Pastor Paul E. Hoffman
Fifth Sunday in Lent A
Beloved in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Take off your clothes.”
Sources as reliable as Hippolytus of Rome and Cyril of Jerusalem attest to this shocking rubric, with which the bishop opened the baptismal rituals of the ancient church. In places as beautiful as Florence’s baptistry or as ordinary as a French country church, the presider began the baptismal rite: “Take off your clothes.”
They got the language from Jesus himself. John’s Gospel prefigures the dying and rising about to take place in the life of Jesus. Standing by Lazarus, John’s risen Christ commands: “Unbind him, and let him go.” That’s a close first cousin to the ancient church’s invitation, “take off your clothes.” Lazarus is about to be born again. And so are we.
Jesus invites us daily to step into the New Creation that he is about to forge on the cross. He looks with compassion on the emptiness of our lives as one might gaze upon a valley of dry bones. He wrestles out of the depths of the grave to be the first to rise from that grave-turned-womb into new and everlasting life. Even Jesus left his old clothes behind there in the tomb. They are the vestiges of a soiled and sin-filled former world.
That former world is a world of “if onlies…” The If only…. If only, Lazarus’ sisters mutter in their pain. And so do we. If only I were smarter, thinner, richer, sexier, more content. If only we could agree. If only the planet weren’t overheating. If only this unprovoked war would end. If only spring would come.
So here’s an “if only,” of a different stripe. If only we could see ourselves in Lazarus, if only we could see ourselves as Lazarus. If only we could put ourselves in his place in this story, then we will hear Jesus invite us to lay aside all that clothes us in pain and sorrow, sin and death. Then from our muttering and pain, we will hear: “Unbind them, and let them go.” That is Jesus, talking through the Scriptures, to us, his beloved Church, today. “Unbind them and let them go.”
If only we could see that Christ offers to wrap us in new life. It is a cloak he has been weaving for us since Lent began:
+To walk away from all in the former life with which the devil tempts us…
+To be born again, has Jesus reminded Nicodemus he must be.
+To drink of living water, the kind that Jesus shared with the Samaritan woman at the well.
+To proclaim, along with the man born blind, that Jesus is Lord.
+To allow the gifts of the Church to empower us to freely live in God’s good and renewed world, in ungrudging service to others
Breathe in the Spirit’s breath of New Creation. I encourage you to hear with ears of the resurrection our Christ proclaimed today at the table of new life:
With this bread and cup, we remember your Son, the first born of the New Creation.
By his own baptism into death, Jesus left behind the lifeless, stench-ridden clothing the world. From the grave he rose to make all things new. Just as the prayer says, “the first born of the New Creation.”
Into the valley of this beloved sanctuary, across our weary bones, his resurrection breath blows once more this holy day. He invites us to leave the old worn and ratty clothing of the past behind.
Free from fear, free from selfishness, or shame, free from the empty idle promises of this deceptive world. Free from death, itself. Free to leave that all behind, so that with him, we might live each day charged with the breath of the Spirit. We no longer live by the breath of the flesh. We live by the breath of the Spirit.
There’s one more thing. And it’s a big thing. It’s about why Jesus raised up Lazarus, why he stripped him of the garments of the graveyard. It’s about why he said, “unbind him, let him go.”
Jesus did not do this so that from here on out Lazarus could live an endless string of chicken soup for the soul kind of days.
Jesus did not say, “I am the resurrection.” He said more. “I am the resurrection and the life.” As Lazarus is given new breath, new life, so are we each day. Every day. And not for our own sake. Listen in again on the Eucharistic prayer about to be proclaimed:
With this bread and cup, we remember your Son, the first born of the New Creation. We remember his life lived for others, and his death and resurrection which renews the face of the earth.
There it is: his life lived for others. Life that really is life. Our baptism promises us that own future is held eternally in the nail-printed hands of Jesus Christ, the first born of the New Creation. He raises us up new each day not to live for ourselves, but to renew the face of the earth. Tenderness. Care. Acceptance. Healing. Hope. Welcome. These are the sinews that stitch together a life that is really is life. A life that really is life for all people.
As Lazarus was buried in the tomb, so were we buried in baptismal waters. And as with Lazarus, Christ will raise us up, daily unbind us, and let us go. He will reclothe us, that we may serve those in need and bring to the dry and lifeless bones of a world destined for death the breath of resurrection.
The Lord Christ did unbind us, and he has let us go. We are free. Free, that with each new day we might shed our old and worn-out clothes and be dressed in the dazzling robes of Easter life. A life lived for others. The only life that really is life.
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.