Rogation Sunday: Easter V
Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a
moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out
of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving,
and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas)
Today we at St. Michael and All Angels are doing two things. First we are continuing our spiritual journey together, one that we have been making for some time. Each of us is here because as a spiritual family, we have dared to be embraced in the loving arms of our Saviour Jesus Christ as a people in exile or exodus. What I mean is that we have been like wayfaring people, seeking a home, a place and space where God might move us and where we might be moved by God. We began our journey into the wilderness at the Hoyte Cathedral, where we were blessed by the kindness and generosity of Pam and Otho. It is not every day that a married couple is asked to turn their living room into a make-shift chapel, a fellowship hall, and the command–central of Christian missionary activities such as ours. More cynical people would have rolled their eyes and said that there was no room for them at the inn. (St. Luke ii. 7) To Pam and Otho we offer our heart-felt thanks and gratitude. And from there, thanks to the good offices of Arianne, we made our way to the ABCCM. Arianne’s colleague Bill, whose mission serves the hungry, the naked, the homeless, and the lost, decided that there was always more room for strays and waifs like us at his inn. The people that Bill serves are looking for love, care, compassion, and a helping hand in an otherwise cruel and insouciant world – oblivious, as it is, to the raw, tangible, and real pain that infects a nation that has lost its spiritual way. How apposite and appropriate that we spiritual pilgrims were given refuge in such a place. For we too had been seeking the love, care, compassion, and pity of others as we prayerfully sought to find a place and space to continue our healing journey of salvation. So to Bill we offer great thanks for having provided to us wayfaring pilgrims an oasis in the dessert of this difficult world. And now today we find ourselves here in what used to be TheTutti Frutti Yogurt Bar. And please don’t ask me to explain the spiritual significance of that name!
Now I said that today we are doing two things. Having described the first, I now turn to the second. We are coming out of a kind of exodus and wilderness and into a place of stability and fixity. By the Grace of God we now have a place and space that we can call our own. But this does not mean that our journey has ended. Rather, in some radical sense, our spiritual pilgrimage together is just beginning. For some days now so many of you have been working tirelessly to make ready this place and to lay a foundation. Thanks to your labors of love, now from an immovable and stable spot we can begin the true mission to which we are called. Our mission is the spread of the Gospel of Love.
In my opening remarks I quoted the, now, Emeritus-Pope Benedict XVI. I have repeated the words of the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church because I feel a great sympathy for the labor of love that he brought to the world through his tireless work of preaching and teaching. It may be that the world had not been ready to have the kind of Pope that Benedict was. He was a scholar, a teacher, and according to good sources an exceptional pastor. Relying as he always did on the learning that he gleaned from his Master St. Bonaventure, the Doctor Seraphicus,or the Doctor of Love, he exhorted his flock zealously to the love of God as revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ. His theme was one of Love, and yet his understanding of it was both prudent and cautious. He knew the human condition, and so understood that true love is a thing obtained and possessed only by hard work, determination, effort, and persistence. Love looks to the eternal. Love is indeed ‘ecstasy,’ not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving, and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God. (PopeBenedict XVI, Deus Caritas) Love is always about a journey out of one form of life and into another, or out of the human and into the divine, over and through the rough terrain of trials, sufferings, pain, and death and onto the trail that leads to eternal freedom and salvation.
And what a wonderful theme with which to begin our new journey together here today! We find ourselves at the end of the Church’s Resurrection season. We have been learning about the hard and difficult trial the Apostles endured during Jesus’ forty days of appearances to them. In that time their knowledge expanded slowly, as Jesus Christ –Love in the flesh - began to draw them into the net of his mission. From the Apostles we learn that Jesus’ mission is the labor and work of Love that is slowly understood, received, applied to human life, and then shared with others. Jesus’ mission is not easy. It calls every man to a process of progressive and patient transformation. Jesus’ mission is our mission, and that mission is a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed, inward-looking self towards its liberation through self- giving, and this towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God. (Ibid) Christ draws love out of his friends the Apostles. When he meets them on the first day of the week, they are broken-hearted and tormented by what must have seemed friendship forsaken and love forlorn. But their Love returns, it rises up before them and then slowly from within their hearts they become ecstatically one with Christ’s mission and meaning. Christ desires that as he came out of himself, down from heaven and into the earth, so too will his friends now come out of themselves, up from the earth and into the same ecstatic Love that returns to the Father. Love is a journey out of the self and into the discovery of God. Those who follow Christ travel with him to the origin and source of all Love, God the Father, and then out again and into the world, that others may be swept up and into the same ecstasy that leads men to their true destiny, meaning, and freedom.
