Sermon for Mattins on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, 18th May 2014
Ezekiel 37:1-12, John 5:19-29

‘Dem bones, dem bones; dem dry bones’. I’m sure you can hear in your head that very jolly spiritual. ‘Dem bones, dem bones; dem dry bones: now hear the word of the Lord.’ Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones.

We have just said, in the Creed,

I believe in the Holy Ghost … the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’

A cornerstone of our faith is our belief in the Resurrection. We believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. But also there is a strong thread of personal resurrection, not only in the Old Testament – and certainly in this passage in Ezekiel, where Ezekiel the prophet has this vision of being in a valley full of bones. The Lord tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the bones: ‘O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.’ The Lord God says He will cause spirit, ruach in Hebrew, which also means breath, to enter the bones.

And the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army.

The explanation given by the Lord to Ezekiel was that the ‘exceeding great army’ who had come alive from the dry bones were the Israelites, who were in exile, and generally at a low ebb, until the Lord showed that He still cared for them, by ordering Ezekiel to prophesy, and breathe life into them.

Breathing. Ruach, Hebrew for wind, spirit; Holy Spirit. The divine spirit: ‘.. the breath came into them, and they lived.

At funeral services, and in Handel’s Messiah, we often have that beautiful passage from Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15,

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible …

In today’s lesson from St John’s Gospel, we read about Jesus’ teaching about the Resurrection: not just His own Resurrection, but the end of time, the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that hear, shall live. … For the hour is coming, in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done ill, unto the resurrection of damnation.

This is the other side, if you like, of the resurrection of Jesus. This is the resurrection of us. It is part of the Creed which we faithfully rehearse as part of the divine service. The earliest Christian writings certainly mention it. It’s generally accepted that St Paul’s Letters to the Thessalonians were the earliest books in the New Testament, written maybe no more than ten years after the time of Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verse 13 and following, St Paul says,

But I would not have you to be ignorant, .. concerning them which are asleep; that ye sorrow not, even as the rest, which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.

For The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we that are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

‘Lo He comes, with clouds descending’, as Charles Wesley’s hymn puts it. What is this? Is it like Ezekiel, the product of ecstatic prophecy – and perhaps not to be taken literally? Because, actually, none of us have ever seen anyone raised from the dead, at least since the time of Jesus Himself. Jesus, of course, did raise people from the dead: Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus for example.

But these days, the idea of dead people being brought back to life – particularly people who have been buried and perhaps decayed, coming back out of their graves – is something which we keep for horror films perhaps, but nowhere else. It doesn’t really make sense to us.

And yet, when we come to a funeral, we cling to that ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life’. Is it just, really, wish-fulfilment, wishful thinking? St Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, suggests that the resurrection of the body is to be understood in the context of our having a physical body and a spiritual body, and that the idea that there could be two bodies for one person, one soul, is something which we see in nature, where plants die, and the seeds fall on the ground and grow again. Life comes out of death.

It seems to me that indeed this is something which we can reconcile with a modern scientific approach. They talk about geneticists ‘playing at God’ when they clone embryos – but it seems to me that there is still a real mystery over the whole question how things actually come to life.

You can, as I understand it, mechanically make all the bits of a living thing. But it does not just automatically spring to life. Of course, negatively, we can cause death. But I’m very doubtful whether we can completely explain the business of coming to life. A baby is born, and it starts to breathe, and greets us with its first cries. But unless I am completely mistaken, that coming to life can’t be totally explained by the biological processes by which the physical body of the baby has formed in the mother’s womb.

Tragically, not all babies, which grow in the mother’s womb, do come to life. Sometimes we can know why this is. We can say that particular illnesses or failures in the growth process have caused life to fail. But some just simply fail to start, fail to come to life. So, what about all the babies that are born: what is that makes them start going?

We call non-human living creatures ‘animals’. This word comes from the Latin ‘anima’, spirit – the Latin equivalent of the Hebrew ruach. Animals have life, they depend on an animating, life-giving spirit.

Surely this life force, in humans as well as in animals, is indeed something like the ruach of the Old Testament, the wind, the spirit, the breath of God. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t continue to believe in it. There’s also a very good argument for saying that this spirit, this Holy Spirit, is at work now: it doesn’t need to wait till the end of time. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus is saying that He has all the power from God, and that He is judging – present tense; it’s not a question of judgment at the end of time. He is the good judge already.

And if that’s the case, then we need to think about this rather stern point which Jesus makes, that the dead will all be raised to an eternal life, some to eternal good life and some, to bad, depending on whether they have been good in their earthly life. This is difficult teaching for us to understand or to follow. Traditionally the church has always said that the question, whether you are eternally to be saved, or eternally damned, is not something which you can earn. Salvation is a gift from God and not a prize.

But nevertheless, if we do have the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, both because we believe and trust in Jesus and in Jesus’ resurrection, and also, because we believe and trust in what He and the apostles have taught us, then we ought to behave as though we are chosen by God to be saved. That means, as St Paul put it in his Letter to the Galatians [Gal. 5:22f], that we have to lead a good life and not carry on with the old bad ways.

So in this Easter season, this season of resurrection hope, remember the meaning of the story in Ezekiel of his prophecy in the valley of the dry bones: ‘Dem bones, dem bones. Hear the word of the Lord!’ Hallelujah!