Saturday, May 14, 2011

Third Sunday after Easter

1 St. Pet. ii. 11-17  *  St. John xvi. 16-22

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.

These words must be taken quite literally, for they were fulfilled literally. For a brief while they did not see him, and then they saw him. We must hear in these words their blunt, literal, objective meaning. They are echoed in words we say every morning and evening: He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again from the dead.
          In my younger days I was among people who wanted to be very spiritual, and some who wanted to appear to be very spiritual. The words I have quoted above were treated all too mystically by some people. They wanted to interpret them in terms of spiritual or religious experience. I want to be careful not to rob anyone of the significance of real experience of that kind, nor of a spiritual sense in which these words describe it for them:

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.

However, I recall the words of G.K. Chesterton writing about the thirteenth century, and the prevailing mysticism of that era. In his biographical sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton wrote: “When Religion would have maddened men, theology kept them sane.”1 So, these words of Jesus, “A little while, and ye shall not see me; and again, a little, and ye shall see me,” must be treated first and foremost by the “Queen of the Sciences” – by which I do mean theology. It is a science, based on facts, facts that amount to revelation. And, if I may intrude upon the religious nature of a church service with the science of theology, let me encourage everyone here to examine the facts.

The scientific approach
Within a few days after the Lord spoke these words, the situation was this: Their Lord was dead. Several times He told them how it would be. He said several times that He would be handed over to the Gentiles and be crucified, and die; and that He would rise again the third day. But their minds blocked out what He told them until they went through the worst of it. That is understandable. Their hope was shattered. They mourned and wept while the world rejoiced.     
But, after three days He appeared to them alive again. He had not conquered Rome; He had, instead, conquered the real enemy. He had overcome sin and death. He had been the Suffering Servant spoken of by Isaiah the prophet; now He was the man who died as “an offering for sin,” and then rose again to “prolong His days” as the one in whose hand the will of the Lord would prevail (all just as the prophet had said).
          Those are the facts, as witnessed by His disciples. That is theology as science, based on facts of revelation. And, indeed, Jesus encouraged the scientific approach:

Painting of St. Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; 1573-1610
Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.2

Then saith he 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.” And Thomas answered and said unto him, “My Lord and my God.3

The Lord encouraged faith too; but He also made known His will that they should accept the proofs He showed them, that He was alive. As I said on Easter, this was not about some mystery called “the empty tomb.” It was about the facts declared by eyewitnesses; and not just any eyewitnesses, but those witnesses who gave the word martyr (witness) its new meaning. They stared down death as the only people in the world who could now laugh at the terror of the grave – or, rather, the former terror; for they feared death no longer.
The other thing we may be moved to do with these words of Jesus is to apply them to our own emotional ups and downs, or to our own fears and the comforts that come by God’s grace in this life. That is fair enough, as long as we see all that as a mere shadow of their true meaning. And, when we consider the implications of the resurrection of Christ for us, the literal meaning of His words is far greater.
          Because He rose again from the dead the third day, your hope is not in this world only, but in the world to come when God makes everything new. St. Paul wrote to the Church in Rome,

But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.4

We do not believe merely in a symbolic resurrection, something to help us feel good about worldly things, about transient emotional turmoil or desires. Our hope is not about this world that passes away, or the things of this world that so easily draw away our love from God to carnal affections. Besides, it is not always the will of God to deliver us from our perceived problems or to give us what we think we want for ourselves. Frankly, some of our desires are petty, some are sinful and selfish, and some are simply irrelevant to the things that God would have us pay attention to.       

Easter past and future
          Easter is a fact of history; but it is also the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to come. The resurrection is a fact that was accomplished on the Third Day, and a promise that will be fulfilled on the Last Day. “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.5
For "we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is," wrote St. John. 6 St. Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, says:

But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.7

The imagery is from the harvest. In the Spring we have the firstfruits, that first growth of the field; it is a foretaste of what comes later in the harvest. It fulfilled the meaning of the feast of the first fruits in the Book of Leviticus.8 The feast of the firstfruits was directly after the first Sabbath that followed the Passover. No coincidence that.
After the Sabbath they were to present the firstfruits, just as Christ would rise and appear to witnesses after the Sabbath, on the first (and eighth) day of the week. The firstfruits are a pledge of the future, a promise of what is to come. As Christ rose from the dead in the Springtime of the world, He will come again at the time of harvest. As He rose from the dead never to die again, so shall those who love God and look for his appearing also rise again at his coming, and enter into His Easter life, His resurrected and eternal life, His immortality, never to die again. St. Paul in his Epistle to the Church in Rome, writes:

Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.9  

You see, "when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Easter is history and future. It happened and will happen. The third day, the day after the Sabbath, was Christ's Easter. The day when He comes again shall be our Easter; and like Him, all who have looked for His appearing again, all who love God, will enter into His immortality. Though we will have died, we will die no more; Death shall have no more dominion over us; for it has no more dominion over Him. This is our future if we remain In Christ.
Paul also wrote, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."10 Modern religion all too often is about feeling good in this life, or being successful in this world, or even about health and prosperity; all of which things, though, they may be good for a time, are ultimately worthless; for this life ends. "Here we have no abiding place." These words that Jesus spoke mean so much more. They mean everything.
Without this hope of the Gospel, the Epistle reading we heard today would come across as moral platitudes. But, in the context of Christianity, of the Gospel and our Risen Living Lord, they take on lively and powerful meaning:
Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. 
          In the context of eternal life, every commandment takes on new meaning. That meaning is, 

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another… We love him, because he first loved us.11

          For a brief while they did not see him, and then they saw him.

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.
1. Chesterton, G.K., Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, 1933, London
2. Luke 24:39
3. John 20:27,28
4. Rom. 8:11
5. John 6:54
6. I John 3:2
7. I Cor. 15:20-23
8. Lev. 23:15-17
9. Rom. 6:9, 10
10. I Cor. 15:19
11. I John 4:10,11,19

1 comment:

colin Chattan said...

Great picture by Caravaggio. What a brilliant artist he wss!