Saturday, 29 April 2017

Wheat that springeth green

To be preached at Middleton and Geuffordd . . .

The scientist and writer Isaac Asimov told the story of a long sea voyage during which a fellow passenger, a Mr Jones, became terribly seasick. On one occasion, as he was feeling particularly green and poorly in a corner of the lounge, one of the ship’s stewards came up to him, laid a hand kindly on his shoulder, and said, “I know you’re feeling really awful, sir, but don’t worry - no-one ever died of seasickness.” To which Mr Jones replied, “Oh no, please don’t say that! It’s only the blessed hope of dying that’s keeping me alive!”

Most of the really good resurrection stories are to be found in St John’s Gospel, but here today is the exception that proves that rule, the lovely story told by Luke of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and their encounter with Jesus. They may not have been quite as low and desperate as Mr Jones, but they were pretty downhearted. They may not have hoped for death, but they were resigned to it - not looking forward to much else.

How well they knew Jesus we don’t know, but they seem to have been on pretty good terms with Peter and the others, so it’s a fair assumption that they should have been able to recognise him. So why didn’t they, when he joined them on the road? One writer suggests that, walking due west toward the end of the day (as they were), maybe the sun was in their eyes; but I think there’s more to it than that. This not recognising Jesus is something that turns up again and again as we read the Easter Gospels.

We’ll come back to that, though. For now, let’s reflect on the fact that it’s while they were talking about him that Jesus came up and joined them. While they were talking about him. Do we talk enough about Jesus? To one another, and to others? It does seem to me that the more we talk about him, the more he figures in our lives, the more likely he is to meet with us on the road. “I stand at the door and knock,” says Jesus in the Book of Revelation. But if we’re not talking about him, if he’s not in the forefront of our minds, then maybe we won’t hear that knock.

And when he did meet with them, what did he do? He explained things, he opened their minds to the truth. To the extent that their hearts burned within them, as they say later on. To be honest, you’d have thought they would have recognised him by this stage. Who else did they know who could expound God’s word with such freshness, such vision, such energy? Remember what people had said of him, back in Galilee? “He teaches in a new way, not like the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees.”

But anyway, they still didn’t recognise him. It’s almost as if he’s playing with them, in a gentle way, testing them as well as teaching them, rebuking them for their slowness as well as opening their minds. This not recognising Jesus, then. I think the Gospel writers want us to understand that there is something fundamentally different about Jesus now. He hasn’t returned to his old life, he hasn’t somehow escaped from death. Easter begins something new, not an escape from the inevitable, but its defeat. And yet he is the same man, recognised not from his face but from the scars he bears, or recognised (as we shall see) in the things he does.

But I think as well that none of us is very good at processing the unexpected. We form our picture, our theory of how the world works, of how the world should be, and things that don’t fit in with that get set aside, dismissed, maybe just not noticed at all. I cam across someone I know the other day, but not in a place either of us would visit very often. She was coming straight towards me along the street; I smiled, waved, said “Good morning!” - and she just walked straight past. A few steps further on, she stopped, turned, came back and said, “Oh! sorry! I didn’t expect to see you here!” What we don’t expect to see, we don’t see, or at least, not straight away. So do we expect to see Jesus? Or maybe I should ask, WHERE do we expect to see Jesus? In the everyday business of our everyday lives? In our work, in our friendships? Be sure, he is there, but maybe if we don’t expect to find him, we won’t be aware.

Perhaps we reserve Jesus to a place like this, with stone walls and pointy windows, and are not aware of him, not able to recognise him, anywhere else. Here’s a challenge for all of us, one that frankly I don’t manage to face up to all the time, but we should all be trying our best: to place Jesus at the centre, to see if we can recognise him in all kinds of unexpected places, in secular places as well as in the ones that are labelled and identified as holy. It’s the difference between religion being one of our hobbies or pastimes among others, and religion - or let’s say faith, it’s a better word - faith being the reason why we do all the other stuff.

