And ye also shall bear witness, because ye have been with me from the beginning.
(St. John 15. 27)
Ascension Day is sadly a spiritual feast that elicits little attention in the post-modern world. Like His Conception –celebrated on the Feast of the Annunciation, Christ’s Ascension is a celebration that too many people avoid to their great peril. It would seem that our Lord’s beginning and ending are not heeded with sufficient spiritual interest. The Conception marks the union of God with Man; God’s Word and Son came down from heaven, He humbled Himself, and was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, as God became Man. The Ascension marks the return of Man to God, the exaltation of the Crucified and Resurrected One, or the reconciliation Redeemed Man with God the Father, as Man returns to God. God in Jesus Christ, in the Person of the Son, has come to us to recapitulate or reunite Man with God; and now He carries that new life back to the Father. The beginning and ending of God’s mission of mercy and love manifest the invisible source of God’s desire for us. They reveal completely the encircling motion of Christ’s descent and return to the Father. God comes down to be made Man in the Person of His Son, is enfleshed, reaches out, is rejected, suffers, dies, rises, and now ascends back to the Father. And so what we celebrate is one movement of Divine Love in and through the Word that is always descending or coming down to us in order to ascend and return us into union with God our Heavenly Father in Heaven.
Christ’s beginning coming to us in Conception is the beginning of God’s redemption of human nature. In it, He takes our Manhood into God, a Manhood that had hitherto rejected and removed itself from God the Father’s will. Man had willfully rejected God’s will and way for human life, and so, in Adam, had secured for himself a false freedom with a constant battle between good and evil. Man’s forfeiture of the good life earned him a life of suffering, sin, and death. Now in Christ, God had entered the man-made land of alienation from God. God had blasted through the wall of separation and division to open the door to His presence once again. God had come down from heaven and joined Himself to the sorry predicament of lost human nature. Silently and invisibly the reconciliation of Manhood to God began in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Between Conception and Ascension much had happened. Our liturgical memory in the life of the Church is an ongoing meditation upon it. There is the Christ-event, the activity and motion of God in Man, going about and generating all manner of goodness. There is man’s rejection, abandonment, and betrayal of Him. Through it all, Christ, the God-Man lovingly offers Himself as a pure and perfect sacrifice to the Father. He recapitulates human nature. But there is more. For even in the unjust death of God’s own Son, gladly assumed and suffered by Christ, there is the never-ending love, yearning, and desire for all men’s salvation. The same love conquers sin, death, and Satan from the Cross. In Eastertide, the Crucified One rises and faith is made new, knowledge is established, hope is enlarged, and love is made strong. Inwardly and spiritually the followers of the Risen Lord come to believe, grasp, and penetrate the mystery of God’s salvation love in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Man forever moving towards men and catching them up in the net of His Salvation. He is alive. He is lifting the hearts and souls of believers into the eternal and unchanging moving spiritual center of God’s desire for Man.
So with the Ascension, we are being moved back into the sound of silence and the movement of stillness. The visible Christ returns to the Father. The invisible Christ takes His friends into a place and space of new conception and new birth. The 6th-century Kontakia of St. Romanus puts it this way:
He Who descended to earth, as He alone knew how, Rising up from it, again as He alone knew how, took the ones whom He loved, and gathering them together, He led them to a high mountain in order that, when they had their minds and sensibilities on the height, might forget all lowly things. And so, when they were led up to the Mount of Olives, They formed a circle around the Benefactor, As Luke, one of the initiates, narrates in full. (Lk. 24:50-53) The Lord, raising His hands like wings-- Just as the eagle covers the nest of young birds which she warms-- Spoke to the nestlings: "I have sheltered you from all evil Since I loved you and you loved Me. I am not separated from you; I am with you, and no one is against you.
