For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned
unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
(1 St. Peter ii. 25)
In this Joyful Eastertide, we are called to become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body by embracing the forgiveness of sins in our lives. In so doing, we must acknowledge that the forgiveness of sins is really a two-edged sword meant to divide us from both sin and wickedness in our own lives, and also from sin in the lives of others. With regard to the first, we were bidden to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. With regard to the second, we were urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into acts ofcompassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this was given to us that we might become habituated to what it takes to live in and through the Resurrected Christ.
And, yet, what is so helpful about the Church’s selection of readings for this Joyful Eastertide is that she does not pretend that this new life we seek is easy. This might strike many people with surprise since this is Good Shepherd Sunday. Most people think that Good Shepherd Sunday ought to be about Jesus the kindly, caring, and gentle herdsman who forever seeks out His lost sheep. And while this might be true in one way, in another way it tends to ignore the expectations that Christ has of us, once we have returned to the sheepfold.
For, Christ has demands and conditions for the sheep of His fold of the members of His Body, the Church. As we become His sheep, Jesus Christ and the Good Shepherd’s expectations of us become clearer.What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects of them are illustrated in this morning’s First Epistle of St. Peter. St. Peter is describing unjust or unmerited suffering. He writes his letter to the newly formed churches in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. We don’t know the specifics of individual cases, but we surmise that Christian slaves are having a hard time with the forgiveness of sins. Their particular struggle involves the mechanics of dealing with Masters who are punishing them unfairly and tyrannically. St. Peter is keen to identify with their pain and suffering since he thinks it will bind them more surely to Jesus Christ and thus enable them to embrace the healing power of the Good Shepherd in their hearts and souls.
With specific reference to their perplexing dilemma, he says, Servants,
be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward. (1 St. Peter ii. 18) If he were writing as an earthly-minded pagan man, whose notions of justice and equity are always measured by an earthly standard, we should judge his advice to be hard-hearted and full of cruel cold comfort. But St. Peter is not writing as a pagan and so his chief interest in not with earthly liberation and social justice but with Divine and lasting spiritual liberty. He writes as a member of the Body of Christ, and so he continues, For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps. (1 St. Peter ii. 21) St. Peter does not pretend in any way that such a spiritual response to earthly wickedness is easy. For, as Monsignor Knox reminds us, St. Peter remembers, too, how he followed in his Master’s footsteps, when Christ was led away to be crucified. (R.K.: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 125) He is only too conscious of the radical injustice done to his Master, Jesus Christ, and of his own powerlessness and then fear in the face of it. When he had been sitting by the fire in the cellar of the High Priest’s palace, he was surrounded by slaves. Here were those who were shackled by other men. Here was he who was shackled and enslaved to his own fear, cowardice, and impotence. He responded to evil by retreating desperately into this protective cellar to protect himself. The slaves who surrounded him were in chains because of other men’s evil. Peter was afraid of the same evil that bound the slaves. Yet, his slavery was self-imposed and voluntary, the just reward and punishment of his own terror and pusillanimity. Peter had become a slave to a far more cruel master than any earthly slaveholder. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. And because he was guilty of denying Jesus before the cock had crowed, he feared judgment. He remembered that guile was… found in his mouth, that when reviled, he reviled…again, and that when he suffered the accusation that he was one of Jesus’ friends, he threatened his accusers. (Ibid)
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks from the standpoint of the forgiveness of sins. Christ has forgiven Peter for abandoning and betraying Him. He calls him into the new life of Resurrection. So, he exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters also. Christ suffered for our sakes…who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who when reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously: who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (Ibid, 22- 25) St. Peter became a sinful slave to the evil of this world voluntarily.
The slaves St. Peter addresses are the hapless victims of other men’s wickedness, and yet they are in danger of being possessed spiritually by the evil that oppresses them also. Both Peter and his hearers were slaves, but they are now invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection and the Life. The slaves are given a great opportunity not only to follow Christ themselves but also to prick the consciences of their masters, Christian or pagan, because they can become emissaries and ambassadors in bonds to the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. What they can reveal is that they have been made free by Jesus Christ and are truly the sons and daughters of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all manner of wickedness because the evil of other men must never be an excuse for vengeance. True freedom is found in Jesus Christ. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy…(St. James iv. 12)
This obedience to God requires that they forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) St. Peter is inviting the slaves to see that the Saviour has suffered unjustly and has borne the burden of all men’s slavery to sin on the Cross of His Love. Like Christ, they must forgive those who are the cause of their suffering. For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Where His indwelling presence is put to the test is when men suffer wrongfully and innocently. If He – the perfect model and example of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, can forgive, then so too must all they who would become members of His Resurrected Body. In fact, Jesus said, If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you…if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18, 20) For Christ bare our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness. (Ibid, 24) Again, with Monsignor Knox, Christ’s wounds are healing stripes, and His death produces, of its own efficacy, a new death and the beginning of new life in us. (Idem) So the slaves and the slaveholders are invited into the new life of the Resurrection, which demands that all sin should be overcome with love as forgiveness, faith, and hope. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25 The deepest impression of Christ’s transformative love must be embraced by all kinds of sinners.
St. Peter shows us that all men are the slaves of sin and need to be incorporated into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. And this Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. He calls Himself the Good Shepherd in this morning’s Gospel, for He is the Shepherd of Souls who voluntarily becomes God’s Slave because, as He says, He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) So the Good Shepherd can be identified with the Slave who is employed solely and completely for the good of two Masters –His Father and His sheep! He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that His Father’s Love can become a true Slave to their condition, bear its burden fully, and then break its chains through the power of innocence that becomes the forgiveness of their sins. But even beyond this, He longs to become our Slave even now. He is forever the Father’s willing and happy Slave. Now He longs to serve us as God’s slave. He, who is only and ever the obedient revealer of His Father’s Wisdom, Power, and Love, longs to infuse all men with the Spirit’s liberating Grace. He desires to feed us with God’s Goodness in order to free us from our slavery to sin. He alone is the Slave who knows our need and meets it. He is the Slave whose service alone can conquer and overcome our sinful condition. He alone is the Slave who must become our Master.
