New Life From the Bone Yard (Ezekiel 37:1-6; Acts 10:1-17,34-36; John 15:12-17)
One of the reasons I love the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is because it makes so much room for, understands and underwrites being in places of sorrow, desolation, exile, and dislocation in life. There’s no phoney, “There, there, life’s not really so hard” here. The Bible is too honest and true to life. Many of the Psalms come from “out of the depths,” as Psalm 130 actually begins. The exile to Babylon in the 6th century BCE was a time when every institution God’s people valued was trampled in the dust. Their families, their worship and faith, their politics and government, their economic independence, all of it was, in Ezekiel’s words, just so many desiccated, old bones. I have to say that, what one author recently called our American “Compassion Deficit, is, in my own mind, trampling much of what I have valued all my life into the dust and sucking all the life out of life.
As I stand and look at you today, I know some of the “bone-yard” experiences that are represented here. And, we share these, not just among ourselves as a community of faith, but with people of every nation, tongue, and climate on the globe. As we celebrate World Communion Sunday today, let us not forget that even the Lord’s Supper, which is probably the first commonality that Christians did share together, has its roots in the bone yard of Jesus’ death. It was in searching for meaning in that experience that the earliest Christians looked into their ancient scriptures and traditions and came up with the idea that meaning could be found in this death because it was “on our behalf.” The words “on behalf of…” are important words as we think of the lives we lived illumined by Jesus’ life and death.
It is now almost a commonplace in seminary life to say that many students that enter training “for ministry” (and I put it in quotation marks) are deeply concerned that much in the Church – including much that has nurtured and still nurtures me – is just so many dry bones. They long for something different, a fresh way of being disciples of Jesus. Up until relatively few years ago, the most common answer to such searchings was found in “worship structures” that look like a cross between office buildings and concert halls (we’ve been through this all before, at least on the outside, our building shares a bit in the “office building” look). These new “worship centres” (or whatever they care to be called) had theatre seats, theatre sound, stages, and all the rest – wired to the highest degree possible. You all know what I’m describing. And, I see no real evidence that such places are going away. But, as I say, within the past five or so years, these places, too, are thought by many to be relics of the bone yard. Before the theatre seats came padded chairs that would give more flexibility to a large open space that could double as a place of worship and a gym.
I remember a group of seminarians from Central seminary (not the Milwaukee site) once visited a facility such as I’ve described as part of a doctoral seminar about the church in mission to its world. As that group of seminarians came into the place and looked around that state-of-the-art building where 20,000 people worship in multiple services each week, what they saw was that the clergy was all male, all white, all young; that the people who attended were overwhelmingly white and young, of fairly similar views. The music was mostly in the style of what one of my colleagues interestingly called the “Jesus is my boyfriend” style. The Central group had both ordained women as well as men representing four or more ethnic groups, of diverse ages. The comments, though not put in these words were that they caught the whiff of the boneyard in all this.
For a long time I have thought that the future of the church is not so much (or not only) in the mega-church, but (or but also) in the micro-church: small, niche-oriented communities of faith that find people looking for specific kinds of ways to be faithful to God in this world. It is my continued view that such communities of faith will be small and take cleverness and entrepreneurial skill to make them work. They will form symbiotic partnerships with other groups and people in the community to be able to minister faithfully. Actually, if you look around you, we’ve been surviving in one of these communities for quite a few years now.
On this World Communion Sunday, and every day, although we are only too aware of our common human heritage of fragility and dry bones, at the same time we can be refreshed by listening to the words of Jesus speaking to disciples coping with all kinds of hard realities. Can you hear him? He calls disciples his friends and his “beloved.” How wonderfully, mysteriously challenging it is to listen as he says that no one has greater love than to pour one’s very life into another’s to the point of giving one’s life away by loving to the uttermost. Jesus used the word “friend” for this idea. Mostly, our English word “friend” does not imply the intensity that is carried in the Lesson from John chapter 15, even though the derivation of our word “friend,” comes from the Old English verb freon which means “to love.” This is an exactly parallel derivation to the Greek word used in John 15. In this text Jesus’ “friends” are not just his chums, his mates, his buddies, but his “loved ones.” It is a deeply visceral word that Jesus used to refer to his disciples.