My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (St. Luke i. 46) The Blessed Virgin Mary was lifted up at the Annunciation and Christ’s conception in her womb and we are being lifted up now. Jesus takes his friends to a high place. God became Man and humbled Himself in order to assume our nature and return it to God. Now He leads His friends to a higher place. Lift up your heads O ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. (Psalm 24. 7) Lift up your souls, Jesus says to His Apostles, and my eagle’s wings will lift you up into this high place, far above the mundane and earthly space of your alienation from God. Christ vanishes from men’s sight that He might be embraced in all human hearts by faith. I will vanish from your physical sight. But follow me, remain close by my side in spirit and in truth, and in your hearts and minds you too shall ascend. Come, we are moving into the Father’s bosom. He shall come unto you, even into you, into your souls, and will be with you. Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them…Behold I make all things new. (Rev. 21) This is our reconciliation with the God who dwells on high. It begins now. Be not afraid, follow me, for I am with you. Come up with me and I shall fill you with a love that destroys despair and raises you far above your sin and death. My prophet Moses went up into a high mountain to receive the Law that I am. A greater than Moses is here. Elijah was lifted up on high and taken on a chariot of fire into heaven. A greater than Elijah is here. Austin Farrer says this:
WE are told in an Old Testament tale, how an angel of God having appeared to man disappeared again by going up in the flame from the altar. And in the same way, Elijah, when he could no more be found, was believed to have gone up on the crests of flaming horses. The flame which carried Christ to heaven was the flame of his own sacrifice. Flame tends always upwards. All his life long Christ’s love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.
Christ calls His Apostles and us to lift up our hearts and to journey to heaven with and in Him. The fire of His love has always burned upward toward His Father. It leaps up to our Beginning and our End. It rises to find consummation in the Father’s heavenly embrace. It extends from His new humanity, our humanity, to find its true home and spiritual rest in Heaven. It comes from the Father and returns to the Father. Christ teaches us that we are made to be caught up into the unbreakable knot of this Heavenly fire of Love, by Faith and with Hope. Creation and Redemption are the evening and morning of one day. Christ desires to spread His love abroad in our hearts. He intends for us to be as on fire as the Apostles were long ago. He has forgiven us, broken down the wall of partition separating us from God. Now He will lift us into the blaze of unending longing and passion for God and salvation.
If this fire is kindled in us, we shall begin to ascend. What is this fire, but the ascent of the soul’s passion and love for God in Christ that conquered all our sins? What is this fire, but the Love of Christ who intends not for us to have Him externally, visibly, and temporarily but inwardly, spiritually, and eternally. He is God’s Word of Love made flesh that desires to be made flesh in us. Not the Earth but Heaven has always held me. Let it take hold of you also. Christ leads captivity captive- captive to the inner dynamism of His own Holy Spirit. Our bondage to sense is transformed into service to God (Village Sermons), as Bishop Westcott reminds us. We are being transformed into service as servants. We are being lifted up; we rise through the fire of Christ’s love for the Father. With Him in heart and mind, we thither ascend that with Him we might continually dwell. (Collect)
Let us desire to do God’s will that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. (1 Peter iv. 11) Christ’s Ascension means that here and now we can rise with Christ to rejoice in His Redemption of our souls and our Reconciliation with God the Father. So, with Cardinal Newman, let us
Set aside every day times for seeking Him. Humble yourself that you have been hitherto so languid and uncertain. Live more strictly to Him; take His yoke upon your shoulder; live by rule. I am not calling on you to go out of the world, or to abandon your duties in the world, but to redeem the time; not to give hours to mere amusement or society, while you give minutes to Christ; not to pray to Him only when you are tired, and fit for nothing but sleep; not altogether to omit to praise Him, or to intercede for the world and the Church; but in good measure to realize honestly the words of the text, to "set your affection on things above;" and to prove that you are His, in that your heart is risen with Him, and your life hid in Him. (Newman: Sermon 15)
Leave me, O love which reachest but to dust;
And thou, my mind, aspire to higher things;
Grow rich in that which never takest rust,
Whatever fades but fading pleasure brings . . .
Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might
To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;
Which breaks the clouds and opens forth in light,
That doth both shine and give us light to see.
O take fast hold; let that light be thy guide
In this small course which birth draws out to death,
And think how evil becometh him to slide,
Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heav’nly breath,
Then farewell, world; the uttermost I see;
Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me. Sir Philip Sidney
Where is Jesus Christ? Is God anywhere to be found? Frustrated and exasperated post-modern Christians complain that He is absent, at least when things don’t seem to be going their way materialistically, physically, or tangibly. Other self-contented, complacent, unmoved non-believers, do not make matters any easier, for they challenge the weak and carnal Christians with where is now thy God? Show Him to us! We cannot see Him. Prove to us that He exists. For if your God does exist, He seems comfortably ensconced and nestled away in heaven's unreachable perfection –far enough away, at any rate, from being of much use to any of us.