Jesus goes where He is sent. He comes to us. Will we allow this Slave to do His work for us? Like all good slaveholders, we don’t think we ought to pay a Slave. But if we would employ this Slave, we shall begin to see God’s love alive in His heart serving us. If we would keep this Slave, we must allow Him to help us where we need Him most. We need Him most in the hard work of conquering our sins. Funnily enough, we need this Slave to become our Master. Jesus is our Slave. The slaveholders of history should have seen Jesus in their earthly slaves. If they had, they would have freed them and thanked them for leading them to God through Jesus! Jesus alone is the true Slave and Master. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) Then we can begin to become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life, and ourselves becoming Slaves to others, following the Commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints.
For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own
eternity. Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and that do hold of his side do find it.
(Wisdom ii. 23-24)
Has it ever occurred to you that Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead was not some immediate and clearly self-evident reality that exploded on to the pages of world history? What I mean is this: in your reading of the Resurrection narratives, has one very important thing jumped out at you and grabbed your attention? That thing being, that the Resurrection was neither expected nor anticipated by those nearest and dearest to Jesus –His Apostles and Disciples? We do not, after all, read that the followers of Jesus, following His crucifixion, spent their time waiting by His tomb for His much-anticipated Resurrection from the dead. Nor do we read that they were running about wondering with excitement if anyone had happened to see or bump into Him. Rather, we read that they were huddled together, behind closed and locked doors, fearing further vengeance that might await them at the hands of the Romans or the Jews on the one hand, and sorrowing bitterly over their own cowardice or betrayal of Jesus on the other. And this, even after Saints Peter, John, and Mary Magdalene had found that Jesus’ tomb was empty! No, they did not expect a Resurrection at all, nor even that such a thing could ever take place, though the burial tomb of their Master was empty. The Magdalene had run to the Apostles, and cried, they have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him. (St. John xx. 2) Saints Peter and John then ran to the tomb, found in it empty, and saw the linen cloths lying there, and the handkerchief that had been around His head, not lying with the linen cloths, but folded together in a place by itself. (St. John xx. 6,7) St. John tells us that then and only then had they begun to believe the women’s accounts, but he tells us also that as yet they did not know the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead…and so they went away again to their own homes. [(Ibid, 9) As Fulton Sheen has written, they had the facts and evidence of the Resurrection; but they did not yet understand its full meaning. (Life of Christ, p. 406) Further confirmation of their ignorance and skepticism is found once again when the Magdalene returns to the empty tomb. We read that she,
… saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (Ibid, 11-17)
Realizing who He was that stood before her, and longing to embrace him, perhaps to protect and then hurry Him off to a secret place where they could hurt Him no more, she is rebuked by the Risen Lord. Touch me not, he commands, for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (St. John xx. 17) Mary, clearly, understood neither the nature nor meaning of Jesus’ Risen nature. That Doubting Thomas would be invited by Jesus, a few days hence, to Reach hither [his] finger, and behold [His] hands; and reach hither [his] hand, and thrust it into [Jesus] side: and be not faithless, but believing, (Ibid, 27), did not make the situation any clearer. A Resurrected Jesus is one thing; what it means is quite another. So, it will take some time –just about forty days to be exact before the Apostles’ faith will come to understand the meaning of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Within that period, He will reveal that He is both body and soul, flesh and spirit, transformed and transfigured to simultaneously eat bread with them on the one hand, and walk through locked doors on the other. He will also, more importantly, reveal that as God’s Word Made Flesh he will leave behind and breathe new life into His Body on earth, the Church. Through this Body, He will be with and in His friends through the Holy Ghost.
I tell you all of this for a few different reasons. First, we should notice that every account of the Resurrection of Christ is honestly recorded and passed on to us just as it happened. We do not find that Christ rose from the dead and that, all of a sudden, the Apostles and friends of Jesus were miraculously enabled to understand what had transpired. There was nothing in it of the miraculous draught of fishes or the feeding of the five thousand. We read rather of ordinary human beings, in every way like you and me, full of confusion, doubt, wonder, fear, and uncertainty. And as the authors of the story do not sugar-coat or romanticize men’s response to Christ’s death, so too they will not spare us their reaction to His rising. From beginning to end we read of an honest account of how His friends responded to His reappearance. In St. Mark’s Gospel we read, even, that [Jesus] appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. (St. Mark xvi. 14) In sum, the Apostles and transcribers of Christ’s Resurrection faithfully record every detail of an event which surprised, confounded, and eventually converted them –men, as it turns out, who slowly moved from unbelief to deep faith.
Second, the authors of the New Testament record something that happened to them, something that they could never have imagined, desired, or deserved. If they had been left to their own understandings and expectations, they would have treated Christ as dead and gone. We read in this morning’s Gospel, however, that, Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst... (St. John xx. 19) The Apostles are astounded, incredulous, confused, and more afraid than ever. How did He get into this room? The doors are sealed tight and locked.
Then this something begins to happen to them. Jesus says to his friends, Peace be unto you. (Ibid, 19) What is this that He is saying? Why does He say it? He speaks to His Apostles, those who abandoned Him, denied Him, foreswore Him, shrunk from Him, forsook Him? To us who now huddle cowardly together ‘fearing the Jews’ and not His God and Our God? (Easter Sermon 1609: Lancelot Andrewes) What is this that is happening? It is certainly nothing that the Apostles could have imagined or invented. In fact, it confounds all of their expectations. Certainly, something is happening to [them]. Something should happen to us also. But what is it? Peace be unto you, Jesus says. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. (Ibid, 20) As Bishop Andrewes remarks, with no hint of revenge, no verbal reproof, not even an unkind word, Jesus says to his Mother and Apostles, You and I are at peace. You and I are friends. Peace be unto you. (Ibid) Something is happening to them. He calls them friends. Peace be unto you. He repeats it twice! He has forgiven them and brings them His Peace. As my Father has sent me, even so send I you. (Ibid, 21) The forgiveness of sins is on the move; He has risen up and out of the grave and is moving out and abroad. Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins. The Apostles are forgiven and now are sent out to spread the Good News to all other men. The forgiveness of sinreconciles men to God. The Peace I now possess, I give be you. Now go, and give it to others. There is no Resurrection without the forgiveness of sins. Offer it always; if it is accepted it will grow. If it is rejected, love and forgive all the more. Forgiveness is the law of Love. It is commanded and not suggested.
