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.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: