Bigger Hope, Bigger Horizons
Published by Paul Harford on Sunday, 29 March 2020 08:00
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 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.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the
UnitedStates of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org
I’m writing this at a time when it seems our horizons are getting smaller and smaller. With the country now confined to its homes, it may be your space to be and explore is the smallest it’s ever been. Our house certainly doesn’t feel as large now that it has four people in it all the time! (Children might be small, but they take up a lot of room!)
It’s hard not to feel more limited as our physical environment shrinks. There’s a risk that that limitation begins to not just be physical, but mental, emotional, and spiritual as well. It would be very easy for our focus to become just about these tiny little bubble worlds we are each in. It would be very easy for our concerns to be only for ourselves and those few we might be lucky enough to have as company in our homes. We’ve seen that limiting of vision in our supermarkets as people pile trolleys high with pasta and loo roll, at the expense of others. It doesn’t lead us to a great place as a society.
In the portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we’re gifted today Paul offers us another option. He writes about the importance of lifting the limits of our minds, to something outside ourselves, and beyond ourselves.
“To set the mind on the flesh is death,” he writes. Our experience in these days surely bears that out? We know that if we spend our time sat at home worrying about our fears for health and safety (of ourselves and others), or worrying about stocking our cupboards that we are going to be heading in some dark directions.
But he goes on, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Paul has come through his experience of the resurrected Christ to be able to lift his vision beyond his personal physical circumstance. He knows himself to be someone loved by God, redeemed by God, and destined for heaven. His life isn’t bounded by here and now, but rooted in eternity. His sense of self doesn’t come from income that may or may not be secure, but from knowing his place as God’s beloved child.
Of course, that’s not the exact language he uses here. He uses something far more apposite – he identifies himself, and asks us to recognise ourselves the same way, as those within whom ‘the Spirit of God dwells’.
That ‘dwells’ is a really interesting word. It’s root is in the word for ‘house’, and it means, without any doubt, that the Spirit of God, or the Spirit of Christ (Paul happily uses the two interchangeably) has set up home in those who follow him. Once he’s in, he’s in. He’s not just passing through. He’s not visiting for a cup of tea. He’s at home.
Or, to put it another way, God also is in lockdown, by his Spirit, in the hearts of those who are opened to him.
It was that knowledge of the presence of God in his life, wherever he went, whatever he faced, that meant Paul could cope with being blinded, imprisoned, shipwrecked... it’s what meant he could later write, “ I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:12).
Through that intimacy with God, Paul found that his horizon was lifted, his vision was increased. His hope was no longer limited to the things of this world, but rooted in the life of the world to come, in a resurrection into something even more glorious; and so he could be hungry, he could be imprisoned, he could face death with hope, and peace, and joy.
That same hope, that same peace, that same joy is there for each of us, even now, even today.
That’s not a promise that it will make things easy, or that we will never again be sad, or stressed or worried. We’re not that naïve. We can’t be – look at the other story we have to consider today.
Jesus, a man who we can safely assume to be saturated in the presence of the Spirit, and the power of God finds that his friend, Lazarus is dead. At first he meets the situation with incredible poise, and peace – a serenity that leads his disciples to conclude Lazarus is alright. He then goes on to meet Martha, and talk to her about the same hope – resurrection – that is later to carry Paul through all his trials. This is what we might expect from the sort of hope and vision Paul espouses. And yet. And yet, when confronted with the reality of the moment – with the tomb and the corpse – we come to the shortest, and deepest verse in scripture, ‘Jesus wept.’
As a human Jesus lived as we do. To use the language of Paul, he lived, as we do, in the flesh.
That means that, even with the Spirit of God in us, even with the hope of resurrection and eternity, for the time being, in the now, there will continue to be moments when the world washes over us. There will be moments of fear, and despair, of pain, and loss, and weeping. That is normal, that is human, that is not something to be ashamed of. It is also not something to be feared, because the hope we carry is that those moments are not the last word.
The view they put in front of us – of a world that ends in death – is one we know to be false, it’s too short, too walled in, too final. Our vision is higher, our hope is greater. We look – as Jesus did, as Martha did, as Paul did – to the hope of resurrection; to the day when we, like Lazarus, will rise from our tombs into the light, glory, and wonder of eternity.
It may be that in the here and now there are times when that hope burns low, or when we can barely hold onto it but by our fingernails... but nonetheless that hope does contain the power to bring us through the darkness, because it’s a hope based not in fantasy, but in the experience of the Spirit of God in us, and by whose presence we can already taste and feel its reality.
The more we grab it, the more we hold it, the brighter it can become and shine not just for us but for all around us. The more we lean into it, the more weight we find it can bear.
So, I exhort you, lift your eyes of body, mind, and heart – look beyond the walls of your house, and soar in your spirits. Know yourselves to be people of eternity; called by a God of glory to shine as lights in this world, and as heralds of hope.
God bless you,