The forgiveness of sins is the first key that unlocks the door to the mystery of the Resurrection. We said before that God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity, and that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise, they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery…(Wisdom ii. 23, iii. 1,2) Something is happening to followers of Jesus. The forgiveness of sins has Risen from the Dead and welcomes them into New Life. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 St. John v. 4,5) For, He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (Ibid, 11,12) To live in the Resurrected Christ means to have the Son; to have the Son means to be made new by the forgiveness of sins. To have the forgiveness of sins means to be touched by the Omnipotent Risen Love of God in the Flesh and to begin to find Peace with God and to spread that love and peace to the nations.
What has happened to the Apostles is that they realize that Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins, that the forgiveness of sins is alive and well and necessary for all men’s salvation. All faithful men who receive the forgiveness of sins are born again and anew into it. All men are made to receive it. For Love in the flesh rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. xiii. 6-8) If we receive this Love as the forgiveness of sins, we cannot help but extend it to all others. The is the Word of God’s Love made flesh, Jesus Christ, to be embraced in our hearts and souls. Then, with the poet, we shall sing:
Thus through all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me
As our dear Redeemer said:
This is the Wine and this the Bread.
(Broken Love: William Blake)
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above,
Where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on
Things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life
Is hid with Christ in God.
(Col. 3. 1-3)
There is something rather strange about our Easter Epistle, which was addressed by St. Paul to the Church at Colossae, a small Phrygian city in Asian Minor. Easter Sunday is the first of 40 days. Before He ascended back to the Father, during the period of 40 days, Christ appeared to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to the women, to James and all the Apostles, to some five hundred, and to Stephen prior to his martyrdom. So why does Mother Church have us reading an Epistle that seems to be all about the spiritual relationship that we have with Christ after Pentecost? In it, St. Paul speaks about our relationship with the hidden God. Your life is hid with Christ in God. We haven’t even begun our 40 days of getting used to the Resurrected Christ than the Church turns our minds upward and into the Heavenly realm!
So why are we reading about having our lives hid with Christ in God? For St. Paul, something has happened on the Day of Resurrection that forever changes our lives in relation to God the Father. Jesus Christ is not a mere soul or Spirit. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Article Four of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion states this: Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day. St. Paul believes that Christ indeed died in a natural body and rose a spiritual body. What he means is that Christ raised up the body through which He lived and died and has transfigured it. His soul took back his body, and penetrated it through and through making it spiritual…this spiritual body is transparent, obedient to the Spirit, unconstrained and lightsome…the instrument of the Divine Saviour’s soul. (Mouroux, p. 89) The Risen Christ is, then, a glorified unity of body, soul, and spirit. He is the same Lord who died once for our sins. His Risen Body bears the wounds of His Crucifixion, reminding us that He has borne our sufferings, grief, and sin and brought them to death. But the same wounds remind us of His ongoing love for us, as this spiritual Body that He bears will expand and deepen to include us in His new Resurrected life. But even during the 40 days of His Resurrection He begins to call believers into the new Body that He will share with all who will follow Him. This Body has been raised up with the Father’s Blessing and the Spirit’s power. This spiritual Body is in more than one place at one time. Peter sees Him and then James does also. Magdalene has seen Him and so too have the men walking on the Road to Emmaus. Jesus’ Body is already spiritually greater than what our earthly senses can ever imagine experiencing. It is of such a nature that will ensure that our lives [can be] hid with Christ in God.
Of course, it takes time for the Apostles to realize what is going on. The 40 days are necessary. But in that time what they come to realize is that Christ is calling them to become one with Him in a new way. Christ is now ready to share Himself with them in the way that has enabled Him to conquer sin, death, and Satan and to open to them the Gates of Everlasting Life.
So how can our can our lives be hid with Christ in God? St. Paul reminds us in another place that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more : death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin: but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. vi. 9.) Christ Jesus our Saviour is Risen from the dead. He invites us into that life that is dead to sin. Jesus died at the hands of sinful men and their sin. But He died being dead unto sin. Sin had no claim or power over Him. Christ conquered sin through His obedience to God the Father and because He has always been alive unto God. (Idem) In the Resurrection, Jesus Christ invites us to begin to participate in His obedience to the Father. Christ, even in death, was alive unto God. We were not since with the Jews and Romans and all sinners in all ages, we have killed God’s Word in the flesh -the flesh of Jesus Christ and in our own flesh. We have been dead but now Christ invites us into the New Life that He reconstitutes for us following His crucifixion. So now, we must seek those things which are above. Not above and beyond our reach, but above and beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings, above and beyond what we desire or deserve, above and beyond what we could do for ourselves. And yet not above and beyond what God’s love can and will do for us as Heaven reaches down to earth to lift us up back up into Heaven. Not above and beyond God’s healing touch, His quickening spirit, His ever-present and all-powerful presence, even here and now. But yes, above and within the heart of Jesus, whose Glorified Body and Being are with the Father and also with us at all times and in all places. Yes, above and within Jesus Christ Himself, in whom every aspect of our lives can become a new occasion for our rising up and out of ourselves, mortifying [our] members which are upon earth; [up and out of] our uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…(Col. iii. 5) In our bodies, because in His Risen and Glorified Body because Christ is always in God.In our souls, because in His Risen and Glorified Soul, He (is) in us, and we (are) in Him. Christ is risen from the dead. Sin is finished, death is finished, Satan is finished, if only we shall find our new lives in Him. Our lives are hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3)
And how does He allow us to continue to be hid with Christ in God? Jesus says I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (St. John vi. 51) As He reveals and manifests the truth of His Glorified Flesh on this Easter Sunday, we remember that Christ gives Himself to us as the Bread of Life. Christ’s life is to do the will of the Father. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we believe that we shall begin to partake of that Bread of Life that gives us the power to overcome sin, death, and Satan. Through this Sacrament we come into Communion with Jesus. The Real Presence that He shared with the Apostles on this Day of Resurrection He shares with us also. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we begin to possess eternal life. (1 Cor. xi. 26) Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. (St. John vi. 54-57)
When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we can reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) Being alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord means that our affections, our desires, and our passions shall been set on things above and not things of the earth. Being fed, we can ask the Father to give us His Heavenly Love that forever moves Jesus Christ the Son to free us from all sin and death through the Holy Spirit. Being fed, we can know that Jesus indwells our hearts and souls and is ready at hand to help us in every time of need. The love of God in the Heart of Jesus Christ leads captivity captive (Ephesians iv. 8). We are no longer to live in bondage to sin, death, and Satan. We are assured that our lives are hid with Christ in God because He has overcome them, has set us free, and holds us in His heart in Heaven, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us! (Hebrews vii. 25) Jesus makes intercession for us with the Father in Heaven. He does so from the core of our hearts and souls, if only we believe and receive Him!
