Ezekiel is brought to a massive bone heap. The dry bones scattered from one end to the other of the valley. They were people once. They lived and breathed, they laughed and loved and played, they fought and died. Now all that is left of them are these bones – dry and brittle. Not yet turned to dust, but on the way. And the big question put before the prophet by the Lord: “Can these bones live?” This question is at the heart of our faith.
Ezekiel’s safe answer is: “O Lord God, you know.” And the Lord does. But He wants His prophet to know, His people to know, YOU to know. And so the Word of the Lord in the prophet’s mouth is like a fast rewind and you see the decomposition of the bodies in reverse, but still just dead bodies – even if miraculously put back together. And then, then the Spirit of life is called upon at the Lord’s command and suddenly everything changes. They come to life, they breathe, they stand on their feet a vast army. Death was no match for the Lord of life, for the power of His Word, for the working of His Spirit. And the Lord wants all His people to know this, to never forget this: “I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit with in you and you shall live.”
That’s His promise, but your Lord knows how you struggle to hold onto it in the face of death’s relentless march. So Jesus appeared to the ten on that first Easter evening. He appeared to them, He spoke peace to them, He showed them His hands and side. They need to know that it was the same Lord who had been crucified, bearing the sins of the world to death in His own body, whose body now stood miraculously before them as they huddled in fear of their lives. Peace, He said. You do not need to be afraid of death – not ever again. See, I have burst a way through and I have done so for you. Peace. See my body and the wounds. Now, I’ve got a job for you. Just as the Father sent me – gave me a message of love and mercy and hope to bring to a world snared in sin and teetering toward death, so I am sending you. And then they were INSIDE Ezekiel’s vision. Breath from the Risen One – incorruptible breath – not like our stinking breath, but breath like the freshest spring breeze – breath from His undying lips: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
With that gift of the Spirit they came to life like they’d never been alive before. Joy seized them and they became downright giddy with holy joy. The Forgiveness of their sins stood before them; the Defeater of Death right in their midst. And so they were sent by that same Lord to bring others into that same joy. This is the institution of the office of the holy ministry. Jesus’ plan that forever in His Church there would be pastors sent out to forgive sins, to preach the resurrection, and to help God’s people battle their doubts and fears with His unshakeable good news.
Of course, it was still a hard message to wrap one’s mind around. Thomas was just not able to do it. He’d missed Church that week, been somewhere else, and so instead of the peace that Jesus wanted for him, he had doubts and fear. He wanted to see too. And more than see, for the eyes can be deceived, he wanted to touch. Insisted on it even. And aren’t we so glad that he did? Because that opens our eyes to see even more what a merciful and kind Lord we have in Jesus. He doesn’t rebuke Thomas just as He doesn’t chew you out when you’re struggling and fearing. He waits the week so it’s the Sunday after Easter – today! – that He shows up again (He was starting a pattern there!), and then with great tenderness and love He speaks peace to them all again, and bids Thomas reach out and touch and erase all doubt. Caravaggio’s painting will forever capture the moment for us. The Lord pushing Thomas’s huge extended finger into the gaping hole. All so that Thomas could have his fear, his doubt chased away. He confesses: “My Lord and my God!” And then Jesus lifts His eyes from Thomas and sees you: “You believe, Thomas because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
But how did they come to believe? Only because the Lord took thought to send out His Word, the Word that gives faith. “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” So the Lord takes thought for the future, takes thought for you – entrusts the speaking of His Word to certain men who would entrust it to others and they to others yet and so on through all these long centuries. That is how the victory that alone can overcome the world – our faith – gets passed on. It’s how we are born anew to God and brought into His family and kept in His family. It’s how the Lord has Himself a Church – a family of people crazy enough to believe that their sins have been covered by His blood and that the grave is NOT their final destiny, but that as He rose in His flesh so they too will rise in theirs on the day He appears in glory to make all things new.
Your Jesus sent me here for 20 years to share this joyful news with you, to celebrate it with you – sometimes with laughter, sometimes with tears, but always the same faith creating, faith sustaining Word. Together we have rejoiced with saints and angels at the Table where the Risen One still presides, still bids us touch His body and chases away our fears. Such a good Lord! And He already knows who your next senior pastor will be. He’s got it covered. You just need to ask Him, and pray, and wait, and then rejoice to receive yet another one in the long line of those sent by Jesus to continually deliver forgiveness, life, and salvation to His people. Thank you for all your kindness and love to me and to my family over these years, and I know you will have much love to share with the man who will end up standing here in this pulpit to give you even more of Jesus, to whom be glory with the Father and with His Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages! Amen.