"The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones." Ezekiel 37:1
I came to the Christian faith in my mid-teens and took to church going, Bible reading and Christian living with a passion. I had been exposed to the Christian faith through my nominal Anglican parents. My mother would gathered up her five chicks and take us to Christmas and Easter Sunday services, first at the Anglican Church and then to the local Baptist Church which I later became a member of. The other childhood exposure to the faith I had was through the Salvation Army band that would arrive on the back of a truck in our street some time before Christmas. They would play a couple of Christmas carols and then distribute small Biblical stamps that we would collect and place in the only Bible in our house. These little pictograms showed Biblical scenes which in my memory always seemed to have palm trees, flat roofed houses and a Jesus in robe and sandals.
In my late teens, members of my youth group had more and more contact with the "radical Jesus movement" through the House of the Gentle Bunyip in Melbourne and the House of Freedom in Brisbane, where I lived. It was through conversations with these groups who were looking at the Bible through a somewhat different lens from the one that my adopted in my Baptist community that I began to appreciate that my Jesus, was a rather "white bread" and middle class. A Caucasian who tended to believe all the same things my church did. In fact, I always thought it a bit strange that my church was the only one that Jesus seemed to really like, considering there were so many other churches around the place.
Broadening my Understanding of Jesus
Mixing with the religious hoi polloi, certainly gave me an education. Particular about whose side Jesus was on and who he had some trouble with. My radical Jesus friends seemed to have the strong view that it was people like me that Jesus wasnt so happy with and felt we needed a bit more understanding of the gospel and its preference toward the poor. But thats for another day. This morning I wanted to tell you about a brief conversation I had with a "Jesus person" that really changed everything I believed and thought about Jesus and his message. I was sitting in a group Bible study on a cushion with several candles on the table (this was 1967 remember) and I was in an animated discussion when one of the leaders of the group said, "Well you do know that Jesus was born, lived and died as a Jew. He wasnt a Christian."
I can honestly say that that was something I had never thought of before. And it is something that over the years has helped me understand the Biblical narrative and its character in a much more through way. It shifted my thoughts from a Jesus who somehow or other appeared in my culture almost untouched by his own culture. And it grounded me in the very Jewishness of the early church; the worship in the synagogue; the commitment to the purity code that Jesus rejected and even the wedding in Cana that was not like the weddings we celebrate in TUC today.
This Jewishness of Jesus and the early church is also not the same as Jewishness today. The Jewish religion like all religions has evolved and changed through culture, geography and time. For example, the Jewish Passover Seder celebrated today, while the images and narrative are drawn from the ancient Biblical text, its form, words and practices were put together in the 19th century.
So to understand the Bible and even the message of Jesus and the early church some familiarity with the Jewish roots of our tradition is essential. So this morning as we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, the symbolic coming of the Spirit upon the Church, we need to remember that the roots of this feast day are found in ancient Israel.
The Feast of Shavuot
It was not lost on this infant Christian community that the day which came to be known as Pentecost - which fell seven weeks and one day or fifty days after Passover was in the time of Jesus called the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot. It could also be call the Festival of First Fruits or Harvest or Reaping, because it fell at the end of the harvest season. This day that the Christians took for their own was often associated with the giving of the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible to the people of Israel. So you can see that it was already a significant day for those who gathered in Jerusalem. And remember, while I said that the Christians claimed this day for themselves, these followers of Jesus were in fact Jews. Thats why the author of the Acts of the Apostles has so many people from differing language groups in Jerusalem at this time. In this festival, these Jesus people saw something new that re-animated their celebration. It was this new Spirit of Jesus alive in them, which now formed and shaped their way of being in the world.
Its a bit like the winter solstice being appropriated by the Christians in the 4th century as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Traditions dont come from nowhere; they are usually stolen from someone else and often re-animated with vigour and vitality to express a new vision and way of life.
The Animation of the Spirit
One of the great figures of ancient Israel was the prophet Ezekiel (who even has a role in the Jewish Passover Seder) and particularly this vision of dry bones in the Valley of the dead. It has been the focus of art and imagination throughout history. The re-birth of the people of Israel and the kingdom Judah while they are in exile was a sign of Gods spirit still alive and with them. It is remarkable poetry that transcends even the historical narrative and finds a place in our own dry and barren experiences:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and I brought me out by the Spirit and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. I was led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Sovereign Lord, you alone know this."
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!...I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord."
So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
But there was no breath in them! I have mention before that this word breath is the Hebrew word ruach ר֫וּחַ which is the same word as spirit. It is the life breath of all that lives and moves and has its being. Breath/spirit is what animates life. In fact it is what brings all of life to life, religious and non-religious. Just go and watch a football game at the MCG if you want to see some "spiritual animation"!
For this ancient prophet there was little point having a nation of people without the Spirit alive in them.
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feeta vast army.
If you feel that there are places in your life that are dry, barren and lifeless then begin to allow the Breath to invigorate and revitalize your life. And perhaps the best place to start is to breathe deeply and in that breath comes the life giving spirit of God, bringing us home and giving us life.
The Spirit of Language
As these Jewish followers of Jesus Yeshua ישוע, - the Hebrew name for Jesus gathered in Jerusalem for the festival of Shavuot or First Fruits they understood themselves as being a part of a long history of the Jewish people. But they had been brought alive by having breathed into their being the Spirit of Jesus. His life and his teaching had animated them and their communities. So they come together and in the poetic language of the ancient world:
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them.
These two visions, while separated by centuries and differing narratives, both draw their meaning from the same source. For Ezekiel, a nation, a people, without the breath of life is meaningless. For the followers of Jesus a faith of good words, good works and right behaviours, without the breath of life, without the fire of the spirit is purposeless. Both stories are visions; they attempt to give form and shape to that which is without form and is shapeless the spirit. I can describe the human body and I can describe a gathering of people for a festival, but how do I describe the breath of life within them and upon them? How do I capture that moment when what was not alive comes to life?
The now retired Harvard professor and Baptist, Harvey Cox has called our present era the Age of the Spirit. For Cox it may be just a clever way to get attention for his ideas, but I wonder if we are in the course of human consciousness, experiencing what many call an axial shift. The dry bones of our religion, our culture, our way of being in the world are being re-animated by the power of the Spirit. I dont think that the story from the Book of Acts has the last word on the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, just as it didnt have the first word. The Spirit/the breath brooded over creation and continues to breathe life into us today. I am looking forward to seeing what that same spirit will do to our community in the future!