And yet, as Pope Benedict suggests, the Mission of Love that is to characterize the Christian journey is not some temporary charismatic experience. It is the work of a lifetime, an ongoing ecstasy. Ecstasy means coming out of oneself, and in the Christian context it means coming out of and away from the self-centered self. As we all know, this is very difficult business. For this reason St. James exclaims to the members of his new and budding Christian mission this morning, Be ye not hearers of the Word only, but doers also. (St. James i. 22) For whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (St. James i. 25) Eternal Love offers true liberty or freedom to man. The one who patiently and persistently embraces this Love discovers that it is the eternal desire of God’s Word for man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is Love made flesh, and He is also God’s Word made flesh. God’s Word is the ecstatic love and desire for our salvation. Yet if we merely hear this Word, and do not embrace it in our hearts and souls as what God desires for us to obey and follow, we are like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. (St. James i. 23, 24) If we only hear the Word and fail to obey and follow it, we are lost like those who forget who they are and what they need. We forget that we are sinners in need of salvation. We forget that we are lost and need to be found. We forget that we are sick and need a physician. Our vocation and calling, our mission and meaning, are to journey in Jesus from sin into righteousness, from futility into meaning, and from death into life. What is clear is this: Jesus alone loves this new life into being. To embrace his love we must obey and follow him, remembering who we are and what we need. To embrace his ecstatic Love we must die to our old sinful selves, and give ourselves to that Divine Passion that alone reveals and discloses our authentic meaning in the discovery of God. For… whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed. (St. James i. 25)
My brothers and sisters, today we begin our mission from a secure and stable place that will become our spiritual home. This is Rogation Sunday. Rogation is a derivative of the Latin word rogare, meaning to ask or pray. Jesus tells us today to ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full. (St. John xvi. 24) Love calls us to journey with him back to the Father and beyond. And thus we should ask and desire that he will give us the wisdom and power to accomplish the same. Today we are called to ask for his love, to petition his mercy, to seek out his wisdom, and to obtain his power that we might become a part of his ongoing mission and labor. We ask that we might not be hearers only but doers of the Word…. (St. James i. 22) We pray that we might allow God’s Word to be seen and heard in the evidence of our lives. We pray that we might pray as Christ Jesus prays, or rather in his name and nature – so that our prayer becomes a part of his converse with the Father by his Holy Spirit. We pray, in other words, that we might reveal the Eternal Love that not only moves the heavens and the earth, but stoops down from on high to transform and carry every human being back into its ecstatic embrace. Let us close with the words of Sir Philip Sydney, no stranger to God and his ecstatic love.
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.
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians v. 2)
In Eastertide we walk with Jesus in two ways. In one way, we walk back in our memories to the historical facts of Jesus’ life. We try to remember what Jesus said and did, how the Apostles responded to Him, and what was accomplished once long ago in a space that is removed from our present experience. But you will remember also, I hope, that the point of our memory's exercises is to find the present urgency that is not limited to an historical record, but issues forth from it down through the ages even into this very present moment of time. What was done long ago in the earthly life and witness of Jesus is ours to be received as He makes us into his Body here and now. It is expedient that I go away (St. John xvi. 7), Jesus says, in order that we might walk with Jesus in a better and truer way.
So Eastertide is all about looking back and looking forward. Walking in the new way that Christ establishes demands that the Apostles and we see who He is in a new light. If we look back at the history of his life, we begin to see who and what He was all about. His final departure from this world in the flesh can make sense only if we see what He intends to do for us and through us. And so if we look back, we begin to see that His whole life seems to have been a history of coming and going. But His coming and going seem always to direct his Apostles’ attention back to the wisdom, power, and love that move and define him. His presence and then absence seem to be preparing the Apostles for a deeper and more lasting dependence upon what must move them in the future, when they shall see Him no more and yet will know His presence more forcefully and effectively.
In this morning’s Gospel, St. John looks back to the time when Jesus spoke to friends who did not yet understand the meaning of his words. He retells the familiar story of unbelief arising out of earthly expectations and human hopes. The Apostles were sad because Jesus says that He must leave them. They want Him to be with them forever. Peter at one point, seeing and enduring the Transfiguration of Christ, wanted to make booths to hold the glorified Christ, Elijah, and Moses. Mary Magdalene wanted to touch the Risen Christ. But both wanted to have or possess Jesus in the wrong way. They were motivated by an urge for control, manipulation, and possession. Rather than being possessed by the God that moved and defined Jesus, they themselves desired to control and manipulate, define and condition their environment to ensure their spiritual comfort and satisfaction. They had it all wrong, and like all of us, preferred their upside-down version of reality to the right-side-up truth that Jesus was urging upon them.
But Christ is patient, and so his goings and comings are part and parcel of a patient process that will in the end yield fruit. In the days of His Resurrection the Apostles [were being led] through fear to wonder, through wonder to faith, and through faith to worship. (The Resurrection of Christ, p. 38) St. James reminds us this morning that 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. (St. James i. 17) The good and perfect gift that comes down from the Father of all to men is Jesus Christ himself. That divine gift that was made flesh and dwelt among us (John i. 14) offers itself to all men continuously along the lines of a life that progressively unfolds and reveals itself to men. That divine gift opens itself to them first in the Resurrection and then through the Ascension. Christ comes and Christ goes. From Ascension Christ will come once again in Pentecostal fire as the breadth and depth of His Body expand to welcome them into the truth of His being. Christ is the gift that never stops giving. 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. 18) Of His own everlastingly-begotten desire made flesh, He will leave them in the flesh in order to beget and create them as His new flesh which will be informed and animated by His Spirit. God [is] a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship [him] in spirit and in truth. (St. John iv. 24) Jesus Christ is Love in the Flesh. Love in the flesh worshiped God in the Spirit, and nothing less is expected of us. Love in the flesh walked with and in God, and longs and desires to do the same in our flesh.
So how do we allow this to happen? St. James and the other Apostles finally understand it all right side up. He writes, Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls. (St. James i. 19, 20) In other words, we must shut our mouths; open our ears; allow the Spirit of Jesus to begin to make us members of His new Body. When we have got it upside down, we are unwilling to hear, quick to speak, and swift to wrath. In other words, we put our own intention and desire to control, manipulate, and orchestrate reality first! And when we don’t get what we want, we react with wrath and rage. What soon follow are bitterness and resentment. Resentment and bitterness exact determined revenge. And revenge then reveals our stubborn unwillingness to forgive. And make no mistake about it, St. James is not here speaking to recalcitrant and obdurate pagans. He is addressing religious people, good church-going types, who have fallen into the idolatrous habit of controlling and manipulating Christ! He is speaking to those who think that they are religious but are not. He is speaking to those who have left off receiving the gift of God’s Grace, the wisdom of His Word, and the power of His love because they want to have Christ on their own terms and through their own imagined good works and labors.
