A Matter of Death and Life

SJF • Lent 5a 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We return once again in our Lenten journey, after a week away with a side note to the Ephesians, to Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Our reading today ends with that justly famous quotation concerning the wages of sin, and the gift of God, how one leads to death and the other to life. And our other readings today are full of images of death giving way to life — a brief preview of Easter if you will, before Palm Sunday — as we see how God brings life out of death, by God’s own will and God’s own act: as a gift, not a wage.

When I was a child, shopping trips to the supermarket with my parents always ended with a peculiar ritual. This was long before laser scanner checkouts, and electronic cash registers — though our local supermarket had gotten as far as having conveyor belts at the checkout stands! At the end of having the bill totaled, this peculiar ritual ensued: along with the receipt, the check-out clerk would count out and hand over to my mother or father, a number of green stamps. Anyone here remember green stamps? Well, for those who don’t, my parents would take these stamps home, and carefully paste them into little booklets about so big. And as the books filled with page after page of identical green stamps, the books would be set aside and saved. Once I looked closely at the page of stamps, and saw that in very fine print on each one was the phrase: “Value 1 mil.” I asked my Dad what that meant, and he told me that a mil was one-tenth of a penny. So each page of stamps was worth about two and a half cents, and each book, when full, was worth about a dollar. Now, it’s true that a dollar went a lot further in those days than it does now, when a loaf of bread cost 26 cents. Still, it seemed like alot of work to put into pasting and saving these green stamps.

Then I learned the real purpose of the stamps: it wasn’t that they were a kind of money with an amazingly low value — rather, they could be redeemed! I learned that if you went to the S&H Green Stamp Redemption Center, which wasn’t too far from where we went to church, you could trade in your completed books of stamps for — you guessed it — free gifts! I may be mistaken, but I think the only free gift we ever actually got, for three or four books, was a table lamp. I don’t know whatever became of that table lamp — but I know an awful lot of shopping at the supermarket, and saving and pasting the green stamps went into obtaining this so-called free gift! And I think shortly after that my parents stopped wasting their time pasting green stamps into booklets!

Some people seem to think of salvation in the same way, as if when we did good God gave us a few almost worthless green stamps for us to save in a book, which we would turn in at the end of the day to get a reward. This was the way in which Saint Paul had been brought up, in which most of those to whom he wrote — Gentile and Jew — had been brought up. “Do good, and you will earn God’s favor and God will reward you.” The problem with this theory, the idea that people can be good just through their own independent effort, and earn God’s reward, is twofold.

First, as Saint Paul would put it in his Letter to the Galatians, if we could do it on our own, save ourselves from sin and be good without God’s help, then Christ died for nothing! If human beings could save themselves, they would have no need for a savior! If we could “redeem” ourselves we wouldn’t need a Redeemer. If we could do it on our own, ultimately, who needs God! (As Paul says, “I am speaking in humanterms”!) This idea of self-sufficiency is the first step on the road that leads to atheism and abandonment of God, and the worst kind of idolatry that sets up the human in the place of the divine.

Second, and perhaps fortunately for us, as Saint Paul noted in our earlier readings, people, if left to their own devices, don’t get better and better: and the truth of this is obvious. The evidence that if we are left to our own devices we don’t become more moral or more decent is plain for all to see — if they have eyes to see it.

Left on their own, even for an afternoon, Adam and Eve went off in pursuit, not of righteousness, but of power and control and self-sufficiency. And the fruit of that disobedience was death for all — quite a day’s wage for that afternoon of fruit-picking in the orchard of Eden. Left on their own, our ancient ancestors didn’t get better and better, they learned shame and death as the price of disobedience and sin.

We see another image of what happens when people are left to their own in our Gospel reading. And it lies in a detail that is easy to miss. When Mary and Martha send for Jesus to come to help Lazarus, he doesn’t do it — he doesn’t go. Right there we should wonder what is going on — for Jesus not to come to help one of his closest friends, whose relationship is described in the strongest possible terms: “see how he loved him!” But Jesus keeps waiting, waiting even after he knows that Lazarus has died. And not just for a day, but for four days after his death.

This is an important detail, easy for us to miss, but it relates to Jesus’ own resurrection. For under the Jewish law, it was held that the corruption of the body begins on the fourth day — and the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day was seen as fulfillment of the Scripture,“You will not let your holy one see corruption.” So corruption officially starts on the fourth day, and as Martha reminds Jesus when he goes to the tomb, it has been four days since Lazarus was buried. He will have begun to rot, and there will be a stench.

And my friends, this is ultimately what happens to us if we are left on our own. Simply put, we die; we rot; we stink. Ultimately all that is left is a pile of dry bones. Left on our own, without God’s intervention, human beings not only get bad, we go rotten, and then simply cease to be: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

But with God — ah, with God all things are possible. God can bring life even to bones of the dead so dry that they rattle like a xylophone when God’s prophet calls them to new life. God can call out to a man four days lying in a tomb, already giving off a stench that could make you retch, but God can bring him forth into the light of day alive again, loosed from the bonds of death, and breathing the fresh clean air of the newly wakened world.

On our own, my sisters and brothers, we can do nothing. We could fool ourselves by continuing to shop at the store of mortality, slaves to the devil, the storekeeper who seems so generous and gives us those paltry stamps worth less than a tenth of a penny, so that after spending thousands we might get a “free gift” worth a few dollars, and of no more use to us than an anchor to a drowning man.

Or we can put ourselves in the employ of the Lord of heaven, who doesn’t reward us because of our works or our deserving, but because he loves us as his children, and he gives us the gift of life. He knows that if he left us alone for a few hours we’d be back into the orchard hunting for that forbidden fruit; he knows that left alone we will lose our lives and dry up and become nothing but a heap of dry bones in a valley — or a stinking corpse in a cave.

But the good news is that we are not on our own. He has called us here to this real Redemption Center — the church — where the truly free gift of life is available to all. We are no longer slaves to sin and wage-earners of death, but servants of the risen Lord of life. He is the resurrection, and the life. We who believe in him, even though we die, will live. He will give new life to our mortal bodies, and fill us with his life-giving Spirit. To him be the glory, henceforth and for evermore.