By Paul Koch –
The readings that were set before the church today are, quite simply, powerful. They get to the heart of the human struggle; they deal with matters of life and death. In that regard, they speak to the center of our faith, our confidence that the grave with all of its terrors and sorrows will not have the last say over the faithful. In Ezekiel 37 we hear that epic story of the valley of dry bones. There, God’s prophet is directed to prophecy to the bones and at his speaking they begin to come together. Like something out of a Hollywood movie, bones move and unite and stand up. Flesh and skin grows up around them. Then he is command to prophecy again to fill them with the breath of God. As Ezekiel does this, they come to life. God declares, “You shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from them, O my people.”
Then we hear John, chapter 11. Here we have that incredible story of the resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, a family that our Lord loved and cared deeply for, dies from an illness. Jesus heads off with his disciples to demonstrate what he can do in the face of death. If Ezekiel was commanded to prophecy to recreate dead bodies into living creatures, that is nothing compared to the simple word of Christ in the face of the death of a friend. Jesus arrives on the scene, and mourning is still thick in the air and the grief is palpable. Everyone has assumed that death is the final victory; even Jesus himself weeps. Then he stands before the open tomb of Lazarus and simply declares, “Lazarus, come out.” In response to the command of his Lord, Lazarus does just that. Still wrapped up in the ceremonial burial cloths, Lazarus hears his Lord’s words from beyond the grave and returns to the life of the living.
And then, right in between these two readings, is a word from St. Paul taken from his letter to the Christians in Rome. This text that is situated between these two powerful stories of the promise of life when death stares you right in the face, this is the most important for us. While the other two stories get most of the attention, while they are the source material for paintings and songs and poetry, it is this word from Romans chapter 8 that is most crucial for us today. For it is here that the raising of Lazarus from the death encounters your life. It is here, in the words of St. Paul, that Ezekiel’s bold and daring proclamation enters into your ears. Paul, you might say, makes a practical application of God’s victory over death for you. If you’ve ever wondered what all of this has to do with you, with your life here and now, on this day and at this moment: well, the answer is found in this word from Paul.
Paul’s words to you today are bold and surprising. They jump off the page with incredible force. He says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” Paul declares to you a word with which you are all familiar. You’ve heard it before, and God willing you will hear it again. You are free in Christ Jesus. Free from the law of sin and death, free from the law that measures you out and finds you lacking. Not partially free, not free if you get your act together, not free if you toe the line and walk the narrow path, but quite simply – free. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In fact, to be in Christ Jesus means that the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you. This means that the gift of life that Ezekiel preached and Lazarus heard is a gift that is yours even now.
But to proclaim such a freedom, to say that there is no condemnation and no strings attached, while it sounds good, it is also a bit unnerving. We’ve all heard that old saying, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come to you they are yours.” The thing that makes such an action difficult is that to set them free means you have no control. If you set your children free, they might get in trouble, or get hurt, or worse. If you set your lover free, you may face rejection and loss. With true freedom, there is danger. Who will restrain people’s impulses? How will they know where to walk and how to walk and with whom they should walk if they are free? And so, though St. Paul makes this bold statement about your freedom in Christ, the immediate response to it is usually to dial it back a bit, perhaps to put some conditions on that freedom, to make it a little safer for all of us.
It is our own experience that pulls us to this. We hear the bold word of Paul, but what we see in our lives causes us to push back from these words. The divorce rates among Christians are no different than those of nonbelievers. Christians struggle with powerful addictions that can tear apart homes and lead to broken relationships. Christians get embroiled in all sorts of ugly sins: pornography, lying, cheating, stealing. These are not just things of the world, but they are things that play out in your lives as well. And so, to speak of freedom seems foolish. After all, you use your freedom to do terrible things! What you really need is some guidance so that you might live as the children of God ought to live. You need some controls upon your life so that you might be worthy of the gifts of Christ.
We find that condemnation has a role to play in your life, after all. There needs to be a threat if there is to be a chance to live as the children of God. If you are to walk according to the Spirit, you need obedience to make any progress at all. And so, preachers throughout the land offer guidance and instruction for good and faithful living. Time and again, you are directed to a higher morality for your life, a better way to live so that you might have eternal life. Your attention is turned to your own deeds, your behavior, and how you conduct yourself as a child of God. You are called to measure yourself by the commandments of God, measure each other by those words, and strive to live a faithful life.
So, I want to ask you something. How is that working out for you? Are you living the faithful spirit-filled life? Are you obedient? Are you overcoming the sin and shame in your life? If not – if you fail, if you stumble over and again, if you want to do good but you don’t get it done, if you try to avoid the evil of this world but return to it again and again – where is your hope?
It is in the same place it always was. It is in the same place from which your whole life of faith flows. Your hope rests in Christ alone. See, we may pull away from the freedom proclaimed by St. Paul, but St. Paul doesn’t. And thank God he doesn’t! He doesn’t back off these words. He declares all the more boldly to each and every one of you this day, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.”
Paul turns everything over on its head. He challenges your experiences and gives you something more. To live under condemnation is to live under the law of sin and death. To live such a way is not to live by the Spirit, but by the flesh. And the flesh will only lead to condemnation. In fact, Paul declares that not only will you not submit to God by your flesh, but you cannot do it. Your sinfulness as it is impacted by the pure and righteous law of God does not make you more holy, it doesn’t make you worthy. Rather it spells out your doom. The law that deals with your deeds and your abilities will always lead to death. Death is a valley full of dry bones wasting away and cut off from God. Death is Lazarus wrapped up and closed off in a tomb, never to breathe again. But it turns out, death is just where God wants you.
In the waters of holy Baptism, you were clothed by the righteous garments of our Lord Jesus Christ. All his works and all his righteousness was given to you. The righteous requirement of the law was fulfilled in Christ. It was made perfect by him alone, and it is given to you. Christ has done what you could not do. You, then, do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit because the Spirit is what has been given in those waters. To be in Christ is to be in the Spirit which is to be free: completely free. Your salvation has been set free from the tyranny of your own works and it is embraced in the promises of God. Your crucified and risen Savior stands behind those promises.
Like the bones of ancient Israel or the decaying body of Lazarus, you have been given the breath of life in the Words of your God. This Word declares that you are forgiven all your sins, you are free from the bondage of sin and death, and there is now no condemnation for you in Christ Jesus.