From today’s Gospel Chapter: If ye love me ye will keep my commandments. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost — AMEN.
May I first express my thanks to all those who have so kindly facilitated my visit and the invitation to preach. It is a pleasure to be back at the Church of the Advent.
It has to be said that there is never a dull Sunday here at the Advent — in all manner of ways … and today we do not merely have the three Masses of the morning, but we no less than TWO Rogation Sunday Processions that take us out into the big wide world beyond the West Doors. And that is because today is Rogation Sunday.
The word Rogation goes all the way back to the Latin Rogare — to ask / to beseech, and it is still in use in modern English in the form of “Interrogation”.
In Ancient Rome cognate words had wide use in the legal system, but of more interest to us is that the Christian festival of Rogation seems to have been first held at a time which enabled it to supplant an earlier pagan Roman festival called the Robigalia. This consisted of a procession from Rome to a point outside the city, where a dog and a sheep were sacrificed to save the crops from blight (known in Latin as <em”>robigo, “wheat rust”). According to a later Christian document of Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great), the Christian festival was established as an annual event in the Christian calendar by the year 598. The Christian procession in Rome followed the same route as the pagan procession for a certain distance but then returned to St. Peter’s Basilica, where the Mass of the day was celebrated. Nonetheless there was some degree of continuity insofar as the Christian ceremony was one beseeching God for protection from calamities and for a good harvest.
Over time the observance spread across the Western Church and the Rogation Days comprise the three days preceding Ascension Day, especially devoted to asking for God’s blessing on agriculture and in more recent times general commerce and industry as well.And in Britain especially (but also in one or two parishes here), the associated mediaeval tradition of “beating the bounds” of the parish is observed at this time, with a procession, prayers and a sharing of hope in God‘s goodness to nourish every endeavour conducive to the flourishing of the area comprised of the parish. Hence Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week are known as the “Rogation Days,” days for fasting and prayer, leading up to Thursday which is the feast of the Ascension, which falls on the 40th day after Easter (when Easter Sunday is counted as the 1st day).
Such are the rewarding details of the Church Calendar.
But fundamentally here on the spiritual level is that Rogation invites us all to come together for the common good of seeking God’s blessing – in this particular place and parish. All of which brings us very sharply to the massive CHALLENGE that is posed to us all by today’s reading from the Epistle of James.
His rebuke to the Christian community he addresses provides the material for our fourth Sunday in our series reflecting upon that Epistle, and the words for today are certainly forceful! To quote:
What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you?….
Is it not your passions that are at war in your members?…
You covet and you cannot obtain — so you fight and wage war…
You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions…
Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?…
Submit yourselves therefore to God.
Resist the devil and he will flee from you….
Draw near to God and he will draw near to you ….
Purify your hearts, you men of double mind ….
Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.
Do not speak evil against one another.
These warnings and reproofs are powerful — indeed almost shocking in their sharpness. They bring to a cautionary climax the gradually mounting rhetorical intensity of this Epistle, as it moves over the course of only four chapters, from stressing — in the opening the value of trials and temptations as we learn with perseverance to overcome and resist them.
We have been challenged to be doers and not just hearers of the Word. And last week we were warned to bridle our tongues from saying wrong and evil things. And in today’s chapters the warnings reach a crescendo before — as we shall see next week — we are called finally to take to our knees in prayer.
Amidst the intensity and drama of all this it makes sense to explore something of the context into which James was writing. The dating and authorship of the Epistle are all subject to much debate, but one compelling case can be made to think of the letter as being earlier than the 3rd Century (as many have suggested) and indeed going all the way back to the time of James the brother of Christ — whom it seems only became a follower of Jesus after his Resurrection. If this time and framing is correct and the Epistle was written before AD 62, the year James was likely martyred (see Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1 and Eusebius II.23.1–18), it speaks to a time of great upheaval and danger and speaks to Jewish converts to Christianity especially. The decade from AD 50 onward had seen the rise of much turmoil and violence in Roman Judea, as Jews became more and more frustrated with corruption, injustice, and poverty. This turmoil continued into the 60s, and about four years before James was killed. War broke out with Rome a war which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem and a subsequent diaspora of its people.
