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 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 forgiveness of all others, hope for their salvation, intercession from them, and then, of course, the usual acts of kindness, compassion, pity, and mercy that are second nature to the Christians who are grafted into the life of the Crucified One. Did I say the Crucified One? Of course. Our Resurrected, Ascended, Glorified Lord Jesus is nothing if the Father doesn’t see us through the Whole Glorified Christ, through His Wounded Hands, Feet, and Side.
So, I begin our sermon, with a dire warning that our return to God will be through Jesus Christ, the Crucified Wounded Healer. It will not be 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, gentle herdsman of tender lambs. And while this might be true for Hallmark and the Mormons, in another way it reveals a superficial, half-baked, and even diabolical version of Jesus Christ.
Christ, the Crucified One is indeed the Good Shepherd but His goodness is offered to His sheep with conditions. As we become His sheep, the censorious and demanding character of Jesus the Good Shepherd will become clearer to us. What the sheep of Christ look like and what the Good Shepherd expects 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 the general impression is 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 that if they consecrate it more faithfully to Jesus the Good Shepherd, they will abide in Christ more securely as they make their way to the Kingdom.
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 but 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 an heathen and so his chief interest in not with social and political 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 injustice and tyranny 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 fear-driven cowardice and powerlessness in the fact 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 chained to other men. Here was he who was shackled and enslaved to his own terror, pusillanimity, and impotence. He responded to evil by retreating into his own sin. 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 betrayal. 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 as one who has received the forgiveness of sins made flesh in His Master, Jesus Christ. Christ has forgiven him who once was the slave of sin and now He calls him into the new life of the Resurrection. Now, Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters. 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 he 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. Both Peter and earthly slaves are now invited into true spiritual liberation through Christ who is the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection and 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 evangelists for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. What they can reveal is that they are the free 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 unfaithfulness and cowardice. True freedom lies in obedience to God and not to men.
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 the Good Shepherd’s transformative love must be embraced by all kinds of sinners.
St. Peter shows us that all men are sinners who 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 is the Slave who is employed wholly 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 Spirit can become a true Slave to their condition, [in making] Him to become sin for us to break its chains through the perfect power of the the forgiveness of their sins.
Jesus Christ is forever the Father’s willing Servant who longs to become our Slave even now through the Holy Spirit. He who is wholly subservient, obedient, and docile to the Father’s will knows that He must find and save us. He will become menially malleable to our spiritual welfare and good. He longs to be the Slave who alone shares the Spirit of His suffering death with all of us so that we might overcome the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Jesus goes where He is sent. Will we allow this Slave find us lost sheep? Most earthly slaves try to run away. This Slave searches us out. We must first allow this Slave to find us. Of course, we had better realize that this Slave finds us because He does what we cannot do for ourselves. We are, after all, lost sheep. Unless and until we know ourselves as lost sheep, Jesus Christ is of no use to us. This is the hardest part of Christianity for post-modern man. Supposedly free, post-modern man is the slave to his own overly confident and superficial understanding of Jesus Christ. He laid down His life for us in order to conquer sin, death, and Satan, supposed orthodox Christians proclaim ad nauseum. But will we allow this Slave must become our Master? If He is to become our Slave and Master, we shall see that He also is the Good Shepherd who can help us to endure grief, suffer wrongfully…and patiently be buffeted for the good. (Idem) We become His sheep, following the blessed steps of His most holy life,becoming Slaves to others, loving our neighbors as ourselves, with St. Peter and all the Saints, only when His Spirit of Death has conquered sin, death, and Satan in us.
As my Father has sent me, so send I you. (St. John xx. 21)
You and I have just emerged from a rigorous Holy Week and Easter when we tried to walk with Jesus Christ through His Passion and into His Resurrection. I pray that we have striven to move from Death into New life. Now how do we move from Death into New Life? First, we meditated upon the external and visible events that comprised the last days of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were contemplated with a view to acquire a vision of Christ’s Victory over sin, death, and Satan. Second, those same events began to affect our inward and invisible natures, as His death became our Death, and His offer of Resurrection the seedbed of that New Life in Him that leads us to Heaven. Having confessed that I it was denied thee, I crucified thee (Ah Holy Jesus), I pray that our souls began to open to Christ’s response to us as the forgiveness of sins and His persistence in pursuing our salvation beyond the grave. I pray that we have begun to receive this Divine Love, which alone can make us into members of the Body of Christ and children of His Resurrection.