And the weak Christian realizes that his pagan friend might have it right and so grows resentful and bitter. On one side, frustration and despair sets in, while on the other the worship of mammon proceeds apace as the human community progressively indulges the wilder elements of the animal kingdom. Both groups, it would seem, have their senses fixed upon the things of this world, with the love which reacheth but to dust, as Sir Philip Sydney names it. And so the poet’s song, which once inspired and inflamed men of old to soar to higher things, growing rich in things which never takest rust, seems to fall upon deaf ears.
In this way, contemporary Christian ears are sealed shut to the sweet truth contained in the poet’s encomium to the love of God. And because they are possessed and moved by what fades and fading pleasure brings, they have no ground upon which to criticize the unbelieving world around them. In most cases what bothers and exorcises them begins and ends with happiness and comfort, health and prosperity, justice and injustice in this world. That it should ever occur to them that this world, as a prelude and preparation for the next, seems wholly lost and gone. And that the justice and happiness of this world are always going to be an imperfect shadow of a far greater land of greater glory seems equally hidden from their spiritual sight. This is because such Christians, by and large, are the worshipers of mammon. Milton puts it nicely, a little later in time:
Mammon led them on--
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven: for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven's pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific. (Paradise Lost: i. 678)
And, we mustn’t imagine that Sir Philip Sidney lived in an age which was necessarily more idolatrous than our own. He lived in the 16th century, the age of Reformation, Renaissance, and Discovery. He died at the young age of 32. But he was conscious that the encroaching and advancing, penetrating and piercing, attractive and enticing light of the perverse and profane that always leads the Christian soul to dwell on trodden gold. Having been scorched by this impermanent luminance himself, he hearkens to the appeal of the Muses. It is always the case that those who have indulged the world, the flesh, and devil more than others, have a more acute sense of the disappointment and despair that these gods bring.
So, Sir Philip Sidney confesses that he has spent too much time pursuing false loves and fleeting fancies. And herein we may find the sole cause for our failure to experience and appreciate God’s presence and nearness in the course of our lives. The poet sings out, Draw in thy beams, and humble all thy might /To that sweet yoke where lasting freedoms be;/Which breaks the clouds and opens forth in light,/That doth both shine and give us light to see. Call back and reject your desire for earthly things, the poet insists. See that you have misplaced and misspent your time, energy, and attention on the things that fade and fail. Reclaim your love and let the light of Eternal Love reveal the path that leads to brighter things that never die.
I rose up at the dawn of day,--
"Get thee away! get thee away!
Pray'st thou for riches? Away, away!
This is the throne of Mammon grey.
(William Blake: Mammon)
The Muses insist that drawing in the beams of light and sight are essential, lest we forget what manner of man (St. James i. 24) we are. With the poet we remember how evil [it] becometh him to slide, Who seeketh heav’n, and comes of heav’nly breath. (Idem) We come from God, were made by His Word, and are quickened by the Heavenly Breath of His Spirit. And if we come to see and know that we were made by God’s Word, we are indeed called to be hearers of the Word. (St. James i. 22)
But St. James tells us this morning that we are to Be…doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving [our] own selves. (Idem) First we must draw in [our] beams, and humble all our might. Then we must see the Word that doth both shine and give us light to see. and…take fast hold, [and] let that light be our guide. The light may seem silent, but the poet hears, obeys, and submits to its summons. This is the light that illuminates his soul and speaks to his heart. This is the light that enables him to behold himself, [to go] his way, and straightway [to remember] what manner of man he [is]. (St. James i. 24) This is the man who looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, [who] being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work… shall be blessed in his deed. (Ibid, 25)
Christians must bid farewell to the world to be blessed because we are not forgetful hearers but doers of God’s good work, walking in His Light. We must let the light of God’s all-seeing eye and not the eye of the world be the star to steer our course. We must be determined not to ‘seem’ religious and good but ‘to be’ religious and good in deed and in truth. (B. Jenks, p. 159) St. James says, If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man's religion is vain. (St. James i. 26) Again, hearing God’s Word and walking in His Light calls us into silence. We must hear and then do. Speech gets in the way of hearing God’s Word and discerning His will! St. James calls us to keep silent and remain focused on God’s Light Jesus Christ.