The two disciples said to the man who had joined them, who as yet they hadn’t recognised, “Where have you been all this time? Everybody’s talking about what happened to Jesus of Nazareth. We had thought he was the one to save us, to set us free, but then it all went wrong, it all fell apart.” That was their assessment, the picture, the world view, by which they were living, that controlled how they saw things. So the man explained things to them, pointed them round towards a different way of seeing things - but still they didn’t recognise him.

Two things that changed things: something they did, something he did. They invited him in. “Don’t go on, far too late in the day, we’ve got room, stay here.” Basic hospitality, something very much prized in the Middle East, but there’s a simple and basic message in this story, that acts of kindness can often bring unexpected blessings. And the simple fact that we’re all moved by them must say something about how we should be, who we’re really programmed to be, with one another. The film of the runner last Sunday helping his fellow runner who could hardly stand get to the line and over it at the London Marathon has gone viral.

Then there’s what Jesus does: he breaks the bread, and their eyes are opened. He breaks the bread. Here at this table we are most specially aware of him, most specially able to receive from him, here we are received, blessed, equipped, fed - and sent out.

There are disclosure moments in life; sometimes people call them religious experiences. Moments when the world seems sharper, more focused, when we see more clearly, when we fell more deeply, moments when the penny drops, when we understand, when we see. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that we use the same word “see” about both vision and understanding. In the resurrection stories, people failed to recognise Jesus because they hadn’t yet seen, understood, what had really happened. Every Eucharist should be a disclosure moment, for we’re not here just to remember, to look back, to hold a memorial service; no, the Greek word anamnesis which we translate as “remembrance” - do this in remembrance of me - actually means something much stronger, it’s about being in the presence of our Lord, being part of the supper he gives, in which he continues to be here among us, breaking the bread, here and now. Our risen Lord.

Our risen Lord, who assures us now as he told those disciples then, that love is come again, like wheat that springeth green - that love is victorious, is always victorious, is finally and completely victorious, over all that can enslave us, all that ties us down. The two disciples set out straight away, back to Jerusalem, to share the good news. That’s what happens when the penny drops, and when, instead of being resigned to death, we have seen what it means to live.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

More about the Pied Crow

Our "pied crow" (not the genuine article, but a carrion crow with white feathers on each wing) has become a very regular visitor, helping to sweep up after other visitors to our bird feeders. The other day our local nesting carrion crows (the pair that laid into a passing raven on Great Garden Birdwatch Day) spotted him and sailed rapidly into the attack, driving him down into the woodland below our garden. Next time we saw him one of his wings was looking very shabby: my guess is that the other crows' attacks focus particularly on the white feathers. He has a sad life, really.

The same route down into the wood was taken at high speed by a sparrow hawk on Sunday afternoon. I just happened to glance through the window, and it went past like a bullet. They are remarkably aerodynamic - this was a pretty solid bird, but it hurtled past, making slight adjustments to clear our back fence by what looked like a fraction of an inch, and then pass between the trees behind. I didn't see what it was chasing.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Enchanter's Nightshade

I walk the central aisle of this green cathedral,
to find you shining with shy but serious intent
where beech pillars stand tall on either side,
bearing arched canopies to preserve the stillness
of this natural nave, this dark and shaded holy place.
You are Circe the enchantress, quiet dealer in potions,
the only flower remaining on this July morning,
for July is the darkest time in the beech wood.
But nightshade you are, by name and nature
if not by family: nightshade and enchantress.
Anemone, celandine and bluebell, the flowers of the day
have vanished with the Spring, and the long night is yours alone.
Your white roots spread in secret through the gloom from
where your spikes of tiny flowers rise from a ring of hearts;
and while I stand quiet within this holy place
I know I am in your thrall.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Into All The World

I wonder where the disciples were gathered; all we’re told is that the doors were locked. They were vulnerable, and afraid. Was the room they were in the same room in which they’d eaten a last supper with Jesus just three days before? Was it the room in which he’d astounded them by rising from table and taking a towel and water, then kneeling to wash their feet?

His actions then had startled and shamed them. But Jesus had given them a lesson to learn, and a glimpse into their own future. He’d showed them just how they must take his message of love into the world. As their Servant-King he’d invited them to join him in the community of service. "This is my new commandment,” he said; “love one another as I have loved you.”