We must beware of treating Jesus of Nazareth like a dead hero or a mere remnant of history or one who said and did good things for His own generation but has been rendered irrelevant and obsolete in ours. G.K. Chesterton noted this tendency, even within the churches, when he said, Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you anymore. (The Everlasting Man) Imagine the sense of loss that every student has felt with the death of a great mentor. The student finds himself at a crossroads, for a stellar mind is gone and his voice is silenced. Chesterton continues: Imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. (Ibid) Think about what it would be like to have your favorite writer or thinker back from the dead to help you to interpret this mad, mad world that we inhabit.
Perhaps this is not unlike what the Apostles were thinking when they began to mourn Jesus’ death after the Crucifixion. Why, if only He were here, they must have thought. And yet when He was here, men were determined to ruin Him. Would it be any different? So they mused on the might-have-beens. Then they remembered that they too had abandoned, forsaken, denied, and betrayed Him. For now, they were assembled behind the doors for fear of the Jews, (St. John xx. 19) precisely because they feared what guilt by association might mean for them now. Yes, the Apostles were afraid, troubled in conscience, trembling at what the enemies of Jesus might be plotting. Their faith was weak, their hopes were confused, and even their desire for His return might have been half-hearted.
And then, despite themselves, their Beloved Master returns. Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He shewed them His hands and His side.(St. John xx. 20) Their Master and Mentor has returned, and as the scales begin to fall from their eyes slowly, they begin to recognize Him. The vision of their faith is weak and fragile but grows and strengthens. He shows them His hands and His side to confirm their faith in Him, that they might not have it by hearsay only, but might themselves be eyewitnesses of His being alive. (M. Henry) He comes to them alone and does not appear to the whole of mankind. He does not reveal Himself to His enemies and He does not reveal Himself to those who had no interest in God or the salvation He has promised to bring. As St. Peter will recall a bit later, Him God raised up the third day, and showed Him openly; not to all of the people, but unto witnesses chosen before God, even to us who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead. (Acts x. 40,41) An event of supernatural making presents itself to them. The Apostles are baffled, bewildered, perplexed, puzzled, and flummoxed. Those who fled the Cross wondered: Did He truly die? Perhaps, in the end, He was spared; we did not see with our own eyes. Others might have thought: This is an optical illusion. Perhaps He was never a true man and that even now He is nothing but a Spirit. And if it will take time to convert His Apostles, there is no small wonder that He did not appear to the chief priests and people.
For forty days Jesus will teach His friends about the great mystery of the New Life, the Vita Nuova. He will teach them about how His coming was prefigured in the Old Testament and that He is its fulfillment in the New. He will teach them about the nature of the New Life that He brings to them, and, most importantly, that the first principle of that life is the forgiveness of sins that He embodies. He will show them that without His suffering and death there could be no new life. For the new life that He brings into the world is perfect forgiveness that alone can overcome the grip of evil through love. His love will draw the new life out of them as His Holy Spirit enables them to be forgiven and to forgive. Suffering and death will begin to be consecrated as essential spiritual moments in the soul’s journey back to God. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you….If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18-20)
Peace be unto you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you; and He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive the Holy Ghost.(St. John xx. 21-23) The Word made flesh is with them, and He calls them into His Service once and for all. He breathes His Word into them and they begin to become living members of His Resurrected Body. He has laid down His life for them, and now He gives it back to them transfigured and glorified. These He restores, comforts, warns, and inspires. (Newman, Witnesses of Resurrection, 184) The onslaught of fear and the cloud of confusion recede into the past as He invites them into the New Life slowly and methodically, as their faith grows.
So, the Apostles begin to live the New Life. Christ is the vine and they the branches. As Chesterton says, What the Apostles were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener, God walked again in the garden, not in the cool of the evening, but at dawn. (The Everlasting Man) The Apostles’ mental unrest and uncertainty flee. The Master has returned as He had promised and is now teaching them how to live the New Life in the garden of a New Creation. Their faith in Him grows into New Life with new meaning, where Christ the Vine God holds, supports, nourishes, and strengthens the branches of His redemption.
In this joyful Eastertide, Jesus Christ calls us into the New Life. St. John tells us this morning, Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is He that overcometh the world, but He that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?(1 John v. 4,5) What the Apostles begin to see is that our faith in Jesus Christ yields the victory that overcomes the world. They see that This [Jesus is He] that came by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water and the blood.(1 John v. 6) The Spirit brings into our remembrance that Jesus came by water and blood. (Idem) Inwardly we are polluted and fallen and our flesh needs the healing waters of Holy Baptism. From the world, the flesh, and the devil we meet resistance in the ongoing journey to the Kingdom and thus must be nourished and fortified by the Blood of Christ. The Spirit has raised up the One who has come by water and blood. The Spirit has raised up the One who calls all from death into His New Life. The Spirit enlivens the One who will be the Vine that holds and nourishes us with water and blood. Through the waters of Baptism, His Spirit will grow branches that will bear fruit. The Spirit will cultivate and grow God’s Word in the soul with the vivifying blood that flowers and blossoms into the fruits of righteousness. The Blood of the Eucharist will drown sin in death and flood the branches with the New Life. Spirit, water, and blood will grow branches that will give God the Glory. His Spirit will animate a new Body- the Church, that tree of New Life whose branches reach into Heaven from the New Garden that Christ cultivates.
And yet none of this can happen without deepest faith in the Resurrected Jesus Christ Who, as we pray in our Easter Collect, by His rising to life again hath restored to us everlasting life. Solomon tells us that this process will be strange and painful. In the sight of the unwise [we shall] seem to die: and [our] departure [will be] taken for misery; and [our] going from [them] utter destruction….(Wisdom ii 2) But once they see what is happening to us, they will conclude that we are in Peace. Jesus says today, Peace be unto you…and He showed them His hands and His side. (St. John xix 19,20) From His side flowed water that cleanses and the blood that gives New Life. Christ is the Vine and we are the branches. We are given the New Life. Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. (Ibid, 21) Christ sends us, His branches to reach out and into the world.
Then we shall find Blessed Gueric of Igny’s words surprisingly true:
The man who enters Christ’s garden becomes a garden himself, his soul is like a watered garden, so that the Bridegroom says in praise of him: ‘My sister, My spouse is a garden enclosed’ (Cant 4, 12). Yield the fragrance of incense. Blossom like the lily, and smell sweet, and put forth leaves for your adornment. (The Garden of Delight)
ndeed, yield fragrance, blossom, shoot forth, from water and blood and reveal the Risen
Christ to the world!
Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 2)
Our journey through the Lenten Season to Good Friday will have been of no use if it has not been characterized by affection. Set your affections on things above, proclaims St. Paul this morning, and not on things of the earth, and if we have been conscientious, this is exactly what we have been doing. Affection is passion, desire, yearning, and loving. And throughout the Holy Season of Lent, we have prayed that the Holy Spirit might purify the thoughts of our hearts so that we can follow Jesus up to Jerusalem and beyond. Our affections have been set…on the things above [and] not things of the earth, things which have come down to us in the passionate heart of Jesus Christ to lift us up higher. Out of the unquenchable ardor and fervor of His heart, Christ has desired that our affections might meet His in that Death that alone brings new spiritual life. Easter is all about the pure affection of God in Jesus Christ for the transformation of the cosmos and the transfiguration of all men.
In the course of our journey to Easter, we have learned that setting [our] affections on things that are above and not on the things of the earth is no easy business. And yet the distraction or diversion comes not from God but from us. God’s affection and desire for us have never ceased. From the Divine Depths, articulated and expressed in the incessant, loving Passion of Jesus, the uninterrupted longing of God for our salvation has persisted. The Word has gone out. God’s desire and affection have never dithered nor departed from His Great Unseen Eternal Design. The Word of God came down from heaven to live in man’s heart. His Good Friday is but one moment in the unfolding drama of our Redemption.
