Ezekiel 37:12-14 Romans 8:8-11 John 11:1-45
TODAY, for the third week running, the gospel is one of those long and powerful theological narratives from John's gospel. Here, as Lent moves towards its climax, the focus is on God's battle with the powers of death, a battle that has to be fought out in the life of each one of us, for which our Lenten campaign is a kind of preliminary skirmish.
In the first reading, Ezekiel, speaking (it is almost certain) to the Jews deported to Babylon, addresses himself to the worst death that that nation ever had to face until the awfulness that our own century invented, and finds hope in their situation.
The Exile in Babylon seemed to those 6th century believers the worst thing that could possibly have happened to them: God's promises had been scandalously broken, and this called into question the very existence of God.
Ezekiel's answer to this is not to deny the awfulness, but to put before his coreligionists the notion that it might not be the end of the story.
He uses the metaphor of death: the exiled people are in graves, but the prophet, while admitting this, audaciously explores the notion that death might have an end: "I am now going to open your graves; I mean to raise you from your graves, my people, and lead you back to the soil of Israel".
And it is not to end there: what is on offer is nothing less than an encounter with their God: "And you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves".
The second reading is likewise about life and about death; and it goes deeper than the continued ticking-over of the body (or not), for the life on offer is that which comes from Christ being in us. This includes physical life (or an end to physical death), but is much more than it, "since the Spirit of God has made His home in you". The third reading, the story of the raising of Lazarus, with its false starts and shattered hopes and triumphant denouement, can be left to speak for itself; but look at the ways in which life triumphs unexpectedly over death.
Firstly, there is the confidence of the two sisters who sent their message: "Lord, the man you love is ill". They have no notion what might come of it, but are sure that something will.
Then there is Jesus' confidence, which is of quite a different order being a serene assurance that all will be well: "this sickness will not end in death, but in God's glory", and (discouragingly) "our friend Lazarus is resting; I am going to wake him".
This confidence is highlighted by the disciples' entirely prudent alarm: "rabbi, it is not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back again?", and Thomas' gloomy resignation: "Let us go too, and die with him".
Against their groping uncertainty, Jesus makes clear that it is life and death that is at issue: "Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad that I was not there".
Then there are the two (practically identical) exchanges with Martha and Mary. They can hardly restrain their reproaches, though Martha qualifies her criticism somewhat ("even now, whatever you ask of God, he will grant you").
Not even she, however, has grasped what is the central revelation of the passage: "I am the Resurrection". If that is so (and faith wilt be put dramatically to the test on Good Friday), then there is no need for grief or anxiety.
Then (and we notice how swifty it is told), Lazarus is ordered to come out, and — of course — does so. That is an unimportant part of the story; the real point is the encounter with the life that is God, and his victory over death.
Jesus is human enough to weep at his friend's death, and the observers are moved: "see how much he loved him". But the climax of the story is (against all the odds) a great hymn of praise to God: "Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer". During what is left of Lent, let us unite ourselves to the forces of Life.
MAY 3 is a crucial day for the unemployed, and for all those in sympathy with them. At three o'clock on that day, a human chain is to be formed, stretching from Hope Street in Liverpool all the way down the country to Downing Street in London. It is estimated that 350,000 people will need to turn out on that Sunday if the human chain is to be complete.
The campaign has been organised by a consortium of organisations under the title Hands Across Britain. The President is Jimmy Saville. The very small full-time staff is organised by Molly Meacher. It is entirely non-political, enjoying the wholehearted support of three former premiers from both main Parties.
The campaign has the financial backing of industrialists and three major trade unions GMB, the I & G and the UCW. The campaign's steering committee has represetatives from the major voluntary bodies.
In some areas, the trade unions are coming up trumps. In Lichfield, while their numbers might not be very great, the enthusiasm of the local unions is unsurpassed. In Liverpool,, GMB's national enthusiasm is evident, helping to weld together the local disparate groups.
But this, sadly, is not the national picture, as far as trade unions are concerned. For, while the national backing is there, the trade unions experience genuine