So perhaps they did return to that place after their Lord had been crucified. It was a secret location and therefore safe, and the shared memories of that last supper eaten with him might have been some comfort in their grief, a fragment to hold on to as their world fell apart.

John’s account of Easter begins with the visit of John himself and Peter to the tomb, how they found it empty and the grave clothes still there. Then comes the story of Mary Magdalene meeting with Jesus in the garden, and being given a message for the disciples. Imagine her rushing to them, bursting in on their fear and sorrow to exclaim, "I have seen the Lord.”

But their immediate reaction is confusion and uncertainty, not delight. They remain huddled together with the doors shut and locked, afraid of everything on the other side. They’re yet unable to understand the cross as anything other than defeat and the snatching away of all that they had dreamed of and hoped for; so of course they remain afraid of the forces that had killed Jesus, they remain afraid for their own lives, they still wonder how things could all have gone so wrong.

I don’t find it hard to imagine how the disciples felt. I’ve often enough done the same, locked myself in and the world out when I’ve felt sad or confused or threatened, when things have gone wrong, when something done or said has wounded me. And I’ve seen too many situations where grief hasn’t be set aside, where anger’s fuelled bitterness, where slights and grudges are allowed to fester. Times when we shut out even those who want to care and offer help, when friends can’t reach us.

Mary Magdalene’s words probably only added to the confusion the disciples felt. It was more than they could take. “Just what is going on?” they must have thought. Again, I can understand. The world around us often changes so fast it takes our breath away. We don’t understand, we can’t keep up; we’re tempted to hide away somewhere safe with our own little group, and not think too much about what’s going on outside. Was that where the disciples were on that Sunday evening?

Churches can themselves become safe havens. To a degree that’s fine. People should be able to find refuge in a church, after all. But I’ve known churches shut their doors a little too firmly. Let’s keep the world at bay, we’re tempted to think: the stuff we don’t like, the stuff we can’t process, the stuff that scares us. Churches like that tend to restrict their membership to people of like mind, with doors closed to anyone or anything that might challenge their doctrines. The doors were locked where the disciples were, but Jesus still joined them; hear what he said to them: “Peace be with you; as the Father sent me, so I send you.”

And he breathed his Spirit upon them. Jesus comes to us as he came to those first disciples. He’s unhindered by the walls we build around ourselves to keep others away and ourselves safe, he bypasses the doors we lock out of anger or anxiety, he breaks through our grief, our fear, our uncertainty.

And he does so as he did then, so he can speak peace to us and breathe peace into our anxious hearts. He comes bearing the marks of his suffering and death, bearing the wounds of the world, the wounds of our own grief and pain and sin. He is the one who died, the wounds are there for all to see, and yet these wounds are now transformed into new life.

Jesus shows the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, then repeats the words "Peace be with you." So they are twice blessed. And they saw - and we see with them - that the body of Christ, though risen, though alive for ever, still carries its wounds. And if the Church that takes his message into the world is (in Paul’s great image) the Body of Christ, it must also be marked with his wounds, as it engages with the need, the violence, the pain, the suffering of the world.

We are here today because the disciples did not stay in that safe and familiar room. They opened the doors, and Jesus sent them out into the world they feared, assuring them of his life, his strength, his vision, his presence. And so he sends us today, offering us the deep peace of his Holy Spirit, and lifting from us the power of fear, pains and grief, of shame and guilt to disable us and hold us captive. Jesus frees us so that he can send us to make a difference wherever we are, and to bring forgiveness and freedom to others in his name.

So let us pray:
Come to us, risen Lord Jesus, and send us out in faith to live and to share the good news of Easter. Fill us with the breath of your Holy Spirit, that we may breathe peace into fearful lives, love one another as we have been loved, welcome the stranger, make friends of enemies, and forgive the sins that bind others to the past; that we may serve those who need our care, and proclaim with joy the risen life that you offer to us, and through us to all the world. Amen.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Pied Crow

A pied crow has become a regular visitor to our garden of late. I should explain - there is a bird called a pied crow, common in Africa and also from time to time kept as a pet. It has a white neck and chest, and black head, back, wings and tail, and, although about the same size as our carrion crows, is I think better described as a small raven. The bird that visits us is a native carrion crow, but it has a substantial number of white feathers on each wing. It would look quite handsome, but is in fact a bit on the tatty side - very tatty in fact when we first saw it, with most of his tail feathers missing. He’s beginning to look a little more respectable now, but the very fact that he spends so much time prospecting around our feeders, something our nearby nesting crows never do, would suggest he’s been having a hard time.

