May 20, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104:25-35, 37b; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15
The God we worship is one who breathes life – new life – into hopelessness and despair; a God who breathes new life, even in the face of death. God has both the purpose and the power to restore us from death into life.
This week I heard the story of an Indigenous man whose family has suffered generations of pain as a result of residential schools. After generations of addictions, abuse, and neglect, this man reached a point where (with God’s help) he began to turn his life around. He is now an Anglican priest, ministering to a primarily Indigenous congregation where they blend the symbols and rituals of Indigenous peoples with those we know to be Christian in an Anglican context. He is working tirelessly to promote Indigenous education for all church leaders, so that those of us who have been shaped by colonialism can address and reverse this deeply rooted world view.
This is a story of God breathing new life – power – into the dry bones of colonialism and all the travesties that have occurred because of it. And we discover some roots of this story in our reading from Ezekiel this morning.
During the early years with the Israelites in exile, Ezekiel is speaking to a broken people, filled with hopelessness and despair. As he offers them a message of hope, he uses extremely graphic language and metaphor to convey a message of hope. That is, the image of dry, bones lying, lifeless in the middle of a valley. It is a picture of Israel – dead and dismembered by defeat and disappointment.
God puts the question to Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And he says, in effect, only you, God, can know this. This tells us that Israel’s survival and revival is in God’s hands. While we, humans, certainly play a role in allowing new possibilities - new life - to surface, at the end of the day, we say, “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine…” It is only God’s power working through his people that can resurrect the Israelite people, and restore to them their land and temple.
So the Lord commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones: to tell them that God will reconstitute them into skeletons, clothe them with muscle and flesh, put breath in them and bring them to life! Ezekiel does this, and as he watches, the bones come together and are formed into corpses, but they still remain lifeless.
God, then, commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath. (Breath is understood as wind, as well as spirit: invisible, powerful, and life-giving. Hebrew: ‘ruach’ – the wilderness wind; the image of the Spirit of God: bringing to life that which is lifeless.) So, Ezekiel summons the breath to inspire the dead – and these dry bones spring to life!
This is a powerful image, conveying the extraordinary power of God’s Spirit; a Spirit so strong that it can transform death into life. Indeed, the God we worship is one who breathes life – new life – into hopelessness and despair; one who breathes new life, even in the face of death.
As Christians, this understanding of God reaches its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and each liturgical year we are reminded that Jesus embodies this God who breathes life into a dead corpse. Each Good Friday we remember the death of Jesus, and are offered the painful reminder of his broken, beaten, bruised, lifeless body being placed in a dark tomb where only death resides. Each Easter morning we are reminded that the God we worship is one who breathed new life into that lifeless corpse; we are reminded that Christ is risen; the Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia! During the Easter season we remember that this resurrected Jesus appeared to his grieving disciples, comforting, feeding, teaching them, and offering them hope. His appearance to them, his presence with them, breathes new life in the midst of their agonizing grief.
Then, the time comes when his presence with them in this physically resurrected state has to end (his ascension, which is the story we remembered and celebrated last week) Indeed, the time comes when he has to leave, but as we were reminded in our Gospel reading this morning, he had promised that he would leave them with the power they need to carry on the work they had begun with him. He would leave them with the power to love and serve God in ways that they could never have imagined. And, of course, it is the gifting of this Spirit that we celebrate in particular today, as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. With the ascension, we are told that Jesus ascended into heaven; with Pentecost we are told that God’s Spirit came like a gale-force wind from heaven… so, with these two pivotal events, heaven and earth become one with – bound by - God’s love, and infused with God’s Spirit.
On that day, some 2,000 years ago, Jews from all the countries around the Mediterranean had travelled to Jerusalem in order to celebrate and participate in the harvest festival, known as Pentecost, which occurs fifty days after Passover. This event would have attracted an enormous crowd. At 9:00 in the morning at this particular Pentecost, God pours out his Holy Spirit. Suddenly they hear a powerful wind. Living in Winnipeg, imagining this sound is not too much of a stretch. To be completely honest, its not a stretch at all.
This wind is a powerful symbol of the great gale of God’s Spirit pouring out upon them. Imagine the strongest wind blowing, forcing inanimate objects to become mobilized, creating chaos as they travel with great speed through space. That unforgettable tornado scene in the Wizard of Oz comes to mind. Well, this is the kind of powerful wind we might imagine as we try to envision the hugeness of this Pentecost celebration; and those who receive the gift of this powerful Spirit are mobilized into action.
But the difference between this strong wind and that of a tornado is that those who are mobilized into action are first united. The power of the Spirit unites those who would otherwise be divided by the barriers of diverse languages. They are first united by the power of this Spirit, and then dispersed – sent – as inanimate objects coming to life with the gust of a strong, gale-force wind.
And this brings me to Peter’s response to the receiving of this gift. So many times along the way Peter – at least in some small part – could be likened to an inanimate object. He argues against Jesus’ vision of sacrifice; he is among those who fall asleep after Jesus has asked them to stay awake while he prays just prior to his arrest; he becomes immobilized with fear and denies even knowing Jesus when things become increasingly terrifying and intense as Jesus journeys toward his death on the cross.
I cannot lose sight of all this disappointing and quite cowardly behaviour associated with Peter as we reflect on his response to the gift of this mighty wind; his response to this empowering gift of God’s Spirit. As he receives this gift, is filled with and empowered by it, he comes to life. His fear is transformed into courage; his self preservation is transformed into self sacrifice. The transformation we see in Peter is absolutely astonishing.
In this moment, Peter finds his voice. He stands up to speak, and courageously recalls the words of the prophet Joel, who promised that one day God would pour out his Spirit, freely and without any limits empowering all people to be caught up in the life and love of God – having visions of his kingdom and speaking his word. And this outpouring of this powerful, gale-force Spirit is happening now, says Peter, right before their very eyes. Jesus’ death has made his mission that much more powerful; now it cannot be contained. God’s Spirit, dwelling in him, is now unleashed; set free among the whole of humanity. Peter, so very recently immobilized with fear, is now courageously speaking words that could – and in fact eventually will - lead to his own death. The God we worship is one who breathes life – new life – into hopelessness and despair; a God who breathes new life, even in the face of death.
I began this morning with a story that I believe is one that speaks of a God breathing new life into an individual, and through him, new life into the spiritual life of Indigenous peoples; new life into non Indigenous communities through education; breathing new life into the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples through breaking down the barriers that have kept us apart. I think we saw the power of God’s Spirit at work yesterday during a sermon that was preached at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle; a sermon preached by Michael Curry, the first African-American Presiding Bishop in the U.S. Episcopal church. In a world that witnesses every day the dry bones of hatred and violence, he preached a message of love; the transforming, enlivening power of God’s love.
Imagine that! In the span of 75 years, we have seen the power of God’s love – God’s Spirit – sweep through the dry bones of deeply rooted racism… many of us remember: the stories of Viola Desmond challenging racial segregation here in Canada, Rosa Parks, refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of an end to racism in the U.S., Barack Obama, first African-American President of the U.S., and now an African-American Presiding Bishop preaching a provocative and profoundly hopeful message of love within the context of a British Royal wedding. If that isn’t a shining example of the Spirit we celebrate here today, I don’t know what is. Yes, the journey from Viola Desmond and Rosa Parks to Michael Curry has not been, and continues to not be, smooth, and without set backs and heart breaks along the way. But if we look at the broad sweep of God’s plan, infused by the Spirit of love, we can surely see this is a power that animates the dry bones of our time.
When we are outside and begin to experience gale-force winds, we tend to run for cover. But when it comes to Pentecost it is far more important that we are out there in the wind, letting it sweep through our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, our powers of speech, and transform us from a listless or lifeless believer into someone whose heart is on fire with the love of God.
When speaking about this Spirit of Love yesterday, Michael Curry said, “I am talking about some power. Real power. Power to change the world. If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s Antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love, and why it has the power to transform. They explained it this way, they sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity. ’Love God. Love your neighbors. And while you’re at it, love yourself.’”
The gift of this powerful, gale-force Spirit transformed cowardly Peter into a man of courage. This transformation was rooted in and a profound expression of the unconditional love of Jesus… and the rest is history continuing to unfold.
The gift of this powerful, gale-force Spirit empowered that faith-filled Indigenous man I mentioned earlier to be a channel through which lives are being transformed and barriers and being removed… and the rest is history continuing to unfold.
The gift of this powerful, gale-force Spirit empowered Rosa Parks to quietly, firmly say no to racism… and the rest is history continuing to unfold.
I leave each of us as individuals, and the church as a whole, with one question: where is the spirit sweeping through our lives, our hearts, our imaginations, our powers of speech, inviting us to come to life in new ways with hearts on fire with the love of God.