At the beginning of Saint John’s First Epistle we see a connection between the fellowship that the Apostles had with Jesus Christ during the years in which they followed Him from town to town, the relationship they maintained with Him after His resurrection, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit that began to be manifested on the day of Pentecost. Among those charismatic realities we are given the sacraments. This continued fellowship with the Risen Christ is, in a sense, Part II of the Incarnation. It is the Incarnation as it continues to affect the fallen world through His Body the Church, from which the Lord is never absent. He is its chief member, the Head of the Body.
So now, hear these opening words from that Epistle:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
We should think together about how this brings us to the words in the fifth chapter that we have read this day, especially, “He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” We should reflect on the charismatic reality and power of God in His Church, and of how we remain in that blessed fellowship. We should reflect on how the hands of the apostles handled the Risen Lord, and how their eyes saw Him, and how we continue in that fellowship. We should reflect upon the reality of His Presence when we partake of the Blessed Sacrament, when our eyes see and our hands handle the Word of Life even here and now. All of this is part of having fellowship with the Apostles, and in that fellowship, fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, that our joy may be full.
We speak of the Sacramental Life, and we need to know that this is, indeed, Part II of the Incarnation. The Sacramental Life is everything that we have read about. We know that our Lord came to his earth by taking the limitation of human nature into the infinity of His Divine Person as God the Son, time into eternity, creation into uncreated Life, man into God. The means of our salvation are physical, located in time and space, visible in history. His conception and birth, the Nativity in Bethlehem wherein the words of Christopher Smart ring true: “God all bounteous, all creative, Whom no ills from good dissuade, Is incarnate and a native of the very world He made.” In going “about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the Devil” the Son of Man made use of matter, the touch of His hands and the vibrations of his voice, serving to heal through those means. By taking all of our sins and dying on the cross as the “sacrifice for sin,” and then after death “prolonging His days” by rising again, He used the physical means of our world, our home, to bring us salvation. He bore in His own body our sins on the tree, and by rising to life again destroyed death, and the one who has the power of death.
Therefore, to conclude that salvation is sacramental in nature, that it depends on the Incarnation, and that salvation is both the Church’s message and ministry, is to understand the apostolic fellowship about which Saint John taught us. It all comes from the richest truth gleaned from that simple phrase, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Without a flesh and blood Jesus who is fully God and Fully man, and without His resurrection by which he ever lives to make intercession for us, and without His continued ministry through His Body the Church by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we could not enter, let alone remain in the fellowship of which Saint John speaks. But, we have our Lord Jesus who is fully God and fully man, risen from the dead, our Great High Priest, our only Mediator, our Advocate and Propitiation, who calls you and me to live in fellowship with him and his Father, that fellowship he established in the Church of the Apostles so long ago, and which has never passed away from heaven and earth. We need to be in that fellowship. We are invited in, welcomed in, and even urged in. The benefits are eternal.
We see from the Gospel this day that our Lord ordained the Apostles, and that this included the priestly gift of the power to absolve sins. Make no mistake. This is the power about which the people had rejoiced when “they glorified God, because this power had been given unto men (Matthew 9:8).” To the Jews of that time, when the temple yet stood, this was indeed a priestly ministry. In the Law of Moses, the laws of Kippur, Atonement, required a priest to offer sacrifice for the penitent Israelite who, coming to the priest, made his confession of sin. In order to reconcile the penitent to God, the priest was required to make atonement. But, he could not kill himself, and so had to slay an animal in sacrifice (in his own place as the atonement), so that remission of sins could come through the shedding of blood (Heb. 9:22). Of course, to the Israelites, it was only natural to understand confession of sin in relation to the priests and sacrifice.
For us, the sacrifices are a type and shadow of the real sacrifice, that of Christ on His cross. So, on our altars we do not shed blood, but rather we obey the words, “do this as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of Me.” “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer Rite is here.” So too, when we hear confession, we speak a sacramental form to effect genuine absolution. When the Lord granted to men this gift in His own words of Ordination, He handed on the priestly ministry of forgiving sins that is granted by His own priestly act as the true Atonement, the real Kippur, by the shedding of His own blood. The Risen Christ has, by this sacrifice, given to the Church, by means of apostolic and priestly ministry, this great gift as part of that fellowship, “this life [that] is in His Son.”
Some of you may feel the need to make a private confession other than the General Confession, and that may very well be the voice of the Holy Spirit directing you. If so, do you fear the pain of making confession? Consider His pain by which this gift is given. Do you fear the embarrassment of confessing your sins to a man? Consider His humiliation by which this gift is given. Do you want fellowship with the Church of the Apostles? Do you want, through that fellowship, the fellowship with God and His Son Jesus Christ? Consider the One who allowed himself to be completely forsaken by all, so that he could restore you to this fellowship. Do you want your joy to be full? Then do not be afraid to come and confess your sins. The Risen Christ, using even now the means of this physical world, the presence of men who hear, the vibrations, that is the sound of your words of confession and their words of absolution, gives this wonderful certainty that your burden is laid down, and your soul healed.
This healing comes from the Incarnation; it all comes from the manifestation of the Word of Life in the Flesh; it is continued as Christ remains incarnate here in His body the Church. The Risen Christ is known to us in the waters of Baptism, in the Apostolic gift of Confirmation. He is known to us in the Church’s ministry of the forgiveness of sins. He is known to us in the Breaking of Bread.
Even now, in His Body the Church, by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, those charismatic realities that make the sacraments genuine and powerful, He yet goes about doing good, healing all who are oppressed by the Devil. Even now, this very day, within His Body the Church, He gives the fullness of this rich salvation. “And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.”