“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones.” (Start clapping and repeat until all have joined in…) Now hear the Word of the Lord!
I seem to have been making more farewell appearances than Dame Nellie Melba, but here we really are. It’s hard not to cast myself in the role of the prophet – but it really would be outrageous to cast you in the role of the dry bones. You might be feeling your aches and your years after a busy Holy Week and Easter, but I hope you are also feeling more than a bit chuffed that over the last couple of years all this leave-taking and hello-saying and then leave-taking again hasn’t stopped you working hard and making real progress in helping our diocese into God’s good future for it. Thank you! It’s been an exciting and rewarding time to share that journey with you.
All the same – what a pair of readings to have set for me for this last of the farewells, and I really can’t resist rising to their challenge, so give those bones a rattle and listen up.
Ezekiel was of course the father of Mission Action Planning, Looking to the Future and Growing in God. You can hear his pitch now. Get together as a community. Pray for God’s Spirit. Do some joined up thinking. Flesh out some priorities. Get started on some achievable action plans. Go for it!
Real people, however, are a bit more complicated than what sounds like the cast of a Zombie Apocalypse. Cut to the story of the Emmaus Road. Cleopas and his friend have been doing their Growing in God masterclass with Jesus. They’ve heard his marvellous preaching and made the decision to join his disciple band. They’ve seen the Spirit move and miraculous things happen. They’ve got the big picture of redemption and may well have been two of the 72 sent out to bring the Lord’s Prayer to life and see the kingdom come. They’d got ready for the great climax – and then, then it had all gone depressingly wrong.
It’s a word we need to hear alongside the upbeat message and compelling vision. If we don’t hear it and take account of it and find a way of dealing with it, we are all too likely to carry on living out the cycle of boom and bust, joy and disappointment, initiative and recrimination that marks our ordinary human history.
A word to hear – and Jesus listens to the disciples and enables them to get it off their chest. But a word to deal with, so that it is not the last word, because the cross was not the last word either, and Easter Day followed. That’s what Jesus does, patiently and persistently, leading the disciples back to the big picture of God’s plan of salvation, and the living reality of his risen life with them.
The episode is instructive. It is above all and only the encounter with the risen Jesus that has the power to turn them around and set them on the road back to Jerusalem, fire up their mission, spark off its growth and open up God’s good future.
That encounter is total. First their spirits are touched, the strange warming of Wesley, the second conversion of Pascal, the heart of Augustine burning for God’s peace. In whatever key it came to us, we all need to keep going back to the moment of our first calling, to our first love of God in Christ Jesus. Not many will have visions or audible voices; more often it will be a motion of the heart, a penny-drop moment, a quietening of the storm, a Bible verse that leapt off the page. T S Eliot imaged it as the still centre, a moment in a rose garden, a place where prayer was valid. Seek out your place. Seek Christ above all.
First their spirits, then their minds. The scriptures are opened to them. Things start to make sense again. We are people with heads as well as hearts. And where the conversion of the heart is essentially individual, the conversion of the mind is often best done in community, sharing our learning, broadening our understanding. What a Bible Study that must have been for those disciples on the Emmaus Road! And what learning communities we can be in our hundreds of congregations, none too small to be two or three gathered in his name.
Spirit, minds – and bodies too. Just as Mary Magdalene clung to Christ; just as Thomas touched his wounds; so it is in the physicality of seeing Jesus break bread again with them that they finally recognise him. Our hearts and minds are embodied in us, set in bodies given us by God, part of his great purpose to create a world around him of love in deed. Without the roots no life can live. Without the shoots we are sown but not grown. But the point of it all is the fruits: to reach the point where we are so rooted and shooted in Christ that we are ready and willing and actually engaged in bearing fruit for him and bringing in his kingdom, despite the cost to ourselves. So the disciples set off for Jerusalem, despite the falling darkness, ready to reclaim the city and the future for Christ.
That’s what it’s all about. To love the Lord our God with all of our heart and all of our mind and all of our soul and all of our strength. And our neighbours as ourselves. When we get it right it will happen naturally, organically. We need to plan as any gardener does. We need to put our backs into it and give it our best. But it is God who will give the growth. I’m so glad that the diocese has used the last eighteenth months to firm up its vision for Growing in God in a way that takes seriously the deep truth that all we have comes from him, that is thoughtful about how appropriate plans can be laid in our many and varied communities, and which is committed to deeds as well as words, building our vision in to the actualities of our common life.
Body, mind and spirit working together; roots, shoots and fruits growing together. The bones are in place, the connecting tissue is growing around them, the call to action is clear – and the Spirit of God is set to blow, as we walk together into his good future.