This morning I intend to preach a very theological sermon. Now don’t worry. It’s going to be brief. Not lengthy, not even lofty. But it is going to be very theological, and so – if only for a few minutes – I want you to think with me.
Consider another passage from St. John:
The glory which Thou has given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved me.
Holy Scripture teaches us that we are created in the image of God. That is our supreme dignity as human beings. That is why many of the ancient Fathers of the Church teach that humanity may be said to be the “crown,” the summit of God’s creation. That is how we were made – in the image of God. It is how we are, and it is the basis of how we act within ourselves, among ourselves, and in the world around us.
Theologians have “rung the changes,” so to speak, on this phrase again and again, and “Image of God” has been interpreted in a number of ways by Christian thinkers. Some have pointed to our ability to reason and think as the image within – for God is surely the supreme Reason and Mind behind all things. Our thinking and reason is an image of this.
Others have singled out the human ability to create: to invent things that have never been and to bring them into being, for God is the Creator, who, as Scripture teaches, “calls into being the things that are not.” And so, that we do this also is, some say, God’s image in us. Our ability is a reflection of His supreme creative power.
Others still go further and deeper in their speculations and see God’s image as our being as persons. You and I have our existence as persons, unique individuals. Unlike the rest of creation, we are aware of ourselves (we are self-conscious) and we determine ourselves. The laws of nature, provide a framework for our being and doing, but within that framework we have the power of will, and our wills to a certain extent, are free. God’s intention in our creation was that we be persons. A reflection, an image of Himself, the Supreme Person/Persons. Who is aware of Himself absolutely. Who determines Himself absolutely. Who is absolutely free, and who creates in that freedom. And who is the Supreme Reason behind all things. God is the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end – the source, the meaning, and the fulfillment of all that is. God is supremely person. To use fancy, technical language, person is the fundamental ontological concept that one may use to describe Him. And you and I as persons are images, reflections of God’s personhood.
In the Gospel Jesus prays for His disciples to God the Father “that they may be one, even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one.” Earlier he said to them “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in me. I am the Vine, you are the branches.” Jesus here is talking about what one might call “indwelling,” and it all sounds very mysterious, doesn’t it ? “I in them and Thou in me.” Sounds mysterious until we realize that indwelling on the human level is not mysterious at all, but is one of the crucial ways that human persons are and act.
Have you ever had a friend, a loved one, a spouse, a soul-mate, whose life somehow got entangled with yours and your life with theirs? That is indwelling: two human lives somehow mixed up together. And the supreme moment of friendship or love is the question and the answer: “Love you? I am you.”
Have you ever worked together with other people on a project, and the common effort formed a community – a com-unity, communion. That too is indwelling.
At a concert some years ago, I saw a woman play a cello, and before my eyes the distinction between the two disappeared. I was looking at two things – a woman and a cello – but also not a woman and a cello – but one thing. The woman and the cello and the music indwelt one another. Or one might say that the music was the means and medium of the indwelling. That is why great art is always about indwelling. The artist and the art become one. That is why art produced for profit, cynical art, is so bad and disappointing. That is why naive art, primitive art can be great and moving, though its technical mastery is meagre. That is why art can arise out of a community but can never be produced by a committee. It is the indwelling of artist and art that make the critical difference.
Our human ability to indwell is an image of the Divine Indwelling. In two weeks we shall celebrate the Holy Trinity, and what that doctrine tells us is that indwelling is the being of God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, three persons, indwell each other, and in their indwelling the divine persons are perfectly one and perfectly three. Your and my ability to indwell is, I think, an image in us of the Triune Being of God.
Next week we shall celebrate the Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church and by that gift enables the members of the Church to indwell one another. That is why Jesus prays so ardently and so often that his disciples and those who follow them be one. That is why their oneness, their unity will be a sign to the world “that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.” Their unity shows that the Holy Spirit indwells them and gives them the power to indwell one another. Their unity is a sign that the work of Christ – His ministry of preaching and healing, His death and resurrection – has overcome sin, the original disunity, and has overcome death, sin’s hateful sacrament.
Last Thursday, good brothers and sisters, we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension – Jesus is exalted to His Father. His triumph on earth is made an eternal triumph in heaven. But in His Ascension He is not taken away – Jesus isn’t gone. His promise was to be with His Church, and through the power of the Holy Spirit He is with His Church. He indwells his Church which is his Body, his presence on earth.