The common lot of men would have none of it. Their affections and desires were otherwise dominated. The mighty engine of Caesar’s Rome could not accommodate the strange Passion of a loving God whose affection is set high above man’s muddy reason. Even God’s chosen people, the Jews, could not imagine how such love and affection could be reconciled to their Law. The fear and the cowardice of those with the best of intentions were rendered equally powerless in the presence of God’s unfolding affection. Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth. (St. Luke xxi. 26) Human affection for God is fickle, unreliable, inconstant, and ultimately treacherous. Man’s fallenness cannot bear the Divine irruption.
And yet, God persists in the heart of Jesus with a love that seeks to draw the hearts of all, even His worst enemies. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) In this, Christ says, Come follow me. Today thou shalt be with me in paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) He is saying, Come follow me. Woman behold thy son…behold thy mother. (St. John xix. 26, 27) Come follow me. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) Come follow me. I thirst. (St. John xix. 28) It is finished. (St. John xix. 30) Father into thy hands, I commend my spirit. (St. Luke xxviii. 46) Come follow me even into my death, Christ insists. We begin to see His death as what alone can make us new. Our love grows and expands as sin is swallowed up into a Death that is strangely alive. Christ dies, and Man dies. Christ is coming alive, and so is Man. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22)
In pure affection, God made all things, and with the same affection He will remake all things. Christ brings primal Man into death. In the pure affection of self-willed exile, man had desired God’s death. God had given man his desire. As you wish, or As you like it. So, God in Christ endures and suffers our choice. God is dead. Christ is interred in the sepulcher, and with Him, it would seem, man’s affection for the things that are above is dead and buried. The affections that moved the human imagination to believe that Christ might be Messiah seem to have died.
Holy Saturday must seem to be an end for those whose hearts fail, for those whose affection and desire for God seem to have died in the Crucified One. There is darkness. There is the death of a Lovethat the world had never known. The affection for things above and beyond which He was, is gone. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. (Genesis i. 2) Darkness and death seem to have swallowed up the Love and extinguished the Light. Death holds hope hostage in the cruel constrictor-knot of confusion and fear.
But as we move from the seventh to the first day, something strange begins to happen. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Genesis i. 3,4) In the beginning, God lovingly made the Light to inform, define, and enliven all of creation. In the same Light now, incandescent beams of Love will open the eyes of believers’ hearts to a new creation being illuminated by that true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into world. (St. John i. 9) Darkness flees, sin flees, death flees, and ignorance flees as the Loving Light jumps up from the heart of Jesus. The pure affection and eternal desire of the Father of lights have transformed the Son as flesh from Death into New Life. The old Man is Dead and the new Man has come alive.
At first only angels and nature sense the strangeness of this Light. The elements stir, the air is parted, the fire blazes, the earth shakes and removes all barriers to the rising Light that follows the passion and affection of its Mover. The Father’s immortal, immutable, and immovable course of affection for man’s redemption are on course and thus willingly embraced in the heart of Jesus. 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. (Romans vi. 9, 10) The question and answer of the prophet Ezekiel are fulfilled.