This makes it very fitting that the epistle makes such exhortations:
–to relieve and care for the poor in practical ways (James 1:26–27; 2:1–4; 2:14–19; 5:1–6),
—to stand up for the downtrodden (James 2:1–4; 5:1–6) and
— not to be “like the world” in the way one responds to evil in the world (James 1:26–27; 2:11; 3:13–18; 4:1–10).
—the mere secular wisdom of this world is sharply rejected as having no normative value for Christians
—people are exhorted to adopt a higher heavenly wisdom, which includes peacemaking and the pursuit of righteousness in holy living (James 3:13–18).
Placed in such a context of upheaval and confusion, the epistle emerges as a very real letter with an urgent purpose: namely to encourage Christian Jews not to revert to violence in their response to injustice and poverty, but to stay focused on doing the good, staying holy and to embrace the wisdom of God and Christ and not that of the intolerant pagan world surrounding the early Christians of that time.
Times when the regular world is against us are always a special danger to us, but we must not stoop to the ways of that secular world ourselves.
Yet for all the drama of its historical context, the Epistle has also a dramatic theological perspective as well. For here, while salvation is by faith alone, nonetheless here, true faith never is alone for — for, as the author of James reminds us, faith shows itself to be alive by deeds that flow from it; deeds of love which express the believer’s trust in, and thanks to God for
–the free gift of salvation by faith in Jesus
–and the new life (and view of the world) this makes possible.
Indeed it is only within this world view —which Jesus Christ uniquely made possible by his once for all sacrifice — that we can most fully and authentically seek the good of all others, which is the common goal to which we invite all to share that will be made manifest as the fully redeemed world — to which Christ opened the way — comes to realization.
That is all part of the ultimate good (summum bonum) which is God himself (my computer always wants to correct Summum bonum to summer bonus, much as Professors Fiddes and Swinburne to Fiddles and Swindler).
Such then is the grandeur of the underlying theological vision which informs the Epistle of James, but we who read and receive it are all too human too in our failings, and it stands as a firm reminder that we are called to do better.
I remember seeing some while ago a caricature which showed two parishioners in a thinly attended church service glaring darkly at each other in the most hostile manner, redolent of deep and mutual suspicion. Meanwhile, in the background, the preacher is proclaiming from the pulpit, “The Devil is in our very midst”! That clearly explained their mutual suspicion!
The reading we have heard today from the epistle of James speaks to just such unchristian failings and suspicions. Sinful as it is, however, conflict within the Christian church is very sadly as old as the church itself. Remember the words of St Paul to the members of the church in Corinth (Chapter 3):
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ.You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. For we are fellow workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Yet when it comes to conflict: while we Anglicans have been sadly prone to it in recent times, we also have heritage from our history that should enable us to address internal conflict in ways others do not. Let us for example think back to the Master of the Temple Church — Richard Hooker. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, he created a uniquely Anglican theological approach marked by what one scholar has rightly called a “gracious, conciliatory spirit unusual in the theological debates of the day.” (Richard Schmidt, Definitive Anglican: Richard Hooker 1554-1600, 8)
Fully aware that he was “on dangerous ground in terms of the intellectual orthodoxy of his day, (D. MacCulloch, The Reformation, p. 507), “Hooker carefully resisted the urge to fight fire with fire, to consign to hell those who would certainly mark his place there. In an age when people were more than willing not only to die for their brand of faith but also to kill for it as well, (The Challenge of Definition: Conflict and Concord in Anglicanism, C. K. Robertson in Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2009, Vol. 78, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 373-392: “he translated many of the confusing destructive conflicts into … a pragmatic and tolerant middle way between the tempting dogmatisms of his day.”
Philip B. Secor, Richard Hooker: Prophet of Anglicanism 1999, p xiii), “Hooker’s example of letting go of one’s own supposed infallibility of opinion in order to learn from and be open to others would be (among his lasting gifts to Anglicanism) . . . and its defining mark.”
How did he do this? To take one example of his theological method, Hooker drew upon “the weight of collective past experience (and theological reflection in the Church) and the exercise of God-given reason,” to balance the extreme emphasis of other Reformation leaders’ (supposedly) complete reliance on Scripture alone.” (Secor)
Sola scriptura might have become the watchword for (much of) the Continent, but in the English church it was made clear that scripture itself requires interpretation, and this was deemed essential. This was not a criticism of Holy Writ but rather a comment about how to approach it with the eyes of faith informed by reason and theological reflection. As Hooker himself stated, <“We do not add reason as a supplement of any man therein but as a necessary instrument, without which we could not reap by the Scripture’s perfection that fruit and benefit which it yields.” (Laws, vol. Ill, chapter 8, section 10)
The classical Anglican approach to scripture would thus avoid the dangerous extremes of either complete individual interpretation without any consultation with the wider teaching of the church from earliest times) or blind obedience to the interpretive dictates of a charismatic preacher or indeed overbearing magisterium. Still less did it defer to the charismatic claims of mere contemporary and secular society which the Epistle of James enjoins us to reject — such as is the ever growing present temptation today. After all this last supposed source overtly seeks to stand outside the Christian tradition. (And as such it cannot appropriately be seen as an authoritative source genuinely integral within it!)
By contrast, the witness of the early church has especial weight, for Anglicans such as Hooker have always upheld the teachings of the early councils of the undivided church in particular. To quote Hooker again, who despite being a clear realist about the Eucharist, carefully explained his hesitancy to analyze too much the manner of how this occurs by saying: “Let it be enough for me as I present myself at the Lord’s Table to know what I receive there from him, without researching or probing the manner in which Christ performs this work”. (Laws, V.67, 12)
In all this there is a delicate balance which every generation has to recover anew between the written Word of God, the teachings thereof as summarized in the Creeds, and early Church Councils, as well as our Anglican formularies of the Prayer Book Tradition — together with the light to be shone upon all this by the God-given reason that is ours.
Such a balance is delicate, but it is what has come to be the unique way of Anglicanism. This is a tradition that is not without a certain complexity as well as breadth of view and indeed inclusivity, and as such it is one that requires a certain self-discipline when it comes to those with whom we disagree.
We humans cannot all affirm everything, and that just a fact entailed by our capacity to experience true and actual meaning.
It is the case that there has been an important history in Anglicanism of being able to live with differences of view — as was seen through the nineteenth-century disputes about the exact understanding of the Eucharist and matters of liturgy. Again with in the Church of England itself there has been a long standing commitment in recent decades on all sides to recognize the twin integrities of those who do and those who do not accept the ordination of women in the ministry. In the English church neither “side” in these matters can seek to remove the other. This means that these views are held side by side — challenging as that may be — yet struggling through that enables the Church of England to continue and to go forward in its ministry. This very fact has been explored with new attention in the current church-wide initiative in the UK upon human sexuality called Living in Love and Faith. This process has required an express commitment on the part of all participants to work together, which is again of a parallel character, mindful of the Vincentian tradition which ultimately has to say that over time in the life of the church of the ages that which affects all should be resolved by all if it is to be fully received in the end.
This is not an easy path nor is it cost free, but individual sacrifice of our egos for the greater good is part of our calling as Christians. AND REMEMBER this does not call for abandonment of commitment to upholding truth and the deposit of saving faith as the church has received and taught it over the millennia. At times of great tension and stress these lessons of history are things we do well to ponder as they point not only to the difficulties that have beset the Church worldwide over the centuries, as also to the challenges specific to the multiple sources of the Anglican Way, but also to the capacity of the Church to survive — as indeed our Lord has assured us it will — till the end of time.
The question in the book of Micah has often been posed rhetorically — in the expectation of a negative reply, namely, Can two walk together except they be agreed? I suggest that within the limits of our history the correct answer for Anglicans has to be “yes they can, within the historic bonds of the Anglican identity and heritage.”
And in the words of our Anthem today Ubi Caritas et amor Deus ibi est, “Where love and charity are found there is God.”
Which brings us back to the last Dominical words I quoted from today’s Gospel at the outset:
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you:
not as the world giveth, give I unto you.
Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.
It’s wonderful to be here with you and to celebrate the Triduum in this great church. I thank Fr. James for his gracious invitation to be your Triduum preacher. The Triduum started last Thursday, when we celebrated the Institution of the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. We watched all night long with him at the Altar of Repose.
We gathered on Good Friday to commemorate his passion and death. And we did it all, of course, with the knowledge of how everything turns out. We knew, as we watched with Christ at the cross, that we would end up shouting “Christ is risen!”