* * * * *
Yesterday morning I led a First Communion class for two of the Advent’s youngest members. It is one of my favorite things to do as a priest. I love to instruct young people on the meaning of Holy Communion as they are preparing to receive it for the first time. I didn’t use the word. It’s a bit too complicated. But I talked to them a lot about indwelling. Jesus who is in the bread and the wine of the Mass. We who are in Jesus when we receive the bread and the wine of the Mass. We who become one with one another when we share in that sacred meal.
Let me end with a passage from one of the ancient fathers of the Church, Clement of Alexandria. In fact, some consider him Christianity’s first theologian. Clement is talking about the same thing that I did when I spoke to the children, but, of course, he puts it much better. Clement sees the Mass as the dynamic which results in indwelling and Church.
By His own wisdom and the Father’s counsel, Christ devised a way of bringing us all together and blending us into a unity with God and one another, even though the differences between us give us each in body and in soul a separate identity. For in Holy Communion He blesses with one body, which is His own, those who believe in Him, and makes them one body with Himself and one another. Who could separate those who are united to Christ through that one sacred body? Or destroy their true union with one another. If we all share one bread we all become one body, for Christ cannot be divided.
So it is that the Church is the Body of Christ and we are its members. For since we are all united to Christ through His sacred body, having received that one indivisible body into our own, our members are not our own but His.
Once again from St. John:
The glory which Thou has given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and Thou in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as Thou hast loved me.
Fr. Eames is Rector of the Church of the Advent, Medfield, MA.
“Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.” May the words of my mouth and the mediation of our hearts be wholly acceptable to thee, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It is such a joy to be back with you all at the Church of the Advent in Boston. This place will always be very special to me. I first attended a mass here this time of year. I believe it was on Rogation Sunday. As a relatively new Christian and a very new Episcopalian, I did not know why you all were still celebrating Easter more than a month later. Never mind “rogation”, a word of which I had never heard. It was all so marvelously bewildering, and the fun part is, sometimes it still is.
Perhaps the modern Christian is bewildered by this feast. The Feast of the Ascension does not have the same weight on the imagination that other Christian feasts have. You might expect it to be overshadowed by Easter, Christmas, All Saints Day, and Pentecost, but even some lesser feasts seem to outrank it in inspiration, or at least bemusement. As part of our celebration of St. Michael’s day at my church of the Advent, we follow the medieval tradition of the youngest cleric in the church dressing up as a dragon with the children chasing him away from the parish. I happen to be the youngest, and the oldest, cleric in the parish, so I take on this task. The historian in me offers dispensation for I do not arm them with sticks as would be more historically accurate. The children love the game, and they have proposed that we celebrate St. Michael and All Angels more often. What pious young Christians we are forming!
You get my point. I think there are many reasons why this feast has lost the imagination – it’s a midweek service, the cosmology is not appealing to the modern ear, and the stories from scripture are less captivating than the Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost events. I think the main reason, though, is that we degrade this story into a move the plot along kind of episode. Jesus must get back to the right hand of the father for the gift of the Holy Spirit to happen. If we view this feast, and this story, purely as setting up something else, and do not value it as in important moment as is, then we do this event in the life of Jesus, and this feast, an injustice.
Luke offers us two stories of the Ascension. Luke wrote both the gospel and the Book of Acts, so he is responsible for keeping both traditions alive. Offered story A or story B, Luke chooses both. Scripture is filled with this method of preserving our sacred stories. Sometimes there is merely a variation on a theme or a difference in chronology. Other times startling contrasts are apparent. For example, immediately after hearing of the glorious victories and the faithfulness of the people of God told in the book of Joshua, the biblical author described the chaos and faithlessness, with the enemies at the gate from the book of Judges. Did Joshua defeat the Canaanites, or are they everywhere? The Bible says, “Yes.” To put it in a modern idiom, Joshua is our facebook life filled with parties, vacations, cute pictures of children, and cats; while Judges, is our facebook life filled with fake news, political toxicity, and a loss of privacy. Both have a claim to the truth, and we should not assume that the more negative portrayal is always more accurate. It is just a different perspective.
The Gospel version of the Ascension is a happy story. In the tradition that the Gospel shares, the Ascension seemed to have taken place on Easter Sunday. Luke began chapter 24, “On the first day of the week”. He introduces the next section detailing the resurrection appearances, “Later that same day.” Luke never reports any passing of the day. I believe he intends this to be Easter Sunday.
