This homily is based on the Cycle A readings associated with the Third Scrutiny of the Elect approaching Baptism.
If you’ve been following the news about the opening of this year’s baseball season, you’ve probably heard this year’s assessment of the American League’s Eastern Division; it’s identical to the assessment made last year at the beginning of the season. Four AL East teams will vie for the Division title, while one team has already been consigned to last place. If you’re a fan of the weakest team in the AL’s Eastern Division, you are probably undeterred by the prospect of another cringe-worthy season.
Partiality to a sports team is often called “team spirit”; it is a choice one makes. The choice is usually based on an attachment to the home city of the team, but it remains a choice; that is to say, it is not an unthinking response. As such, it is a commitment that one can maintain even in the face of overwhelming odds. The experience of “team spirit” can be helpful to understand today’s second reading.
In the letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” (Rm 8:9)
The word “spirit” can be used in numerous ways, not all of which have any connection with the Catholic Faith. There are popular television series that claim to report on the activities of ghosts and spirits; this meaning of “spirit” is based on superstition and/or an overly active imagination. In the Letter to the Romans, Paul uses the Hebrew meaning of the word “spirit.” In Hebrew religion, a “spirit” is an attitude, a predilection, or an exercise of power.
The book of Numbers says that God took a share of the spirit that empowered Moses and gave it to seventy men who were chosen to be Moses’ helpers. (Nm 11:25) In the first book of Samuel, the prophet promised King Saul that the spirit of the Lord would come upon him and cause him to be a changed man. (1 Sm 10:6) In the second book of Kings, Elisha requested a double share of the spirit that motivated Elijah. (2 Kg 2:9)
In these examples above, the word “spirit” means an attitude of service to God, a predilection to fulfill God’s will, and the gift of divine power needed to fulfill one’s vocation. In today’s second reading, Paul refers to these same meanings of the word “spirit.”
When Paul wrote that the Christians at Rome were in the spirit if the Spirit of God dwelt in them, he was saying that Baptism gives a person an adopted filial relationship with God. (Rm 8:9) Baptism gives one an affinity to God and God’s will. Paul continued the metaphor of familial relationship by saying that those without the Spirit of Christ do not belong to God. (Rm 8:9) This might sound very abstract if it weren’t for the background of the Romans’ belief in the Gospel message.
Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. In this encounter with Lazarus’ sisters, Jesus describes himself as “the resurrection and the life.” (Jn 11:25) This is a promise of a share in God’s life, God’s Spirit, but not only in the age to come. Jesus’ promise to share with us the Spirit of God is a promise for the present age, as well.
If Jesus’ promise to be “resurrection and life” applies only to an afterlife, then not only does Lazarus’ resuscitation make no sense, it might also have been unnaturally cruel. Lazarus was restored to his previous life; the burial cloths covering him were an indication that he was resuscitated rather than resurrected. Why would Jesus restore him to life only to have him face death a second time? The reason is that this final miraculous “sign” in John’s Gospel points to the new life that the baptized enjoy in this world. Lazarus was restored to life just as Jesus gives the baptized a new life in this world. All of this depends, of course, on the faith that Paul had in mind when he wrote that the baptized share in the Spirit of God.
Those who are baptized are empowered to live in the Spirit of God, that is, to live in a way that expresses an affinity with God’s will. This new attitude conferred by Baptism isn’t optional; it is the baptismal vocation.
Those of you who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil will be empowered with a new attitude, a new ability to accomplish God’s will. The new life of Baptism, the gift of the Spirit of God, begins in this life so that we might live each day in God’s presence and be welcomed into God’s presence at the end of this life. As with any attitude or ability (like remaining faithful to a struggling sports team, for example), the new life of Baptism doesn’t happen automatically or by accident; it must be chosen. As Paul said, “you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Rm 8:9)