Today we prepare for Christ the Light’s Ascension to the Father. What He has seen and heard from the Father, He has revealed to us. To travel with Him to the Kingdom, in heart and mind we must forsake earthly gods whose cisterns can hold no water. We must hear His Word and follow His Goodness that will reveal the Light of His Love to us. Christ the Word is risen from the dead and is become the first fruits of them that slept. (1 Cor. xv. 20) Now He will Ascend. Will we hear the sweet song of the Word who invites us to follow Him? Cardinal Von Balthasar tells us that Christ’s Ascension is the return to the starting point of His mission. He is the Light and Love that comes from God and returns to God. But He is also the Light and Love who gave us heavenly breath, that we too might seek Heaven in following Him. He tells us this morning in the Gospel that whatsoever [we] shall ask the Father in [His] name, He will give it [to us]… ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (St. John xvi. 24) Today is Rogation Sunday and rogation comes from the Latin rogare, to ask. In our Collect, we pray that by [God’s] holy inspiration we may think those things that be good, and by [His] mercifully guiding may perform the same. God, in Jesus Christ, by the comfort of the Holy Ghost, accepts our humble hearing of His Word, knows that we yearn to be doers who perform the same, and now gives us lease to speak, to ask for, and to receive those things that be good. Now Christ invites us to ask to receive His Goodness in the Light of His Love that has gained the victory over all our sins. Christ says, be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world. (Ibid, 33)
So today with Sir Philip Sidney, let us hear the sweet and loving song of God’s Word made flesh. Remember that The Word that was here [long ago], [still longs] to be heard, cherished, treasured up in the heart of man, as what makes him new and carries him to the kingdom of God. Let us dare to become not hearers only but doers of the Word. In the Light of Christ’s Love let us hear God’s Song of Salvation that has overcome the world and calls us up into His Heavenly Choir. Today, dear friends, may the truth, beauty, and goodness of this Song be heard in our hearts, as we respond with great joy and sing…farewell, world; the uttermost I see;/ Eternal Love, maintain thy life in me.
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way,
that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way,
which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
St. Matthew vii. 13, 14
Our opening quotation, taken from St. Matthew’s Gospel, gives us a useful segue into our study of the meaning of Resurrection in this Eastertide. In it, Jesus Christ, true to himself and candid as always, basically tells us that most people go to Hell and few go to Heaven. Pardon me for cutting to the quick, but these are Jesus’ words, and this is Jesus’ analysis of the human condition. I am quite sure that He always wants it to be otherwise, but His words remain. Far from being a condemnation or sentencing of His own people to Hell, these words ought to be taken seriously by men in all ages, and especially by Christians who think that they are “saved” before the gift is bestowed, bank on Cheap Grace, or think that their religion and all their good works are going to save them. None of this is good theology and it certainly isn’t Biblical. Most men go to Hell because they choose the broad way over and against the strait gate and the narrow way that alone lead to salvation.
Of course, none of this is pleasant news. Christians protest, didn’t the Angel Gabriel proclaim to the shepherds, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord? (St. Luke ii. 10, 11) And didn’t Jesus Himself speak often of His mission to bring the Gospel, which means Good News, to all nations? He began His ministry by sending John Baptist’s disciples back to him saying, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them. (St. Matthew xi. 4,5) And St. Paul, repeatedly insisted that he was a bearer of the Gospel or Good News to all people. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans i. 16) How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things! (Romans x. 15) The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always the Good News of the salvation that Jesus Christ brings to all men in all ages.
So, Christians have every reason to rejoice in the knowledge and love of God found only in Jesus Christ and to believe that the Good News or Gospel alone leads us to salvation. But there is more. Jesus also says, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (St. John xiv. 6) Salvation means the return of man to God, through the Redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, and by participating in the Atonement He has made for us. Jesus died and rose for us and yet it is up to us to respond. Jesus has won our salvation and we cannot have it except by and through Him. This means that Christ expects us to have a relationship with Him. Unless we find the strait gate and enter by the narrow way by that He establishes for us, we cannot reach Heaven. And this means that the life that He lived, the unearned, unmerited, and undeserved suffering He endured, and the Resurrection He commenced must all become our own or something that we participate in willingly, sacrificially, and joyfully. This is the message of Eastertide.
