The Gospel. St. John xx. 1.F
The joy of Easter quickly turns into an empty and hollow show if we forget the sorrows of the Passion. Only by the Gospel can the deceptions of our time, or of any age, be corrected; and the Gospel keeps before our eyes these two realities: the cross and the empty tomb. The Risen Jesus Christ who appeared to witnesses, and overturned their sorrow with joy unspeakable and full of glory, said to Thomas “reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing (John 20:27).” That is, He answered doubt about His resurrection with the evidence of His sufferings and death. He answered with His wounds, still visible after coming out of the tomb. As an Advent Hymn puts it: “Those dear tokens of His Passion, still His dazzling body bears, Cause of endless exultation To His ransomed worshipers. With what rapture Gaze we on those glorious scars.” Another way of putting it is that He replied to skepticism by proving His identity, showing in those scars that he who now stood alive before them was truly their Lord who had died on the cross only three days before. “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death (Rev. 1:18).” The wounds in His hands and feet, the spear wound in His side, were the signs of suffering, and therefore of life overcoming death.
The Gospel is the story of both the cross and the empty tomb, the story of Christ’s Passion and death, and His glorious resurrection. On Easter we must remember the cross. For, this is how we apply the Gospel to our daily life. Today’s Epistle only makes sense when we place our hope given by Christ’s resurrection alongside the cross of His death. Unfortunately, even as far back as 1928, the Epistle reading was shortened. Let me give you the whole thing, as it had been in Prayer Book earlier, because even still it is not long.
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: for which things' sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: in the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.
What Saint Paul really told us is to have the hope and joy of the resurrection, and for this joy to walk in the way of the cross. This seems like a contradiction. Who wants to talk about mortification and putting to death the impulses that lead to sin? We just came out of Lent, and on Easter we should be all smiles and sunshine. But, if we get the point, we hear the Gospel. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was the one true sacrifice, that he died for our sins on the cross, and so purchased the forgiveness of our sins, and gave us our salvation. The same Gospel tells us that this Jesus, who appeared to witnesses after rising from the dead, promises to us the hope of everlasting life by raising us from the dead when he comes in glory on the Last Day. He is the first fruits of the resurrection, that part of the harvest that comes early. Because of this Saint John, in words from his First Epistle, tells us the same thing that we have heard from Saint Paul:
“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure (I John 3:1-3).”
Our hope is in Christ’s death for us by which he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and His resurrection, by which he gives His immortality to us; the gift of everlasting life through His resurrection from the dead. Saint Paul tells us to make this hope certain by a life of obedience and repentance. Saint John says the same thing, by telling us that if we have this hope we will purify ourselves, and adds the words “even as He (that is, the Lord) is pure.” This hope, if we really have it, will make us try to live up to the impossible standard of Christ’s own purity. Frankly, it is the effort that this hope creates; not perfect success, but earnest determination. If we have the hope of seeing Christ when he comes again, and being made alive forever after the pattern of His new and unending life, we will mortify our sinful desires, that is, purify ourselves with only Christ Himself as our standard; with Christ as our standard we do not compare ourselves to other sinners, and see if we are better than some of them, but to the absolute standard of righteousness that keeps us always penitent, and always aiming high.
So, only with the help of the cross, that is, only by accepting the cross that we must carry in order to follow Christ, are we able to live up to Saint Paul’s exhortation we have heard today: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Dead with Christ on the cross, alive with Christ in His resurrection. Our affection is not to be on the things of this world, but on those things in heaven where Christ rules even now.
This Gospel is the answer to the false teachings today that come not only from the society at large, but even from within churches. False religious teachers with a false gospel are always making the news, especially from that other denomination over there, the one about whom the news is always an embarrassment. They have given up and teach others to be given over. About them the words of Saint Paul, from yet another Epistle, ring true.
“For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things (Phil. 3:18, 19).”
The Apostle does not say that they are enemies of Christ, but enemies of the cross of Christ. Therefore, we may conclude, that they are enemies of His resurrection too, since their Christ, their false Christ with no cross, does not call anyone to “take up his cross, and follow me daily.”
Listen to words by C.S. Lewis: “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith but they are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the passion of Christ.” I believe that what he says about anxieties is true of particular sorrows and even of temptations. For some people, having to live with unusual and specific temptations is their share of sorrow.
When religious leaders fail to teach morality they pretend that this is because they are loving, affirming and accepting. But, tolerance is often the very opposite of love, and in reality it is self-serving. It never warns the sinner to repent because the people who preach this false gospel refuse to repent themselves. The most obvious heresy of the current age, making the headlines all the time, is Homosexualism: that is, acceptance of what they call the “gay life style.” But, it is a deeper problem, based on the idea that the highest good, and the most cherished human right for everybody, is carnal pleasure with no boundaries. The fact is (as you all should not need to be told), outside of marriage all sexual relations are sinful, and I mean marriage between one man and one woman. Even within marriage the relations should include love and mutual respect, not just any odd activity that the world engages in. Now, what about the person who suffers from same-sex attraction, or what about the person whose spouse cannot engage in marital relations due to some kind of physical, or even mental, condition? In short, what about the person who has to accept an amount of loneliness, and celibacy in order to live a righteous life?
Without both the cross and the hope of Easter, a false church presents a false gospel of tolerance, affirmation and acceptance; which really means, setting your affection on things below. So, It leads these people to destruction by affirming a false right to carnal happiness as the greatest good. Or, another kind of false approach is to give nothing more than the Law, and to define sin correctly, but to leave it at that. As Christians, we must do better: We must present the Gospel. We proclaim both Good Friday and Easter, the cross and the resurrection, setting our affection on things above, not on things on the earth. Not just for the people I have described, but for everybody, the way of salvation is the way of the cross; and no one can be Christ’s disciple without embracing and carrying the cross behind Him. This means we endure temptations by learning to say no; and it means we accept and even embrace suffering, trusting that God’s love has not failed us as we suffer. Can we see our suffering as our share in His Passion? Can our hope in the resurrection motivate us to purify ourselves by the standard of Christ’s own holiness?
And, for that person whose temptations we do not understand, and whose way seems hard, though we may feel tempted to make him feel good and tell him the easy popular lie, we must be ready instead to present the way of the cross. Only in that way can we help such a person see that his sufferings can, if he will let them, bring him closer to Christ, and the hope of Easter. We must help that person to set his own affection on things above, with hope and joy to purify himself. Anything else, no matter how warm and fuzzy, no matter how much it pretends to comfort, is not worthy to be called love, that is, by God’s standard: Love, charity, “does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth (I Cor. 13:6).”
This hope is more than anything the world offers. Years ago trendy preachers belittled traditional Christians as “other worldly.” They derided us because we did not make worldly happiness the highest goal for ourselves or for others. What is worldly happiness compared to what Saint Peter described in these words?
“To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls (I Pet. 1:4-9).”
Our hope is greater than this world, and the pledge for our hope is due only to the appearances of Jesus Christ to witnesses who saw Him alive again after His resurrection. They beheld His hands and feet, that it was truly the Lord. On this Easter, let us be determined to remember the cross, so that we ourselves bear it every day behind Jesus. And, let us be filled with joy and hope through believing, knowing that when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we appear with him in glory.