On this Day of our New Life, as creatures Resurrected from the Dead, let us begin to live freely and thankfully. On this day may true joy fill our hearts. Let us, therefore, thank and praise our Saviour Jesus Christ this morning for dying for us and for rising for us, and for assuring us that our lives are Hid in Him with God. Let us close by ending with the song of the poet:
MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day,
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin;
And, having harrow’d hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive us to win:
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin;
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin,
May live forever in felicity!
And that Thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love Thee for the same againe;
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy,
With love may one another entertayne!
So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought,
–Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.
Edmund Spenser “Easter Sonnet”.
Forgiveness of sin must deal with sin as it affects the human personality.
It is not enough that the debt should be paid, the trespass forgiven,
and the transgression pardoned; the debtor, the trespasser, the
transgressor must be freed from that within him that is the source of
his evil actions, and his forgiveness is not complete until he has
obtained this freedom and lives in the liberty of righteousness.
(The Christian Year in the Times of London, p. 92)
So writes the anonymous author of the Sunday Sermons written for The Times of London in 1930. I believe that the thoughts expressed here are particularly helpful, I think, for those of us who find ourselves trying to be Christians on this Good Friday. Today we come to the Cross and witness the suffering death of the Saviour of the world, the Son of God, Jesus Christ and we are given the opportunity to reflect upon what it all means for each and every one of us. Or, to put it another way, the facts of Christ’s offering, sacrificial death, and atonement must belong to us and we must belong to it all if we hope to be saved. The Cross is the place where the Son of God defeats sin, death, and Satan for us. The Cross is the place where God in Man recreates us all as the New Adam offers the New Pattern of human existence to all who would follow Him home to God. But our place in this scheme of salvation and redemption involves the forgiveness of sins.
And as our writer reminds us, the forgiveness of sins is really as good as useless unless it is something that is being received always by earnest pilgrims who desire to journey out of sin and wickedness and into virtue and holiness. Now, these days, to most people sin and wickedness are outdated categories that reveal an obsession with morbid, the grim, the gruesome, and the pessimistic, or what combine to lead only to melancholy and sadness. But for the Christian the discovery of sin and wickedness within the soul reveals the true state and character of man’s life without God. Anu sane searcher or seeker who has the courage to do so, looks within himself to find those things that stand between himself and God. What the Christian finds are those persistently present selfish and narcissistic hindrances, limitations, shortcomings, and temptations that war against the good of the soul. Christ’s death has conquered these sins. Christ’s death is now the seedbed of the righteousness that can grow up in their place. The forgiveness of sins for the Christian is the bedrock of hope, the impetus for change, and the catalyst for a better life that can begin here and now and end in eternal friendship with God. That we are forgiven because Jesus Christ died for us, once and for all, reveals to us that God loves us with a love that longs to love us out of sin. When we receive that love, we shall begin to love Him with a love that carries us into His Kingdom. The Love is all God’s. It is ours for the accepting or the rejecting. So the forgiveness of sins for the Christian is the beginning of the new life, the vita nuova, as Dante terms it, where existence here and now becomes the occasion and opportunity for conversion and transformation, and for sanctification and redemption.
As we reflect upon the forgiveness of sins made flesh in Jesus Christ, let us begin to allow its truest force, power, and efficacy hold a mighty sway over our souls and bodies. Let us see that sin attempted to kill God’s truth, beauty, and goodness, His wisdom, power, and love in the flesh of Jesus Christ long ago. Let us see also that sin attempts to kill the same in us today. But the forgiveness of sins provides us with a way into the new life. For with the forgiveness of sins we are encouraged to discover freedom from the true origin and cause of evil within us. To be sure, this does not happen overnight. God knows this and is patient and longsuffering as we discover the evil and offer it up to him for death and annihilation. We must begin with the sins that are most obvious, accessible, and discernible to our senses. These are what we find externally and visibly in words and works, reactions and responses, or what are expressed instinctively and impulsively. But then, with the light of the Holy Spirit, we can trace them back to their causes and reasons. What moves us to say and do what we say and do find their instigation and inspiration within our souls. Something other than God’s Holy Spirit grips, holds, and defines what comes out of our mouths and into our lives. From these inner birds of prey that would devour our spiritual desire, from these inner unclean beasts that would trample down the plantation of God’s Grace in our hearts, we seek freedom. (B. Jenks) And with the help of God’s Grace, because He is always forgiving us through His Son, if we persevere and persist in the pursuit of God’s love, we shall find freedom in that holiness and righteousness that leads to His kingdom.
We thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has died to sin, death, and Satan for us. Today, we thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has died to himself in order to become the one full, complete, perfect sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Today, we thank God that our Lord Jesus Christ has brought our old man, our old human nature, our old Adam to death, that we might begin to become very members incorporate in the life of the New Man, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, who will conquer all manner sin and death in our lives. The forgiveness of sins has been made flesh for us on Calvary’s Tree of New Life. Let us receive this forgiveness of sins so that the hard work of redemption and perfection in us might begin, and that we may no longer overcome evil with evil, but evil with goodness, the goodness of God that longs to bring us from death into life.
