Pentecost Sunday | Acts 2 & Ezekiel 37

Ezekiel 37:1-14

1 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ 

4 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

7 So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. 8 I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. 9 Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ 

10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

11 Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” 

12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’

Acts 2:1-21

1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes 11 Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 

17  ‘In the last days it will be,God declares, 
     that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, 
         and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, 
     and your young men shall see visions, 
          and your old men shall dream dreams. 
18  Even upon my slaves, both men and women, 
          in those days I will pour out my Spirit; 
               and they shall prophesy. 
19  And I will show portents in the heaven above
          and signs on the earth below, 
              blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 
20  The sun shall be turned to darkness
          and the moon to blood, 
               before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 
21  Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

SERMON  -  Life Breath   

Fifty one days ago, we gathered in this very spot—some of us on two different occasions—to recognize that our Lord has been killed, and to admit that even if we didn’t actively participate in the execution, neither did we do anything to stop it. The new life that was stirring among the Jewish underclass—that was just beginning to kindle enough of an ember to be noticed, had no sooner breathed its first fiery breath than the heal of a Roman boot stamped it out, all at the insistence and to the applause of the Jewish temple authorities. 

The disciples, of course, had already abandoned the cause—the male disciples at least—but the darkness resulting from Jesus death was enough to scatter them across the incessantly-colonized, promised land. 

Good Friday was not just the death of a person … it was the death of hope … the death of a nation … the death of God.

Two days later, death discovered that it’s lid wasn’t quite screwed on tight enough to contain the power of God unto life, and we celebrated—in joy and in terror—the resurrection of Jesus, and the empty tomb. The women, and then the disciples encountered their Lord again, in the flesh and in the breaking of bread … and they were amazed … God had restored life to the dead body of Christ. 

For three of those first evangelists, that is all that need be said. But for the writer we call Luke, Christ’s resurrection is only Phase One of God’s new creation … and so he, alone among the evangelists, composes a second volume to his gospel story, which we have been reading together this easter season … we know it as The Acts of the Apostles. 

As I have said before, some scholars don’t like that title—they think we ought to call it the Acts of the Holy Spirit, or even the Gospel of the Holy Spirit … for within it’s pages is found the good news of God’s ongoing work of Christ’s new life … yes, in and through the apostles … but always by the power and gift of the Holy Spirit … it is the Holy Spirit whom we celebrate on Pentecost … it is the Holy Spirit, not Paul or the 12 apostles, whom we credit with giving life to the church nearly two millennia ago.

The book of Acts tells this story: the birth and early childhood of the Church—the body of Christ, who was crucified; whom God raised from the dead.  And so, we may say, our life—the life of the church—is always resurrected life.  Indeed, the apostle Paul speaks of our baptisms—our entry into the church—as dying with Christ, as we go under, and arising to new life in Christ as we emerge from the water. The church is by nature a resurrection community … this is what was preached last week … but that is not all that we are. Picking up on the earlier work of the prophet Ezekiel, this story from Acts 2 shows that we are also a community enlivened by the breath of God. 

Ezekiel—the longest, but least attended of the major prophets—was delivering his prophecy during the time of exile. Jerusalem had been overrun by the Babylonian army, leaving only a heap of rubble in their wake. The Babylonians were ruthless, killing off men, women, and children, but carrying those strongest and brightest from Jerusalem back to Babylon to live as exiles there. The exile is the defining disaster in the life of Israel.  

It is their 9/11, but on a far more comprehensive scale. 

It is the point on which their history pivots.

The image Ezekiel uses to describe the people of God at this point is that of a slain body … scattered bones, which have been picked clean by the buzzards and dried by the scorching heat. The house of Israel is dead as a doornail. But God speaks to Ezekiel and asks, “Mortal, Can these bones live?” 

And we know, of course, what happens next … what is worth pointing out, though, in light of our passage from Acts, is that new life is given to the exiled body of Israel—you may have noticed—in two phases. The first has to do with flesh and sinew … but the second has to do with life-breath.

“I looked, and there were sinews on [the bones], and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then God said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 

I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

A few years back now, the results of a study examining religious affiliation and participation in the United States were published. The commentators made no bones about the results … the church in America, they declare, is dying, with mainline protestantism well out ahead in the race to the grave.

The buzzards are circling … the desert heat of secularism is drying up our already parched body … every year more American church buildings close their doors for the last time …

Mortal, can these bones live?

“The church is a resurrection community,” we respond … 

But that is not all that we are. Putting flesh back on the pews is not all that is required for new life any more than putting skin back on the dry bones was all that was required for the exiled house of Israel to be restored to life … any more than the bodily resurrection of Jesus was sufficient for his ongoing resurrected life in this world. 

We need life-breath—the breath of God—breathed into our lungs.

In Genesis 2, the human one is formed from the dust of the earth, but is not alive until God breathes the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.

Likewise in the prophet’s story, the people of God may be gathered back together … they may even be restored to their home and rebuild their temple and resume their worship services, complete with a full choir, and new, attractive children’s program … but without receiving the life-breath from God … they remain as lifeless as a corpse.

Not counting the late addition to the end of Mark’s gospel, Luke provides us the only recording of Jesus’ ascension into heaven found in the Bible—it is alluded to at the end of the Gospel, and narrated in more detail in the first chapter of Acts. 

The flesh has come back to the bones, indeed, the life of Jesus himself has been fully remade by the power of God … but there is a problem. 

By the time Luke is writing, it is clear that Jesus’ bodily presence has not continued among us … his resurrected life is, as Luke puts it, taken up into heaven, and we are left here on earth … the buzzards of civil and religious authorities have begun again to circle … the sun bears down on the disciples whose crucified and risen Lord has yet again departed.

Mortal can these bones live? 

The bones of Good News, crushed by the powers of the world, have again been wrapped in flesh; Jesus is alive, alleluia … but what does that mean for the rest of us? What does that mean now that his presence has been rendered but a fond memory?

“Prophecy to the breath, O mortals. Say to the breath, ‘come from the four winds and breathe on these slain that they may live.’”

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The body of Christ is a resurrection body—even if the Pew study is right, and death is coming, we need not fear it, for God has raised Christ from the dead, and continues that Easter work even today—if our particular institutional form of the church does indeed die someday … and it will … someday … God will assuredly give new flesh, yet again, to these old gospel bones. 

Already, as the church in North America and Europe shrinks, new people in new parts of the world are popping up as the body of Christ … enlivened by the breath/wind/spirit of God. The Gospel is not at risk … The Kingdom of God is not threatened … But we must not be content simply to be replaced as its ambassadors in this earth. 

We too are the body of Christ … Bethany Presbyterian Church is the body of Christ … nothing can change that … but if we are to be a living body of Christ, we must prophecy to the breath … let it fill our lungs with new life and new tongues … let it set our hearts and heads ablaze with the heart and mind of Jesus, who himself suffers death … and yet lives, giving life to the world.

By the power and gift of God’s Spirit, may he live and move and have his being in us, even as we live, move, and have our being in him, by the power of Holy, life-giving Breath. Amen.