Jesus led the disciples to Bethany. This fact is significant. Bethany is a little over a mile from Jerusalem. This is where the triumphal entry began the previous Sunday. Luke is closing the circle; he is symbolically finishing his narrative. These 8 days of Christ’s work – teaching, being crucified, being resurrected, and then ascending to the Father – ushered in the beginning of the kingdom of the 8th day, unbound by time and not limited by space or dimension – the kingdom of God.
The story of the Ascension also plays a confirming role of Jesus’ ministry. It was always God’s plan that Jesus would leave, as Luke mentioned in the story of the Transfiguration. Luke began this story by mentioning that the Transfiguration took place 8 days after Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, and Jesus taught the disciples what being the Christ meant. During this episode, Luke described that Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and were speaking of Jesus’ “departure”. The word “departure” here in Greek is “Exodus”. Luke only used “Exodus” once in all of Luke/Acts. The use was clearly intentional. Jesus’ ministry is the perfection of the Exodus. Jesus would go through the waters of death and resurrection. And he, unlike Moses in his life time, would be allowed to reach the metaphorical promised land through the Ascension.
Another sign of the completeness of this moment is the blessing that Jesus offers to his followers. He lifted up his hands as a priest would at the end of a completed sacrifice. From Leviticus 9, “Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he came down after sacrificing the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. Moses and Aaron entered the tent of meeting, and then came out and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” When all the worship of God had been completed as was pleasing to God, Aaron, and later Christ, offered a blessing. Christ’s earthly ministry is complete.
This completion of Jesus’ mission is met with great Joy. The disciples finally seem to recognize the purpose of Jesus’ life and work. This recognition leads to worship. For the first time in Luke, the disciples fall down and worship him. They recognize him as not only an earthly messiah but their Lord. They then depart to worship in the Temple just as Jesus had commanded them to do. The disciples recognize Jesus, worship Jesus, and listen to Jesus. The followers of Christ get it. What a happy story – one of completion of Jesus’ life and work, and one of recognition and obedience by the followers of Jesus.
The second story is not a negative story, but it did retell how even in Jesus’ last speech before ascending to the Father, he had to correct his disciples. The disciples were then left flabbergasted and confused staring into the sky – not seeming to know what to do. In the Acts story, the followers of Jesus don’t seem to quite get it. They still need correction, and they don’t worship Jesus.
Do these tales not reveal the response of the followers of Jesus to this day? We are given glimpses of a true vision which propels us to worship and do what Jesus commands. We are also a people who too often need correction from Jesus, are confused, and our instinct is not to worship, but to go make a bishop. All right, the last part is editorializing, but the ordination, or choosing, of Matthias is the next story after today’s reading.
The Ascension may not be as popular a feast as it once was, but there is something to it. In this story, we celebrate Jesus’ exodus, we receive Jesus’ blessing, and we respond with worship. Given his blessing and inspired by all the beauty experienced tonight, our response is to fall to our knees in thanksgiving.
All you need is love was the Beatles’ happy chant from that 1967 “Summer of Love”. Something has told me since 1967 that love is not all you need. As much as the world was crazy over the Beatles the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and in some circles is still crazy over the Beatles, their “Summer of Love” ought not to be ours either in type or amount. So today, when the Gospel according to Saint John shows us Jesus’ commandment to love one another, we cannot add Jesus as a kind of fifth Beatle: George, John, Paul, Ringo, and Jesus. The commandment “to love one another” is indeed good news and is good news for eternity, not just the summer of ‘67.
The kind of love in Jesus’ commandment is a love that is challenging, evangelical, joyful, comforting and the way to glorify God. To understand the depth and meaning of the kind of love Jesus commands we need to read this Gospel passage as part of much larger portion of Saint John’s Gospel. When we do, we see that Jesus is really giving some last-minute, and truly gentle yet strong instructions to his disciples. These words of comfort are given just before Jesus is about to reach the end of his earthly work.
It will be helpful to read chapters 14, 15, 16, and 17 as a whole. You will get a better picture of how Jesus loves, how God the Father loves and is love. We will also learn what Jesus expects of his disciples, you and me, when we have to witness to his love. The whole section is a kind of job description for the faithful disciple. We learn that if we are going to love the way Jesus wants us to love, then we are going to have to believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father; the way, the truth, and the life. We are going to have to keep the Commandments. We are going to have to receive the Holy Spirit. We are going to have bear fruit which will require us being pruned from time to time. We are going to have to witness to others and show this love to others. Some will have to die for the Faith, and as a result, we will know true joy even in this world.