How very different that was from how it actually happened! The disciples didn’t watch with Christ as he died. They saw his death as complete defeat. They stayed as far away from the cross as they could in order to escape a similar fate for themselves. Resurrection was the furthest thing from their minds. It wasn’t until they encountered the risen Lord, face to face, that they believed. Then it began to dawn on them that this was indeed a new day.
And so, we’re here today to celebrate the resurrection. Everywhere we look there are signs of the resurrection. The flowers. The Paschal Candle. The festal vestments. There are other signs of the resurrection as well. The altar, where the resurrection is celebrated at every eucharist; the pulpit, where Christ crucified and risen is preached; the lectern, where holy scripture, which proclaims the resurrection, is read–all signs of the resurrection.
The Church worships every week on Sunday, rather than Saturday, because of the resurrection: Sunday is the day on which Christ was raised from the dead. When you get right down to it, every stained glass window, every kneeler, every pew is a symbol of the resurrection. None of this would be here, there would be no Christian faith, if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead. Everywhere you look there are signs of the resurrection.
I’d guess that there are some here who really don’t believe in the resurrection, that it’s just a lot of wishful thinking, that the disciples had a strong memory of Jesus and simply described it in a fanciful way. You might be here because a friend invited you, or your spouse prevailed upon you, or your parents demanded it of you. But you really don’t believe.
Not believing isn’t anything new. There’ve been non-believers in every age. In the seventeenth century Pascal said of such persons: “What reason have atheists for saying that we cannot rise again? Which is the more difficult, to be born, or to rise again? That what has never been should be, or that what has been, should be again? Is it more difficult to come into being than to return to it?”
Even some who consider themselves within the Body of Christ don’t believe in the resurrection. The late Robert W. Funk, who was the director of the Jesus Seminar 20 some years ago, is quoted praising the book The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, by James P. Carse. “Carse has created a new gospel,” Funk says, “that breathes fresh life into the Jesus tradition. It may even bring the sage of Nazareth back to life.”
I have news for Funk! The sage of Nazareth was raised on the third day and he is alive, seated at the right hand of the Father. Funk reminds me of the central character Haze Motes, in Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood. Motes is a minister in a church “without Christ.” At one point Haze cries, “Church of Christ!…Well I preach the church without Christ. I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption.”
There’s no mistaking it, there were hundreds of witnesses to the resurrection. Furthermore, after the resurrection the disciples were changed, boldly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior even when that proclamation put them in mortal danger. Most of them in fact died martyrs’ deaths because of that message. Would the disciples ever have organized again if Jesus hadn’t been raised? Would they have died defending a lie when all they could have done was simply deny that Jesus had been raised from death?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest Christian thinkers of the 20th century, says this: “We must come to grips with Goethe and Socrates. On this our education and our ethos depend. But on our coming to grips with Christ depend life and death, salvation and damnation….It is the principle on which everything rests. ‘And there is salvation in no one else’ (Acts 4:12). The cause of the encounter with Jesus is not the same as that of the encounter with Goethe and Socrates. It is impossible to avoid the person of Jesus because he is alive.”
The award-winning novelist and poet John Updike wrote, “It was not as the flowers, each soft spring recurrent; it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the eleven apostles; it was as his flesh: ours.
The same hinged thumbs and toes, the same valved heart that—pierced—died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of enduring Might, new strength to enclose.
Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages: let us walk through the door.
“The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché, not a stone in a story, but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will eclipse for each of us the wide light of day.
“Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty, lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are embarrassed by the miracle, and crushed by remonstrance.”
Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey says this: “I believe that Jesus was crucified, buried, and that his cold, dead body was raised alive by God. If it’s of any comfort to others, I’ve never found it easy to believe in God.”
We have the witness of the disciples, the apostle Paul, great Christian thinkers throughout the ages, but in the end we must decide for ourselves, what C.S. Lewis calls the leap of faith. Once we’ve made that decision, by the grace of God, then we must live our lives based on that reality. As St. Paul says to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” If you ask me, that’s the reason many choose not to believe, because they don’t want to be transformed, even though life without Christ ultimately leads to despair.
