Saturday, April 30, 2011

First Sunday after Easter

On Thursday Diane and I went together to Carol Woods, to the nursing home building, so that we could visit a founding member of St. Benedict’s, and I could give her communion. When we were there she told us about someone she knows who has been in absolute terror because of the recent tornados (some of the worst ever that very morning). As we conversed, we discussed the theory that our technology can give us the illusion of safety. But, it is an illusion. Anyone of us could die at any moment. No one is guaranteed another breath. Our Archbishop likes to tell the anecdote of a priest who signed the services record book before a service began. An older gentleman said to him: “You have shown great presumption, and may be guilty of falsifying a public record.” The presumption, I think, was that he was so confident that he would be alive at the end of the service.

On Wednesday, April 28, 2002, an F4 tornado landed in a Southern Maryland town called LaPlata. That is the second largest kind of tornado. It came across the Chesapeake Bay, unknown to Diane and me. We had started a drive home from Easton, Maryland, where I had celebrated at the altar of St. Andrew’s. During our drive home, which was usually half an hour, we had to pull off the road into the parking lot of a large shopping center. The reason we had to pull over was that rain was blinding us. The rain was coming at us sideways from all directions. As we sat in that parked car, I looked up into the actual F4 tornado. It was right over us. Lightning was going around in a circle, seeming more like a man-made light show than anything natural. Suddenly it was all over, and everything was peaceful.

Looking up into the belly of the beast, I realized afterward, that I did not have any feeling whatsoever of fear. This may be due, in part to the purpose for which God created fear, namely a survival instinct. For, there was nothing to do, and nowhere to go. It would land on us and kill us, or it would not. But, especially after celebrating the Holy Eucharist, I think the bigger reason why I did not feel any fear had everything to do with what I am about to tell you.

I John 5:4-12  John 20:19-23

"Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord."

This is one of the most important lines in all of Scripture. Our faith is not based on religious concepts and ideas, but on solid fact. They were glad, and that means they saw and believed. When St. Paul summarized the Gospel for the Church in Corinth (Cor. 15:1f), he recited four facts: 1. Christ died for our sins, 2) He was buried, 3) He rose the third day, and 4) He appeared to witnesses. These facts of the Gospel were "according to the Scriptures," meaning, these facts fulfilled the Scriptural foretelling of the prophets that Messiah would come the first time as priest and sacrifice, and that after his death he would rise again:

"Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand." (Isaiah 53:10)

He had died as the sin offering, and now he was alive again, a man once dead, but who prolongs his days as the one in whose hand the will of God prospers forever. For a dead man to prolong his days, he must rise again. And, what is the will of God that prospers in his hand? Our collect for today provides part of the answer: "Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification..." These words were drawn from St. Paul's Epistle to the Church in Rome:

"And therefore it [faith] was imputed to him [Abraham] for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Rom. 4:22-25)

On Good Friday we had a very mournful service, for that was the day in which Christ fulfilled the Scriptures of the prophets, that he would die as the offering for sin, fulfilling as well the entire symbolic system of sacrifice in the Law of Moses. On that day we saw him as Passover Lamb and as the Atonement slain on Yom Kippor. We saw his soul sorrowful unto death the night before in the garden, and we were with him at the cross. On Sunday, that is on Easter, we were suddenly glad, sharing the joy of those who first witnessed the sight of the risen Christ. "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. "

Our faith is based on fact. They saw him risen again, and they witnessed this sight together as a group. Their testimony was a shared testimony, something that by its nature cannot be dismissed as a delusion. His death was a fact, and his resurrection was a fact. But, now we must see not only these facts, but the meaning of these facts. His resurrection showed that He had been, all along, exactly who he claimed to be. He was vindicated. Indeed, before Abraham, He had been and always was I AM. He was, and throughout eternity had always been, One with the Father. And, yet though he was the one vindicated, that is whose words were proved true, it is we who are justified freely by His grace.

His vindication was made into our justification; for now Christ Jesus the Lord had taken away sin and had defeated death. If we hold fast and believe, we will spend eternity not only as forgiven sinners, whose Lord died to bring that forgiveness to his people; for even beyond having been forgiven, if we hold fast and believe, we will spend eternity as the children of God through the grace of the risen Lord, fully justified as if we had never sinned at all. We are forgiven because he died, and we are justified because he rose again and ever lives to make intercession for us. That means we have been made righteous, as if we had never sinned at all, in the sight of God. Forgiveness is made richer because of Divine forgetfulness, as the Bible also states plainly: He forgets our sins. So, in the eyes of God, because Christ rose again from the dead, we are restored fully and given the inheritance that our first father lost. 

We have been allowed to start all over again, and to become God's own children through Christ. This has everything to do with that little two word phrase that St. Paul repeats throughout his epistles: "In Christ." It is a small phrase, and thus easily overlooked. And, yet, it is our identity in the eyes of God; it is your identity, and has been ever since the day you were baptized into Christ. If you are "in Christ" and if you abide and dwell in Christ, God sees you in the Person of His only begotten Son. He sees you in His Son, the one Beloved of the Father in all eternity.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved." (Eph. 1:3-6)

That God sees you in the Person of His only begotten Son means that, even beyond forgiveness, you have been justified as if you had never been born in sin, and had never sinned yourself. That is justification; that is adoption as a child of God; that is what it means to be "in Christ."

This is why it is so very tragic when any child of God chooses to live as merely a son of this fallen world ("For as in Adam all die : even so in Christ shall all be made alive"). You do not belong to this world of sin and death, and have no business living as if you did. Because we are justified freely in the Risen Christ, we are called to sanctification, that process whereby we become saints.

A saint is, simply, a holy person. In an objective sense you have been made holy by having been separated from the world of sin and death, and set apart unto God. This was done in your baptism. But, in terms of the life you live here on earth, as we also have seen in the epistles of St. Paul, you have the vocation, that is the calling, to become holy, to be a saint, conformed to the image of Christ in this world. Growing in the grace of God and acquiring holy virtues, above all charity, is the vocation every child of God has in common. This we cannot do if we choose to live in the darkness of carnality and selfishness.

The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord, though as yet they did not fully comprehend all that it meant. But, they could quickly comprehend that Christ's resurrection demonstrated the goodwill, the love and saving intention, of God. Somehow, it meant that everything he had suffered was part of the plan; it demonstrated that he had been in control all along; it meant that the fear and suffering of Friday was not a defeat, but rather the very plan, just as their Master had foretold several times. For example, hear these words from the Gospel of Mark:

"And they were in the way going up to Jerusalem; and Jesus went before them: and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid. And he took again the twelve, and began to tell them what things should happen unto him, Saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again." (Mark 10:32-34)

The resurrection demonstrated that Christ had come to be our Salvation from sin and death, that God had come in peace rather than as an enemy. "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." (John 3:17)

"Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord."

Now, it was time for the Lord to send them out.

"Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you."

This means that the Apostles were, and therefore the Apostolic Church is, in the world as the Body of Christ, the extension of His Incarnation. It means the Apostolic Church (including you and me) is here to assist and work with God in the service and ministry of reconciliation, calling all men everywhere to repent, filling the world with the Good News that Jesus Christ has taken away sin and conquered death. It means the Apostolic Church, of which you are a part, is to go into the highways and hedges and compel people to come in that His house may be filled. It means that you are here on a mission of peace, to help your neighbor obtain peace with God through Jesus Christ.

"And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."

This too speaks of the Church as the Body of Christ. Of course, it speaks directly of a sacrament that belongs to the Apostolic ministry of Christ's own priesthood though ordained men. And, I have challenged those who reject our belief in the sacrament of Absolution, in these words: "If your church has no one in it who believes that he has the authority to forgive sins, how can you say that you are in the same Church founded by the Risen Lord Jesus Christ through his Apostles?"

More largely, it speaks of God's purpose that forgiveness of sins be spread far and wide. Yes, forgiveness is conditional. Indeed, after the General Confession (for example) you hear conditions in the Absolution that follows, namely, "hearty repentance and true faith." "Hearty" means simply, from the heart, or, sincere. Repentance must be sincere; not necessarily emotional; but sincere. And, "true faith" may be as small as a grain of mustard seed, for even that little is enough; for it is faith in God Who is infinite. More largely, the Good News is that the risen Christ has commissioned the Church of His Apostles to be His instrument of forgiveness, not of condemnation.

In all of history, no line has been more important than this: "Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord." His resurrection was a fact they could see, hear and touch. To this fact they have borne witness by preaching the Gospel, their own eyewitness testimony courageously declared, unrelentingly declared even to the shedding of their blood as His faithful martyrs. For, above all else, the message of his resurrection from the dead on the third day is the message of God's love, that God sent his Son came into the world to be our Salvation; He is our peace and reconciliation with God.

This is the message Christ has commissioned though His Apostolic Church. Therefore, we too must believe he has risen, and be glad.

1 comment:

Mark Spencer said...

"This is the message Christ has commissioned though His Apostolic Church. Therefore, we too must believe he has risen, and be glad."
- Yes, it is.