Today, Jesus invites us into His death. We pray that the all sufficient merits of Christ’s death might be imparted to us as we receive the Sacrament reserved from last evening’s service. We pray that today we may participate in the meritorious effects of Christ’s death and might thereby find the seed of God’s Omnipotent Love planted in our hearts. That seed will grow, expand, and rise up with Jesus on the Morn of the Glorious Resurrection.
Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me,
except it were given thee from above:
therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.
(St. John xix. 11)
Good Friday is all about the best and the worst that man can do to God and his fellow man. I say that man can do, and what I mean is what he can do without God’s Grace and eternal love making it something different. Think about it. The best that the ancient Romans thought that they could do was to build a human city based on principles and ideas which could imitate what they knew of God. So what they came up with a human translation of God’s law and order that could civilize and ensure peace and prosperity for the human world. The Romans thought that they had come up with the best version of Plato’s Republic that man’s wisdom could create. And over and against them, the Jews basically came up with the same solution. What the Romans discovered about God through science and philosophy, the Jews found through Revelation. In both cases, each group learned that man could come closest to God through the formulation and administration of law and order. The Romans thought that this law was to be enforced best through Caesar, while the Jews claimed that their chief priests and elders were better equipped to administer it. For both, God was so radically unlike man, so perfectly set over and against a frail and uncertain world, that the best way for man to imitate God was to impose order and discipline on otherwise chaotic, ungovernable, immature, and unenlightened peoples.
But what happens if two interpretations of the same basic law come into conflict? In other words, what happens if Caesar’s law and the law of the Jews find themselves at odds with one another? Well, either one triumphs over the other, or the two find a common cause. The latter pertains to today’s decision to crucify Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate is determined to maintain the Roman Peace, and so out of fear, he will allow Jesus Christ to be crucified. The Jews will demand Jesus’ crucifixion out of envy and jealousy for one who claims that their Law is powerless. In both cases, God is kept at a safe distance, translated and diluted into human law and its expectations of good and evil, This is much safer than allowing One to live who claims to be God’s Word made flesh and dwells among us.
Yet what we must realize is that the best that man can do is the best that fallen man or sinful man can do. What the Romans discovered and what the ancient Jews received was born out of sinful man’s alienation and exile from God. And the worst thing that sin can do is to settle for an earthly peace because it has failed to hope in God’s Heavenly Solution! So the worst that sinful man can do is the best that he can do if he surrenders to his fallen nature. This is why Jesus says to Pilate that he would have no power or authority to torture and kill him if this power had not been given to him from God.Pilate will be, unknown to himself, an unwitting instrument in the salvation of the world. So too will the Jewish chief priests and elders. Their sins are no less sins, but they will reveal to the world both the nature of sin and God’s response to it in Jesus Christ’s suffering and death. Sin at its worst mocks, derides, taunts, mocks, provokes, tempts, tortures and tries to beat God’s Word of love out of the world he made, and most specifically out of human flesh through which He has come to redeem it. The true sin is to despair of God’s power to speak his Word through the heart of Jesus Christ. And Jesus accepts that this is the best that sinful man can do. And far from taking this best and making it worse, He makes it better. Sinful man will do his best and, in the end, he will find that his best must end in death.
And yet even here the best that ends in death is already becoming something that smacks much more of life and love. The Author of The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that the law is a shadow of good things to come. Roman Law and Jewish Law, though unbeknownst to their enforcers, comprise the shadow of a good thing that is coming to pass before our very eyes this day. Jesus takes every element that works its way into His unjust and unmerited death and makes it good. His death will become good, and everyone and everything that has worked against His life will be counted as necessary and good for the salvation of the whole world. For both then and now Jesus of Nazareth refuses to see this day as anything but Good. The old Romans and Jews thought that they had to sacrifice bulls and goats repeatedly to placate the gods or God respectively. That they had to keep repeating them shows us that their value was temporary and impermanent. Jesus speaks to His Father and says: Sacrifice and Offering thou wouldest not, but a Body thou has prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God. (Hebrews x: 5-7) On this day he will defy the arrogance of man’s philosophical conclusion that God is divided from man and man from God, or that God is limited and so is man. On this day he overcomes all division between God and man through the Body of His Death. On this day Jesus shows us that man may reject God the Father, but God the Father never rejects man. So, the Word of the Father’s Love persists to the very end, alive in the heart of the Crucified One, who from throne of his Cross blesses, sanctifies, and consecrates sin, suffering, and death into the incessant flow of God’s desire for man’s salvation. He blesses man’s rejection of God’s Word of Love in His heart. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 24) He welcomes the repentant sinner and criminal, forgives him, and says Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) He says to the human instruments of sin and death, I love you, I made you, bless you, repent and believe, our journey continues. Identifying with the near desperation and despair of man who thinks he is loveless, friendless, and without hope, as God’s love always does, He even cries, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) God’s Word of Love, in the heart of Jesus, reaches out to touch and redeem the pain, agony, and suffering of all men who do not yet know God. He is indeed dying, but still He is loving and giving. He says to His heart-broken, confused, tortured Mother, held in the arms of the disciple whom he loved…Woman behold thy Son.(St. John xix. 26) And then to John the disciple, Behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 27) To both he says, continue to follow me; behold I make all things new. (Rev. xxi. 5) In the last moments of His earthly life, He whispers, I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) He was given a sip of Roman wine, He drank it, no doubt most grateful to the Roman soldier who offered it. One last sip of the wine He had, after all, made, and which was another good thing that He would bless into the service of His needful agony, pain, and suffering death!
So Jesus will give up the ghost, He will die. It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Father, into thy hands I commend my Spirit. (St. Luke xxiii. 46) St. Mark and St. Matthew tell us that a pagan centurion, perhaps the one who offered Jesus the wine, or the one who lunged a spear through his side to ensure that He was dead, transfixed and beginning to be transformed, confesses, Truly this was the Son of God (St. Matthew xxvii. 54; St. Mark xv. 39) To be sure there was death. But in the midst of the death there was not only a persistent life, but divine compassion, supernatural mercy, godly kindness, and the kind of love that had been lifted up, that stood above, that towered over anything the world had known before, during, or would find after this day was done.