Christians who relate to Christ in this wrong way are back to turning Him upside down. They have forgotten that His going from them in one way demands His coming in another. In this morning’s Gospel Christ says that, When the Spirit is come he will reprove the world of sin. (John xvi. 8) In other words, the Spirit comes to shed light on the filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness that we are in danger of indulging when we are not receiving with meekness the engrafted Word which is able to save [our] souls. (St. James i. 20) The Holy Spirit comes to remind us of the Word that moved Jesus and so must move us. The same Spirit comes to reprove the world of righteousness. (John xvi. 10) He comes to remind us that God's justice and righteousness alone overcome sin through Jesus, and that the same creative righteousness is offered to us from the same all-giving and munificent Divine heart. Jesus reminds us finally that, When the Spirit comes, he will reprove the world of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged. (John xvi. 11) Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to remind us that He has conquered Satan, and so as Christians we must be sober and vigilant as the devil tempts us to reject and deny this truth in our lives. The Holy Spirit comes to establish the Divine order and rule in our hearts where we meet Jesus as the Spirit, whom he shares with the Father, guides [us] into all truth. (St. John xvi. 13)
So Jesus has indeed gone from us in one way in order to come to us in another. He comes to form a Body, a family, a community like this our fellowship of St. Michael and All Angels. He is coming to us; we must remain in place faithfully and consistently as a spiritual family, ready to receive all that he can give. Archbishop Ramsey defines nicely what happened to the Apostles then and can happen to us now if our common desire is ready, willing, and united: Dying to their own self-centeredness, the Christians enter a new life wherein the center is not themselves but the Risen Christ. No longer do they think of Christ only in terms of his existence in history as an isolated figure: for they think of Him as risen, and contemporary, and embracing His people as a very part of his own life. It is this that lies behind the of Christians as ‘the Body of Christ’. (The Resurrection of Christ, p.94) Dear friends, let us leave ourselves behind as we look forward and are moved ahead into the new Body that we are to become. Dear friends, today let us receive with meekness the engrafted Word which is [not only] able to save our souls, (St. James i. 20) but which longs and desires to make something new and beautiful out of St. Michael and All Angels. Amen.
A little while and ye shall not see me; and again a little while
And ye shall see me; because I go to the Father. (St. John xvi. 16)
It may strike you all as a little bit odd that the Epistle and Gospel readings for Eastertide are not taken from all of the historical records of Jesus’ Resurrection. As you know, the old Book of Common Prayer, which we use, follows, for the most part, the ancient Church’s lectionary. And thus we are using readings that were selected by the Fathers of the Church for this season. So we read what they saw as most necessary for the Church’s understanding of Christ’s Resurrection. Thus it would appear that they were not so much interested in rehearsing the historical facts and details of Jesus’ rising from the dead as with what he had taught them about how to follow him to the kingdom. I suppose you might say, then, that they were interested in the spiritual implications of the Resurrection. And so they were right, since Christ himself prayed, prior to his Ascension, that what he had received from the Father might be given to his friends. I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. (St. John xvii. 14-17)
So our appointed Easter lections invite us to meditate upon the spiritual ramifications of the Resurrection here and now and to reflect upon the fact that we will be resurrected in Christ in the future. Our end is not in this world but in heaven. And so, with Isaiah, we are reminded that God’s mercy moves towards us not only to heal our earthly human condition, but also to revive the heart and spirit of man, that they might once again reach out in hope towards a final and lasting communion with God.
For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made. For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners. (Isaiah 57 15-18)
God lives or dwells in the high and holy place but is not untouched by man’s need for him. Men are called to be humble and contrite as God makes a way for them to be reconciled to him. He revives and brings back to life the spirit of man who has rebelled against him. God is moved to respond to man’s exile because man’s predicament and sadness signal a division and separation which his love cannot tolerate. He cannot allow man’s spirit to languish, mourn, or fail. His love is life, and should man’s spirit flicker, fade, or die, God’s neglect would condemn man to a meaningless and futile existence. But God has made man to live, to have life, to have it [indeed] more abundantly (St. John x. 10). To be sure, man has rebelled against God, and so God’s love is hidden under the veil of anger and wrath. God’s loving nature is hidden and concealed as men pursue the devices and desires of their own hearts. That is, until man discovers the impotence, impermanence, and deficiency that his pursuit of false gods engenders. Then man will come to see that the wickedness that his life has become is like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. (Isaiah lvii. 20) And so God responds tenderly: I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners. (Ibid, 18)
God cares always for his people. In the fullness of times he manifests himself to the world in the human life of Jesus Christ. And yet, as we know, it was not until his Resurrection that Christ reveals the truth and meaning of his Father’s desire and intention for man fully. It is only in his Eastertide that Christ begins to disclose and uncover the truth and meaning of his suffering, death, and Resurrection to those who will follow him. In Eastertide his presence is marked most by teaching and illuminating the minds of his Apostles. In it he performs one miracle only – when he commands his friends to cast the net over the right side of their fishing vessel, where they discover, to their profound surprise, a draught of fishes. (St. John xxi. 6) For the forty days of his Resurrection he teaches the Apostles of the spiritual truth and meaning that have informed and moved his every move in time and space. He imparts those principles that will then form the new life that will make them partakers of his Resurrection through his Holy Spirit. He prepares them, in other words, to begin to become his new Mystical Body, which he would mold and shape out of their hearts and souls from his Ascended place at the Father’s right hand.
