Day of Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka
According to the Bible, there are two kinds of death. Two kinds of death.
The first kind of death is the one we’re most familiar with. The first kind of death is literal. Having to do with the ending of the consciousness in the body. It’s the subject of obituaries and funerals. We’ll call this being “dead dead.”
But there’s also another kind of death. It’s a death that can’t be seen with the eyes. One that can’t be quantified or medically measured. But it’s a kind of death that is just as serious. Just as destructive as the first.
Our passage from Ezekiel this morning not only deals with the former kind of death. It deals with the other kind as well.
Ezekiel’s a priest in the 5th century B.C. In Ezekiel’s time, the Babylonian Empire rampaged through the middle east, steamrolling every other smaller nation in their path, Israel included. Israel’s armies were crushed, their people murdered, enslaved, and many taken in to exile. Ezekiel warned this would happen from the beginning. And, unfortunately, he was right. And he was taken into captivity in Babylon with hordes of his fellow citizens.
So our passage occurs in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion. Ezekiel is known as a mystical kind of guy, prone to trances, and visions. Here he’s taken up, it says, in the Spirit of the Lord. He’s given a vision. One where God plunks him down in a plain by the Euphrates river in Babylon. It’s a valley filled with piles and piles of human bones. Without flesh, dried by time and the hot sun. God takes Ezekiel for a walk through the bone yard, and soon we realize that these are the remains of an Israelite army. Crushed and destroyed by the Babylonians. Killed or left for dead.
Rarely does the Bible tell us when it’s being metaphorical or not. But here that’s exactly what happens. Here we get it from God, of all people: “Mortal,” God says to Ezekiel. “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say ‘our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’” The boneyard, God says, isn’t just a pile of skeletons. The boneyard is a symbol for the spiritual state of Ezekiel’s people, Israel. The dry bones are all about the state of his people’s souls. The Babylonian invasion not only killed bodies. It also crushed souls.
So there’s one kind of “dead.” Physically dead, biologically unresponsive. “Dead dead.” But then there’s this other kind of dead, too. The death of the soul, the living center of a person. To be alive physically, but to be dead spiritually. That’s what the boneyard is all about. There’s “dead dead.” But there’s also “living dead.”[i] With a pulse, but without hope.
Now, you don’t have to be the victim of a horrific invasion, war, and exile to know what this is all about. What it means to be “living dead.” Though, I’m sure this would probably resonate particularly well with our refugee family. Sometimes it comes, like Ezekiel, out of a deep tragedy. But for most of us it’s a lot less extraordinary.
I remember one guy who’s famous for what’s called proximity flying—which is where you basically wear a suit that makes you look like a flying squirrel and you jump off cliffs or out of planes. This one guy, despite the fact that he’d had several friends—continues to do it because “It gives you this rush,” he says, “And that rush makes you feel like you are alive and free and the happiness in that moment makes you think, ‘Well, I don’t mind if I don’t have any more days of life because what I just did, it was so good, I could die right now.’”[ii]
Longing so deeply for life, willing to die. I heard that, and I immediately thought this guy wants out of the boneyard. And he puts on the little flying squirrel suit to try to fly his way out of it. He gets a glimpse over the edge, so he keeps doing it over and over and over again. He wants out. But he can’t get out. Because from down there he just can’t generate the lift to escape. He wants to feel alive. Because most of the time… he doesn’t. But he keeps trying and trying.
Proximity flying may be an unusual way to try to do it. But this guy points to something dead in each of us. Some of us are gripped by fear, or anxiety for the future. A fear of losing our jobs, or growing old. Some of us a sense of instability. An emptiness, or a deep longing that’s going unfulfilled. Or even a lack of motivation, a sense of meaninglessness, a lack of purpose in life. A sense that the story is closed, the future is buried in the ground. Or there’s no story to begin with.
We have our own boneyards. We have our own dry bones. Our valleys spiritual death. No future, no way out. Wanting to be alive. Wanting to be fully alive, but living dead instead.
And, according to our passage from Ezekiel, there isn’t a cure. At least not the kind of cure we might imagine, like an activity we can do, or a pill we can take. But according to Ezekiel, the only way out of the valley of the shadow of death is to be delivered from the outside. The from the outside in. And out again.
