Blog for Pentecost
Image: Valley of the Dry Bones: engraving by Gustave Doré
"All our life is a 'becoming'. God’s work of creation does not stop with our physical birth – it is ongoing in us. Parts of us have to die in order that we may keep “becoming”. In our bodies, millions of cells die and millions of new cells are produced every second. An equilibrium has to be maintained between cell growth and cell destruction; if this equilibrium is disturbed, the consequences are potentially fatal. If cells grow faster than they die, tumours develop. If the reverse is the case, the body’s ability to fight infectious diseases is either compromised or entirely absent. We must leave something behind if we are to keep growing.
The constant “becoming” is a spiritual one also. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above”, Christ tells us in John 3: 3. The experience of physical birth tells us a lot about spiritual rebirth - it is strenuous, painful and richly rewarding. When we are born, we move from darkness into light, from close confinement into the open world. We learn to breathe on our own.
While the idea of the necessity for transformation permeates the New Testament, the only time Jesus uses the actual phrase “born from above” is in his conversation with the Pharisee, Nicodemus. A cautious man, he was nervous about being seen with Jesus and so – as related in John’s Gospel –he “came to Jesus by night.”(John 3:2)
The symbolism is powerful – Nicodemus is spiritually as well as physically in the dark. Christ’s words light a slow burning wick which will blaze into light at the most unlikely time. After the Crucifixion, when everything seemed over, Nicodemus declared himself – coming to the garden tomb bearing myrrh and aloes “about a hundred pounds weight”.
Nicodemus, in true Pharisaic fashion, takes Jesus literally. He asks “How can anyone be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus responds: 'Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above...The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.'
We do not decide to be born. We cannot force our own birth. It is only after we receive life that our will comes into play. Nor can we force our rebirth in the Spirit. However, that rebirth is offered all our life. In an era where action is king we must learn to receive – and receiving can be a most difficult activity.
We can, of course, refuse spiritual rebirth. We can refuse the pain of continual death and resurrection, the daily dying and rising with Christ, the daily letting go and taking on. We can concentrate on developing our body and our intellect; we can focus on we can see and hear and touch. We can grow from babyhood to self-consciousness without ever allowing ourselves to experience God’s inner presence. We can live astride a grave.
Without life, our bodies decay; skin, muscle and tissue fall away leaving dry bones. Without spiritual life, we are utterly perishable. We age and deteriorate with our bodies. But the breath of life which animated us at our conception is there to animate our whole being, soul as well as body.
"Can these dry bones live?" asks God in Ezekiel’s ghastly vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. It is a question still addressed to us two and a half thousand years later. The answer has not changed either:
“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the Word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, And you shall know that I am the Lord.’
"So, I prophesied as I had been commanded, and as I prophesized, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them: but there was no breath in them. Then the Spirit said to me, 'Prophesy to the breath, prophesy mortal, and say to the breath, 'Thus says the Lord God, come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.'
"I prophesized as the Spirit commanded, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, 'Mortal, these bones are the whole House of Israel. Behold, they say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.'
"Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God, I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people, and I will bring you back to the land of Israel….I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil, then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act. (Ezek 37:3-14).'"