Son of man, can these bones live? …And there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, Son of Man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them…(Ezekiel xxxvii. 1-10)
Christ is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophesy. Yes, these bones can and will live. In Him the Light of God blends with rising Love in the transfigured flesh of Man. The pure affection of Man for God brings Light out of Darkness and Life out of Death. God’s Word rises up, informing still, the now transfigured flesh of Jesus. Christ’s uninterrupted affection for God and Man is one Light whose Lovemakes Death into something new. Christ is Risen from the dead…Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us…as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 20, 22; 1 Cor. v. 7)
But there is more. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me. (St. John xii. 32) At first, the affection of both the Apostles and the women seems dead. But then something of the old passion begins to stir within them. On this first day of the week, Mary Magdalene is moved out of the tomb of her soul to the place of Jesus’ burial. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live. (Ezekiel. xxxvii. 12-14) She is moved by what is still alive of her affection and love for Jesus. She finds the stone rolled away. Her affection and passion for the Light hasten into some strange new hope. They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him. (St. John xx. 2) In the darkness, she thinks that Christ’s enemies have stolen the body. John and Peter affectionately and passionately run after this new truth. As Eriugena says, John outruns Peter because contemplation completely cleansed penetrates the inner secrets of the divine workings more rapidly than action still to be purified. John represents contemplation and hope. Peter represents action and faith. But faith must enter the tomb of darkness first and understanding follows and comes after. (Hom. Gospel of St. John, 283, 285)
God’s uninterrupted affection and desire for all men’s salvation is at work in time and space. Stirring within the hearts of Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John are the faith and understanding in the Light that said, I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also. (St. John xiv. 18, 19) Christ is risen. Soon the Apostles will see Him and begin to Live in Him. Christ is risen. In the Resurrected Light that shines through His transfigured flesh, we must remember that we are dead and our life is hid with God in Christ. (Colossians iii. 2,3) In the Resurrected Light, let us reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11) In the Resurrected Light let us match Christ’s affection with our own –that affection and desire for becoming very members incorporate in His Risen spiritual and mystical Body, transparent, obedient to His Holy Spirit…apt and natural instruments of His will and way, (The Meaning of Man, Mouroux, p.89) reflecting His Light and Love into the hearts of all others. And with the poet let us rejoice and sing:
Then comes He!
Whose mighty Light
Made His clothes be
Like Heav’n, all bright;
The Fuller, whose pure blood did flow
To make stained man more white than snow.
And none else can
Bring bone to bone,
And rebuild man,
And by His all subduing might
Make clay ascend more quick than Light.
(Ascension Hymn: H. Vaughn)
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar,
and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had
received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head,
and gave up the ghost.
(St. John xix. 29,30)
Jesus the crucified, Jesus the suffering Servant and dying Lord of Good Friday, is betrayed by one, and then denied and abandoned by the others, including all of us. Sin betrays and forsakes God’s Word, denies His power, rule, and governance in human life, and abandons Him for the impermanent, temporary, and fleeting pleasures and gods of this world, as important as they might seem. So as we look back on this Good Friday, as Christians, it is our duty to identify with any sin that reveals no acquaintance or familiarity with Jesus Christ. We do this because we desire to repent. And we desire to repent because we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s forgiveness of sins made flesh. And we believe that this forgiveness of sins is fully, perfectly, and truly embodied and communicated through the death of God’s Son on the Tree of Calvary. We believe also that this forgiveness of sins calls us into death, the death of Jesus Christ, and then our own deaths. For if we will not die to sin through the forgiveness of sins, beginning here and now, we can never begin to come alive to God the Father through the Risen Christ on Easter Day.
But before we repent we must look into the nature of what Jesus Christ is doing for us when He dies on the Cross of Calvary. St. Paul tells us that by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Romans v. 12) By one man’s disobedience to God, sin and death came to define man’s relation to Him. And so from the time of Adam to Christ all men were oppressed, enslaved, overcome, and even overwhelmed by that power which prevents them from obeying God purely and perfectly. But because Jesus Christ becomes the forgiveness of sins, He takes on and into Himself sin and death and brings their reign and rule over human life to an end. Jesus [humbles] himself and is obedient [to God the Father] unto death, even death upon the Cross. (Phil. ii. 8) Thus, through His sacred humanity He brings man’s addiction to the world, the flesh, and the Devil to death. Through His Passion and Desire for God, He will overcome Original Sin. Through His enduring Love, He will suffer and withstand the worst and the best that man’s sin can do in order to bring it all to death, and out of it make something much better and new. Sin and death then may try to kill God’s Love in the humanity of Jesus, and they will indeed kill the Man. Behold the Man. (St. John xix. 5) They will taunt, tempt, mock, deride, torture and kill God’s Word made flesh. And they will bring the Man and His manhood to death. But what sin and death cannot kill is the Word of God’s Love in the heart of Jesus that persists and endures through suffering, into death, and then up into new life. For even while dying, Jesus’ forgiveness will begin to make and mold a new humanity, a new Manhood, a new Adam whose nature will be shared as the Body of new life for all who believe and follow.
So we come to the vision of Christ crucified. We come to see what sin tries to do to God in the flesh. And to our surprise and amazement we find the forgiveness of sins not as an obscure theological concept but as the life of God Himself in the dying Christ. For this forgiveness of sins is God’s uninterrupted desire for our salvation. And it is still alive and at work in the heart of the suffering and dying Christ. What do we hear emerging from the lips of the dying Jesus? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) Father, today they kill me through ignorance, confusion, weakness, and pain; forgive them, for tomorrow they may repent and believe and become our friends. And then we hear: Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) Look Father, this convicted thief dying alongside me has confessed his sin and desires to come and follow me. We have just now won the first new member of the Kingdom we are building. It’s death-bed conversion! And then what? Father, my Mother and dear John are here watching and waiting, dying to become a part my death and new life. Woman, behold thy son!.. Behold thy mother! (St. John xix. 26, 27) Father, already we have our first two missionaries, members of the new human family that I am making. My Mother is ready to become the mother of your new spiritual children. My friend, my spiritual brother is ready to become a new spiritual son to the Mother of redemption and salvation. But Jesus continues. Father I am suffering and dying, but they are suffering and dying with me. Strengthen them spiritually now, as I grow weaker and weaker, and my pain and agony grow stronger and stronger. For, Father, the Devil is once again on my back. My wounded and lacerated head, hands, and feet are overwhelming and crushing my sense and perception of the outside world that looks and gazes upon me. I am becoming blind, deaf, dumb, withered, and palsied like those I came to heal. I feel the pain of Job, and I hear the words of his wife: Curse God and die. (Job ii. 9) I feel the darkness, the silence, the stillness, even the nothingness enveloping me. Lord I am spent; is there any more for me to do? Father, you, even you, seem to be moving away from me. The deep and mysterious power of sin is attacking me. I sense and feel the nothingness not as that pure potential “about to be” that you and I once made real, but as a temptation to despair. I endure man’s rejection of thee my God. I sense the distance between thee and me. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) I know that you are here, but, ‘why…art thou so far from my health, and from the voice of my complaint? I cry in the day time but thou hearest not: and in [this] night season also I take no rest.’ (Ps. xxii. 1,2) I know that ‘thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.’ (Ps. li. 8) And so, I gasp for that spiritual drink that will satisfy my soul. ‘I thirst.’ (St. John xix. 28) Yes Lord, there is one more thing for me to do before ‘It is finished’ (Ibid, 30), before ‘I commend my spirit into thy hands.’ (St. Luke xxiii. 46) There is Roman soldier over there, I cannot see him clearly, but he has not moved throughout this my suffering death. He has not taken his eyes off of me. But he is not vengeful or wrathful. He has been looking into my eyes from the beginning. By his own judgment and understanding, he knows that something is terribly wrong but, perhaps, that we are about to make all things new and right. The seed of faith is growing in his heart. ‘Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.’(Idem, 29, 30) This Roman soldier, perhaps with another, gave Jesus his last sip of wine. Father, I thank you for giving me this drink through him. I thank you for moving him to provide me with the drink that is becoming his own offering of himself through you. Keep him near, my Mother and disciple will need his help in taking me down from this tree and burying me. And through them, let us welcome him into the Body of my Death, which is already becoming the Body of our new Life.
So today we come to the Cross to repent. We come to confess all of the ways in which we have denied, betrayed, and crucified Jesus Christ’s eternal Word of Love in our hearts. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace his ever-dying desire to heal, cure, redeem, sanctify, and save us. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace that same desire for all others, when we have criticized, judged, condemned, and failed to forgive those whom Jesus always loves and desires to bring into the Body of His Death and the substance of New Life. In the confession of our sins, we come to die to ourselves, the world, the flesh, and the devil. We come then to Christ’s crucifixion to remember our Baptismal vows and covenant. With St. Paul we remember this:
…That so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness ofHis resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans vi. 4-6)
Today we renew our commitment to die to sin, and this death is the first step towards the New Life we anticipate on Easter Sunday. As we die to sin today, let us now see that our sin is also buried with Christ. And with John Donne, let us ask for loving correction and discipline that only the Master can give, that we might turn from death and burial up and into the new life that Easter Sunday will bring.
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
(Good Friday: John Donne)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: