Wednesday, July 29, 2009

New Life for Dry Bones

Acts 2:1-21; Ezk. 37:1-14; Mk. 2:18-22[1]

The Scripture lessons from the book of Acts during the Easter season make it abundantly clear that the dramatic effect of the early church’s witness came from their life that gave evidence that God is in the process of renewing all things. And from start to finish, Acts also makes abundantly clear that this vitality in the early church was the work of the Holy Spirit. It was directly connected to the fact that “all were filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4). Perhaps more importantly, the book of Acts presents this as the norm for all communities that claim the name “Christian.” This group of people was not just an exception to the rule. Peter, refuting the notion that perhaps the Christians were “full of sweet wine,” insisted that this was God’s intention all along—to “pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17), in the words of the prophet Joel.[2]

He had more than just one prophet to back him up in this. The Psalmist also saw the presence of the Holy Spirit as life-giving and renewing (Ps. 104:29-30).[3] And the prophet Ezekiel received the word from the Lord that God’s Spirit is so powerful that even dry bones can live again (Ezek. 37:14)! We’re not talking about raising Lazarus from the tomb after four days—these bones have been dead for so long that they’re dried out and bleached by the sun, (cf. Ezek. 37:2—“they were very dry”). All remnants of life had faded away.

Now, of course, Ezekiel wasn’t talking about a literal valley of bones. This was a dramatic vision that pertained to the people of Israel, captives in Babylon, whose faith had long ago dried up like the bones in the vision. But Ezekiel’s vision promised that they would receive new life through God’s Spirit.[4] Ezekiel called them to new hope by reminding them that God doesn’t accept death as the final word.[5] He called them to look forward to new life because he knew that “God is not done.”[6]

Some in our day will say that the neighborhood church is “done”; that “church” as we have known it has lived out its time. And yet, throughout this “culture of disbelief,” there are congregations just like ours that are discovering new vitality. I don’t think they are any more exceptional than the early church was. I think any congregation can thrive if they become a place where people can sense God’s renewing Spirit at work, a place where it is evident that God is in the process of making all things new in this world.

That’s all well and good, but the real question is “How exactly do we do that?” The answer doesn’t come from theories about church growth, but from simply cultivating the Spirit’s presence through the practices that have characterized Christian discipleship throughout the centuries—prayer, study of scripture, service, fellowship and worship.[7] This can be uncomfortable for us, because in order to do the “inner work” of cultivating the Spirit’s presence, we have to be open to our authentic selves—warts and all![8] It also takes a great deal of persistence, which is why spiritual guides speak of “the life of prayer without ceasing”. But there is simply no substitute for “quiet, persistent practice in turning of all our being, day and night, in prayer and inward worship and surrender, toward [The One] who calls in the deeps of our souls.”[9] All of it takes place “under the Word,” directed by Scripture.[10]

So it’s not easy and it takes work. So where do you begin? I think it’s best to start with something simple: read the Scripture texts for the coming Sunday and meditate on them; and then pray the Lord’s Prayer, in stillness and quietness, meditating on the words as you say them. Or you can start with a daily devotional guide like Open Windows, which has suggestions for Scripture and prayer. When you get to the place where you want something more, you can “graduate” to the Daily Office in our Book of Common Worship, which offers a liturgy for daily devotion, including morning, noon, evening, and bedtime prayer. Whatever you do, do something; do it every day in so far as it is possible; and start doing it now!

I must hasten to add one warning; as Jesus reminds us, the presence of the Spirit in our midst is like a batch of new wine—there is something powerful about it will burst the old wineskins of tradition and expectation (cf. Mark 2:22).[11] Paraphrasing Jesus, to try forcing the new life that the Spirit brings into old boundaries makes as much sense as playing a funeral dirge while a bride is walking down the aisle! The moral of the story is that cultivating the presence of the Spirit in our lives will take us out of our old familiar ways and onto new paths that we have not yet even imagined.[12] Amen! May it be so!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/31/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “God’s Breath” in Journal for Preachers 26(Pentecost, 2003): 37-40.

[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, 335; cf. also H.-J. Kraus, The Theology of the Psalms, 147, where he notes in connection with this theme that “It is the will of Yahweh the Creator to renew his creation.”

[4] Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology II:234-35.

[5] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, “Can These Bones Live?” The Christian Century (Mar 13, 1996):291.

[6] Craig Barnes, “Resurrected Hopes,” The Christian Century (Feb 2-Mar 6, 2002): 20.

[7] Cf. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us, 7, quotes one pastor as “You preach the gospel, offer hospitality, and pay attention to worship and people’s spiritual lives. Frankly, you take Christianity seriously as a way of life.” Cf. also Thomas R. Kelly, Testament of Devotion, 35, who says, “Practice comes first in religion, not theory or dogma.”

[8] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 11, 15, 36, 77-78, 91-94. He says we promote the “truth that sets us free” by cultivating our true selves created in the image of God through practice of “inner work” together in community—and in so doing we contribute toward making the world around us a more hopeful, joyful, and loving place.

[9] Kelly, Testament, 38; He also defines it in terms of “[offering] your whole selves, utterly and in joyful abandon, in quiet, glad surrender to [The One] who is within.”

[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 42, 44, 47, 78-79.

[11] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 105: “The sound of ripping is discernable throughout the Gospel.”

[12] Cf. Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Unruly Spirit” The Christian Century (May 12, 1993): 515. She reminds us that the story of the Spirit in Acts is one that demonstrates that the Spirit does not always “work within the sanctions of ecclesiastical predictability”!

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