Tonight – as we take this stunning journey from the darkness of sin and death into the light of Christ’s resurrection – tonight seems an appropriate time to reflect on the latest darkness trying to extinguish the light. That darkness is this week’s terrorist attack in Brussels.
Like shootings in our public spaces, terrorist attacks have taken on a depressingly familiar narrative in our national life. Violence strikes like a snakebite; we spend time with the news channels, unable to look away from the carnage; we argue about who’s to blame, filling in the identities of those we mistrust or fear; we consider new steps we think might control the power of sin and death; and at the end of the narrative, we’ve become just a little more afraid than we were the week before.
Myself, I believe that is our real threat: fear, leading to despair. That’s the real enemy – not the perpetrators, not even death itself. For tonight, we see and hear that we need not fear death or its perpetrators. For those who put their trust in the God of Moses and Isaiah and Ezekiel – for those who put their trust in God’s ultimate Word and our risen Lord, Jesus Christ – for us, death has already been vanquished. It’s a battle we don’t have to fight. I know that I will die, and I know that I will live. The details of that certainty are secondary because they don’t change the story’s ending. So on this side of eternal life, the real enemies are fear and despair, because fear and despair seem to confront us new each day. Just check your news channel of choice.
It’s enough to test our faith, just as fear and despair tested the faith of our ancestors. Ezekiel, in his vision we heard tonight, comes into the valley of dry bones; and the Lord asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” (37:3) It was a pressing question, because this prophet of Israel’s exile shared his people’s worries about whether they’d endure conquest and captivity. How about us? What are your deepest worries, the driest bones you know? Maybe the everyday reality of terrorism? Maybe the incivility of American politics and government’s failure to govern? Maybe the suffering of refugees – or the threat some think they pose? Maybe your own broken relationships or the fears that lay siege to your heart? What dry bones rattle long and loud enough to keep you up at night?
Let’s think about someone else who had some serious worries – the disciple Peter. In the Gospel story, Peter doesn’t even get the security of bones to look at. When he comes to the tomb, the body’s gone. Has God raised Jesus, as the women proclaimed? Or have the grave robbers gotten in to desecrate the body, adding insult to Peter’s injury? For Peter, that injury isn’t just the death of Jesus. Peter’s also struggling with the death of his own courage three nights before, when he denied the Son of God to save his skin. Those bones rattle loud in Peter’s head even while the women’s proclamation rings in his ears. Their call to trust in what simply couldn’t be true seems as absurd as God asking Ezekiel to make dry bones “hear the word of the Lord” (37:4). The women’s “words seemed to the disciples an idle tale, and they did not believe,” Luke says (24:11). So Peter goes to the tomb himself, looks in, is amazed at what he doesn’t see – and then he goes home. He must have told the rest of the group eventually; but for the moment, he just goes home. Maybe he needed to sort out what he really thought about all this. Could he find a way to make sense of what the women had said and the empty tomb he’d seen? And if so, then what was he supposed to do?
After all, things hadn’t ended well between Peter and Jesus, especially the way Luke’s Gospel tells it. There, we have the familiar scene of Peter denying Jesus three times while Jesus stands before the high priest, on trial for his life. But Luke’s account adds a chilling detail, an image Peter couldn’t get out of his mind. As soon as Peter denies Jesus the third time, Jesus turns away from his accusers and looks Peter in the eye (Luke 22:61). That look leaves Peter broken and sobbing. So then, three days later, as Peter hears what’s supposed to be Good News, I imagine him thinking, “Oh my God – if it’s true, how can I ever look him in the eye again?”
I imagine that might be true for some of us, as we hear the resurrection story. Maybe we hesitate to believe in resurrection because of the personal implications of this grand story we’ve lived tonight: If it’s true, is my conscience clear? If I’ve denied Christ – explicitly in things I’ve said and done or, a thousand times more, implicitly in things I haven’t said and done – if I’ve denied Christ, then what? If I’ve only signed up for an affiliation with the Church to hedge my bets, just in case this Jesus stuff is real – then what? What do I say when I take his Body in my hand at the altar rail? What do I say when the resurrected Christ takes my hand and looks me in the eye?
Well, on this night of absurd new life, here’s my advice: Turn away from fear and despair, and let Jesus take your hand. That’s what Peter finally did. He knew he’d failed; he knew he couldn’t love the way Jesus wanted him to love. And still, at the end of the story, he said “yes” to Jesus’ call to feed the sheep. No matter where that path would lead, no matter what he suffered along the way, Peter knew it was the way – the way of life. That’s our journey, too, a journey that begins again this night – the journey with Peter from amazement to belief to trust.
And in this world where unholy forces always compete for our allegiance, our temptation is to stop two-thirds of the way down the path – to stop with belief. As I said the other night at Mary Lynn Coulson’s ordination, we take those first words of the Creeds a bit too literally the way they’re translated into English. We say “we believe” in God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. OK. Maybe we believe that, intellectually. But do we trust in God as the source of our being, our liberator from sin and death, and the power of our resurrected lives day in and day out? It’s one thing to acknowledge something’s true. It’s quite another to stake your life on it. But that’s precisely what God asks of us this night. Jesus has done the hard work, putting himself through hell, literally, to vanquish Satan and extinguish the darkness of death with the light of life. Christ has won the war – but he leaves it up to us to win the peace.
We don’t have miracles to perform. We have miracles to trust. That is the primary work Jesus leaves to us: that we would revel in the light of his victory and bear that light to a world that prefers the darkness. For when we trust, God moves mountains. When we trust, miracles happen once again.
And that should come as no surprise. After all, a mumbling, unwilling desert outlaw eventually led his people out of slavery and into freedom in the Promised Land. After all, the oppressors who tried to drown the children of Israel in the Nile were themselves drowned in the Red Sea. After all, a people once enslaved became God’s missionary presence to kings and nations. After all, the water that once flooded the earth and destroyed humanity became God’s instrument for cleansing our hearts and adopting us as beloved children. After all, a stumbling and cowardly Peter, sure he had failed for all time, became the Rock of the Church, the leader commissioned to feed and tend Christ’s sheep. After all, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we now walk in newness of life, dead to sin but alive to God forever (Romans 6:4). These are miracles we can trust.
In our most challenging moments – maybe more often than not, if we’re honest about it – we join the people of Israel in their lament that “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezekiel 36:11). We live in that valley of fear and despair more than we’d like to admit. But when we trust, Jesus the conqueror leads us out of the valley of the shadow of death. When we trust, miracles happen. For thus says the Lord God to all of our dry bones: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people…. And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you,” says the Lord, “and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37:12-14)