Jesus dies by the which we are sanctified through the offering of the Body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Ibid, 10) Jesus will rise. Jesus will ascend. But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God; From henceforth expecting till His enemies be made His footstool. And He will not stop there. He sends to us the Holy Ghost that He might live on in us and we in Him. Whereof the Holy Ghost is also a witness to us; for after that He had said before, This is the Covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my Law into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities I will remember no more. (Ibid, 16)
The Law is made Good. The Law is now God’s Holiness and Righteousness which shall be put into our hearts. The Law demands no sacrifices. The Law is written into our hearts with the Blood of Jesus.
Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.
The prophet urges us to return to the God of our salvation today. God is jealous over His people, Jews and Gentiles alike, for He has made them and they are His own. God is a God of justice and righteousness. He comes to His people and if His people depart from them he punishes, disciplines, and corrects them. Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; He hath smitten, and he will bind us up. (Hosea vi. 1) His medicine is difficult to digest. The flesh of His only-begotten Son has been torn in order to heal us. He smites the Shepherd and the Sheep are scattered. But He will draw us into His sheepfold again. He will bind up the wounds of our sinful state once we confess our guilt. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight. He will begin to awaken us out of our sinful death in order to make us alive once again. He shall raise us up in Jesus and we shall live in His sight once again. Tonight, we shall be buried. But beyond this night of death we shall have life, and have it more abundantly.
Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.
Not only shall we live but the nature and quality of our lives shall be transformed. He shall come to us like the rising Sun intent upon cultivating and growing the seed of His Word in the soil of our souls. The rays of His sun shall generate new life in us. But they shall combine with the rains that germinate and fructify the seed that is made to be perfected. So He shall perfect His image and likeness in us. The latter rain brings us into death to sin. The former rain is the original rain of the Creation now made new in the coming times of Pentecost.
And despite this truth, God cries out unto us this night because of our insouciance and negligence:
O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.
Why do we backslide so continuously? Why do we fail to multiply the talents that God has given to us and rather bury them so that they might remain dead? Why do we fail to labor while it is light? Why is seed of God’s Word choked in the soil of our soils by the cares and riches of this world? God plants a good seed in us and yet we neglect, ignore, and leave it to perish. We live in an age of too much material comfort and ease. We are smothered by the false gods of mammon.
We say that we do not love money, but we are absolutely dependent upon it in ways that would shock and appall our forefathers.
Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and my judgments are as the light that goeth forth.
We must begin to awaken to ourselves. Some years ago, Sidney Lanier Wrote had this for the famous men of all times:
Full bright ye shine, insuperable stars;
Yet, if a man look hard upon you, none
With total lustre blazeth, no, not one
But hath some heinous freckle of the flesh
Upon his shining cheek, not one but winks
His ray, opaqued with intermittent mist
Of defect; yea, you masters all must ask
Some sweet forgiveness, which we leap to give,
We lovers of you, heavenly-glad to meet
Your largesse so with love, and interplight
Your geniuses with our mortalities.
Most men know, deep down, that they are sinners and that they need the forgiveness of their sins. No man blazes with a total lustre. Every man has some heinous freckle upon his shining cheek. The mist of defect characterizes us all. Ony arrogance and insecurity prevent man’s admission of it. We must pray that their souls will be broken open and felt truly. We must pray for our own self-conscious unholiness. We must pray that we too will need God, need His Son, and need His Son’s Death so that we might find the new life that leads home to our Heavenly Father.
If we shall not go to Christ’s cross to die and be made alive, we shall have judged that Christ is not God’s Word made Flesh who shall judge us. Moses and the prophets shall condemn us with God’s Word.
If we not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will we be persuaded though one rose from the dead. For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me.
Jesus Christ is God’s Wisdom and Love for us made flesh. God desires our salvation and reconciliation with Himself. Jesus the Son knows what He must willingly do to make this possibility real for all of us. To discover the need for the forgiveness of sins will bring us into the reception of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. Knowledge of God yields confession of our sin and guilt.
Our good works avail us nothing. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to His own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all. (Is. liii. 6) But Jesus knows this very fact. This is why He dies for us. He takes on our sin and even faces it in the innermost reaches of His Being. He brings it and death to death. He conquers Satan and forever relegates him to the realm of absurdity and meaninglessness…if only we shall accept this gift of Christ’s loving death. Jesus dies for us. And yet He lives. The pattern and model of the way back to the Father begins today, in death, the One Death, Jesus Christ’s Death. This is the day on which Death is transformed and redeemed. Death now is a moment. Death is a moment, in Jesus, on the way back to God’s Kingdom.
He riseth up from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel and girded himself.
Tonight you and I are invited to the last supper of Christ. With the Apostles, we move into a realm that is fraught with the fear and trembling of Jesus’ friends, who do not understand the meaning of it all and what will come next. For the Apostles have been following Jesus for some three years, and they have experienced the hand of God extended to them and others through the life of Jesus. In a sense there was so much to be thankful for, so many wonders and miracles, so many beautiful teachings and sayings, so much that seemed so very positive. But there were also the ominous words of gloom impending, frightful prophecies, and terror striking promises. Perhaps if the Apostles were anything like you and me they might have forgotten or chosen to ignore the negative in Jesus –what was not yet known, and so misunderstood. Surely what was coming would not be all that bad. It couldn’t be as grim as He suggested. Perhaps Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, would be able to work some miracle and wonder in order to lessen the blunt of the prophesied gloom.