After God shows Ezekiel the dry bones, he tells Ezekiel to “prophesy” to the bones. Speak the message of God to them. And Ezekiel does what he’s told. The ground shakes, the bones rattle, then clack-clack, fit right back together like tinker-toys. Then flesh grows over each skeleton—shuk. But they’re still lifeless. So God says “prophesy” to the four winds, speak the message of God to the winds. He does, and—shhhhhh—they blow, and fill the lifeless bodies with life. And here it’s a reference to the second chapter of Genesis. Where God creates the human being out of clay, then breathes life into it. The same Hebrew word is for wind, breath, and spirit. The same spark of life at creation reignites in the fallen bodies of the boneyard. And now the live dead are simply alive.
Ezekiel says that the cure for the living dead, for spiritual death, is nothing less than being filled by, being united with God’s own Spirit.
And this is what we talk about when we talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. One of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltman, whose conversion came while serving prison time as a German POW in England during the Second World War, describes the Spirit like this:
“The gift,” he says. “The gift and the presence of the Holy Spirit is the greatest and most wonderful thing which we can experience we ourselves, the human community, all living things and this earth. For with the Holy Spirit it is not just one random spirit that is present, among all the many good and evil spirits that there are. It is God himself, the creative and lifegiving, redeeming and saving God. Where the Holy Spirit is present, God is present in a special way, and we experience God through our lives, which become wholly living from within. We experience whole, full, healed and redeemed life, experience it with all our senses. We feel and taste, we touch and see our life in God and God in our life.”[iii]
The only cure for “living dead” is the very life of the Creator. The very presence of God herself. Active in and through our lives. The power that gives life to creation, to our bodies. The same power that hung the stars in the sky, the divine electricity that fueled the big bang, and kindles the universe’s many suns. The breath that sparked the first human consciousness. This life at the heart of all things is also the power that we experience in the renewal of our souls.
And that’s what we’re celebrating today. Today, the day of Pentecost. The day where this same Spirit of life, the power of New Creation touched down, and plugged into the hearts of Jesus’ followers. Resurrecting and rejuvenating those who were formerly a collection of dry skeletons, into one unified, living, breathing Body of Christ. And shoving them out into the world as conduits for that same message, and vessels for this same Spirit. In every language under the sun.
Today we gather as a community of faith who have had a taste of this new life. As individuals who have been pulled out of our graves. And as a community that was struck down a decade ago, demoralized. Now experiencing growth and new life. Proven by those who are giving themselves over to God’s Spirit through membership. And baptism.
We come to open ourselves to one another and to God. To shake off the life-stultifying power of spiritual death, and be clothed in the flesh and bone of community. And to share in this same rich, full life. This same Spirit that makes all things new. Bringing healing. Bringing courage. Bringing hope.
We’re here to celebrate the fact that the fire of divine Life, not the cold impersonality of Death burns hot at the centre of all things. And that we not only long for this life, but this life longs for us. And will come to live in us forever. If we let her.
So friends. Brothers and sisters in Christ. Long-time, and future disciples of Jesus. Skeptics, agnostics, and true believers. Those of you who have been struck alive by holy passion. And those of you who have been turned to dust by religious condemnation. Members, non-members, and the soon-to be baptized. All of you who long to live life to its full. Hear the Word of the Lord from Ezekiel:
“I am going to open your graves, bring you out of your graves,” says the Lord. “I’m going to bring you back home where you belong. I’ll put my spirit, my breath within you, and you shall live. And then you will know that I am the Lord, your God.”
There are two kinds of death. But only one kind of living. There’s is no other substitute. No other true cure for spiritual death. Other than the fire, the wind, the breath, the very presence of the living Creator. This is what transforms us from the living dead into the image of Jesus. The glory of God fully alive. That’s what Pentecost is all about.
Hear the Word. Receive the Spirit. And you shall live.
[i] I am grateful to Brian Blount, who points out this distinction in the book of Revelation. I think you can find it throughout scripture. See Brian Blount, Invasion of the Dead: Preaching Resurrection (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014).
[ii] Kate Murphy, “Why do People Love to Jump off Cliffs?” New York Times, February 28, 2018.
[iii] Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (London: SCM Press), 10.