(Readings: Ezek. 37: 1-14; John 20:19-23)
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
God has a strange sense of humour, doesn’t he? On the day when we install our new mayor, who has served the community as a nurse for years, we get a reading from the Bible all about bones, sinews, skin and making things more alive and better than they were before. Though, I must say, when I heard the Commanding Officer of 21 Royal Engineers read, “there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry,” I got the mental image of a crowd of us Yorkshiremen, with our typically dry sense of humour, lounging about in Wensleydale on a bank holiday weekend. Imagination is a strange and revealing thing.
It is actually the Prophet Ezekiel who is imagining a valley full of dry bones, wondering if they can be restored to life. For some of you of a certain age, this probably reminds you of the old song “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” which gives a veritable education in anatomy. “The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone…”
Please, don’t start shaking them all about!
No, Ezekiel was thinking about the People of Israel, God’s chosen people. They had forgotten about him, about his ways and what was best for them. And as a result they had ended up living in Exile far away from Jerusalem and the Promised Land. It was as if the nation had died – like a valley full of dry bones. Could the Lord revive them? Could they be returned to full health, living in a way that is wholesome for their wellbeing in the rich and fertile land promised by God: the very reason they were called in the first place. The encouraging message is that when the Holy Spirit of God is allowed to do its work, a seemingly hopeless situation can be transformed out of all recognition.
“Thus says the Lord God, ‘I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 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.’”
Rousing words. Encouraging words.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost – Whit Sunday, one of the great festivals of the Church’s year; ranking with Christmas and Easter. It is the day when we remember how the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead poured out his Spirit on the people Jesus had left behind. In a dramatic, life-transforming way, the Spirit came like a mighty wind and with tongues, as of fire. And when St. Peter stood up to explain what was happening, three-thousand people opted to be baptized. (Well, I’d be content with three hundred this morning.)
Remarkable things happened. People of different languages could understand what the disciples were saying. Things that divided people one from another were being overcome. It soon became obvious to the early church that where the Spirit is allowed to do its work, unity overcomes division.
During the Mayor Making Ceremony in the Town Hall on Monday, I was delighted to hear the Mayor say that she is going to work for harmony in the Council Chamber. This is to be welcomed and applauded. And we can all do our bit to help nurture a spirit of harmony throughout this community. It is not that we expect the councillors suddenly to start agreeing with each other on everything. That would be a miracle that would be unwelcome. It’s interesting how in the life of the early Church, when the Holy Spirit of God was powerfully at work and the Gospel was spreading like wildfire, even in the face of persecution, there were huge debates and differences of opinion. Should the church remain within Judaism, or not? Should new Christians be expected to attend the synagogue and respect the rules about circumcision and diet; or could they be free from these? Some thought yes, others no. It soon became clear that differences of opinion did not destroy the greater unity that the Spirit brought to the Church. That is still the case today.
And the good thing about the Holy Spirit of God is that it is at work everywhere, not just in churches and cathedrals. So, when we see mayors and councillors and residents of a city like Ripon working together for harmony, working together for a unity which can embrace differences of opinion and different approaches to obtaining the same goal of a strong, inclusive, thriving community in which every soul can thrive; then we know that the Holy Spirit of God is living and active amongst us. When we see a body of people like the 21 Royal Engineers working to overcome those forces in the world that would destroy global harmony and unity, then we see the Holy Spirit of God doing its work. When we see people of Ripon give freely of their time and money to support charities and those in need, then we see the Holy Spirit of God at work amongst us. There is much to celebrate.
And let us never imagine that we can build the perfect community in our own strength alone, and simply by the blessings of politics and social services, of health care and commerce, of charities and the 21 Royal Engineers and so on – as vital and essential and God-given as these things are. We are all utterly dependent upon God. And if there is a city in the land that should not need reminding of this truth, of the need to look to God for help and guidance, it is surely Ripon. The words from Psalm 127 on the Town Hall provide a constant reminder,
‘Except ye Lord keep ye cittie ye wakeman waketh in vain’
(Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”)
The Holy Spirit of God works for unity; and it reminds us that we cannot do without God and we cannot do without each other, working together in harmony.
We in the Church are becoming more aware of this. Archbishop Sentamu wrote recently, adapting the philosopher Kant, “Religion without politics is empty; politics without religion is blind.” This isn’t party politics, it’s the sound, healthy ordering of society. A church that is not interested in the business of everyday life, is of no use to society. A society that thinks that it can do without God is blind to the truth.
The good news for us who have found ourselves in the promised land of Ripon is that we are on fortunate ground here. Did you know that there was a 62% turn out across the three wards in Ripon in the recent election? And in the 2011 census, 70.4% of Ripon’s population declared itself to be Christian. This suggests to me that in Ripon God gets more votes than all councillors put together.
When I bumped into Jason in the Market Square the other day, I said to him, “It is about time you joined the Lord’s army, Jason; we’d like to see you in the Cathedral from time to time.” “Oh, but Dean,” he said, “I am in the Lord’s army, it’s just that I’m in the secret service.” Well many are! God is very much living and active in this city; though we do need more of the secret service personnel to come into the regular, visible divisions.
Finally, and briefly, let there be no doubt on this Pentecost Sunday; no single organisation or individual sector within this city can enable us all to flourish in the way that God would like. The work of the Holy Spirit leads us to work with God and to work in harmony with each other for the good of all. The cynicism, factious behaviour and distrust that could lead to a valley full of dry bones can certainly be overcome.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” They certainly can. And with God’s help we can work miracles together.