Will Willimon, retired chaplain at Duke University and Bishop in the United Methodist Church, remembers being asked by a newspaper reporter to comment on the meaning of Easter. In his book, The Last Laugh, he remembers the interview going like this: “Dr. Willimon, what would you say is the goal of Easter?” “The goal of Easter?” I asked. “Yes,” the reporter persisted, “what is its point, its purpose? Why do you do it?” Caught off guard, by the language of the questioner, Willimon stammered a bit: “Well, we just do it. Easter is just, well it’s just Easter. We celebrate it...” and suddenly a vision came, “I could see the headlines: Dean of Duke Chapel says Easter is pointless.” Then Willimon reflects on this odd exchange saying, “From the utilitarian, pragmatic, serious perspective of modern people, much that we Christians do seems pointless. Even Easter. We do it for the sheer fun of it. That, modern people may one day discover, just may be the point after all.”
We can understand why Willimon found it difficult to put into words the importance of Easter. Many things of great importance are hard to explain. At a conference a few years ago, the speaker asked for a brave volunteer to come forward. The volunteer was then asked a few questions. The first was, "What is something that you enjoy doing?" His response was that he really enjoyed hiking. The speaker then asked him why he liked hiking. The volunteer responded by listing some of the aspects about hiking that he really enjoyed: being outside, getting some exercise, being exposed to the fresh air, the panoramic views.
The speaker then asked if the volunteer was married. He responded, "Yes." The speaker then asked, "Do you love your wife?" Wisely, the volunteer said, "Yes." The speaker then asked, "Why do you love your wife?" There was a long pause. You can imagine the responded shifting his stance, beginning to get nervous, his heart rate rising as he tries to think of a good answer. Finally he answered, "Because she is my wife."
I imagine that the speaker initially thought through many of his wife's attributes--her kind personality, her good looks, the way she treated others--but eventually, and wisely came to realize that he loved her just because she was her, he loved her unconditionally, but to put this eloquently into words is difficult.
We can understand why Willimon said of Easter, "Well, we just do it. Easter is just, well it’s just Easter. We celebrate it...”
The resurrection is at the core of our faith. You cannot explain it easily in 10 seconds or less. It can't be summed up as a “goal” or in a “purpose statement,” or as a “point” because the resurrection became the thing that was everything for the church.
Eugene Peterson has said it this way: In a world in which death gets the biggest headlines: death of nations, death by war, death by murder, death by accident, obituaries without end, the church is an appointed gathering of people in particular places who practice a life of resurrection. The practice of resurrection is an intentional, deliberate decision to believe and participate in resurrection life – life out of death, life that trumps death, life that is the last word, Jesus’ life (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ, p. 12.).
The resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection to new life that we have been granted because of Christ are, of course, fundamental and unique and unparalleled.
But the power of God to grant new life, to resurrect the dead and to bring new life to those who are perishing and powerless and wasting away, has been central in our faith since the beginning.
Abraham and Sarah were given new life. They were well advanced in years, thinking that the best of life was behind them. But God called them to a new beginning, to set out toward an unknown destination, unsure of where it would lead them, but trusting that God would guide them and keep them safe.
The Israelites were given new life, rising from a difficult and hopeless life of slavery in Egypt, and being born again into the freedom of a future that opens before them, as God leads them to a land that is flowing with milk and honey, a land that will provide all that they need, a land in which their backs will no longer be burdened by the heavy yoke of the Egyptian mastes.
The Israelites were given new life yet again, returning to their homeland after having been conquered by the Assyrians, and deported, forced to live in foreign lands that were not their own. They thought that God had abandoned them, had forgotten about them, left them to deal with their situation alone. But God remembered the people. God rescued them, delivered them, and returned them to their homeland.
The story from Ezekiel that we read this morning is one of the most powerful and moving images that speaks to the power
of God to resurrect people to new life, new life not only at the end of days, but to a new life today, one that is rich and rewarding and fulfilling.
The people of God were living in exile. They had been driven from their homeland because war had torn their communities apart. They had been marched across the wilderness and forced to settle in a land that was not their own. Their hope had perished. Their joy was gone. Their spirits were broken.
The distress and pain that they had suffered was almost unbearable, and they were succumbing to despair, sorrow, and grief.
But God came to Ezekiel and gave him a vision. The vision that he saw, a valley full of dry bones, was, of course, symbolic of something else. It represented a people who were so afflicted in life that they were as vibrant and lively as piles of dry bones.
But the Spirit of God can do amazing things in this world. As Ezekiel watched in his vision, the Spirit of God came and moved among the people, and life began to spring forth.
The imagery--that of dry bones coming together, being joined together by ligaments and tendons, with muscles and skin appearing on the surface--the imagery is rather grotesque. Some might prefer a different image of new life, perhaps a daffodil that pushes through the late spring snow and ushers forth a brilliant yellow flower in a land that is covered in the cold whiteness of snow. Both images seek to convey the same truth: that when it seems that all hope is lost, that life is cold and barren and lifeless, God enters in bringing new life, resurrecting us.
Of course, once the Spirit of God moves our lives, resurrects us to new life and we are standing upon our own two feet, we are then called to help others rise from their ash heaps, to shake off the dust that accumulates in life, to drink from the springs of living water, so that they too may have this new life, both in the life to come, and new life on this day in this place.
How do we do this? Later in his book, Eugene Peterson writes, "By worship and the study of scripture, by prayer, confession and forgiveness, by welcoming the stranger and outcast, and by working for peace and justice... [this is how] the company of people who practice resurrection replicates the way of Jesus. This is [what it means to be] the church (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing up in Christ, p. 12.).
"Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones:
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live."