And yet it is precisely with this comforting truth that the Apostles and we have most trouble. The Apostles had Jesus back from the dead, and did not want to let him go. They (and we!) seem so bogged down and defined by earthly tangibility – what depend upon physically and sensibly. Remember that when Jesus had risen from the dead, Mary Magdalene wanted to hold, embrace, and never let go of Jesus’ Risen body. Remember too that Thomas would not believe unless and until he had placed his hands into Jesus’ wounded hands and side. Remember that the other Apostles did not want Jesus to leave them. They could not extricate or free themselves from his earthly and fleshly presence. And we experience the same problems in our own lives. Most men cannot deal with death and departure. These days men are so afraid of losing their earthly bodies and sensibilities that they fall apart over a common cold, a wrinkle, a pimple, or a cloudy day. They even create mythologies to convince themselves that they were here before, and that they will come back after…perhaps as a duck or a humming bird. And yet Jesus will have none of this nonsense! A little while and ye shall not see me, and again a little while and ye shall see me. (St. John xvi. 16) Christ insists that he must leave his friends in one way that he may come to them in another, though he is not without compassion for their spiritual weakness and frailty. Ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice. And ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (Ibid, 20) The Christ whom the Apostles welcome again in Eastertide with great joy must leave them. But why, you ask? Because who and what Christ is, is always what he desires and longs to become in others, as he shares his Father’s Holy Spirit with them. Christ is the Son of God, whose body was broken into and opened up as that alone which can yield the new Resurrected life that reconciles all men to the Father. For men to be Resurrected at the last day, they must begin to born again here and now, from above, as the new sons and daughters of God. A woman, when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is not yet 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. (St. John 16. 21) The truth that defines Christ’s Body begins and ends in heaven. I came forth from the Father and have come into the world. Again I leave the world and go to the Father. (St. John xvi. 5-8, 28) True life comes from and must return to God. Jesus then prays, Keep in thy name those whom thou hast given me that they may be one as we are one…that they may have my joy made full in themselves. (St. John xvii. Xvii. 11-13)
And so with St. Peter, the chief of the Apostles, we must begin to become the children of Christ’s Resurrected desire. Thus, we must learn to become alien residents of this world. Dearly beloved, St. Peter writes, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul; having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles.(1 St. Peter 2. 11) Christians, he maintains, are to be defined spiritually by Christ’s truth. We are not to be at home in this world. This is not our end or final resting place. Here we cannot hope to find our deepest fulfillment and happiness. We are strangers and pilgrims just passing through on our way to a better country. Here we have no enduring city; but we seek one to come. (Hebrews xiii. 14) And so we are not to desire or lust after the things of this world, such as material possessions, earthly riches, honor, respect, or even an earthly legacy. For, in point of fact, the pursuit of these things leads not into heaven but to hell. Rather, we must be risen with Christ, [and] seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1) If we begin to do this, we shall have let go of Christ’s flesh, embrace his Spirit, and become the living members of his Resurrected Body as we continue to approach our eternal homeland.