In the end there is a joy and comfort because the end and purpose of all things is union with God. That’s what we ought to be after and that is what we gain by loving this way. At the end of this section of Jesus’ instructions and words of comfort, Jesus prays to the Father for the disciples, but now I am coming to thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. Then Jesus prays for the whole church, the glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me. The whole purpose of this kind of love is the glory of God.
From Jesus’ instructions, to love as a Christian is joyful, yet it is not without its challenges and conditions. Jesus gives the disciples that intimate nature of his kind of love. The unity Jesus has with the Father and the Holy Spirit only comes out of this kind of love. For us to live this kind of love will mean knowing Jesus not as a servant, but even more intimately, as a friend. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my father I have made known to you.
The difference between a servant and a friend in the way Jesus is using them here, is a matter of degree. How closely do you want to follow Jesus? It’s easier to follow him as servant than it is to be a friend. Being a servant of Jesus means that one subjects oneself to following all the instructions. There is no bondage in that type of servanthood, but according to Jesus, he prefers friendship; a type of friendship that is so loving that there is nothing Jesus does not know about you and you know Jesus so well that your whole life follows his.
Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Carmelite nun and mystical theologian, seems to have approached this kind of friendship with God through her devotion to Jesus. It seems that Saint Teresa was a little bit of a woman, but no shrinking violet. One night during a terrible rain- and wind-storm she was trying to make her way back to the convent. She stumbled and fell off a steep embankment and landed fully in the mud. She looked up to God and chided him, if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them! She knew him so well that she spoke to him as if she knew him as a friend.
With this kind of love, and to show this kind of love, Jesus says we will require trimming away, or pruning, those parts of our lives that hinder our growth. The fruit-bearing disciples are those that allow themselves to be chided, corrected, forgiven, and show fruits of repentance. The love of Christ comes to live in the soul of those who continually seek forgiveness.
True Christian love is also that which brings others to unity with God the Father and his son. When others see the lives of truly loving Christians, they are drawn into a life with Christ. I’ve seen this evidenced in the lives of some young people. Two years ago a promotional video was produced for saint Michael’s conference, a week-long educational conference for high school and college students. I was surprised to hear in the video a student describing why he was drawn to the conference and why he keeps returning to the conference. He said, and I quote, “I saw older kids my first couple of years, so happy, smiling. I saw them all playing with each other and just some great Christians. Also the way they act in church, I (thought) “I want to be like that one day”. This tells me that even some of the youngest among us are aware of this special relationship with Christ and want to be part of it.
So Christian love, when it is shown forth, brings others into the life of the Trinity. Just by seeing the way Christians behave toward other Christians and toward those who are not Christians; how that loving one another is actually a vehicle for bringing others to Christ. Our lives of Christian love ought to be a witness for the life of Jesus while we are here in the world. Others should want what we have. If they do, then that is one way in which our lives are bearing fruit.
So it’s the glorification of God the Father almighty that is our end and purpose here in the world and our ultimate end and purpose. At the end of what I call this “comforting” section of Saint John’s Gospel Jesus prays that very thing; that God should be glorified and that Jesus himself would be glorified. Father, the hour has come; glorify thy Son that the Son may glorify thee, since thou hast given him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. This answers the questions we may have about why we’re alive; what we’re supposed to be doing; and how we’re to treat others. We are created for God and his glorification.
Thank that same God the Father for giving us his love and teaching us how to love. We would not glorify him as we should without that love. Living with the resurrected Jesus, and trying to love him as he showed us, brings the comfort, strength, forgiveness, and order to our lives that we need. If you have ever wondered what you are supposed to be doing with your life, try abiding in the love of Jesus first. If you have ever wondered what this all means, or had any of those other questions pop into your head about the meaning of life, or where you fit in; if you have ever spent some time wondering how to carve out a life that is satisfying and fulfilling here in the world, you have the perfect guide and true friend in Jesus. There is some good news.
Let the comforting words of Jesus help you. They say glorify God first. Extol him, give him the praise and honor he deserves, thank him for giving you his son and the Holy Spirit who teach you how to love. These thanksgivings are collected, as any good collect would do, in our collect for today, pour into our heart such love toward thee, that we, loving thee in all things and above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
amiable, pleasant and kind,
No, these are not actually words from the Gospel, nor are they a definition of love, but nonetheless, on hearing them I am sure we all recognised at once a portrait of….
The words are in fact the definition of the word “nice” and I can say we recognise ourselves in them, not merely because we are who we are, but because we are Episcopal or Anglican and we know that for us there are two commandments of which the first and great Commandment is that Thou shalt be nice, while the second is not like unto it for it declares, Thou shalt have good taste.
Unfortunately neither of these is among the actual Ten Commandments but that minor detail seems to have proved no impediment to their general approbation – a point on which there is a contrast with the originals which seem nowadays to have been widely reduced to the status of Ten Suggestions –but I must not digress.
So clear is this presumption about Episcopal niceness that, in a spirit of historical enquiry (dangerous as that can often prove I know and the occasion of subsequent regret) I became curious as to just when our niceness as Anglicans set in?
After all, niceness is not the most obvious term one might use, in seeking to capture the general tenor the Reformation for example — at least if there is an account of it that opens with the phrase “the Reformation began with a superfluity of niceness” I have yet to read it…..closer to the mark would be that other possibility which does have textual precedent (from the Authorised King James Bible – namely a “Superfluity of naughtiness” (spoken of in the Epistle of James)
Certainly as the likes of Steven Pinker has pointed out (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined), if one looks across a very broad sweep of history it would seem true that by and large people nowadays are less inclined to embrace:
“cruelty as entertainment, [outside Reality Television]
human sacrifice’ in response to “superstition, or
pogroms as outlets for frustration, [and] homicide as the major form of conflict resolution”, (outside at least the specific context of war and it has to be said recent terrible events in the Middle East),
so there is perhaps some basis for supposing that we moderns in the West are nicer than we once were – although I am a touch suspicious that this may reflect too ready an embrace of the charming if deeply problematic belief in the inevitability of progress which so many seem to uphold since the Enlightenment.
But none of this would seem to generate anything that is an Anglican/Episcopal “distinctive”.
Happily though, someone has taken the trouble to write an engaging history of American niceness.
And one of the points there made is that Americans self-identify as nice to a degree that is only exceeded, as a national characteristic, by Canadians.
What is even more interesting is that in her book American Niceness A Cultural History, Carrie Tirado Bramen argues that the concept was reformulated here and is thus quintessentially North American in its origin:
For, as she writes, the word itself,
“changed as it crossed the pond: it had meant “precise”, but we Americans recast it as “pleasing”, valuing pleasantry over exactitude; such slang was quintessentially American, rejecting precise (but outdated) English compulsions and manners.”
So it seems Anglicanism became nice as it came to America as part of the process whereby the word nice lost its original meaning of being able to make “nice” (which is to say precise) distinctions (which does have a certain interest in regard to the way the American Church thinks about itself!)
But there is another thread brought out in the book which is the implicit regulative role the concept has. For, being nice, it turns out, has never really been a neutral term, it always carries an implicit social agenda.
For whoever determines the contents and boundaries of niceness and reasonableness and moderation, as a group distinctive, corals a force that can in fact privilege some and be coercive of others.
Those who are identified as falling outside this cosy and agreeable domain are what in the Ancient world the Romans would have immediately recognised, namely barbarians.
This means that much of this rhetoric, while seemingly being about what we might in contemporary language call inclusion and embrace is actually just as much about: exclusion and rejection with attendant dangers that need to be acknowledged.
Moreover the coercive aspect of the cognate virtue of moderation is well brought out by how central this was as an instrument of state policy in Britain after the Reformation. It could certainly become a pretty ruthless principle in application – as can be seen from the fact that when Henry VIII executed in one month both three protestants and three Roman Catholics….. it was done in the quest for moderation! Indeed, it can be argued that the louder the rhetoric of moderation became the more intolerant did the State become in practice.
But now I have to bring more bad news for being nice is not merely NOT a commandment but classically speaking it is not even a virtue of itself at all.
Indeed if I wanted a slogan for the day it would be ‘Love is not Nice!’
I say this because the quest for the applicable virtue in this domain brings us firmly to the concept of love, which is precisely what we find in the Epistle and Gospel where it is conjoined with that idea again of commandment.
Thus do we read:
“He who has my commandments and keeps them,
he it is who loves me;
and he who loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21)
This may at first seem an odd linkage but in fact it is a very natural one.
As Aquinas puts it, love is the soul or life (“forma”) of every virtue where his meaning is perhaps clearer if we reverse the word order and say every genuine virtue is a form of love.
Indeed this point can become a powerful marker for true virtue.
For example, chastity without love is not true chastity at all but a dead echo of it and like a dead body in Aristotelian terms it is not even a body at all but rather a heap of chemicals mistaken for a body soon to become corrupted and decayed
One of our distinctives as human beings is our use of language, and our use of signs. And this is something which in an important sense constitutes our coming together as part of the human community, just as within the church, sacraments constitute the ecclesial community.
To echo Wittgenstein, to have a mind is not essentially to have a means of withdrawing from the public world as we may be tempted to suppose — into a secret world of our own, rather it is to have a special way of belonging to the public world, it is to belong to a community.
An important part of what characterizes human beings is our particular way of being together: for our relations with each other are not just those of things with things, but of persons with persons and as such communicative.
Indeed all human activity is “significant,” just as all of the Christian life is “sacramental” a point that made clearer by (and is arguably consequent upon) the perspective that comes with seeing ourselves as part of God’s creation. But even aside from that, merely by being language-using creatures, there is an aspect of moral meaning to our actions objective to ourselves. as the late Herbert McCabe, O.P., once put it,
“Human acts have significance not the way stones have temperature but the way words have meaning. I cannot change the temperature of the stone just by taking thought, but neither can I change the meaning of a word just by taking thought, for it belongs to the language not to me.
Nor can I change the value of my behavior, by taking thought, for its value is its meaning in the total system of communications which is the human world.”
“The Validity of Absolutes”, Commonweal, January, 1966
So to speak again in the language of Aquinas, human life is the substantial form of the body, that which makes it what it is, or, as Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.”
Thus, as there are human bodies so there is a world of communication and it is by our being incarnate that we belong to this world. Without a body one is absent from the world —which is precisely what happens to those who are dead and why the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ asserts so deeply that He is present.
From all this it also follows that in order to apprehend the meaning of “love” you have to describe bodily activities: feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, and all the other practical ways of giving it effect.
While it is true that we speak of God as loving although He is not a body, when we say this what we are doing is taking a word whose meaning we understand in a bodily context and extending it (by analogy) into a realm which we do not understand.
(in other words, when we say that God is loving, as when we say anything else about God, we do not fully know the meaning of what is said –paradoxical as that may sound).
Accordingly when we consider the words: “In this the love of God was made manifest amongst us, that God sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him.” We get at the meaning from the fact that we know the love of God in the bodily life of Christ, and even now through our sacramental sharing in the bodily life of the risen Christ.
This means then that “Love” has meaning by reference to embodied human beings in their various complex relations of communication, but it is NOT reducible (as a behaviourist would say) to a particular set of bodily activities (since in that case we could prescribe love by prescribing the “correct” activity in each situation which would be a legalist position).
This entails that loving, like thinking, is an open-ended concept which can be exemplified in an indefinite number of ways not reducible to some sort of formula or method. Though one corollary of love being a meaningful word is that we can identify behaviour that is unloving and exemplary of muddled thinking. And when we can capture such behaviour by description, we can set out absolute prohibitions, identifying what is always wrong. Conversely to allow that any behaviour could be loving would be to empty the word of its content and meaning– a significant peril it would seem in current times. 
Within this framework, to speak of “absolute” moral demands (as we do in speaking of the absolute nature of love) is to speak of the demands of the total human situation as far as we can see them—and as Christians we can give thanks that it is part of the fact of divine revelation that we are helped to see them (even if giving expression to the particulars specific to the Christian view is challenging not only of itself but in an increasingly secular social environment).
Such demands may seem to conflict with the demands of a particular smaller situation into which we have entered, but the absolutist character of morality is based on the priority of the ultimate situation into which we enter by being born into this world.
The particularity of how this engages with the world of our every day experience is precisely what the story of the good Samaritan illustrates: where what defined the neighbour and what it means to love the neighbour as oneself was not the historical background or issues of identity or ethnicity, it was his need. It was that need which called forth the practical response of love.
But what is ultimately distinctive of the Christian moral vision is its framing by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead –which vindicates the created order a world view which is unique but which can still be expressed in ways intelligible to the non-believer.
The resurrection does not merely vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus, for then he would be little more than a heroic figure who has been rewarded by God. Rather, since Jesus is the incarnate Word, the “whole created order is taken up into the fate of this particular representative man [who was also divine] at this particular point of history, on whose one fate turns the redemption of all” . Easter culminates what the Incarnation affirms, namely, that creation has not been forsaken by its Creator; it remains God’s good gift.
Although the created order has been vindicated it is not yet fully redeemed. The resurrection also anticipates creation’s destiny of its redemption in Christ. Consequently, the task of moral ordering is neither simply to preserve creation as it is, nor is it to restore a lost, pristine ‘golden age’. Rather, the goal is to align the temporal unfolding of the created order with its destiny in the resurrected and exalted Christ, directing it toward the promise of a new heaven and earth, and not a rebuilt Garden of Eden.
This eschatological orientation in turn demarcates the temporal tasks of moral, social, and political ordering which, though very important, are not ultimate, for the true destiny of creation does not depend upon any particular family, organization, or nation, but upon the reign of Jesus Christ, while the law of Christ is one that empowers evangelical freedom. (By which is meant the freedom that comes with being fully what we are called to be – not in the maximization of choice, as modern consumerist notions of freedom mistakenly invite us to suppose.)
In this vision, the church is called and “authorised by the ascended Christ” to be a community that bears witness to how life should be lived within a vindicated creation being drawn toward its destiny in Christ; a life of obedient freedom under God in the love of God.
In the words of the Antiphon of Maundy Thursday which we are about to hear:
Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est
Where charity and love are – there is God.
 (and one is tempted to add: Upon these two commandments hang much of our draw and the profits…..)
 On the subject of differences between Britain and America in terms of national stereotypes London and New York Review(s) of Books, reporter Sarah Lyall notes that personal ads present “an unusual opportunity [for] cultural comparison”; British personal ads,she observes, embrace “droll understatement and deep self-deprecation,” whereas Americans go in for “self-promotion and sappy romanticism.” Compare thus: “Petite, pretty, blond professional seeks relationship built around laughter, love and a view that life should continue to be an adventure which was in case you had not already guessed American, while the following: “Shy, ugly man, fond of extended periods of self-pity, middle-aged, flatulent and overweight, seeks the impossible” had to be British.
 The relationship between being moderate and coercion is something at least hinted at also when we recall the two quite different uses of the cognate words moderate and moderator – for the latter is someone whom we expect will not be merely passive but take an active role in managing how things unfold and that gives one a very good clue into how the concept of “being moderate” has actually worked as an engine of control.
 There is certainly an interesting argument developed in extenso by by Ethan Shagan in his relatively recent book The rule of moderation (Cambridge 2011) where he traces the enormous power of what became a legitimating via media from the reign of Henry VIII onwards, with complex and fluid boundaries between moderation as a social norm and as an interior disposition — an ordering of the soul. Thus the ideal of moderation becomes central to a key part of English history and identity and a profoundly coercive tool of social, religious and political power which peaked at times when the State was at its most intolerant.
 A much misunderstood and misused phrase from Augustine notwithstanding(!): namely, “Love and do what you will” which derives from St. Augustine’s Homily 7 on the First Epistle of John. The perspective is one where God is love, and when we love truly and selflessly, we love with God’s own love. There is a Trinitarian hinterland also in that God allows us to participate in the same spirit of love that exists eternally between the Father, Son, and Spirit. God thus gives us what Aquinas calls “the New Law,” the “law of grace,” by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.” (Rom 5:5). The “New Law” is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Ezekiel 36:25-27: (echoed in the opening liturgical action today to the words Vidi aquam when the congregation is sprinkled with Holy Water) “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.” Love thus helps us to fulfill the law –and do so freely as we then desire to do God’s will, not merely what love as a passion might tempt us to do. (A larger discussion would be needed fully to set out the contrast between love as virtue and as passion aside from other senses as in union, and in relation to the recognition and bestowal of value as well as more widely the relation to emotion and sentiment, quite aside from issues of vocabulary as in ἔρως, φιλία ἀγάπη and στοργή or caritas and amor.
A further mistake to avoid and note here is a dualistic view of man, in which moral values attach to events in an “interior” invisible life, which runs alongside one’s public physical life. Such a view can lead to the idea that activities in the public visible world are in themselves morally neutral; while we merely speak of them as virtuous or bad according to whether they are accompanied or not by an act of loving in the interior life. To think in such a way leads to a view of two lives being lived in some sort of parallel but which are not intrinsically connected; with the consequence that we can only make rough empirical generalizations about which public acts are usually accompanied by love, while such rules of thumb have no sort of necessity.