I believe in the resurrection because I experience the presence of the risen Christ in countless ways. He has transformed my life and continues to transform it and I see him doing the same in so many other lives, for I am indeed in a Church where the blind do see, and the lame walk, and lepers are cleansed, and the dead are raised. Alleluia. Christ is risen!
Alleluia. Christ is risen!…This is the surprise ending to a series of tragic events in Jesus’ life. The disciples had spent three intensive years with Jesus, learning from him, because they thought he was the Messiah. They understood these years to be a preparation for the time when Jesus would usher in a new kingdom that would make King David’s monarchy pale by comparison. And they, of course, would be the ones whom Jesus would use to establish his rule. It even looked like it was about to begin just last week, when their Lord and Master rode into Jerusalem on an ass, in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, a public declaration identity.
Then it all quickly came to an end. That possibility they had never allowed themselves to imagine had happened. Jesus had been betrayed by one of the inner circle, had been arrested, hastily tried, found guilty, and put to death like so many other would-be messiahs. He had been shamed, disgraced, discredited, he and his followers squelched by the powerful and efficient Roman government.
There was no doubt in their minds. It was finished. Over. The task at hand was to get over their grief and put their lives back together.
Then some women discovered the empty tomb, and a messenger told them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Later that day and for several days thereafter the risen Christ appeared to them and ultimately to some 500 people. As Martin Marty put it so clearly, “The disciples did not believe in the resurrection because they believed in Jesus; they believed in Jesus because they believed in the resurrection.” And they believed in the resurrection because they had witnessed the risen Christ.
We’re here today because of that one event, but not because it happened once, long ago, and we’re here simply remembering that. No, we’re here because the risen Christ is with us and continually comes to us through the Sacrament, through his Word, through one another, for he lives in us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us at our baptism. We’ve been reconciled to God through his death, and now we live with him in his resurrection. We as members of his Body live in this new reality.
So, what’s the implication of the resurrection for our daily lives? St. Paul tells us succinctly, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above…For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” As we have been reconciled to God through Christ, so we must be agents of reconciliation to others. Among other things, I’m sure, setting our minds on things that are above means doing what is necessary to be reconciled with those around us.
I’m reminded of a story of two brothers who lived on adjoining farms and who fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch.
Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding, and it grew into a major difference. Finally, it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.
One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said. “Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there I could help you with?”
“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor. In fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there’s a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll do him one better. See that pile of lumber by the barn? I want you to build me a fence—an 8-foot fence—so I won’t need to see his place or his face anymore.”
The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.
The older brother had to go to town, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day. The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing. About sunset, when the farmer returned, the carpenter has just finished his job.
The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped. There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge—a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work, handrails and all—and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.
“You’re quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.” The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hands. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.
“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but I have many more bridges to build.”
We can describe the death and resurrection of our Lord in many ways, and one of those ways certainly is by likening it to a bridge. Through his death on the cross the Carpenter from Nazareth built a bridge between us and the Father and between us and others. His resurrection made that bridge apparent.
Now that we have been reconciled to God, our purpose is to bring that reconciliation to others, and that work begins by building those bridges in our own relationships, starting with those who are closest to us. George Herbert said, “He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.”
St. Francis of Assisi is known for his love of nature. He wrote a beautiful hymn about creation which we know as “All Creatures of our God and King.” The hymn speaks of sun, moon, wind, water, earth, flowers and fruits. In the stanza about humanity, this is what Francis wrote: “All you with mercy in your heart, forgiving others take your part.” For St. Francis, the way human beings can praise their Maker best is through forgiveness.
Henri Nouwen said that “man is not the one who once in a while makes a mistake and God is not the one who now and then forgives. No, man is a sinner and God is love.”
What better way for us to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ than to let his reconciling love build bridges through us.
Alleluia. Christ is risen!
The Rev’d Dr Fredrick Robinson is the retired Rector of The Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Florida, and editor of The Anglican Digest.
The Rev’d Dr Fredrick Robinson is the retired Rector of The Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Florida, and editor of The Anglican Digest.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
One day three men were walking along and came upon a raging, violent river. They needed to get across to the other side, but had no idea how to do it. The first man prayed to God, saying, “Please, God, give me strength to cross the river.” Poof! God gave the man big arms and strong legs, and he was able to swim across the river in about two hours.
Seeing this, the second man prayed to God, saying, “Please, God, give me the strength to cross the river.” Poof! God gave him a rowboat, and he was able to row across the river in about three hours.
The third man, seeing how things had worked out for the other two, also prayed to God, saying, “Please, God, give me the strength and ability and intelligence to cross the river.” Poof! God turned him into a woman; she looked at the map, then hiked 100 yards upstream and walked across the bridge.
All joking aside, the four accounts of the Gospel, while differing in details, agree that the first to experience the resurrected Jesus were women. That makes sense, since all of the disciples, except John, had fled in fear that they would be implicated. New Testament scholars agree that ironically it is this detail that strengthens arguments for the truth of the resurrection. In the first century A.D., the witness of women was not considered credible because of their low social status. Timothy Keller, in his compelling book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, says that the scholar N.T. Wright “argues that there must have been enormous pressure on the early proclaimers of the Christian message to remove women from the accounts. They felt they could not do so—the records were too well-known.” If the story of the resurrection of Jesus was a literary device to convince people that Jesus simply lived on in his followers’ hearts and minds, they certainly would not have fabricated the kind of accounts we have in all four versions.
Lord Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, who visited here in December last year, said that “in recent years it has been asserted that the Easter story has a tenuous and tentative historical foundation. The stories of the appearances to the disciples, and even of the Empty Tomb, it is said, are stories that were made up in order to shore up the faith of the Church. What nonsense that is! There never was a Christian faith which was not at the same time an Easter faith. It was the resurrection which gave birth to belief…”
The witness of the New Testament, from a wide variety of sources, is that the resurrection was completely unexpected. There was a belief in Judaism in a general resurrection, which would occur on the Last Day and would include all who had died in the faith. There was no belief that any individual would rise from the dead.
All who knew Jesus felt that he had been put to death for good, shown to be an imposter, just like many other would-be messiahs. His disciples considered him defeated, their only recourse being to escape a similar fate and to go about their individual lives. It was the encounter with the risen Jesus that changed everything.
There were skeptics in the first century and there have been skeptics ever since. Some consider Jesus a great teacher, or a great moral leader, but deny that he rose from the dead. But make no mistake about it; the proclamation of those original disciples was that Jesus died on the cross and on the third day rose from the dead, and that this same Jesus is Savior and Lord. St. Paul expresses the faith of the early Church when he tells the Corinthians, “If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain.”
Timothy Keller, from whose book I quoted earlier, is a retired Presbyterian minister who started a church in New York City in 1989—Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and now he has a church with over 6000 regular attendees at five services, with a host of daughter churches. He also planted churches around the world. His book, The Reason for God, seeks to answer many questions that people have about Christianity in our day. It has such chapters as “There Can’t Be Just One True Religion,” “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?,” and “Science Has Disproved Christianity.” I recommend the book to you.
In the chapter, “The Reality of the Resurrection,” he states that the resurrection “changes our lives completely.” He goes on, “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching, but whether or not he rose from the dead. That’s how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true, it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.
C.S. Lewis says much the same thing about the Christian faith in general. “Christianity, if false,” he said, “is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” And I believe he would agree that its importance hinges on the resurrection.
I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that indeed his resurrection does change everything, and that this world in which we live needs desperately to know him, to love him, to worship him, and to obey him. Do you believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Are you responding in your everyday life to that reality?
Penelope, Jane, Felicity, John, and James have now been baptized into this faith. Through their baptism they now have the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, are full members of the Church, and participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God for these newest members of his family!
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
“We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.”
The cross, that central symbol of our faith, is seen everywhere. Have you ever noticed how many crosses there are in this church?
There are crosses all over town. Some are on churches, but most aren’t designed specifically as crosses. There is a cross every time two roads intersect at right angles. Tile floors and ceilings have countless crosses. Paneled walls, bookshelves, telephone poles, masts of ships, and the structures holding window panes all have crosses. The cross appears in our alphabet; the lowercase t is a cross; and the upper case T is another form of the cross, the tau cross.
The cross is the symbol of our salvation. The ancient anthem proclaims, “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.” The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is first of all the bad news that we human beings are so alienated from God by our sin that we can do nothing on our own to reconcile ourselves to God. It’s not a matter of our being basically good people who once in a while do something wrong; it’s a matter of our being basically so self-centered that we cannot break out of that nature. Even the best of intentions are colored by the broad brush of sin with a capital S. Article 9 in the Articles of Religion, says this of sin: “Original sin…is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man…, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation.” That statement is speaking not primarily of our worst enemies, not specifically of Adolf Hitler or of the terrorists who bomb schools, or of Vladimir Putin and the daily evil being done in Ukraine, obviously evil people who did or do unspeakably evil deeds. No, it’s talking about you and me, “inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit.”
If left to our own devices, we would be without hope. One of the collects in the prayerbook states it another way: “O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee: Mercifully except our prayers; and because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee both in will and deed.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to tell that something is drastically wrong with human beings. If the extermination of 6 million Jews during the second world war, the massive genocides that have taken place in our time, and many acts of terrorism don’t convince you, then look at your own relationships. The person who doesn’t have some troubling conflict is rare indeed. Families in this country are often dysfunctional. Divorce is so common that it hardly raises an eyebrow anymore. Alcoholism and drug addiction are still epidemic in this country, in which we boast that we can conquer most any obstacle. We dare not leave our homes without locking all doors because of the real possibility of our possessions being stolen.
These things are all symptoms of a basic problem in humanity. We were created for joy, but something has gone drastically wrong. The Gospel is first of all bad news. We are “inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit.”
But the Gospel, of course, is also and most importantly good news, for what we cannot do on our own, God has chosen to do for us. St. John tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Jesus has paid the price for our sin by his death on the cross. Through that death we are reconciled to God. “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.”
Helena, the mother of Constantine, emperor of the Roman empire in the fourth century, believed that the true cross on which Jesus died had been found and was in Jerusalem. She had a basilica built in Rome for the purpose of holding and displaying the cross for all to see. Linda and I took a group to Rome several years ago, and on that trip we visited the Basilica Sancto Croce, the Basilica of the Holy Cross. While most of the true cross has been moved to the Vatican Museum, a small sliver of the cross remains for all to see. Likewise, also on display in a reliquary are two thorns, believed to be from the crown of thorns. Perhaps even more unusual to modern sensitivities is the displaying in the same reliquary of just one human finger. It’s believed to be one of Saint Thomas’s fingers. Remember, it was Thomas who said when he heard that Jesus had risen from the dead, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe. “When Jesus appeared later on to Thomas, he told him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
I don’t know if what we saw was really a piece of the true cross, or if the thorns in the reliquary are actually from the crown of thorns worn by our Lord or if it’s really Thomas’s finger. They could very well be. But I will tell you that seeing these items brought closer to home the terrible reality of the cross. It was real wood to which our Lord’s hands and feet were nailed. The thorns drew real blood. This one through whom the world was created, who himself is love, subjected himself to the cruelest form of execution in his day out of love, not only for the people of that day, but also for all people for all time.
At baptism a cross is traced on the newly baptized’s forehead, symbolizing the fact that not only is the cross a sign of what Jesus did for us, but also a sign of how we are to live our lives in sacrificial love. We are people of the cross of Christ.
“We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy cross thou hast redeemed the world.”
The Rev’d Dr Fredrick Robinson is the retired Rector of The Church of the Redeemer, Sarasota, Florida, and editor of The Anglican Digest.
It is wonderful to be with you as we begin together this liturgy that lasts for three days, known as the Paschal Triduum—the liturgical recalling of the events whereby we have been given life and immortality. It is an honor to be your Triduum preacher this year and I thank Fr. James for his gracious invitation.
I’m reminded of a story about a priest who preached a long and boring sermon. The parishioners filed out of the church saying nothing to the priest, but towards the end of the line was a thoughtful person who always commented on the sermons. “Father, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!”
The priest was thrilled. “No one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before. Tell me why.” “Well, it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all understanding and the love of God because it endured forever!“
I do hope that you find my sermons understandable and that all of them will remind you of the love of God, but not because they endured forever!
“O saving victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to us below, our foes press on from every side, thine aid supply, thy strength bestow.”
I was 29 years old. Linda, our son, Michael, and I had moved to Nashotah, Wisconsin, about a month and a half earlier. I was sitting in the Chapel of St. Mary the Virgin at Nashotah House. It was a Thursday night during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, during which I would be matriculated as a son of the House.
Linda was sitting off to the side, and I was sitting in my assigned seat behind the rood screen, an ornately carved screen of arches at the top of which is a life-sized figure of Jesus on the cross, flanked by four statues of saints. On the other side of the screen are the choir stalls, in which were sitting the upperclassmen and the faculty, and off in the distance, at the east end, is the ornate altar, which was vested with a rich fabric of white and gold. The chapel was filled with the smoke from the incense.
All of a sudden I was filled with an overwhelming sense of the presence of God, accompanied by my own sense of unworthiness to be there. I had come to Nashotah House after years of preparation. My journey to that place had been the result of a sense of my calling, my vocation. That wonderful gift of a strong sense of the presence of God was a confirmation of all that Linda and I, and, unknowingly, our son, Michael, had been through to get to that point.
My experience that night in the chapel was what some call a “thin” place. There’s a barrier between the things of this world and the things of the Spirit. When that barrier is diminished and the things of the Spirit break into this world, it’s called a thin place. St. Thomas Aquinas called it a gate. When we experience a thin place, when we encounter a gate, we feel God’s presence more keenly, and we see our purpose in life more clearly. It’s an experience of an entirely different dimension of reality, a fourth dimension, if you will. As intense as it was, it wasn’t new to me, for it was simply a deeper experience of something I felt and still feel at every celebration of the Holy Eucharist. “O saving victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to us below.”
When Jesus gave the Holy Eucharist to his disciples, and through them, to the whole Church, for all time, he intended to provide the Church with a perpetual thin place. The sacrifice that he was about to make on the cross would happen only once. How would he keep that sacrifice from becoming just a distant memory of an historical event? He did it by providing the Church, all those made members of his Body through baptism, with the Sacrament by which, whenever it was celebrated, it would be a participation in that original sacrifice. It would be a way by which the barriers of time, place, and physicality would be overcome. Thus, even though in the Upper Room at that first Eucharist his sacrifice had not even yet occurred, his disciples were participating in that sacrifice that was to come. The barriers of past, present, and future were overcome. Heaven was joined to earth and earth to heaven. Jesus created a thin place, a gate, for all time to come.
Our Lord Jesus used the context of the Passover to celebrate that first Eucharist. Jews to this day celebrate the Passover as if they are at the original Passover, when the Jews were delivered from the old life of slavery to the new life of freedom. Every Passover is far more than a mere commemoration of something that happened in the past, but rather is a bringing to the present of that past saving event.
The language Jesus ordinarily spoke was Aramaic. In writing the accounts of the Gospel, the evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke translated Jesus’ Aramaic word for remembrance with the Greek word anamnesis. Anamnesis is a word for which there is no English equivalent. Its meaning is basically the same as the meaning around which the Passover is celebrated. It means to call something from the past to the present, to call to the very present a past event. “Do this for the anamnesis of me.” Thus, our Lord Jesus, in instituting the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, gave his Church the way in which we could access the original event of his suffering, death, and resurrection. It’s the way in which we participate in a thin place whenever we gather for the Holy Eucharist, the way in which we pass through the gate to that fourth dimension in which heaven is joined to earth and earth to heaven.
Tonight, we celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Mass. We speak of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament, the risen Jesus present with us in the people gathered, in the Word read and proclaimed, in the Celebrant, and in his Body and Blood. Yet, every time we gather for the Holy Eucharist, not only is our risen Lord Jesus really present with us, but also we become present with him at the Last Supper, in his suffering, and in his death. We speak of his sacrifice as a once for all sacrifice. It never needs to be repeated. Part of why it never needs to be repeated is that we participate in that original sacrifice over and over again by being present at Mass.
Jesus gave us the Sacrament to provide that thin place where heaven meets earth and earth heaven. It happened to be at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist when I had that deeply “thin” moment in seminary some 41 years ago. I’m thankful for that experience, but I’m even more thankful that our Lord has provided the way for us continually to reach those “thin moments” every time we celebrate the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
“O saving victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to us below, our foes press on from every side, thine aid supply, thy strength bestow. All praise and thanks to thee ascend for evermore, blest One in Three; O grant us life that shall not end in our true native land with thee.”