Easter 1 – A vast army

Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’
And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
[John 20:19-31]

Phoenix detail from Aberdeen Bestiary

We continue to celebrate with Easter joy the bodily Resurrection of our Lord from the dead.  Death and resurrection is a constant theme in religious expressions around the world – from Shamanism, with their rituals of death and rebirth, to Mesopotamian religions, who remake order out of the destruction of chaos, to the Greeks (e.g. the Phoenix).  It is something that is continually resurgent in modern Western culture, even if people turn away from the Church – e.g. Harry Potter is full of deaths and rebirths, Marvel Comic’s Iron Man.  It is an archetype deeply imbedded in our souls and in society.  It is a principle in modern psychology – no new growth without the death of some idea, some wrong or limited conception of reality, that is hindering us. [Peterson lectures]  But there is something very peculiar and particular about this Christian hope of the bodily Resurrection in the New Testament and that is instantiated in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

There is a certain ambiguity in the Old Testament about the Resurrection but there is a stream of thought there.

In our first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel [37:1-10], God gives to Ezekiel a vision of a valley full of dry bones.  It was given to Ezekiel at a time when Israel was in exile in Babylon.  Jerusalem had been destroyed, the temple destroyed, the place of the heart of their religion was gone, the land to which they had been promised was not theirs to possess.  Much of their sense of dignity and purpose and meaning in the world had been removed.  Their spirits were languishing, you could say they were like the walking dead.  And God gave to these exiles this prophesy to revive them, recalling to them God’s mercy.  They are given in this state of despair and exile a vision of revival and renewal, of new life.

The vision of Ezekiel – Valley of the dry bones, John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

It applied to Israel’s current circumstances, but it was using an image that they must have believed in, or had some hope of, the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time, otherwise it could not be used as an analogy. [see Christopher Wordsworth’s Commentary on the Major Prophets, p. 212-214]

At the time of Jesus, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, said to Jesus about her brother who had just died, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  She had been taught the General Resurrection – we’re not sure if that included an understanding of the bodily Resurrection.   And in Jesus’ Day, the Pharisees had disagreement with the Sadducees about whether there would be any Resurrection – the Pharisees affirming, the Sadducees denying.  But we have this Old Testament evidence – in Ezekiel, and a certain passage in the book of Job [19:26 – “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” KJV], the examples of resuscitations of the dead by Elijah and Elisha, the example of the prophet Jonah – of a stream of thought in Judaism that believed in the resurrection of the dead at the last day, even hinting towards the bodily resurrection.

But this prophesy of Ezekiel had a present day meaning to the Jews of that time – the reawakening in them of the higher life to which they were called as God’s people.  It says, there was a noise, before the bones began to come together – the Hebrew word, kôl, translated as “noise” is actually the same as “an utterance, a decree, or a proclamation”.  And that voice would soon be the decree made by Cyrus, that the people of God could return from exile to Israel.  It is also like the word John the Baptist used (from Isaiah 40:3), to describe himself – I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord – a preparation, the ordering of our lives, the putting of bone together to bone, the structuring of our lives to make ready for the right spirit to fill us.  It is like what Jesus says, “The hour is coming and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear it shall live.”  [Wordsworth commentary]

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Resurrection, Duccio di Buoninse, 1308

In the Gospel today [St John 20:19-31], on the first day of the week following the crucifixion of Jesus, the disciples are as good as dead to the world and to their faith, they are afraid of being arrested and completely diminished in their capacity to live.  How can they live when their world has collapsed around them?  Certainly, they are not able to express their faith or share it and we can imagine they are wavering within about whether they should have ever believed in Jesus.  Their bones are together, bone to bone, they have tendons and flesh upon them and skin covering them, but there was no breath, no spirit, in them.

Jesus appears to the disciples, to calm them.  He says, Shalom, peace, be with youWhen he had said this he showed them his hands and his side.  We hear they were glad when they saw the Lord.  No doubt they rejoiced that it is the same Jesus who was crucified.  But is the way this was done by Jesus, done to connect the declaration of Peace, with the marks of his crucifixion?

God breathes into Adam the breath of life, Monreale Cathedral mosaic, Sicily, 12th century.

Is Jesus telling them and us, “You are reconciled with God – my self-offering has been received on your behalf.  What I have told you repeatedly has come about – you can be assured of perfect forgiveness: Shalom, you have peace with God.  I died for your sins, I have been raised that you too might be raised up.”

To these dry bones with flesh and skin on them, Jesus prepares to send them into the world – he breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Remember the first man Adam, who was formed from the earth, and then God breathed in his face the breath of life that he might become a living soul?  Like Adam, like the dry bones in the valley shown to Ezekiel, even so, Jesus breathes on them, to revive them and to give them the same Spirit to revive others.  As Jesus is alive, so might they be alive, and so might we.

And what is the voice that they and we are to speak?  “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”  It is foremost the message of reconciliation, the message of forgiveness.  Reconciliation between earth and heaven accomplished by Jesus on the Cross is to lead to reconciliation between people on earth – the two arms of the cross signify the two directions of reconciliation that he brings.

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What about us?  We are seated here – bone to bone, with tendons and flesh upon us, and skin covering us – we have the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in us because we are here.  We come here in part to be renewed and revivified even more by Christ.

Do we have any fear?

Are we, like the disciples, metaphorically “hiding in a room with the doors locked for fear” of the world and its madness?  We receive the risen Body and Blood of our Lord today to revive us in our mission.  Remember how these same apostles, would soon be proclaiming boldly in the public spaces.  May we be filled with this same Spirit!

Perhaps there is another reason to fear?

Is it uncertainty around a change in our circumstances? a loss of work, a loss of a love, our health, life is not the same this week as last.  The life of the disciples had been shattered with Jesus’ death, they knew little about the next steps they were to take.  But in the light of Christ’s presence among them, they unlocked the doors, and returned to their lives awaiting the next steps.  And Jesus came to them to show them what was next.  We can trust in his sure promise: I will be with you always, even to the end of the world! [Matthew 28:20]

Is there any bitterness and resentment in us because of what another has done to us?  Some betrayal, some deception, some offense?  Did the Spirit bring someone to your mind?  Hear the words of Jesus – Peace be with you… my peace I give to you.  To hold on to bitterness and resentment is to miss the mark of where our energy, our life, is to be spent – it is a twisting inwardly of our love.  We can be perfectly forgiven for this.  It is time to let go of the leaven of malice.  It’s called leaven because if we hold on to it it only grows.  We look for another rising agent – the Spirit of Christ!  And the risen life is serving God in pureness of living and truth, filled with His Spirit.  [see The Collect for the day]

This morning Jesus is present among us to assure us of forgiveness – His offering of his life for us has been accepted by the Father – and he says to us “Peace be with you.”  He’s come to set us free from all that binds and twists us up inside.  And he’s breathing His breath, the breath of Divinity on us today.  It is a present promise to us with an even greater promise nested within it.  We are conforming our souls and bodies with His soul and body to rise in the last day – whole and complete and at perfect peace with God and man.  Let us embody that future Resurrection body and life with each decision and with each step we take today.

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them;
they came to life and stood up on their feet – a vast army.
[Ezekiel 37:10]

Amen +