As we wrestle with post-pandemic possibilities, our two readings this evening (Ezekiel 36.22-28 and I Corinthians 12.1-13) recall us to biblical visions of how we are to thrive – together. Neither comes without cost. Indeed, as Professor Corinne Carvalho puts it, the book of Ezekiel as a whole is ‘not a very pleasant text’. For, like the image of the valley of the dry bones in the next chapter, tonight’s reading is undoubtedly evocative and spiritually attractive in many respects. Yet it is also uncomfortable. For a start, God’s intention in restoring relationship with both people and land appears to be almost exclusively motivated by God’s own sense of God’s honour, rather than compassion. There is pity for humanity here, but no love expressed, anymore than love is affirmed for God’s wives earlier in Ezekiel. As moderns, we must be careful therefore not to take this reading out of its context and cultural setting. Indeed, above all, we have to face up to the powerful sense of sin and God’s judgement with which the book of Ezekiel is imbued. If we are to claim the vision of hearts of flesh, the pathway, Ezekiel affirms, comes through a deep recognition of the need for repentance and divine grace.
Similarly, I Corinthians 12.1-13 is a beautiful passage about the diversity of spiritual gifts in the Body of Christ. In affirming it however, we need to remember that it follows immediately after several chapters in which St Paul has been addressing major issues of conflict within the Corinthian church. Indeed Paul has just been speaking about not bringing judgement down by sharing fellowship unworthily. For tonight’s reading movingly affirms human spiritual difference. Yet, like the ‘hymn to love’ which follows in I Corinthians chapter 13, this uplifting vision of the One Body with many interdependent members is reliant on the much, much, deeper mystery of God’s own Love and the willingness to receive such grace.
Receiving the grace of others, particularly others very different from ourselves – how are we going with that? In this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which we conclude tonight, we can easily be downcast by what has aptly been termed ‘the ecumenical winter’ of our times. Yet this season has not been unproductive, any more than any winter is a ‘dead’ season. Notably, in recent years there has been a growth of what has been called ‘receptive’ ecumenism. Simply put, this involves us seeking to grow as One Body not by exploring what we might be able to agree to, and live with, in one another, but by opening ourselves to receive the gifts of others without which we remain incomplete and diminished. For hearts which cannot bear the ‘otherness’ so easily become hearts of stone, not simply protective but unyielding and rejecting. To live with hearts of flesh requires openness, vulnerability, and the risk of misunderstanding and hurt.
This brings us back to the changing face of Sydney, and, as one part of it, Australia as a whole. For our national borders may, understandably, remain closed for some time. What though of the borders of our hearts? Ezekiel’s vision is in many ways a splendid one for our nation, as it speaks of God’s grace in gathering together people ‘from all the countries’ to live together afresh in the land God provides, as one people honouring God’s call. Without hearts of flesh however, such a promise remains unfulfilled. To grow as One Body we must be open to receive the new gifts among us.
Perhaps, if, literally and metaphorically, we stop overly reaching for the sky, we may find that we may be humbled and our hearts renewed in receiving the gifts of others. It is a challenge for many of our churches, isn’t it? For so long, we have striven to construct our own towers of babel in this land, when really all God seeks of us is to be open to, and become the seeds of, a new Pentecost. In that lies hope for our churches and world. Yes, it is desperate at times, to see hearts of stone refusing to receive the gifts of others. Yet those gifts will continue to be offered and will not go away, even if some churches and others turn them away. They will simply find other places to flourish. Happily however God’s promise in Ezekiel is trustworthy.
Everywhere we are being offered new gifts to renew our hearts, if we are humble enough to receive them. In the last few weeks, for example, I have been interested to see the number of young people who have found their way to worship in my church setting – not least young people from India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, and mainland China, as well as from the Pacific. Whether they will stay and thrive will be a test of hearts. Yet they offer fresh gifts to the One Body: just as women continue to do for our still so patriarchal churches and societies; just as people of other diversities continue to do, in sometimes surprising new ways. In this diocese, we increasingly see this too, in the gifts of diversity which are offered. It has been such a delight, for example, to see St Francis College increasingly enriched in recent years by human diversity - not least from the Sudan, as well as many other places. That also comes with challenges. To realise the vision of I Corinthians 12.1-13 is not easy. Hearts of flesh easily bruise and bleed. Ezekiel’s call to repentance is real. True unity, as St Paul reminds us, is bumpy. Conflict is inevitable and cannot be avoided, but it can be transcended when God’s love pumps through our divided hearts. Stony hearts affirm a unity based only on cheap grace and cannot lead us into God’s land together.
Nor can we have renewed hearts of flesh without a renewed land. Ezekiel, as in so many other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, is clear about this. I am grateful for the reminder in the acknowledgements in my local parks of the Gadigal people. Yet they are but small steps, in Ezekiel’s vision. For, as that great prayer of the Revd Aunty Lenore Parker in the Anglican Prayer Book for Australia puts it, there is, in Uluru, a powerful spiritual ‘rock at the heart of our land’. Without fully recognising the hearts of flesh, and their voices, needs and gifts, with which it is intimately connected, we will always only have hearts of stone, and images of babel, in this land. May we instead continue to drink of the same Spirit. In Christ’s name, Amen.
 In her online reflection on Ezekiel 36.24-28 in workingpreacher.com
by Josephine Inkpin, for Pentecost Sunday Year B, Evensong at St John's Cathedral Brisbane