The term for his condition, of white feathers instead of black, is leucism, which affects a wide range of common birds. Leucistic blackbirds are quite often seen, ranging from birds with just an occasional white feather to birds with only a few black feathers. No-one knows why blackbirds should display leucism more often than other species, though there is clearly a genetic elements here. Leucistic birds are not albinos, which are completely lacking in pigment - they partly lack the black pigment melanism. Other plumage abnormalities include melanism (extra black pigment, so darker plumage - this is often seen in pheasants), and less often, erythrism which is where  there are additional red pigments, and flavism with extra yellow pigment.

Do these plumage changes cause problems, I wondered, seeing how bedraggled our “pied crow” looked. Yes, is the answer, they can: having plumage that differs from the population 'norm' can give the wrong signals to other individuals, as well as perhaps making the bird more obvious and vulnerable to would-be predators. In addition, research suggests that feathers with reduced pigment may be less robust, wearing more quickly and reducing flight efficiency. They may also be less effective in insulating the bird against cold.

Unusual birds can often be attacked and driven off, and there are many instances of this happening to escaped cage birds, for example. But birds also habitually attack other species that are similar to them but differently plumaged; on these pages I’ve described how robins will attack dunnocks, and blue tits will drive away coal tits (this year, in fact, we have a particularly feisty blue tit using our nest box, and he will fly at almost any other birds that visits our feeders - I mention this because usually blue tits seem to be only one notch up from coal tits at the bottom of the pecking order).

Anyway, I think our visiting crow is most likely to have been attacked by fellow carrion crows spooked by his plumage irregularities. But he’s beginning to get quite feisty himself, the other day seeing off his more regularly pied relative, the magpie, with great promptness and efficiency.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Some you win, some you lose . . .

 A peacock at Powis Castle struts his stuff to a passing hen
How can she resist?
 I mean, this really is the business!
 Ahem . . . I'm over here!
 What do you mean, "I've got things to do"?
Oh well, other fish in the sea, I guess . . .

Saturday, 15 April 2017


“What do you enjoy most about Easter?” When I asked that question to children in primary school, their answers included the Easter bunny, chocolate eggs, spring flowers and catkins. Ann and I went with our grandchildren to Chirk Castle last week, where the staff were getting ready for the National Trust Cadbury’s Egg Hunt. You may have noticed there’s a word missing. And the Archbishop of York and the Prime Minister made headlines as they complained to Cadbury’s and the Trust about the missing word Easter.

Much as I hate to disagree with the great and good of our nation, I myself was not that bothered. And anyway, the big poster as we approached Chirk Castle said “Easter Fun - come and join our egg hunt!” - so the word Easter hasn’t entirely been lost. And anyway, if I’m asked what Easter bunnies and Easter eggs have to do with what the Christian festival of Easter, my answer has to be: not very much.

Of course, I like them both. What’s not to like? Rabbits and eggs are symbols of springtime and new life. And of course an egg looks a bit like a stone, but with life inside waiting to burst through the shell, so it can be a symbol for the tomb.

Having said that, egg hunts as a tradition may date from hundreds of years BC. And the name Easter may itself come from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Springtime has long been a time for festival and celebration, and there might well be children probably be hunting for eggs in National Trust gardens even if the Christian Church had never existed.

The Jewish Passover was itself a spring festival, though of course it also celebrated the people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Easter as a Christian festival is celebrated in spring because it’s linked to the Passover. That’s also why the date on which it’s held varies from year to year.

The Bible tells us that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus took place at Passover. Passover begins on the 15th day of the month Nisan in the Jewish calendar which follows a lunar cycle. In fact Passover begins on the first full moon after the Spring equinox, this year 10th April. And Easter is celebrated on the Sunday morning following the start of the Passover.

Spring celebrations and traditions from pagan times were incorporated into the Christian festival of Easter, egg hunts included. But alongside all the springtime fun is the true story of a man put to death in a shameful and barbaric way. His followers were sad, defeated, crushed by what happened, preparing to go home. That was Friday; yet on Sunday and in the weeks that followed, these people came to believe, and to begin to tell the world that he was not dead.

Whatever the Easter story means to you, whether you believe it without question or are still weighing things up, let me spend some time reflecting on what happened that day and what it means to me. I’d like to home in on these three words as I do so: peace, purpose, and promise, and as I do so I’ll be quoting some verses from John’s Gospel, which is where the Easter story is most movingly presented.

So peace is my first word. John tells how in the evening of that first Easter Day, with the doors locked in the place where the disciples had gathered, Jesus came and stood among them. And the first words he spoke to them were “Peace be with you!” This peace is more than just a sense of calm and tranquillity; the Hebrew word shalom speaks of peace that includes wholeness, completeness, wellbeing, security, serenity and harmony of life - and at the heart of it all, peace with God. Today we are reconciled with the one who breathes life into the universe.

Sin is what separates us from God, and therefore from that true peace of heart that is shalom. In John we find this: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” Easter is about God putting things right. Jesus is more than just a good man and a fine teacher; he is the Saviour who frees us from the shackles of sin that we ourselves could never break. His cross lifts from us the weight of our sins, reopens the way back to God. Because he is risen and alive, we are restored to a peace with God that on our own we could never grasp.

And his life gives our life point and purpose. Jesus went on to say to his disciples on that first Easter Day: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Where will he send them? Everywhere, into all the world. Life throws up big questions: “Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the point, the purpose of me?” Science and philosophy can only take us so far; for the third question I look to Jesus. Here’s something St Paul wrote in chapter one of his Letter to the Colossians: “Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. Everything was created through him and for him.” In Jesus we are brought close to God. He lives and we live with him, as Easter people, with lives that have purpose and direction.

Easter gives purpose to this bit of life, but it adds to that the promise of eternal life. At the end of his account of the risen Christ John tells us he wrote these things so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name”. To complete the quote I mentioned earlier, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” In another verse from John, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it in all abundance.” Abundant life: not just long life, not just happy life - abundant life.

Jesus offers us a share in abundant life, in his resurrection life. When Peter and John ran to the tomb, they not only found it empty, they found the grave clothes still there. The sense of the Greek text is that the body had simply risen from them, leaving them behind. They were no longer needed. This isn’t a repeat of the resurrection of Lazarus, brought from his grave still wrapped in the grave clothes. This is not a return to the life that was; this is something new.

When Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus in the garden he gives her a message to take to the disciples: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” In those words Jesus plainly tells her that we have a share in what he was done, that we have the same relationship to God. He’d taught his disciples to pray “Our Father, who art in heaven.” At the Last Supper he’d startled them by saying of the bread and wine “This is my body; this is my blood.” But it’s now, at the empty tomb, that these words are proved to be true. This is not a one-off event, but a new beginning in which all who live by faith are promised a share.

Egg hunts, cartoon bunnies, spring catkins; Easter’s a great time with lots to enjoy, and I shall enjoy every bit of it. But at the heart of this service and as we share bread and wine we find the one thing that really matters. We find what is unique and fundamental about Easter, we find the corner stone of our faith. Our Lord is risen, he is risen indeed. Death is defeated, sin has lost its power to enslave us; in this blessed day the way is opened for us, into peace with God, into purpose for living, and into the promise of eternal life.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Secret Signs

(My sermon for Maundy Thursday)

In 1688, the year of what historians call the Glorious Revolution, our kingdom had two competing kings. James II, ousted and exiled; and William III, William of Orange, invited and installed by the will of parliament, along with his wife Mary II, the only time our nation has had both king and queen regnant. Not everyone was pleased to see James gone and William and Mary installed. And at dinner a man might propose or drink a toast to the king with his glass held over a jug of water; those who supported the Jacobite cause would know he was pledging loyalty not to the king in London but to the exiled James Stuart over the water. It was a secret sign that only those in the know would understand.

There are secret signs in the story of this week too. Jesus was being closely watched after his entry into Jerusalem. Things were always tense at the Passover, the festival which above all others fuelled the people’s longing for freedom, and for a new king in the line of David. They were looking for the Messiah, the one anointed by God and promised by the prophets. And now this Jesus had declared his hand by riding into the city on a donkey, as the prophet Zechariah had said Messiah would do.

Pontius Pilate and his officers would have been anxious men, in a city bursting with people ripe for revolt. And the chief priests and the supporters of the dynasty of Herod were worried too. It was in their interest to make sure things stayed calm. They were wise men who knew the score. A self-proclaimed messiah who stirred the people into revolt would in the end be no match for the might of Rome. The priests and the supporters of Herod’s sons who still ruled parts of his old kingdom all knew they could rely on the support of Rome only so long as they could keep and ensure the peace.

Jesus needed to tread carefully. He had deliberately provoked those in power. Crowds of pilgrims from Galilee had cheered him with cries of Hosanna as he entered the city. As soon as he got there he went to the Temple to reclaim it on behalf of the poor, the ordinary folk, the people for whom God had a special concern. Jesus was stirring a hornet’s nest, but he’d things still to do before his enemies could take him.

Jesus had arranged the donkey on which he rode into the city without involving the Twelve. Nor did they know about the room reserved, where he’d eat with them on the eve of the Passover. He told his disciples to look for a secret sign: a man carrying a water-jar, which was always women’s work. Follow him, he told them, and he’ll lead you to the place that’s been prepared. It was important that his enemies didn’t get him too soon. There was a meal to eat, the one we call the last supper.

So here’s the storyline for this week: a provincial rabbi, elevated to the status of messiah by the naive and gullible people of his province, comes unstuck like so many before him, once he comes face to face those whose might and authority a hick like him could never understand. He didn’t have the men, the ideas or the power to win a fight like that. Poor man, on to a loser from the word go. Sadly out of his depth.

Hick from Galilee perhaps, but the powers that be must have been worried by Jesus. So by the end of this week it would have been a cause of some satisfaction that they’d been able to dispose of him so quickly and slickly. But maybe they should have been a bit surprised too. And maybe the more savvy among them might have wondered whether there was more here than met the eye.

If they did, they were right. Of all the signs he could have chosen to declare himself as Messiah, Jesus chose a humble way. He chose to ride a donkey. And now as he eats supper with his disciples he deliberately takes on the role reserved for the most lowly servant. He washes their feet. In this he reveals the true nature of the kingship he claims. There were no servants in attendance, we can assume, since this was a secret meal, eaten as the opposing forces drew ever closer. Maybe the disciples had wondered which of them would have to undertake the menial task of washing the grime of the streets from the feet of their fellows. That Jesus did it will have shamed them; disciples were supposed to see to their teacher’s needs, not the other way round.

But Jesus didn’t do it to shame them, he did it to teach them. We’re all better taught by actions than by words. “Let the greatest among you become as the servant of all,” says Jesus. He shows us the royalty of suffering, he presents himself as the servant king. Riding a donkey into the city was no stunt; this is who he is: “I am among you as one who serves.”

So bread is blessed and broken, and wine is blessed and poured. Tonight we join those who shared that last supper, repeating as we do so the song of Palm Sunday: “Blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” This is my body, he says, this is my blood. At this table we’re linked in to his sacrifice, and joined in him to one another. Here we approach the cross on which our king is enthroned, proclaimed, revealed, to know him in the bread he shares. For the world the cross may speak of shame and death, but it is the greatest of all secret signs. As we open our hearts to his love, the place of death is raised up to be the shining symbol of victory and life.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Dry Bones

Dem bones, dem bones dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord. One of the recommended books when I was a theology student was “Can these dry bones live?” by the theologian and Methodist minister Frances Young. She was asking whether, and suggesting how, the dry bones of the word of God in scripture could be made to live again. How shall today’s Church preach the word of God in a way that will make sense and convert hearts: that was her theme.

But Frances Young took the dry bones image from the Old Testament, as this was one of the visions that came to the prophet Ezekiel. This vision was an assurance to him from God that however hopeless things might seem, all was not lost. God would save and restore his people. Things did seem hopeless; the kingdom of Israel was lost, the temple lay in ruins. The people had been taken from their homeland to be hardly better than slaves, slaves in a foreign land. It was as though they were dead; and yet God would restore them, he would bring them back to their own land.

This would happen, but only when the people had come to their senses, only when they’d come back to the Lord. They needed to lose their apathy and timidity, they needed to et back their confidence in the Lord’s power to heal and save. Though all their hopes were like dry bones on the desert sand, they were still the Lord’s people. Ezekiel’s hopeful message was of God longing for his people to turn back to him, longing for them once again to seek his righteousness and justice, longing to give them back a life and identity and homeland they had lost.

Can these dry bones live? Ezekiel’s vision was just that: a vision, a dream. But let’s turn to our long Gospel reading, for it tells of the raising of an actual dead man, Lazarus, brother to Mary and Martha, friend to Jesus. Jesus wept at his tomb of Lazarus, and the crowd was moved by the obvious distress they saw in him. ‘He must have really loved him,’ they said. They were there to mourn, and they will have expected Jesus and his disciples to do the same. After all, they’d arrived too late to do anything else. Lazarus had been dead already for four days.

Jesus had delayed his coming. Lazarus is four days dead: long enough for death to be assured, and for the spirit to have moved on, to be no longer close to the body. No wonder Jesus wept. But having wept for his friend, he didn’t do what might have been expected. He didn’t give in to regret or despair; he didn’t join in with the mourners. This death was not a defeat but an opportunity, or so he told his disciples. In the love of God all is never lost, and Jesus is (as he declares) the way, and the truth, and the life.

That’s a promise and assurance that lies at the heart of all we do and believe as Christians. Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.” Our faith and fellowship depend on these words. Ezekiel the prophet was given a vision of life. Paul the apostle preaches about life as God’s promise to those who live by faith. But life is made real in Jesus Christ. In him we find the truth, scripture is fulfilled in him, faith is rewarded in him. However hopeless our cause and condition may seem to be, our destiny is not dead bones but spirit, and freedom, and life.

So to live in Jesus means to never give up hope; to live in Jesus means always to expect the unexpected. Look at our empty pews this morning. People say that the church is in terminal decline, and we can certainly get to feel that way. Well, Lazarus had been in terminal decline, and those who came to mourn knew they were mourning a dead man. And they were, until Jesus got involved.

Let me suggest that what fundamentally matters is not the numbers we get in church, nor our status and wealth nor influence. These things are of some importance of course, but before everything else what truly matters is this: is Jesus on the scene? Is he at the heart of what we do? Is our church, small or large, alive in him? Alive in worship, alive in fellowship, alive in service? Is the love of God flowing here? Scripture says: seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him when he is near. The promise we find in prophets like Ezekiel, the promise we read in the letters of Paul, the promise confirmed in our Lord Jesus Christ is that when we do this in faith, God is with us, his Spirit transforms our fellowship and service.

Jesus leads Lazarus out of the tomb, and the Lazarus he brings out is still wrapped in his grave clothes. He is still mortal and fallible, he is still sinful and earth-bound. The Church, however Spirit-filled, however godly in intention, remains human, fallible, fragile and incomplete.  It doesn’t matter how much we love our church, and with what care we look after it, church alone can never bring salvation. On their own its liturgies and traditions are just so many dry bones; only Jesus can give life to the dry bones of our churches.

So our Passiontide challenge, as we turn towards the cross, is surely this: to commit ourselves afresh to Jesus as our way, our truth, and our life. To put him right at the heart of all we are and all we do - here in this safe and holy place, and also out there in our daily living as his Church dispersed into the world. For a Church with this faith will be light to the world and love to the loveless, in the name of Jesus who alone is life that is more than life, and love that is love for ever.

So can these dry bones live?  Yes, and they will: if we are living not for ourselves but for our Lord, knowing and confessing our own weakness, sinfulness and mortality, and open to the inbreathing power of his Spirit of peace and love.