But what we observe tonight cannot be disconnected or severed from the complete and total fabric which we call the life of Jesus Christ. The signs and the wonders had been performed in order to point to deeper faith in a more certain union with God that is about to unfold before our very eyes. The power of God is with and in Jesus. It has generated all goodness and must endure all evil. The whole fabric of Jesus’ life- the meaning of His presence, begins to draw us towards its fullest manifestation in the Cross of Good Friday. Jesus and the Father are always in union and Communion. He has been tempted to reject his Father’s will and way, but thus far has rejected all of its illusory power. God’s Grace defines every moment of Jesus’ mission. God’s desire will unfold in every act of His free choosing. The Father desires the Son, and the Son desires, always, to please the Father. The intention of the two is one passion for man’s redemption. Through Jesus, God has spoken his words of promise. Through Jesus, God has revealed His work of salvation. Through Jesus, God is never far away and distant, but rather always present, with patience and determination, fulfilling his Word. His power in Jesus has opened the eyes of the blind, unloosed the tongues of the dumb and mute, freed the lame legs of crippled men to walk. His wisdom has been expressed in parables and illustrations that drew men deeper into the meaning of His Word. God’s omnipresence has never been denied by Jesus, and that reality persists into the drama of this night.
Tonight’s celebration marks the Last Supper that Jesus will share with His Apostles and us. Christ has eaten a Passover supper with his friends. He has broken bread and poured out wine, offered it to his friends, and promised that they would become His Body and his Blood. What was meant on that night was hidden and unclear to the Apostles. The understanding and meaning must come later. What Jesus did and said, He offered as a friend and brother. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (St. John xv. 14, 15)
Bread is broken; wine is poured out. Tomorrow a Body will be broken and Blood will be shared. The two will not be, in the end, divided, but one will be made into the other as God’s love in Christ expands. Tonight the Body –soon to be broken into and pierced, stoops down to wash and to cleanse the dirty feet of His disciples. With God always present, Christ Jesus reveals to us that God has forever stooped down from Heaven to wash, cleanse, and heal His people. God in Jesus Christ is the servant of His friends, the one who stoops down from the Heaven of his Father to wash, cleanse, and save. In the today of tonight’s Gospel, Jesus waits upon His friends. Tomorrow, He will do the same, in another form. He is the servant who comes to wash and to cleanse, today with water and wine, and tomorrow with blood. Both will be one. We are washed through water and blood. We are purified through Baptism and Eucharist. The today and tomorrow of God with us and for us, God near to us in Jesus, is but one revelation coming from the loving heart of God and shown forth in the real human life of Jesus Christ. Tonight seems rather ominous. Tomorrow will be disturbing and yet wholly Good!
But there is more that we should see and grasp as we move through the drama of the Last Supper and Good Friday. What Jesus does is who He is. Jesus is the Desire and Love of God the Father made flesh. What Jesus does and who He is, is what He intends for us to become. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet…These things I command you, that ye love one another. (St. John xiii. 14, xv. 17) He will give us bread and wine and will wash men’s dirty feet. He will give us His Body and Blood and will wash the dirty feet of our souls. He must do this, that we might be strengthened and nourished, and then transformed and redeemed by His presence in the inner man. Too many Christiansforget that they need the Body and Blood of Jesus as food for men wayfaring en route to Heaven!
On this night we share in the Apostles’ unknowing and wonder. We do not yet know and have what Christ will give to us- either in fact or in its true meaning. He does what he does, and we have no part of him if he does it not. Jesus comes to wash our feet, and, with Peter, we react with horrified surprise and proud resistance. Lord, thou shalt never wash my feet. (St. John xiii. 8) Our instinct thinks it wrong that God the Almighty should stoop down, serve, and wash us. We sense that the Holy One of God should never be contaminated by our sinfulness. God is high, we are low; the Master should never condescend to the slave. Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. (St. Luke v. 8) Jesus answers, If I do not wash thee, thou hast no part with me. (Ibid) In the today of God’s nearness we learn that God stoops down from heaven to wash our dirty feet, the dirty feet of our souls.
The God of this today, is the very God who has never left, forsaken, or abandoned his people. The God of today is approaching, one who knocks at the doors of our souls and bodies in order to make all things new. The God of today is the God we need always more than all else. If He does not wash us, if He does not die for us, if He does not rise for us, then we can have no part in the salvation that he offers.
But we do need him. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today for us is seen in Jesus who washes the disciples’ feet. The outward and visible sign of God’s today for us is seen in Jesus who dies for His friends. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Mark x. 45) Will we allow Jesus to wash and to cleanse us? Will we realize that God’s stooping down in Jesus Christ is nothing short of bearing our burden, taking on our sinful predicament and condition? Will we begin to understand that God alone in Jesus Christ can assume and endure our sinful pride, envy, wrath, murder, sloth, indifference, greed, lust, and so forth? Will our eyes be opened to the fact that our sin has willed His death? For sin is nothing other than the will to silence and kill God’s Word and Will in time and space, to refuse His presence, to resist His power, to banish His love, to ignore His wisdom. Sin, in other words, refuses to imagine that every man’s heart can be softened, his life changed, a sinner can be saved, and an exile welcomed home as a long-lost, prodigal son. Will we begin to realize that God in Christ must die to sin and at the hands of sin, die for sin, and in the miraculous operation of the Divine Omnipotence bring sin, death, and Satan to an end once and for all? Will we begin to see that His death is the only pure and perfect posture of self-abnegation, humility, and obedience that can conquer sin with the Father’s power in Jesus’ human heart? Will we start to realize that He invites us into His death so that the Redemptive Power might take root between the bone and the marrow?
Many rejected God in Jesus Christ long ago and they do so today. And, yet, Jesus still desires as the Desire of God’s Word and in the Spirit of the Father’s Love. Tomorrow, this same Lord, in His own body hanging upon a tree, will say this: I love you and forgive you. Come follow me. I die and you will die. I will rise and so shall you. Come follow me. You can become Members of My Body. My Spirit will enliven and quicken you. My life and my love I offer to you, always and everywhere, ever broadening, ever expanding. God’s love for you in me. Your love for God in me. Come follow me, and you shall find true life. Come follow me, and you shall find true love. Come follow me, and you shall find your true home and destiny, ‘ a kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’ (St. Matthew xxv. 34) Come follow me, and through you, others will follow as they find the One Love, the One Wisdom,and the One Power that forever and forever ‘makes all things new.’
And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
There is a good deal of quiet that is meant to surround us as a response to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Son of God during Holy Week. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in quiet stillness. If we approach this time with the quiet concentration that it commands, we will, no doubt, find that it assaults and confounds our human reason, as it wrenches our hearts from the fulfillment of their usual desires. But if we sustain the stillness, and with a silent mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, a reassuring blanket of divine quiet might begin to warm the soul this week, enveloping it with the Word that desires to be made flesh in us so that we might journey with Jesus from death to new life.
