways that shriveled his little spirit. You weep for your child because you hate to see him diminished, because you love him. And Jesus weeps because he loves. He weeps because he is in love with this creation’s flourishing.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and no one sees it with more startling clarity than Jesus himself. And so on that day he does something to take, if even for just a little while, some of the wind out of death’s sails. Lazarus will die again. Mary and Martha may still have to go through another funeral for him at some point (and since we are told in the next chapter that the chief priests decided to murder Lazarus so as to cover over what Jesus had done, for all we know Lazarus’ second funeral may come really very soon after all). But still Jesus shows that he is on the side of life by bringing Lazarus back.
But that’s where John ends the story. Silly John! Doesn’t he know we want to read about the reactions of Mary and Martha? Doesn’t he know we want to see how they turned the leftover turkey on buns and potato salad from Lazarus’ funeral lunch into a “Welcome Back to Life” dinner party? But no, all we get is Jesus’ saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!” We’re left to imagine the joy.
For his part, however, John returns us to death. We pivot from Lazarus the mummy walking out into the sunlight in Bethany to a secret plot to kill Jesus. After all, if Jesus keeps raising the dead, it’s going to start to get pretty tough for the Pharisees to convince people that Jesus is, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” Raising the dead has a way of catching people’s attention and so—in a narrative twist so sharply ironic as to take your breath away—they decide to kill the life-giver. They will prevent future resurrections by burying the one doing the work. With life busting out all over Bethany, the authorities opt to bring things back to normal where death has the last word.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
And for now, despite the joy and spectacle of John 11, that remains our reality, too. And that would be a piece of bad news were it not for those clarion words of John 11:25 that have had a way of hanging in there across the centuries and right on down to this July morning, too. “I am the resurrection and the life.” You either believe those words or you don’t but if there is one thing both the religious and the non-religious could agree on it is this: one way or another the truth or falsity of those words have something to do with every last person on the planet, past, present, and future.
Think of it this way: suppose I came up to you and said “I am the cure for hemorrhagic fever.” Well, that might be a nice thing to know about me but unless you have hemorrhagic fever—or unless you anticipate ever getting this rather rare disease—then my claim to possess the cure for that condition won’t do much for you. It would be a claim that would, at best, have something to do with other people but not you. But the same cannot be said if I claim to be the cure for death. Now I’ve got everyone’s attention. Those who believe me will latch on quite literally for dear life. Those who do not believe me will walk the other way but will still have to know that death remains their destiny. Either way or both ways, someone’s claim to being the resurrection and the life is never a claim that has nothing to do with anyone.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and so therefore is the need to deal with it. God’s solution was, unsurprisingly, rather ingenious! The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is someone who understands—as best anyone can understand such a mystery, that is—what Jesus as the resurrection and the life means. Pannenberg said that what happened on Easter was the future breaking into our collective past. The new life Jesus brought was quite literally our future taking place at a distinct moment in history.
So now when Jesus comes up to each of us to ask the question he first posed to Martha, “Do you believe this?” we have a new way to answer. Yes, we do believe in Jesus, we do believe that we will rise again one day. We believe it will happen because, in Christ, it already did happen! Nothing can prevent the eternal life Jesus offers us because it has already come! On that long ago day in Bethany, Jesus essentially told Martha that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection was standing right in front of her! That great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” To that I reply, “Oh yes it is! The future is exactly what it used to be in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!”
In commenting on John 11 Frederick Buechner once pointed out that sometimes people who go through so-called “near-death experiences” profess to not being completely happy that the doctors pulled them back. Many have said that they saw a bright figure standing in the light and that they wanted to approach that figure but were cut off when the heart defibrillator yanked them back to this world. For them it felt less like “near death” and more like “near life.”
Well, as Buechner imagined it, maybe that bright afternoon in Bethany when Lazarus emerged, blinking into the Palestine sunshine, only to see Jesus standing there in the light, maybe Lazarus was at first not sure which side of death he was on! Was he walking toward eternity or back toward earth? Some of you have seen the fine film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray,
“Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies,
“No, it’s Iowa.”
“Funny, it looked like heaven to me.”
So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus,
“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Bethany.”
But maybe it looked like heaven to Lazarus just because Jesus was there. Perhaps as much as anything just that is the point of John 11: whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s because he just is, right now, the resurrection and the life. That will have enormous meaning when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But faith understands that tasting Jesus’ life and hope doesn’t have to wait that long. It is here, now. It is at the Lord’s where each time when we come we quite literally taste and see that the Lord is good, taste and see that new life is here now because as this table says to us, Jesus is here, Jesus is now. And if by faith you can see him each time in the bread and the wine, then you, too, have begun to taste heaven already.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Because of these words from our Lord, when we as Christians get asked by people, “Where can you find any hope in this world,” we now have the joyful privilege to proclaim the gospel by boldly declaring, “Where is hope? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. Hallelujah and Amen!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Author: Stan Mast
At first glance, this famous vision of the valley of dry bones seems more like an Easter text than a Lenten text. I mean, if the text left us with a valley full of dry bones, it might fit the somber mood of the last week of Lent. But it doesn’t, because the bleached-out bones are miraculously transformed into living bodies, a resurrection theme if ever there was one.
On the other hand, maybe this note of hope is exactly what we need as we journey deeper into the darkness of Lent, as we approach the cross and the tomb. The utter hopelessness of Israel in this text mirrors our despair if we have been taking the penitential mood of Lent seriously. The more we look at our own sin and the journey of Jesus to the cross for our sin, the more we will say with Israel: “Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off (verse 11).” But this text, taken as a whole reminds us that “neither death nor life… can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” If we are to continue our Lenten journey, we will need that note of hope. Or else Lent becomes too dark a time.
It was a very dark time for Israel. In our reading for last week, we saw a whole new beginning for the people of God, as Samuel anointed a new king who was a man “after God’s own heart.” Happy days were there again. But it has been a long time since that high point in Israel’s history and Israel has sunk low. Ezekiel prophesied during the last days of Judah and Jerusalem and on into the Exile.
Ezekiel himself was exiled to Babylon in 597 in the first wave of Judean deportees. For the next 11 years, he would deliver a message of gloom and doom to Judah (Ezekiel 1-24) and the surrounding nations (Ezekiel 25-32). Then in 586 Jerusalem fell, the Temple was burned to the ground, a second round of Judeans was exiled to Babylon, and the Davidic monarchy came to an end. Once news reached the exiles in Babylon that Jerusalem had fallen and the temple was destroyed, Ezekiel began to prophesy hope—revival, restoration, and a glorious future as the redeemed and perfected Kingdom of God in the world (Ezekiel 33-48). Our text is perhaps the pinnacle prophesy of hope to a hopeless people. It is certainly the most memorable word of hope, because of its vivid imagery.
To understand the imagery, put yourself in their place. Their world had come to an end. Everything they had trusted, everything that had given their lives shape and meaning, was gone—land, homes, property, the Holy City, the Holy Temple, and, most important, their Holy God. Their God had been defeated by the gods of the Babylonians. Could it be that their God wasn’t really Lord at all? Or perhaps their God had deserted them in their darkest hour. Could it be that their Yahweh had broken covenant with them and forsaken them once and for all?
In our Lenten readings we have been following God’s long campaign to defeat the forces of evil in the world, appointing One person to represent and redeem the All—Adam, Abram, Moses, David. Could it be that God has abandoned his campaign, that there is no longer One for All? Has the history of Yahweh with his people come to an end? It sure looked and felt like it. We hear their despair in verse 11. “They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’”
This vision is God’s answer to their despair. As we dig into it, notice the frequent use of two pregnant themes that run through and frame the vivid imagery: “Sovereign Lord” and “then you will know that I am the Lord.” Because Yahweh is the Sovereign Lord, there is hope for the dry bones of Israel. When they see those dry bones live, they will know that Yahweh is their Lord who has not forsaken them.
Clearly, God has been listening to his people’s lament. In response God’s Spirit (the Hebrew is ruah, a word that echoes throughout this text) gives Ezekiel a vision that speaks directly to their feelings of desertion and death—a valley filled with dry bones. It was a place where death reigned; there was not one iota of life, not one speck of flesh on these bones, bleached dry by the sun. It was Death Valley.
But God asks Ezekiel a question, a deep question, a trick question? “Son of Man, can these bones live?” Humanly speaking the answer is clear. Of course not! But Ezekiel is in tune with God’s absolute power over nature and nations and maybe even death, so he answers, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.” Only God can bring new life to dry bones and to a nation that looks like dry bones, that has lost all hope, that feels cut off from its God (if there is a God anymore).
Well, there is, and this God is going to do a miracle using two means—words and wind, prophesy and breath, the Word of God spoken by a man and the Spirit of God. That is remarkable and paradigmatic. God could have given new life directly, but he chose to use the prophesy of Ezekiel and the power of the Spirit in the form of breath or wind. It has always been that way. The miracle of new life is always a result of the combination of the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Which gives new meaning to the act of preaching.
But make no mistake. Whatever means God uses to accomplish his work, it is still always God who does the work. So, as we’ve seen again and again, God is completely in charge here. It is God who tells Ezekiel to prophesy. It is God who says he will breathe into the bones. It is God who attaches tendons and makes flesh come upon the bones and covers the skeletons with skin. It is God who gives this new life. God is the Sovereign Lord.
Ezekiel prophesies (the word is used 6 times) and the Spirit blows (the word ruah is used 9 times). As result, a very strange, even bizarre scene presents itself to Ezekiel’s eyes. Bones rattle and come together. Tendons attach bone to bone. Flesh and muscle give strength to the skeletons. Skin covers all the skeletons. So we have reconstituted bodies, but they aren’t alive until Ezekiel prophesies again and the four winds blow life into once dry bones. And a vast army stands on their feet.
What does this vision mean? Is it a precursor to the resurrection of the body promised in the New Testament and guaranteed by Christ’s resurrection? One could take it that way, because at the very least this vision shows God’s sovereign power over death. But that’s not the meaning God gives. These bones are “the whole house of Israel.” This is not about the resurrection of individuals in the last day. It is about the restoration of Israel after the Exile. Currently they feel dead, like dry bones, buried in the grave of Babylon (note how God changes the imagery in verses 12 and 13).
You think that I have cut you off, that I am done with you because this terrible thing has happened to you. Well, here’s a picture of your future, accompanied by a promise: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. I will settle you in your own land.” Your dry bones will live again in the land of promise.
“Then you will know that I am the Lord, Yahweh, your covenant God, your Sovereign Lord.” Here’s a message that will preach in our hopeless world, where nations, churches, families and individuals are drying up, dying slowly, and wondering where God is in all this. We live in a great cloud of unknowing. We believe and we doubt, we hope and we despair, we simply don’t know what is happening to us and how it will all turn out. Here is a picture and a promise that will help us know that God is still Lord, still keeping covenant, still sovereign over nature and nations and, yes, even over death.
No, this passage is not the end of the story. As one scholar put it, this is part of “the unfolding of God’s saving purposes in the history of the world—from the time in which he must withdraw from the defilement of his covenant people to the culmination of his grand design of redemption.” This text anticipates—even demands—God’s future works in history proclaimed in the New Testament, like the raising of Lazarus (the Gospel lesson for today) and, of course, the resurrection of Jesus. The history of God’s work with his people is not done yet, and won’t be until we all stand upon the New Earth under the New Heavens in our resurrected bodies.
For now, we remain in exile, like Israel still coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of familiar ways to find and meet God, but assured of God’ presence. The standing multitude of dry bones brought back to life has a somewhat different connotation. Because God is present, we can breathe. And stand ready for the future, looking forward in hope.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
In his Trilogy of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien tells the story of Frodo Baggins and his company who are on a quest to destroy the evil Ring of Power. They journey into the elvish kingdom of Lothlerien, where Galadriel tells Frodo of the elves’ long resistance to the creeping evil of Sauron. Though they have lost their country bit by bit, she encourages him with these bracing words: “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” That’s often how it seems; our battle with sin and evil, even in our own selves, is “a long defeat.” That is surely how it felt to ancient Israel. But God has a surprise for us. Defeat will turn to victory, as Frodo and his company will finally discover. And death will be overcome by sovereign love, as the Exiles and the followers of Jesus discovered.
Author: Scott Hoezee
This poem is labeled a “Psalm of Ascent” but it starts as a Psalm of Descent. It is called De Profundis in older Bibles—the Latin for “from the depths.” And that just might make this an appropriate preaching passage for the Fifth Sunday in Lent in the COVID-19 pandemic when many of us will not be able to gather in our sanctuaries with our congregations. The Gospel lection is the raising of Lazarus in John 11 and that might also capture the resurrection hope some need just now.
But I suspect that most of us feel in the depths right now, in extremis. We are disoriented. We are uncertain. Many of us who had packed calendars 10 days ago now see day after day of blank squares. Or of radically revised squares with Zoom links replacing face to face meetings, classes, even worship services. We are praying. We are preaching in some format or another. We are singing. We are journeying toward the cross and to the Easter glory on the other side of Golgotha.
Yet we are doing all of it from the depths. Depths of uncertainty. Depths of fear. Depths of worry for vulnerable loved ones.
So what a profound time it is to let Psalm 130’s simple message sink in: put your trust and your hope in the Lord. No, this is not easy. This is no counted-cross-stich moment, no Precious Moments time where pithy lines lifted out of the Psalms can get loosely tossed out as though some pious panacea for everything. The depths are at once the place where we need to trust in God the most and also the time when doing precisely that is the hardest. In the depths we are as likely to throw pious bromides of assurance right back into the face of the well-meaning person who proffers them to us. Saccharine words that might roll right off us in ordinary (much less good) times can sting us like blowing sand in a desert storm when times are anything but ordinary or good.
So we preachers proffer Psalm 130’s call to trust pastorally, gingerly, with all due acknowledgment of why this is not easy. And maybe one way to do that is to take seriously the heart-wrenching yearning in this psalm. You can feel the poet’s agony, his straining to locate and see God through the murky gloom. He is like a watchman yearning for the first hint of pink and orange lighting up the eastern horizon after a very long, very frightening nighttime of watching for enemies in the pitch dark from the ramparts of a city.
Indeed, this yearning is so fierce that in verse 6 the psalmist does something pretty rare in the Hebrew Psalter: instead of engaging in the standard Hebrew poetic parallelism in which you repeat a line with slightly altered words (“God is our refuge and strength / An ever-present help in trouble”), instead here the line just gets repeated for emphasis.
More than watchmen wait for the morning / More than watchmen wait for the morning.
Can you hear the intensity of that? Can we acknowledge in our sermons how awful that kind of longing can feel? How long nights in the hospital can feel when we are at the bedside of a sick child? How long the nights are when sleep will not come because our minds cannot stop racing in worry about this or that issue in our life?
The depths really can be that bad. In fact, they usually are. So let’s admit it. Let’s admit that this is the voice of faith articulating both this desperation and this longing. These are not the words of a person with little faith but of a person with strong faith. It is what Walter Brueggemann has called “the Friday voice of faith.” Lament. Longing.
Even so and in the midst of the travail, put your hope in God. He is the cosmic source of chesed, of unfailing love and grace. He has redeemed us from our sins. He has rescued this world from the grip of evil darkness. And as Christians we can now affirm in this Lenten Season that he has won the decisive victory in Jesus Christ. And because that victory had to go from de profundis first (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!!??”), we can be assured that this salvation reaches us in all our deep and dark places too.
It is in the end a simple message. Not an easy message. Not a message to be delivered tritely or lightly. But maybe just maybe it is the word we all need to hear in this COVID-19 time. O Church of Jesus Christ: put your hope in the Lord.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
I have watched The Shawshank Redemption so often—all of it or parts of it when I run across it on cable—that there are few subjects in life that I cannot link to some scene or another in the film! And so also for Psalm 130. In the scene you can view here, Andy has made a fateful decision: this was to be the night of his long-planned escape from Shawshank Prison. But Andy’s friend, Red (Morgan Freeman) fears that Andy is in despair and is going to hang himself in his cell. Red’s description of his long night of deep worry when time “draws out like a blade” matches the mood of being in the depths a la Psalm 130 as well as a deep, deep longing for the morning light to come.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Romans 8: is there a better loved, more soaring passage in the New Testament than this one? There is much here to linger over, savor, celebrate. The Lectionary carves out only six verses but the truth is, Romans 8:1-17 form such a logical—and also lyric—unit that I would suggest reading all 17 verses, and indeed, this sermon starter will take in all of these verses, including the lovely “Abba, Father” ending to this unit.
A hallmark of Pauline theology is the breathtaking claim that by virtue of having the Spirit of God in our hearts, we have been spiritually relocated. We now live “in Christ.” Seldom in history has such a short, two-word prepositional phrase packed such a wallop. Romans 8 tells us right off the bat that now there is “no condemnation” for us. With God’s Spirit within us, we are liberated, set free, righteous in the sight of God. Our entire mindset is directed toward God. Our spirits are alive and victorious. We do not lead fearful lives but bold and free lives in which we can call God our Father even as we celebrate our status as children of God. Paul cannot say enough as to what this change of status means.
Yet everything in Romans 8 depends on that central idea that we now are “in Christ.” This is a change of cosmic position and status so grand, and so mind-boggling, that you surely can understand why some think that it should be as plain to see as the nose on someone’s face.
Think of it this way: picture in your mind’s eye some ball park loaded with people to watch a baseball game. You scan the crowd and see there the full array of typical humanity: you see white people and black people, Hispanic people and Asian people, skinny people and fat people and every gradation of body mass in between. You see young, middle-aged, and older folks. Just by looking at all these thousands of fans in the stands, you can maybe tell a lot about any given person. But the one thing you will not determine just by looking at them is also the single-most important fact of them all: namely, which of them are living “in Christ” and which of them are not.
You cannot detect this status just by looking at somebody. Yet we claim it is the most important fact of all. So what does it mean to be “in Christ”? It’s a curious concept when you think about it. You almost never hear such talk in other areas of life. For instance, no matter who is President in the United States at any given moment, that person would love to be compared to Abraham Lincoln, generally regarded as the best President ever. But the most you would expect any politician to say in such a regard is that he or she tries to emulate President Lincoln, tries to embody the same principles that undergirded our Civil War leader. It’s one thing to say that you would want to be like Lincoln but it would be oddly startling if you claimed to be “in Lincoln.”
Or think of it this way: what meaning would you ascribe to a Muslim who claimed to be “in Mohammed” or a Jew who went around saying she was “in Abraham”? We Christians throw around the phrase “in Christ” very casually, as though its meaning were self-evident. But even as we would ask someone to explain just how in the world he could be “in Abraham,” so we should be able to come up with something in answer to the question of what it means to be “in Christ.”
There are several options. “In Christ” could be a way of identifying with the ideals of Jesus. We all have our role models in life. Most of us find figures in history, or in this present day, with whom we like to identify ourselves and whose core principles we hope to imitate in our own lives. So a president of this nation may hope to find inspiration and direction in the examples of past leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. A CEO may want to identify with and learn from someone like Bill Gates or Max DuPree so as to be a better executive him- or herself. Even someone like Mahatma Gandhi said that he took much inspiration from the words of Jesus in the gospels and found the symbol of the cross to be utterly moving. Conversely, I have learned a lot from Gandhi and find in his life’s example an inspiring kind of role model. But I would no sooner claim that I am “in Gandhi” than Gandhi would have wanted to say he was “in Christ.” So there must be something more radical about being “in Christ” than merely drawing inspiration from Jesus’ example.
A second option would be to say that being “in Christ” is perhaps a way of indicating where you have placed your hopes. If a person says that a good deal of his money is “in stocks,” that can be a way of letting you know where his financial future is located. If before a battle a military commander tells his troops, “All my confidence is in you,” he is conveying what he sees as the source of his hope for victory. So also perhaps when we say the words “in Christ,” maybe we are sort of indicating where our hearts are, where we have invested our hope and our confidence. But this option doesn’t seem right, either. After all, Paul does not say that we have placed something like our hearts, our love, or our fondest wishes “in Christ,” but rather we ourselves are completely “in Christ.”
So being “in Christ” means more than just taking inspiration from Jesus or using him as some kind of an historically interesting role model. And being “in Christ” means more than just indicating the place where you’ve made your emotional and spiritual investments in life. So what does it mean? Taking a cue from Lewis Smedes, perhaps it means to live in the new cosmic situation that Jesus brought about through his death and resurrection.
Really to understand what it means to be “in Christ” requires first that you believe Jesus made a difference in some utterly real, cosmic sense. You have to believe that what Jesus did in his death and resurrection turned this universe around, caused reality to turn the corner from darkness into light. Because of Jesus, the balance of power shifted in the universe such that the devil has ever since been losing ground and God has ever since been drawing all things back to himself. We are not talking about the realm of ideas here but the realm of concrete reality, of the ways things simply are.
What we must believe as Christians is that the work of Jesus has resulted in a true change in the cosmic situation–a change every bit as dramatic as the chasing out of a dictator or the toppling of a regime in some nation here on earth and every bit as concrete as what can be seen when a new boss takes over a corporation and instantly institutes a whole series of new policies that generate better working conditions for the employees. The work of Jesus had just such a real effect in the universe.
So to be “in Christ” means consciously living within the new situation that Jesus brought about. It means knowing that the powers of darkness are in retreat, that the devil has been chased out, and that your life has changed as a result. You are under new management. There is now a power active within you that makes you alive, free, and joyful. The whole situation has changed and so there are possibilities open to you that were not there before. You can choose to do right things instead of being stuck in a dismal pattern of ever and only opting for what you know is wrong.
The cosmic situation has changed for the better. For now it takes faith to see the changes that have been made by Jesus. We are still “between the times,” to invoke a traditional theological phrase. We are in “the already and the not yet.” That is why the daily newspaper still contains as much bad news as good news. For the same reason this is why we also struggle with sin yet. But if we really are “in Christ,” then those sins do not define us, do not cause us to give up on ourselves.
And if it seems strange to affirm that the Holy Spirit lives inside people who still sin, that really should not seem quite so odd after all. What you or I experience in our daily lives is really no more than a micro-example of what happens globally all the time: this world belongs to God, he holds it firmly in pierced hands, and because Easter is true, the balance of power has shifted decisively in the direction of God. But still people manage to perpetrate evil deeds. The world is God’s even though it doesn’t always look like it.
Yet that very nuanced way of putting it, this “both/and” perspective of “the already and the not yet,” of being “in Christ” and yet still struggling with sin, represents precisely those shades of gray many people would just as soon live without. If only life were more clear-cut, if only we could tell precisely who’s who just by seeing some outward mark. But we dare not be impatient with God’s way of doing things. We live by faith and it’s enough.
We patiently listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirits that we really are children of God (as verse 16 puts it). We have to believe that if we are children of God, then we will inherit what was promised to us. We have to believe that for now, although our sins have not yet become ever and only a thing of the past, that grace really is powerful enough to wipe them out every time.
Of course, living in this new situation is not like some extended vacation at a luxury resort. We are not to put our feet up, chill out, and just revel in being safely ensconced inside the new cosmic situation brought on by Jesus. No, being in Christ energizes us and equips us for service, for displaying the lifestyle and grace and goodness of this new situation in how we behave. But this is not some grim obligation placed on us—it is instead pure joy! As Paul puts in verse 11, the Spirit of God has given LIFE to our mortal bodies in the here and now already. That new life needs to show up. And by grace and in Christ, it most assuredly does!
Back in Kindergarten, maybe you did a craft in school as a Christmas present for your parents. Perhaps it was a papier mâché ornament for the Christmas tree. Years later maybe you took another look at that ornament: it’s not round by a long shot but kind of funky-shaped. There are clumps of glue here and there and several places where your paintbrush failed to make contact, leaving bare spots where you can still read the classified section of the newspaper you used. But when you handed your folks that trinket, their eyes shined. They took the gold and crystal Saks Fifth Avenue tree ornament that Aunt Louis had bought in New York City and stuck it on the back of the tree so that your ornament could be front and center. “Do you like it, Daddy?” you maybe asked. “Honey, it’s just perfect.”
When you are in your father’s love, that’s the kind of answer you always hear. “Do you love me, Father?” “Honey, you’re just perfect.” In Christ it will always be so.