To find the strait gate and to enter the narrow way is no easy business. The old adages no pain, no gain, no suffering, no salvation, and no Cross, no Crown are all consecrated by the earthly life our Lord lived and intends to share with us. Christ will sanctify us by the Father’s Grace in a patient progress that leads us out of sin and death and into righteousness and new life. The pattern He consecrates and blesses will involve suffering and death before we find new life. Christ never promised us immediate and paranormal perfection and salvation now. This is a gift to be bestowed upon us as we find the strait gate and enter the narrow way that leadeth unto life. (Idem)
Therefore, what we have before us is the promise of a gift and reward to them that embrace Jesus Christ. Embracing Jesus Christ will be the hard part. In Eastertide we learn that no sooner has Christ risen from the dead than He tells His Apostles, Now I go my way to Him that sent me; and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou? (St. John xvi. 5) Like men in all ages, we want God with us and for us, tangibly present in the flesh. We want the immediate gratification of Christ’s nearness. We believe, immaturely, that His absence from us in the flesh will breed catastrophic sadness and sorrow. Yet we, with the Apostles, must learn that Christ cannot save us unless we are willing to share in His sufferings to gain His victory. His tangible Incarnation is only the beginning. We must find the strait gate and narrow way that leadeth unto life inwardly and spiritually through His indwelling Holy Spirit. Christ intends to come alive in our souls by working His redemption into us. Christ desires to dwell in us. If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (St. John xiv. 23)
With the Father, Christ intends to come to us and pitch their tent on the soil of our souls. The Resurrected and Ascended Lord wants to live on in us from Heaven to Earth as His all-saving life takes root in our hearts. It will be as full of Satan’s tempting and troublemaking as it was for Him. His Redemption accomplished once for all must be tried and tested from the ground of our souls through persistent faith.
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….The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me. (St. John xv. 18-21)
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is no miracle recipe for instant gratification and premature salvation. Salvation is a process whereby Christ will be born in us and grow up in us through the Holy Spirit. The whole point of Christ’s Victory over sin, death, and Satan in Crucifixion and Resurrection was to order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men. (Collect Easter IV) The comfort and strength of the same Holy Spirit will enable us to love the thing that the Father commandeth and love the thing He doth promise (Collect…) in His Son. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. (St. John xvi. 7)
Christ will come to us from the Father inwardly and spiritually. St. James exhorts us to Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. (St. James iv. 7,8) Jesus tells us that when He sends the Comforter unto us, He will reprove the world of sin. (St. John xvi. 8) We must be convicted of our sins, which were the cause of Christ’s passion. We must repent and embrace the Father’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. St. Thomas Aquinas says that he will convince, rebuke, the world, as the one who will invisibly enter into their hearts and pour his charity into them so that their fear is conquered and they have the strength to rebuke. (Aquinas: John’s Gospel) We must not only repent but rebuke all sin in the Name of Jesus. Next, the Comforter will reprove…the world of righteousness. (Ibid, 10) Aquinas reminds us that St. Paul, the greatest of convicted Christians, proclaimed that we are sold under sin… There is none righteous, no, not one. (Romans iii. 10, Ibid) and that the world must be convicted always of the righteousness that [we] have ignored or neglected. (Idem) Through the Spirit, the Father will show us how we have rejected the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Finally, the Comforter will rebuke…the world of judgment because the prince of this world is judged. (Idem) Aquinas reminds us that we shouldn’t blame our sins on the devil. Thus, the world is reproved by this judgment because being unwilling to resist, it is overcome by the devil, who although expelled is brought back by their consent to sin: "Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies" (Rom 6:12, Idem) In Christ’s death, the Devil was robbed of any power he had over us. In the end, through the Spirit, we shall rebuke Satan if only we believe.
Christians should never seek an easier, softer way. The journey into Christ’s Resurrection is difficult but filled with all faith, hope, and love. St. James exhorts us:
My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience… Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.
(St. James i. 2-4)
This is all Christ’s precious gift to us. St. James continues:
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the Word of
Truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. (St. James i. 17, 18)
The gift of the Father is Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Word. Jesus longs for the power of His Crucifixion to lift our redeemed hearts into His glorious Resurrection. Jesus, the Word of Truth, will prune away the deadwood of our old hardened sinful selves to implant the new life that He has in store for us as the beauty of the Holy Spirit convicts us towards this end, leading us through the straight gate and narrow way that alone ensure our salvation.
But praised be the LORD, who hath not given us over
for a prey unto their teeth. Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the
snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered.
(Ps. cxxiv. 5,6)
Easter Tide is all about avoiding those things that are contrary to our profession and follow such things as are agreeable to the same. (Collect Easter III) We do this, of course, because if we have been admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, this alone as a habit of life will ensure that our pilgrimage is sanctified and that we shall be saved. In Easter Tide, we undertake the hard labor of dying to our old selves and coming alive to the new life that we find in our Resurrected Christ. We die to ourselves as we petition God to show [us] that are in error the light of [His] truth. (Idem) Satan’s power must be banished. And all of this must come to us by the Grace of the Holy Spirit. Christ desires for us to partake of His Resurrection and participate in the New Life that He has won for us. But the power of hope and belief in His Resurrection involve a transition from one state to another –from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in rejecting Satan and embracing our Heavenly Father’s will.
Thus, the Resurrected Christ invites us into a relationship that will ensure our deliverance to His Kingdom. With St. Peter, in this morning’s Epistle we must come to discover ourselves as strangers and pilgrims (I St. Peter ii. 11) in a fallen creation. And this means that we must no longer be at home with this world and its impotent gods. St. Peter insists that the starting point is to
abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul; having [our] conversation honest among the Gentiles: that whereas they speak evil against [us] as evil doers, they may by [our] good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation. (Idem)
We must say No! to any inordinate desire or longing that is not of God. Isaiah the Prophet reminds us that for the iniquity of [our] covetousness was God wroth, and smote [us in times past]: [God] hid [Himself], and was wroth….(Is. xviii. 17) Our old selves had forgotten the secret things that belong to the Lord our God (Deut. xxix. 29). Because we did not remember that our true relationship is always with God, who seemed hidden but was present to the spirit, we were strangers and pilgrims to His Omnipotent Wisdom, Power, and Love.
St. Peter reminds us that we must be cuttingly candid about the spiritual warfare that threatens to envelop us if we forget God. David the Psalmist reminds us If the Lord Himself had not been on our side…when men rose up against us. They had swallowed us up alive, when they were so wrathfully displeased at us. Yea the waters had drowned us, and the stream had gone over our souls. The deep waters of the proud had gone even over our souls. (Ps. 1-4) David claims that the troubled sea…[whose] waters cast up dirt and mire, [in which is]…no peace, always threatens to devour and drown the souls of those who forget God’s Invisible Power. The man who struggles to be faithful to God is even hindered, harassed, and hijacked by those who have no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. iii. 18) He is assaulted by a blasphemous and brutish generation, that set their mouths against heaven, out of [whose mouths] belch forth impieties and impurities, to dishonour Him who made them, to grieve the souls of his servants, and to spread the contagion of their ungodliness. (B.Jenks: P.P., p.240) But because David knows that his enemy is too strong for him, he resorts to God’s strength in all humility. Praised be the LORD, who hath not given us over for a prey unto their teeth. Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we are delivered. Our help standeth in the Name of the LORD, who hath made heaven and earth. (Ibid, 5-7) David believed in and embraced the presence of the Invisible but living God. He grasps too that God alone can chase away the birds of prey that would [ensnare and] devour God’s Sacrifice in his heart. He believes that God alone can drive out the unclean beasts that would trample down the plantation of God’s Grace in his soul. (Jenks, 224) He trusts that the Lord of hosts is with him; the God of Jacob is his refuge. (Ps. lxvi. 11) He sets aside the clear and visible threats of earthly enemies and in meekness of mind humbles himself before God, for that continual proneness which is in him to sin against His Maker and Redeemer, that makes him so unlike to God, and so contrary to what His holy laws require him to be. (Jenks)
David was a stranger and pilgrim in this world. He looked forward to God’s deliverance by hoping for the fulfillment of His promises in Jesus Christ. Christians know the benefits of Christ’s all-saving life and believe in the power of His deliverance. But for that power to liberate us effectually, we must declare spiritual war on this world and its ship of fools. The fool hath said in his heart there is no God. (Psalm xiv. 1) Fools trust in their wits and the stirrings of their hearts. He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool. (Prov. xxviii. 26) A fool despiseth wisdom and understanding. (Prov. i. 7) Fools rejoice when they should lament and mourn when they should rejoice. Because they are at home in this world, they exult only in the temporary pursuit of happiness and joy. Because it is convenient to their idolatries, they are glad to think that God cannot be bothered and thus remains unmoved by their sin. They have forgotten the wisdom in the wise man’s understanding:
Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there:
if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
even there shall thy hand lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
(Ps. cxxxix. 7-100
The wise man mourns when he forgets the Invisible God because he has forgotten that he is a stranger and pilgrim. He laments that he has not awakened sooner to God’s caring desire for his soul. For David’s heirs, who have witnessed Christ’s Resurrection, as a manifestation of God’s Invisible Wisdom, Power, and Love, Jesus says to us: Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (St. John xvi. 20) Mourning and lamentation for man do not disappear with the Incarnation. Rather, they comprise an essential moment in that spiritual movement whereby Christ carries us from the death to sin into new and Redeemed Human Life. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that the wise Christian will be sad for three reasons. First, by sadness of evil, man is corrected. (Easter III: TA) When Christ promises to depart from us in the flesh, He will correct us inwardly and spiritually. Unless we mourn our sinful rejection of Him, the Resurrection virtue that Christ longs to infuse into our bodies and souls will remain dormant. Sorrow for our abandonment of His ever-present sacrificial love renew our passion for finding it anew. Second, by temporal sadness, man escapes eternal torment. (Idem) A healthy sorrow for our refusal to embrace the means of Grace compels our souls to long more fully for the stronger medicine that Christ has for our bodies and souls. Third, by a mean measure of justice, we acquire eternal joys. (Idem) Punishment through sadness impels us to accept the just punishment for our sins now. Then we begin to treasure the gain of Christ’s lasting victory over our earthly sorrow for our sins in this body of death. Temporary suffering will be converted into soaring desire for the exceeding and eternal weight of God’s glory.
Jesus is teaching us that for so long as we are in these earthen vessels, we must become strangers and pilgrims in this world. If we seek Him out amidst it all, His Invisible Presence will enable us to persist. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (St. John xv. 4, 5) If Christ lives in us now Invisibly, our sorrows shall be transformed into the permanence of His joy in our hearts. He likens it to a woman who is with child. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. (Ibid, 21, 22) The expectant mother endures all manner of suffering and sorrow in joyful expectation of her child’s birth. So too the wise man must endure the suffering and sorrow that accompany the conception of the Word of God in the womb of his soul before he is born again from above and by the Invisible God. Calvin tells us that Christ means that the sorrow which we shall endure for the sake of the Gospel will be profitable. (J. Calvin: Comm.)
St. Augustine reminds us that, At present, the Church is in travail with the longing for this fruit of all her labor…now she travails in birth with groaning, then shall she bring forth in joy; now she travails in birth through her prayers, then shall she bring forth in her praises. (John xvi) The end that we seek is the consolation of the Divine Presence. So, over and against ungodliness, St. Peter tells us that our incipient joy should be caught up with well doing, [that we] may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and not using [our] liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. (Ibid, 13) Christ tells us today, I will see you again, and you will rejoice. (St. John xvi. 22) If we believe in Him, He will take our bodies and souls into all joy, and others shall join us as strangers and pilgrims, visibly and truly embracing the love of the Invisible God, that no man shall take away from us. (Idem)
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 both from sin and wickedness in ourselves and also from sin in the lives of others. Regarding the first, we are called to receive the forgiveness of our own sins. About the second, we are urged to translate the forgiveness of sins received into acts of compassion, pity, and mercy for all others. All this is given to us from the Risen Jesus Christ so that we might become habituated to the character and nature of Our Heavenly Father.
The Church’s selection of readings for this Joyful Eastertide does not pretend that this new Risen Life we seek is easy. Thus, for example, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, most people think that we ought to be reading about Jesus the soft, all-embracing, and gentle shepherd who forever seeks out His lost sheep. And while this might be true in one way, in another way it tends to ignore the tough love that characterizes the nature of every good shepherd. Christ the Good Shepherd is no exception.
Jesus Christ has demands and conditions for the sheep of His fold and the members of His Body, the Church. As we become His sheep, Jesus Christ 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 addressing a group of slaves who are Christians. His letter is to one of his flocks in Asia Minor, many of whose members are servants or slaves. He uses them as a parable or illustration of the kind of life we should expect to live and how that life is fully taken on by Jesus Christ. He writes to slaves who suffer unjustly and undeservedly. 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. That they are slaves is disturbing enough. Yet, St. Peter is not interested in the abolition of earthly slavery but with its spiritual counterpart. These slaves are being punishing unfairly and tyrannically and their spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ is in danger of being lost. Peter wants them to pray about becoming slaves in the spirit to Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. He wants them to see that there is a good kind of slavery that no earthly creature can threaten or destroy.
St. Peter 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) St. Peter believes that every man, even slaves, can allow the Imitation of Christ to rule their hearts. He is not writing about earthly liberation but of that Divine and lasting spiritual liberty that Jesus alone, the Good Shepherd, brings to every man, no matter what his state in life. He reminds them that Christ too became a slave to earthly injustice, bondage, and malice. 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 slavery and bondage to cowardice, fear, and shame. 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 forcibly by other men. Yet Peter was chained and enslaved to his own voluntary faithlessness, dread, and pride. Peter abandoned Jesus Christ as a free man. The slaves knew no such liberty. Peter was afraid of losing his freedom. Yet all the while he was a real slave to his own shallow faith and faint heart. Peter had become a slave to a master far worse than the slaveholders who held his companions in bondage. He feared imminent death by reason of association with Jesus. Then, because he denied Jesus before the cock had crowed twice, he feared God’s 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) Jesus’ tough love alone would reveal his slavery to sin.
But now in today’s Epistle, St. Peter speaks as one who has been liberated by Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. St. Peter has repented, and Christ has forgiven his abandonment and betrayal. Christ now calls Peter into the new life of Resurrection. So, St. Peter exhorts all slaves who suffer unjustly to forgive their oppressors and masters as Christ has forgiven His executioners and even His cowardly friends. 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)
The slaves St. Peter addresses may be the hapless victims of other men’s wickedness, but this is no excuse for not forgiving all men their trespasses against us. Both Peter and his hearers are potential slaves to sin. Now, they are 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 shower their masters, Christian or pagan, with love and forgiveness because they can become emissaries and ambassadors in bonds for the forgiveness of sins and Christ’s Resurrection. They can reveal that they have been made free by the Blood of Jesus Christ and are now the true sons of the living God –whose Love in them can conquer all wickedness because the evil of other men need never provoke vengeance. True freedom is found in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy…(St. James iv. 12)
This obedience to God calls them to forgive the sins of others, endure grief, suffering wrongfully…take it patiently…[because] this is acceptable with God. (Ibid, 19, 20) If Jesus Christ endured grief, suffered wrongfully on the Cross of His Redemption and made good out of it, so too can all men! Like Christ, we all should forgive those who are the cause of all of our suffering. For Christ is interested in all sinners –both slaves and free men! Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins, desires to come alive in every human heart and to help us to forgive whenever we suffer wrongfully. If Jesus –the pattern of the unjustly tortured, punished, and crucified Slave, forgives us our betrayals and abandonments of Him, we should forgive also. 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, all slaves, all of us, are invited into the new death…and new life through the forgiveness of sins. For ye were as sheep, going astray, but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 25) We all are slaves -the slaves of others, slaves of ourselves, slaves of our sins, and the slaves of Satan. Christ has forgiven us, and we should forgive all others.
St. Peter shows us that all men are the slaves of sin and should want to become the slaves of Jesus Christ, incorporated into the Resurrected Life of the One who has become a Slave for us all. This Slave is the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls. This Good Shepherd voluntarily became God’s Slave because He giveth His life for the sheep. (St. John x. 11) The Good Shepherd is the Slave who is works tirelessly and incessantly to bring His Sheep back to God our Heavenly Father. He even lays down His life for His sheep because it is the only way that He can bear the sheep’s burden fully, destroy their sin, and open to them the gate of everlasting life. But even beyond this, He longs to become our Slave even today. He is forever the Father’s willing and happy 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 power. He desires to feed us with God’s Goodness 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 selflessly, innocently, and freely becomes our Master from the Cross of His Love and beyond.
Jesus goes where He is sent. He comes to us. Will we allow this Slave to do His work for us? He offers us His service for free! He charges no money. But if we would employ this Slave, we shall begin to see God’s love alive in His heart. If we would keep this Slave, we must allow His tough love to serve us, 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 true liberation. 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.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: