For those who want a change from the Gospel
Pentecost – Ezekiel 37:1-14
This purple passage from Ezekiel may be the only bit of the whole book with which modern-day readers feel familiar (unless we are fans of Pulp Fiction, in which case 25:17 might be familiar). It begins with two questions, one which God asks the prophet, but also one which we ought to ask ourselves, even though the answer is taken for granted in the text. ‘Can these bones live?’ is the obvious question, but the other is less clear: ‘What caused these dry bones to be in the valley?’ In order to answer that question, we have to be familiar with the book of Ezekiel so far, and the life of its writer.
Ezekiel has lived through a two year siege of his city, Jerusalem, with all the attendant stress, hardship, famine and sickness. After a year in lockdown everyone is paying attention nowadays to mental health, and rightly so, but imagine two years of the kind of lockdown which leads to starvation and eventual captivity, with a threatening and cruel army just over the wall. He has heard reports from his exile in Babylon of the destruction of the Temple, where he served as a priest and even in exile expected that he would return to his duties sooner or later. He has seen in action the legendary cruelty of the Babylonians as they tortured the captives. He has seen the death of his beloved wife, but has been told by God not to mourn, as a sign to the people not to mourn for their city, now razed to the ground. And perhaps the worst of all, he has seen in a vision the glory of God, symbolising his presence among his people, depart from the Temple. Put it like that, and piles of dry bones might well describe how you see life, and the future. So no wonder the despairing answer to God’s question ‘Can these bones live?’ is ‘Your guess is as good as mine, O Lord.’
We do, of course, have a human tendency to want to skip the nasty bits of life and head for the positive bits. We’re not comfortable with death, and we’re allergic to pain, so lets head for the nice passages, which offer us a hope and a future and the drying of our tears. There’s nothing wrong with that: anyone who enjoys pain is rightly branded as a bit weird. But liturgically we can do the same if we long for Easter Sunday without entering into the full horror of Holy Week, and celebrate Pentecost without first asking ‘Why do we so need the power of the Holy Spirit?’ Only if we see ourselves, and the Church, as God sees us; only if we are aware of the dryness and deadness of so much of what we do can we really appreciate how much we need the new life which Pentecost promises and the Spirit brings. To really appreciate our need cuts through ideas such as Pentecost being the Patronal Festival of those funny charismatics, but it’s not for me, thanks very much! Elsewhere the exalted Christ asks self-satisfied members of his church to realise how poor, naked, pitiful and blind they are, and to come to him for healing (Rev 3:17). We can’t afford to ignore Pentecost.
The restoration of the mighty army happens in two stages, and that has something to teach us too. The word ‘Zombie’ is not in the Bible’s vocabulary, but the reality here is that people brought to life by God are really the undead, walking around but with no life in them, until the second touch of his Spirit, breathed into them, brings them fully alive. It was the practice of the Early Church first to baptise new converts following their repentance and belief, and then to pray for them to receive the Spirit. The C of E has institutionalised this into Confirmation, and separated it into a second and much later ceremony, and some Pentecostal churches teach that a ‘Second Blessing’ of the Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues, is necessary for full salvation. But whilst it may be wrong to separate Baptism and the Holy Spirit, the fact is that there are plenty of undead Christians walking around with no practical experience of receiving the Spirit at all. When that happened in the book of Acts, the Apostles immediately did something about it, and prayed for the people concerned to be filled with the Spirit, so that what flowed from their mouths, whether praise, prophesy or tongues, gave evidence to anyone present that they really had received the Spirit. Maybe today there are those who will want, on this feast of Pentecost, to ask God for that filling with his Spirit, or to ask to be refilled (because we leak!) so that we can come fully alive in Christ.
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