At both the beginning and the end of our Gospel reading in John 15 Jesus repeated the commandment to love other disciples in the same way as he has loved us. Both of these statements reflect what Jesus said to his disciples as he washed their feet: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should love one another” (13:34-35). What this says to us, is that if we would be disciples – friends – to one another, the standard is Jesus’ sacrificial and other-centred love. “No one has greater love than to lay down one’s life on behalf of loved ones (or friends),” Jesus says. Please note the word used is “on behalf of,” not “in place of,” so that Jesus is not just saying that we should die for someone else, but we should live for the benefit of, for the good of, for the up-building of the other, even when it’s costly.
This means that the focus of Jesus’ love was on others not on himself. Jesus is perfectly plain when he says, “You’re my friends if you do what I command.” His command is intentional self-giving love. This statement of Jesus is often misunderstood to mean that obeying Jesus’ commands makes one a “friend” of Jesus. Obedience is not a test of whether one is, in fact, beloved of God or Jesus. That’s a given. Rather loving flows from being loved. Disciples of Jesus, as they practice love, love better. Disciples relate to other disciples by treating them as friends, lovers of God in Christ. It’s simply normal behaviour.
On the basis of treating other disciples as friends, many have concluded that it’s our only job to treat disciples like us as friends. Others…not so much. Here’s where the lesson from Acts 10 is crucial. In this story, Peter – in those days chief of the Apostles – learned that God was more broad-minded than he, and that there is more in the broad mind of God for the church than there is in Peter’s own narrow mind.
This is the famous story of Cornelius the Gentile – all wrong from Peter’s perspective – who was, nonetheless called a friend by God. Peter had a dream in which he was commanded to eat that which the Jewish Kosher rules wouldn’t allow. He hung in there a couple of times and instructed the Almighty that he was too pure to do it wrong. I have found times in life when I have discovered that the Almighty’s mind is broader than mine. And I have found that I still tend to instruct the Almighty on orthodoxy when nudged to get outside the box of my own experience. You may have the same experience.
But God wasn’t about to give up “nudging” Peter. As I said, God is more broad minded than God’s followers most times. Here are the words: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter didn’t know what to make of this horrid dream until Cornelius’ servants showed up at his door to ask him to go see and befriend Cornelius, in spite of what his religious background kept telling him. Finally he said, “I truly now understand that God shows no partiality…” (34).
The story is about specifics. It says that Jews and Gentiles are called friends by God in Christ. Get out of your narrowness. Of course, the story was relevant in the first century just as it was. What it said half a century later when Acts was written nudged those in the church who were certain that God could only really love Jews and those who had been. Through the centuries, this text has been tearing down walls and building bridges between and among communities wherever it has been taken seriously. What is implied for our time by understanding that old barriers that we think head others for the boneyard are simply transcended by being disciples of Jesus together – different though we be? It is not about our beliefs, it is about being open to seeing God at work, and being willing to cooperate in the Mission of God in the world. The point of it all is not to read this story over and over as if it was an immutable rule to try to be faithful, or, on the other end, trying simply to write our own story of God’s Mission. It’s to be in the story that God is still writing and trying to figure out which way the Spirit of God is nudging us to stay away from the boneyard. Or come out of it.
As we celebrate World Communion Sunday, let us remember that we celebrate this common supper with thousands upon thousands, very unlike us, all across the world. They understand it differently than we do. Jesus calls them friends and calls us to be lovers of those who are like us and those who are not.
What can happen when we follow this seemingly difficult course? First, we see that the grace of God can work in multi-form ways to transform the world. Second, we see that Jesus can raise us from the bone-yard, as he called Lazarus out of the tomb one day, unbound and set free as in the story in John 11. Or, to use the picture at the very end of the Ezekiel 37 passage, which we used as our Call to Worship, (God is speaking) “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from them, O my people…and, when I open your graves, you will know that I am God. I will put my very spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your home soil.” Let it be so.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.