Darkness and uncertainty, loneliness and spiritual effort are necessary to us, and, taken right, they are the growth of faith, Austin Farrer once wrote when reflecting upon the process of being born again into Christ’s Resurrection. The effort to derive our livelihood and meaning from above is hard stuff! Before we find our deepest union and communion with God through Jesus Christ, we must endure dark nights of the soul and the pain that comes with spiritual new birth. But then, as Romano Guardini reminds us, in Christ, Love breaks open the seal on his heart and Spirit. In communion with Christ’s heart, our own is suddenly able to experience that of which it is incapable alone. Out spirit stretches to measure up to Christ’s, and thereby grasps much that it never could have grasped by itself. (The Lord, p. 424-5) Indeed, then we shall begin to rise up and out of ourselves, moved by the love that Resurrects us from this world, at home with Jesus in the heaven of his Father’s loving embrace, possessing a joy that no man taketh away from us (St. John xvi. 22) – yet still one which we must share if we hope to be saved.
This is thankworthy, that if a man for conscience endure grief, Suffering wrongfully.
(1 St. Peter ii. 19)
You might think it strange that our Epistle reading for The Second Sunday after Easter
taken from St. Peter’s First Letter should speak of suffering. After all we are in Eastertide. We meditated upon suffering at length on Good Friday. Surely now we are meant to focus more on the positive joy, the surging and rising happiness that comes to us when we meditate upon Christ’s victory over suffering, sin, and death. And to be sure, this is what Eastertide is all about. But I think today that we need to remember that the organizers of the ancient lectionary, those Church Fathers who chose the readings for our liturgical season, had some deeper
truth in mind when they chose our readings for Easter tide. I believe that they wanted to be honest with us about what Resurrection entails. They wanted us to remember that human life, as joyously focused on Christ’s Resurrection as it should be, is more honestly experienced as a life in tension between dying on the one hand and rising on the other. What I mean is that the Church Fathers knew only too well that for the prudent and cautious pilgrim life involves spiritual warfare – a battle between dying to one self and rising to another.
So, then what the Church Fathers ask us to understand is that suffering is a good and virtuous endeavor. Last week we spoke of how Christ’s Peace comes to us in order to convey the forgiveness of sins, and an invitation into new life. It all seemed so positive. And yet today we learn that the process of its possession involves something which we are inclined to fall away from, to neglect, or to escape when left to our own devices and natural desires. St. Peter tells us this morning, For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. (1 St. Peter ii.19,20) St. Peter knows that Christ has offered to us that Peace that conquers and overcomes our spiritual resistance and obduracy to it. He knows, too, that the Lord extends to us what amounts to the forgiveness
of sins, whose reception must be so gratefully and unworthily received that we cannot help but extend it from us to others. Christ’s Peace and Forgiveness overwhelmed and overcame the Apostles. What they neither anticipated, imagined, nor knew themselves to deserve, they now suffered to grow in their hearts and their souls. Christ has risen from the dead; Resurrection means not only God’s forgiveness of man, but man’s forgiveness of man. For I have given you an example, that ye should do [to one another] as I have done to you. (St. John xiii. 15)
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 St. Peter ii, 15) The message is clear - by well doing, by forgiving, by praying, by blessing, by hoping, the Christian is to stand out in the pagan world as one whose living reveals goodness overcoming evil, mercy vanquishing cruelty, benevolence banishing suspicion and ill will, hope crushing despair, and light dispelling darkness. That this will be difficult, St. Peter acknowledges. He writes his Epistle to a community which is struggling to overcome evil with good, or, more specifically, to allow Christ’s Resurrected goodness to overcome all and every form of evil that stubbornly resists it in the human heart. St. Peter does not pretend that Christians are not engaged in spiritual warfare; but he does seem intent upon directing their attention to the spiritual battle against evil in their own souls, and away from the evil that others might visit upon them. He knows that those who fail to love and forgive others have rarely, if ever, faced their inner demons and commenced the inward and spiritual battle.
