As my Father has sent me, so send I you. (St. John xx. 21)
You and I have just emerged from a rigorous Holy Week and Easter, when we tried to walk with Jesus Christ through his Passion and into His Resurrection. Here are my prayers. I pray that we have striven to move from death into new life. First we meditated upon the external and visible events that comprised the last days of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were contemplated with a view to see exactly what happened. And second, hopefully, those same events began to affect our inward and invisible natures, as His death became our death, and His offer of Resurrection the seedbed of that new life in Him that leads us to Heaven. Having confessed that I it was denied thee, I crucified thee (Ah Holy Jesus), I pray that our souls began to open to Christ’s response in the forgiveness of sins and His persistence in pursuing our salvation beyond the grave. I pray that we have begun to receive this Divine Love, which alone can make us into members of the Body of Christ and children of His Resurrection.
So I pray also that we shall stop treating Jesus of Nazareth like a dead teacher from past history or one who said and did good things for His own generation but has been rendered irrelevant and obsolete in ours. G.K. Chesterton noted this tendency, even within the churches, when he said, Plato has told you a truth; but Plato is dead. Shakespeare has startled you with an image; but Shakespeare will not startle you any more.(The Everlasting Man) Imagine the sense of loss that every student has felt with the loss of a great mentor or teacher. The student finds himself at a crossroads, for a stellar mind is gone and his voice is silenced. Chesterton continues: Imagine what it would be to live with such men still living, to know that Plato might break out with an original lecture tomorrow, or that at any moment Shakespeare might shatter everything with a single song. (Ibid) Think about what it would be like to have your favorite writer or thinker back from the dead to help you to interpret and respond to the mad, mad world that surrounds you.
Perhaps this is not unlike what the Apostles were thinking, when they began to mourn Jesus’ death after the Crucifixion. Why, if only He were here, they must have thought. And yet when He was here, men were determined to ruin Him. Would it be any different? So they mused on the might-have-beens. Then they remembered that they too had abandoned, forsaken, denied, and betrayed Him. So now they were assembled behind the doors for fear of the Jews,(St. John xx. 19) precisely because they feared what guilt by association might mean for them now. Yes, the Apostles were afraid, troubled in conscience, trembling at what the enemies of Jesus might be plotting. Their faith was weak, they hopes were confused, and even their desire for His return might have been half-hearted.
And then, despite themselves, their beloved departed returns. Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He shewed them His hands and His side.(St. John xx. 20) Their master and teacher has returned, and as the scales begin to fall from their eyes slowly, they begin to recognize Him. The vision of their faith is weak and fragile but grows and strengthens. He shows them His hands and His side to confirm their faith in Him, that they might not have it by hearsay only, but might themselves be eyewitnesses of His being alive. (M. Henry) He comes to them alone, and does not appear to the whole of mankind. He does not reveal Himself to His enemies and He does not reveal Himself to those who had no interest in God or the salvation He has promised to bring. As St. Peter will recall a bit later, Him God raised up the third day, and showed Him openly; not to all of the people, but unto witnesses chosen before God, even to us who did eat and drink with Him after He rose from the dead. (Acts x. 40,41) An event of supernatural making presents itself to them. The Apostles are baffled, bewildered, perplexed, puzzled, and flummoxed. Those who fled the Cross wondered: Did He truly die? Perhaps, in the end, He was spared; we did not see with our own eyes. Others might have thought: This is an optical illusion. Perhaps He was never a true man and that even now He is nothing but a Spirit. And if it will take time to convert His Apostles, there is no small wonder that He did not appear to the chief priests and people.
For forty days Jesus will teach His friends about the great mystery of the new life. He will teach them about how His coming was prefigured in the Old Testament and that He is its fulfillment in the New. He will teach them about the nature of the new life that He brings to them, and, most importantly, that the first principle of that life is the forgiveness of sins that He embodies. He will show them that without His suffering and death there could be no new life. For the new life that He brings into the world is perfect forgiveness that alone can overcome the grip of evil through love. His love will draw the new life out of them as His Holy Spirit enables them to be forgiven and to forgive. Suffering and death will begin to be consecrated as essential spiritual moments in the soul’s journey back to God. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you….If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you…. (St. John xv. 18-20)
Peace be unto you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you; and He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive the Holy Ghost.(St. John xx. 21-23) The Word made flesh is with them, and He calls them into His service again. He breathes His Word into them and they begin to become living members of His Resurrected Body. He has laid down His life for them, and now He gives it back to them renewed, rekindled, and roused. These He restores, comforts, warns, and inspires. (Newman, Witenesses of Resurrection, 184) The onslaught of fear and the cloud of confusion recede into the past as He forms them into Himself slowly and methodically, as their faith grows that that they might show forth His praise. (Idem)
So the Apostles begin to live the new life. Christ is the vine and they the branches; Christ is the root and they are the shoots. As Chesterton says, What the Apostles were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener, God walked again in the garden, not in the cool of the evening, but at dawn.(The Everlasting Man) The Apostles’ mental unrest and uncertainty flee. The Master has returned as He had promised, and is now teaching them how to live the new life in the garden of a new creation. Their faith in Him is being grown into new life with new meaning, where God the Gardener and man the new life reveal to the world the great possibilities in creation’s redemption.
In this joyful Eastertide Jesus Christ calls us into the new life. St. John tells us this morning, Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is He that overcometh the world, but He that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?(1 John v. 4,5) What the Apostles begin to see is that faith in Jesus Christ is the victory that overcomes the world. They see that, This [Jesus is He] that came by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear witness, the Spirit, and the water and the blood.(1 John v. 6) The Spirit has raised up the One who has poured out water and blood to make man just with God. The Spirit has raised up the One who has died one death for the sins of the whole world. The Spirit has raised up the One who calls all from death into His new life. The Spirit enlivens the One who will be the Gardner that tills and tends the Garden of the new life in the hearts of all who believe and follow. Through the waters of Baptism, His Spirit will cleanse and purge the spiritual seedlings of all pestilence. The Spirit will cultivate and grow God’s Word in the soul so that obedience to the Father might flower and blossom. The Blood of the Eucharist will drown sin in death and flood the heart with a longing for all goodness. Spirit, water, and blood will raise man up from the ground of his death into the breath of that Love that leads into the new life. His Spirit will animate a new Body- the Church, that fertile Garden that will bloom with beauty and blush with delight.
And yet none of this will come to pass unless we lost souls, who are promised redemption, face the Resurrected Jesus Christ. Solomon tells us that this process will be strange and painful. In the sight of the unwise [we shall] seem to die: and [our] departure [will be] taken for misery; and [our] going from [them] utter destruction….(Wisdom ii 2) But once they see what is happening to us, they will conclude that we are in peace. For though [we] be punished in the sight of men, [our] hope is full of immortality. And having been a little chastised, [we] shall be greatly rewarded: for God [will prove us], [to find us] worthy for himself…And…[we] shall shine, and run to and fro like sparks among the stubble. [We] shall judge the nations, and have dominion over the people, and [our] Lord shall reign for ever. (Wisdom ii. 5-8)
Then we shall find Blessed Gueric of Igny’s words surprisingly true:
The man who enters Christ’s garden becomes a garden himself, his soul is like a watered garden, so that the Bridegroom says in praise of him: ‘My sister, My spouse is a garden enclosed’ (Cant 4, 12). Yield the fragrance of incense. Blossom like the lily, and smell sweet, and put forth leaves for your adornment. (The Garden of Delight)
Indeed, yield fragrance, blossom, shoot forth, and reveal the beauty and love of the Risen Christ to the world!
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St. Michael and All Angels Sermons