Saturday, May 02, 2009

Third Sunday after Easter

(Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio; 1573-1610)

The Epistle. 1 St. Pet. ii.11f  * The Gospel. St. John xvi.16f
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

We must hear in these words their blunt, literal, objective meaning. If we become overly-mystical, or even slightly allegorical, in our interpretation of them, we rob them of their power and effectiveness. We cannot afford ever to treat the crucifixion and death of Christ, and his victory over death by rising again the third day, as a poetic allusion meant to teach us simply to hope for relief from the difficulties of this transitory life. The Gospel of Christ, with his real death and his real resurrection, is not by any means a tale told to relieve the pain of worldly stress, or to inspire us to keep on keeping on. We should not belittle the Gospel by referring to our emotional ups and downs as, to quote one very unworthy individual, "God bringing an Easter out of a Good Friday."

If anything, our own life experiences work the other way around. When God brings us out of any trouble or sorrow, it is nothing more than a foretaste of what he has in store for those who love him. Frankly, God will not bring us out of every trouble and sorrow in this transitory life; for we all shall have our final trouble, our last sorrow, or sickness or injury, and we shall depart this mortal life never to return to it.

Our hope therefore, because of Christ's death, is that God will not deal with us as our sins deserve. Because Christ laid down his life for you, you may appear before God as righteous and without spot or wrinkle, that is, without sin. Christ's death saves you from estrangement and isolation, cut off from God to wander as a lost soul; that is, from Hell. Because he died, if you are sincere in your own repentance from sin, you are forgiven and cleansed. That brief time, in which his disciples faced despair because they did not see him, has bought your soul back from sin and its end. God is the one, as St. Paul wrote to the Church in Colosse, "Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13,14).”

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 (Rom. 8:11).” 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. 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 concerning which God calls our attention.

But, our hope is sure and certain. Easter is a fact of history certified by the blood of many ancient martyrs who chose death rather than deliverance; they did not recant their testimony that they had seen the risen Christ in the flesh as he stood before them, as he showed his hands, his feet his side, and said "Peace be with you." They chose to die for the truth of their testimony, as the Roman authorities persecuted them to the death, so that we could be certain, yes so that we their children in the Faith all these centuries later could know, that they had indeed seen the risen Christ.

Easter is a fact of history and it is our sure and certain hope of the future. For "we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is," wrote St. John. (I John 3:2) 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 (I Cor. 15:20-23).”

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. The Book of Leviticus has the Feasts of Israel, those feasts that God commanded the people of Israel to keep through all their generations, and all of which have special meaning that foretells the Gospel. About the firstfruits we see this:

“And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the Sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven Sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD. Ye shall bring out of your habitations two wave loaves of two tenth deals: they shall be of fine flour; they shall be baken with leaven; they are the firstfruits unto the LORD (Lev. 23:15-17).”

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 (Rom. 6:9, 10).” 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 - our Passover; and like him, all who have looked for his appearing again, all who love God, will enter 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 (Romans 6:9). This is our future if we hold to the faith of Christ.

Never take those words in today's Gospel and lower their meaning to speak of the things of this life that ends, and of this world that passes away. Do not settle for something so low and ultimately worthless; "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable (I Cor. 15:19).” 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, 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.

The Gospel events of which St. Paul wrote, as he opened the fifteenth chapter of his first Epistle to the Church in Corinth, include that very important fact that Jesus Christ, after he rose from the dead appeared to witnesses. In that passage, Paul tells us that Christ died for our sins in fulfillment of Scripture, that he was buried and rose again the third day in fulfillment of Scripture, and that he then appeared to witnesses on several occasions. In one address to people in Jerusalem, St. Peter said, "But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses." Another time he said, "The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him." In the house of Cornelius, Peter said, "And we are witnesses of all things which he did both in the land of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they slew and hanged on a tree: Him God raised up the third day, and showed him openly; Not to all the people, but unto witnesses chosen before of God, even to us, who did eat and drink with him after he rose from the dead." (Acts 4:14,15; 5:30-32; 10:39-41)

As I said on Easter Day, Christ's post resurrection appearances are part of the Gospel if we preach it correctly. We fail to say enough if we throw around the term, "the empty tomb." By itself the empty tomb proved nothing; the proof was that Jesus Christ appeared to witnesses after his resurrection from the dead; he ate with them, he showed them his wounds in his hands and feet and side; he bid them touch him and be certain. As the Gospel of Luke tells us:

“And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? 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. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them (Luke 24:38-43).”

In the recent weeks, leading up to Easter, we kept getting closer and closer to Passiontide and Holy Week. In our liturgical tradition we lived through the troubles and fears of those ancient disciples; the five hundred disciples and the eleven apostles who were closest to the Lord. Think again of the words He spoke to them, as we hear them again:

“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…Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”

In Passiontide we hid from our eyes the things that remind us our Lord’s presence, all under purple veils. But, afterward, when you walked through the door on Easter the veils were gone, and you rejoiced at the presence of the Risen Christ. For a while you did not see Him, then you saw Him, and your joy could not be taken from you. Think about what the disciples had gone through; their Lord was dead. They had placed not only their love, but they had placed all their hope in this one Man. He had said that he was One with the Father, that He would be the Salvation not only of Israel, but the light to the Gentiles, the hope for all nations. Several times He told them how it would be. He would be handed over and crucified, and rise the third day. But, like most of us, they could only hear just so much. Their minds blocked the rest until they had gone through the worst of it.

So, instead of watching Him take his throne that justly belonged to him, the Son of David, King in Jerusalem, they saw that he was humiliated, unjustly condemned, and given to the Romans to die the worst death of all, the death of the cross. 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 not ended the rule of that empire. 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, and would, as the prophet had said, after dying “prolong His days” as the one in whose hand the will of the Lord would prosper (Isaiah 53:10).

Their joy no man could take from 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

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.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate
, was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again from the dead.


Jack Miller said...

I just finished reading this aloud to my wife.

Fr. Hart, thank you for the unadulterated word of the truth. We both were fed and encouraged... fed with the gospel our Lord has ordained his servants give to the sheep. It doesn't get any clearer than what you have delivered.

Thank you, and thanks be to Him for such a glorious and merciful salvation.


Canon Tallis said...

Easter is so important to us as Anglicans, so central to our theology and to everything else which makes Anglicanism what it is. But it seems that it just isn't so for all who call themselves Christians. A very close friend told me tonight that his granddaughter who is attending a "Bible College" did a power point presentation based upon the calendar of the church in which she was raised. It include Mother's Day and Christmas, but not Easter! And none of her fellow students called her on it.

And these people think that we are not Biblical enough. We have to work harder, prayer harder and give more because there are so many out there who need to hear and believe the real Gospel, a Gospel that is reported in four books of the New Testament and in Paul's letters but which is simply invisible to so many.