In the lections for today, we already begin to observe the truth that will emerge from the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of commotion. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, wants a different kind of quiet than what we are in search of. He is more than a little bit irritated by the chaos and confusion caused by Jesus of Nazareth’s entry into Jerusalem on what should have been just another Friday afternoon in a relatively insignificant outpost of Caesar’s Empire. He seems to be what one might imagine a Roman governor should be in one of the provinces of Augustus Caesar’s expansive Empire -prudent, Stoical, but firm. He does not seem to be impressed by the religion of the local Jewish Aristocracy, which has stirred up the people of Jerusalem against this Jesus of Nazareth. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian, that has successfully brought law, order, and prosperity to the then civilized world. Earthly calm and peace comprise his vocation. The chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor. (St. Matthew xxvii. 1) The Jews have told Pilate, according to St. Luke that they had found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a King. (St. Luke xxiii. 2) Pilate needs just cause. He asks Jesus, Art thou the King of the Jews? (Ibid, 11) Jesus answers, So you say. (Ibid, 12) Pilate is wholly skeptical. If the accused has not violated the law or given just cause for unrest, he is bound by Roman Law to release him. So, he will aim at reestablishing order. In the service of Roman Law, he will allow the Jews to judge Christ themselves, or send Him to Herod. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Needless to say, none of this works. To complicate matters, another kind of deafening quiet and silence is found in this Jesus of Nazareth. It will be so unsettling that Pilate marvels greatly. (Ibid, 14) For Pilate knows that out of envy the Jews have delivered Jesus up. And their jealousy threatens the Pax Romana. The city’s peace must be maintained. Caesar’s rule cannot be questioned. Pilate’s wife will tell him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19) and in a sense, he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus crucified. Pilate demands quiet and then finds himself drawn into the noisome conflict: Why, what evil hath he done?(Ibid, 23) Pilate will exclaim. The Jews are not interested in facts. When a people hates a man they will invent all manner of exaggerated malicious lies to destroy him. They want blood. Let Him be crucified, they cry. So, in response to that determined envy that promises only to breed further chaos and anarchy, we shall read that, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (Ibid, 24) The Pax Romana is asserted. The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25)
Pilate will believe that he has rid the world of Jesus Christ for political expedience. The Jews’ hatred of Him will be quenched. Even the disappearance of His Apostles into hiding seems promising for the silence and stillness of the Roman Peace. The problem seems to have been solved quickly and satisfactorily. The greater silence and stillness in Christ’s heart that ensure His obedience to the Father have not, as yet, startled and triggered others into consciousness of what is really happening. From the firm core or His established determination, His mission and meaning have not yet found fertile ground in men’s souls. So, the external chaos of this week will drive them into the world of madness, fear, and desperation. Then saith Jesus unto them, All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew 26.31) God’s own Good Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, it would appear, is rejected on a number of different levels, and for a variety of reasons. Men always find ample justification for doing away with and killing Jesus Christ.
But for a few others, the solid quiet of the dying Son of God will begin to move the ground of their souls. From the still and silent center of His obedience to the Father, this Jesus of Nazareth will begin to turn a world full of lunatics on its head. Christ the Word will be heard and heeded, slowly, even imperceptibly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now as the world and its words assault and kill the human Jesus, the Word of God persists and endures in order to speak from the quiet of His dying heart. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ is always dying to Himself and coming alive to the Father for the world. He did not cease to do so, especially when He will be most tempted to through His earthly suffering and death. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers himself to God and man by laying down His life in death so that all might live.
This morning, with St. Paul, we remember that though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ’s silence and stillness in suffering and death are the centrifugal points around which His mission of service is perfected. Here, He does not desperately pry into the secrets of His Father’s will and plan. He is content to humbly obey. Rather, He prefers to die so that the Father’s will might be realized in Him for all other men. He will become the new Man, the Second Adam, who once again is happily free because, in silence and stillness, He joyfully obeys and fulfills the Father’s desire. He knows that only from that quiet center of His heart can He die to Himself so that the Father’s plan and purpose will emerge into new life.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. The world around us is certainly stirred up. But the Word of God in Jesus Christ looks at us with the same quiet determination to share with us the merits of His obedience to the Father. Pilate marveled, the world around us marvels, but we must remain constant and determined. We are going up to the Cross, together, come what may. If we should become sick on our journey up to Jesus’ Cross, so be it. We have opportunity to gather together each day of this Holy Week to do what the Church has always done, especially during times of plague, pestilence, and warfare. To be sure, we are not throwing caution to the wind. Rather, we take our precautions and come together to partake of that food and medicine that, of all things, is sure to see us through this life and on to the next with healthy souls. The Body and Blood of Jesus are far more powerful than any disease or threat…if only we believe.
On this Palm Sunday, we hear Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Next, we hear, Crucify Him, Crucify Him. In the quiet of today, let us remember that Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53. 4-6)
Some years back Fulton Sheen described the fear that prevented Pilate from believing Jesus. He wrote:
“The terror of Tiberius [Caesar] seemed more real to Pilate than the denying of justice to Christ. But in the end, those who fear men rather than God lose that which they hoped men would preserve for them. Pilate was later deposed by the Roman Emperor on a complaint by the Jews — another instance of men being punished by the very instruments in which they confided.”
The terror of this so-called pandemic seems more real to most men than denying justice to Jesus or giving Him His due. What is due to Him is our obedience and faith and love. We are called to do what He has asked us to do. We are called to come together, to give thanks, break bread and pour out wine. We believe that in the quiet of this Holy Communion we shall eat His Body and drink His Blood. We believe that we need His Body and His Blood more than bodily health and earthly cures. We believe that from His quiet stillness, He lovingly longs to give this to us as the only medicine that can cure us of what most ails us. What most ails us is sin. And if we are not cured of that, then we shall be so sick that we might very well go right into Hell, Chinese Flu or not. No Cross, No Crown.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: