How do you feel about the future? Optimistic? Pessimistic? What fills you mind as you think about the next few years?
What about the future of the Church?
It is easy to feel despondent. We’ve been told time and again that numbers attending churches are dropping, that the church is no longer relevant. The evidence seems to support a general air of despondency. And at times many of us will have wondered whether there is any point carrying on coming to church.
I’ve heard people saying things like: “It’s dry and musty, it’s not my kind of thing, it’s just like a bag of old bones – no life there at all. Why would I want to come to church?”
And yet for others of us, Church does not feel that way at all. Somehow God has reached out and touched us through the worship. Sometimes there is a tingling inside us when we think about coming to worship – and we say that coming to church seems to give our life a sense of purpose. We have hope for the future again.
The readings set for Passion Sunday are long. But they clearly have one theme in common. New life breathed into dead bodies. It was obvious in Ezekiel, just as obvious in the raising of Lazarus. Both these readings have a sense of hope and life.
Both in Ezekiel and in the story of Lazarus the seemingly impossible happens. In Ezekiel’s case it is in a vision, in Lazarus’ case the story asks us to accept that he was raised by Jesus. Both are saying to us in their own way that the seemingly impossible is possible with God. God can even raise the dead! Ezekiel wants his hearers to believe again that defeated, hopeless OT Israel can again be a living, dynamic force.
And Ezekiel’s vision was taken up as a primary rallying point for black slaves in America. “…Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones … hear the word of the Lord.”
And as generations past, hopelessness was transformed into belief and action. The slave trade was abolished and later, the sporting success of a person like Jesse Owen brought dignity and hope to black people. And people like Dr. Martin Luther King took on the establishment and brought an end to official discrimination.
Hope rose from the ashes of despair.
There have been other instances in the history of the world where darkness is defeated. The fall of communism and the downfall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the end of apartheid in South Africa.
And in our Gospel reading Jesus speaks into a tomb and raises Lazarus, prefiguring his own resurrection which was to take place only a few months later. Martha clearly believed in the resurrection, but for her it was something remote, something which would only happen come judgement day. … Jesus wanted her to have hope now, hope for the present and the immediate future – and so he raises Lazarus.
It would be so easy for us to relegate hope and hopefulness to the hereafter. So easy for us to think that our faith only really works as we look beyond death and pray that God will accept us home to heaven. But ‘life to mortal bodies’ isn’t just for heaven. Life and hope are for now as well as for the future.
Just as in Ashton-under-Lyne we saw, 6 years ago, a new market rise from the ashes of the old – like a Phoenix. Jesus wants us to believe that he can through his Spirit breath new life into us as individuals and new life into our churches. We might feel small and insignificant, we might feel hopeless. But our bible readings talk of God’s Spirit energising and strengthening us.
All Lazarus had to do was respond – he could have stayed in the tomb, but he chose to come out into the light. Ultimately, all we have to do is to respond to what we see God doing in our churches and in our wider communities.
No doubt the signs of new growth will be fragile. They will need tending and caring for, they might even seem small and insignificant. But God’s Spirit is at work, we need to feel his breath inside us and respond, like Lazarus walking out into the light.