Peter reminds his flock and us today that Christ Jesus was the one Person in history who understood and underwent this struggle more completely and perfectly than any other. St. Peter tells us that Jesus himself, our God and our Brother, took upon and into himself the effects of sin, suffering, and death, despite the fact that he
did not sin, neither was guile found in his mouth; who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered he threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously. (1 St. Peter ii. 22,23) In some radically unheard of way the wrongful presence and seeming power of evil in our world touched and killed Jesus Christ. And yet he responds to it with a more insistent love and desire for the salvation of his enemies. He did not render evil for evil, because he died to sin – both to its meaninglessness and to its pretense to power in creation. For in suffering and enduring sin’s assault upon his sacred flesh, he brought it to its proper end - death. Within himself the goodness, the love, the compassion, the pity, the forgiveness of sins remained and prevailed: who in 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 you were healed; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 24,25)
What the Apostles realized long ago was that Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, rose up on Easter Day as the
Wounded Healer. What they began to realize slowly but surely was that this same Jesus who had forgiven men from the Cross, was now standing before them as the Good Shepherd, whose Peace and Forgiveness would
shepherd them and others into the Father’s everlasting care and embrace. In the parable that he uses in this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus likens himself to both the door and the Good Shepherd who longs to carry us through it to the Father’s eternal presence. We can become his sheep, he suggests, if we begin to know his love and submit to his care. Dr. Farrer explains Jesus’ words in this way:
What does he say? A man cares naturally for his own things.
He does not have to make himself care. The shepherd who has
bought the ground and fenced the fold and tended the lambs, whose
own the sheep are to keep or to sell, cares for them. He would run some
risk, rather than see them mauled; if he had only a heavy stick in his hand,
he would beat off the wolf…. He says that he cares for us as no one else can,
because we are his. We do not belong to any other man; we belong to him.
His dying for us in this world is the natural effect of his unique care. It is the
act of our Creator. (Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament: Easter II)
We do not belong to any other man, Dr. Farrer insists. He might have added that neither do we belong, truly, to the world, to the flesh, and or to the devil. We belong to God, he is saying. That belonging comes through the Son and so to belong to God we must come to know him through his Son. We cannot come to know our Heavenly Father, again, without the Peace and Forgiveness enfleshed in the saving life of Jesus. If we begin to open our hearts to his gifts of Peace and Forgiveness, we shall begin to know that we belong to Christ. But we protest, all we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every man to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah liii. 6) True enough. And it we leave it at that, we will be honoring the death of Jesus, another tragic hero. But he responds to our sin. He rises up and calls us forward. I am the Good Shepherd, and I give my life for my sheep…I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known by them. (St. John x. 11, 14) Jesus tells us that he knows us. He knows who we are and what we need. He gives his
life for us, not only in his dying, but also in his rising. He has killed sin, death, and Satan for a reason. That we, with and in him, might rise up out of them all. His desire for us is overwhelmingly insistent, unshakably persistent, as God’s uninterrupted passion for our salvation. Death will not destroy his desire, nay rather it will become the ground and well-spring of the new Man, the new life into which Christ’s love will carry us all. The Father’s desire for all men’s salvation went down into death in the heart of Jesus. Jesus the Good
Shepherd was carrying us on his shoulders into our death. Jesus the Good Shepherd now carries all men on his shoulders up and into a life where sin, death, and Satan can harm us no more. Because we belong to Jesus, we too can embrace his desire for us as our desire for him. We can begin to know him, Jesus, as the
Good Shepherd, and that, [he even] prepares a table before us in the presence of [our] enemies;[that he will] anoint [our] head with oil; [so that our] cup runneth over. (Ps. xxiii. 5) He does insist, after all, that other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. (St. John x. 16) His ever-expanding desire is that other sheep should join us, as his love and forgiveness run over and out of the cups of our hearts and into the lives of other men.
So today, my friends, as we continue to wend our way through Easter tide, let us always remember that, indeed, we have erred and strayed from [Christ’s ways] like lost sheep. And yet he knows this, for we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps. c. 3) We belong to him. And so, as Cardinal Newman says,
Let us not be content with ourselves; let us not make our own hearts
our home, or this world our home, or our friends our home; let us look
out for a better country, that is, a heavenly. Let us look out for Him who
alone can guide us to that better country; let us call heaven our home, and
this life a pilgrimage; let us view ourselves, as sheep in the trackless desert,
who, unless they follow the shepherd, will be sure to lose themselves, sure to
fall in with the wolf. We are safe while we keep close to Him, and under His eye;
but if we suffer Satan to gain an advantage over us, woe to us!... Blessed
are we who resolve—come good, come evil, come sunshine, come tempest, come
honour, come dishonour—that He shall be our Lord and Master, their King and
God!... and with David, that in "the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil,
for He is with us, and that His rod and His staff comfort us…. (The Shepherd of
Our Souls) Amen.
Easter I 2013
April 7, 2013
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 onto 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 him 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 conduct 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, 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) And so, as we read last week, Saints Peter and John ran to the tomb, found in it
empty of all human life, 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 rebuffed with a rebuke from 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 the 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 and understanding will grow and expand. 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 this spiritualized body that He bears will broaden and expand from his seat in Heaven as it grows to include all men in His living.
So 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. (The writers of the Gospels and St. Paul will leave that to the creative minds of the Gnostic heretics!) 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 record of how men of all sorts responded to the phenomenon which we call Jesus Christ. In St. Mark’s Gospel we read, even, that [Jesus] appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided
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, of initial unbelief!
Second, what the authors of the New Testament record is 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 continued to measure Christ’s life and death by the line of their own thinking. 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 something begins to happen to them. Jesus says to his friends, Peace be unto you. (Ibid, 19) What is this that He is saying? How can he utter these words to us? Peace be unto you, He says To you? To us? We who ran from 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 to us? It is certainly nothing we could have imagined or invented. It is, in point of fact, overturning all reason and methods of calculation. No, this is certainly something that is happening to us, something to which we cannot respond. 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. They are his friends. Peace be unto you. He repeats it twice! He has forgiven them, and brings them his Peace. They will carry his Peace, and so forgive all others! As my Father has sent me, even so send I you. (Ibid, 21) The forgiveness of sins is on the move; it has risen up and out of the grave; it is out of the grave and spreading abroad. The forgiveness of sin reconciles 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 communication of the forgiveness of sins. Offer it always; if it is accepted it will grow. If it is rejected, love and forgive all the more. To love is to suffer. Behold my hands and my side. Forgiveness is the law of Love. It is commanded and not suggested. God glorifies the scars of the Man who is also love. (The Forgiveness of Sins: CW, p.181)
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. In the coming days they will seem to be dead to the world because having received the forgiveness of sins, they are being reconciled to God, whose Peace Christ is, and whose love they must spread. There departure [from the world] is taken for misery by some, but they have overcome the world.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 have the forgiveness of sins. To have the forgiveness of sins means to have new life – the Resurrected life of Jesus Christ that reconciles all men to God.
Christ’s Resurrection is what has happened to the Apostles, and to all faithful men and women in all ages who have allowed themselves to be touched by it. We can spend our lives pushing it away from us, making the excuse
that our sin is too great, our belief too weak, our love too faint, and our hopes too narrow. We can reject it too because we can’t understand how forgiveness can conquer resentment, love hate, hope despair, and wisdom
ignorance. And then the devil will have us exactly where he wants us. He loves to convince us that we shall be forgiven, though we need not forgive – or that Christ’s Resurrection has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins. Satan loves to convince us that, when all is said and done, that tiny compartment in our hearts reserved for “unforgiveness” will be passed by and overlooked by God the Judge. Yet it is precisely that one space reserved for that one person whom we have not forgiven that will surely, in the end, ensure our damnation. Heaven’s law is love. As unworthy as we are of it, we must receive it. And more than that, we must extend it to all. 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) The dawning of this realization is what happened to the Apostles long ago as they began to rise in Christ and spread his forgiveness. And we can do the same only if and when we realize that, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor. ii. 9) When, 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)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons