27 September – The Resurrection of the living

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Pentecost 17

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
Matthew 21:23-32

In a sentence
While we associate resurrection with ‘life after death’, its purpose in biblical narrative is the possibility of new life before death

Our reading from Ezekiel today is perhaps the best-known passage from the book. It is obviously a ‘resurrection’ text – which ought immediately to raise an alarm, for when the meaning of something in the Bible is ‘obvious’ it is highly likely that we are missing something.  So let’s look to the passage to see what might be less than obvious.

Ezekiel’s vision unfolds in a couple of steps. First, he sees the valley of bones, he addresses those bones as commanded, he hears the rattle of bones upon bones, and he sees them come together and life breathed into them.

At this stage we have what we might call a ‘nature’ miracle. Something about the usual order of things has been denied: order has been dragged from disorder, life returned to what was dead. The vision then – and it is only a vision – suggests that God is able to do this, to raise the dead to life.

It is helpful to note this ‘nature miracle’ dimension of the vision because it is typically claimed that God can do miraculous things like this. More than that, it is claimed God can disrupt the natural order in this way because God is creator of that order. Control over the world in this way springs from the fact that God created the world in the first place. These are less ‘interventions’, then, than they are re-creations, re-orderings of the chaotic world.

This is to say that creation occurs as much within time as it is the beginning or possibility of time. It is not ‘easier’ to raise the dead than it is to get the whole show on the road in the first place. The beginning of time, and a truly new beginning within time, are the same kind of thing. The distinction between creation and resurrection, then – as manifestations of sheer power – is not a distinction in God. Most succinctly, resurrection is creation.

Ezekiel’s vision moves past sheer creative power, however. To this point, the vision suggests that God can raise ‘the dead’, although we don’t know who the dead are. As is usual in relation to all the wacky things Ezekiel is commanded to do in his ministry, the meaning of his vision is now explained: the bones are not merely the remnants of the dead in general but are specifically Israel’s bones: the bones of ‘the whole house of Israel.’

This unsettles two things which might seem to be ‘obvious’ in the whole vision.

The first unsettling is that this apparent violation of natural law is also a violation of moral or divine law. Almost the whole of Ezekiel’s preaching to this point has had to do with the failure of Israel, and the justice of God’s condemnation and rejection of them. The power exercised here, then, is not merely a power to undo nature’s course by bringing life to the dead. It is the power to undo the effects of divine judgement itself. Not only natural law but God’s law is violated in this resurrection, which is much more interesting than the occasional miraculous conjuring trick.

The power of creation or re‑creative resurrection, then, is not the power to ‘make stuff’ or to re-make it. It is the power to forgive, to reconcile, to gather unto God even what – on account of its own failures – God has rejected. We might say it succinctly: with this God, to create is to reconcile and to reconcile is to create.

The second unsettling of the obvious to note here is that these are the bones of ‘the whole house of Israel’. What is strange here is that the house of Israel is not dead yet. Indeed, many have died – during the Babylonian conquest and before that – but Ezekiel’s ministry is not to those dead alone but – if at all – also to the living.

This is to say, then, that Ezekiel’s vision has to do with the resurrection of the living. Those who are still breathing are as if dead when they hear Ezekiel’s preaching. Death stands now not as the end of life but as a way of life. It is not a good way of life – and it is a way which God promises in these visions to ‘create us away from’ – but those who have died and those who still breathe stand before God as equally in need of God’s own life-giving Spirit. Or, to put it differently, there is before God no real distinction between the living and the dead, and their need. We tell ourselves that being alive is better than the alternative but this is not a joke God ‘gets’.

That joke hides from us something implicit in most of our resurrection-talk, and misleading: that the dead are lying around waiting to be raised to life, that they know they are dead. In fact, they are not ‘waiting’ for anything, for they are dead and the dead don’t do anything – wait or otherwise.

We might think that this is one point at which the living and the dead differ – that the living are hoping for something, waiting for something, working on something. Yet if, in Ezekiel’s terms, the living also are in need of resurrection, perhaps we might put less store in what we hope and wait and work for. It is not that these things do not matter; they will be the form, the shape, of our salvation. But the content or the substance of salvation – what it is to be free from fear and free for each other – is, as St Paul puts it,

‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the human heart conceived…                      (1 Corinthians 2.9, from Isaiah 64.4)

This is to say that what resurrection to life might be – even here and now – is not the answer to any question we might have. It is not the political utopia we dream of, not the return to normal post-virus we long for, not a pie-in-the-sky promise to distract us from our fear of dying.

What is promised here is something which will make the lives we live – as good and worthwhile as some of them might appear to be – seem like death. Our struggles for the good and the right, the clamour of our politics, the urgency of our prayers will seem like the mere rattle of bones on bones which cannot yet imagine that they are destined to breathe and laugh and dance.

The word to Israel then is God’s word to us:

O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…
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.

…And the breath came into them,
and they lived,
and stood on their feet,
a vast multitude.                                  (Ezekiel 37.5,6,10)