The fourth Sunday of Easter has long been known as Good Shepherd Sunday, thanks to the appointed readings, especially that which we have just heard from John’s Gospel, wherein Jesus states in no uncertain terms: “I am the Good Shepherd.”
Due to Easter’s moveable date, Good Shepherd Sunday does not always occur in April — but this year it does fall within the thirty days called by T. S. Eliot “the cruelest month.”
Now I’m not a scholar of Eliot, so can’t pretend to know what he had in mind when he named April as the cruelest month, but there certainly are many April events — some within living memory, some historical — that lend heft and credibility to that designation. Most recently, the fifth anniversary of the Marathon bombing, and the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine school shootings.
There are many other examples: The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln (1865) and of Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). School shootings at Virginia Tech (2007) and — just two days ago — a high school in Ocala, Florida. The Bataan Death March (1942) and the protest in Tienanmen Square (1989). The explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (1986) and explosion of Apollo 13 (1970). The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995) and the entry of the United States into World War I (1917). The Warsaw Ghetto uprising (1942), commemorated just ten days ago on April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah).
This is a sad, sobering — and incomplete — litany of events. In “this joyous Eastertide” it serves as a reminder that the flock of humanity lives in a broken, fallen world.
Centuries of romanticized depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd have, I suspect, led to the assumption or belief (even if unconsciously) that the Good Shepherd is a soft, tender presence, calmly gazing upon the little vulnerable lamb he cradles in his arms, or carries across his shoulders. In the classic, familiar images of the Good Shepherd, there is nary a wolf; the assembled flock surrounds the Shepherd, unharmed, unalarmed. In these idealized images, there is only one Shepherd, one flock. But it is not so in the world we live in, is it?
Even the deepest devotion to the Good Shepherd cannot deny the reality of this wild, unruly world; the persistence of questions without answers; the ever-present dangers of frightened hirelings and fierce wolves.
I don’t believe there’s any need to enter into an explanation of the relationship between sheep and shepherd, or to attempt to examine the metaphor of Jesus is to Shepherd as we are to sheep. I suspect that even those with no rural experience get it.
But there is an aspect of this relationship that does warrant our attention: that is, the good-ness of the Good Shepherd, especially in light of the horrendous events of this “cruelest month” — not to mention the other eleven months of the year.
In declaring “I am the Good Shepherd” Jesus refers back to the prophet Ezekiel’s warnings and alarms about the dangers that threaten an unguarded or neglected flock. He counters Ezekiel’s description of the flock’s perils by proclaiming his devotion — “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” — and his intimate knowledge of each member of the flock: “I know my own.” But perhaps most importantly, he provides what is arguably the most concrete statement of his own identity: not vine, not bread, not door, not way nor truth nor light, but Shepherd. How much resonance would that have to those who heard his words, and who repeated them, and wrote them down, two millennia ago?
And how deeply do they stir those who hear them now: Those longing to be led to peaceful green pastures. Those living on the edge, in harm’s way thanks to an uncaring or selfish hired hand…Those reluctant to leave the sheepfold’s closed community. Those imperiled by the wolves of anger or addiction. Those not sure which flock, or shepherd, is theirs. Those wandering far from the flock in search of — what?
Even as we, like sheep, persist in going astray — “perverse and foolish oft I strayed” — the Good Shepherd, the shepherd who knows us, calls us. Calls us by name. As he called Lazarus out of the dank, dark tomb. As he called Mary Magdalene, weeping at that other, empty tomb.
The Good Shepherd does not promise to eliminate all the wiley wolves or lackadaisical shepherds, but rather to be present with the flock in the midst of these dangers. To anoint our wounds with oil. To lead us to calm places to slake our thirst. To be next to us in the darkness. The Good Shepherd does not lead the flock to the sheepfold, shut the gate, and proclaim Mission Accomplished.
The Good Shepherd accompanies the flock in the presence of enemies. In the valley of the shadow of death. Jesus the Good Shepherd calls the sheep away from the safety of the walled-off pen. And they follow.
Jesus calls us, too, to the open wilderness, just as he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness for 40 long days. Just as Moses the Shepherd was in the wilderness for 40 long years. Do you hear his voice? Can you follow?
The shepherd isn’t in the sheepfold. The shepherd is beyond its boundaries, beyond the walls, beyond a place of safety and comfort.
The Good Shepherd can be found feeding the hungry. Loving the unlovable. Giving hope to the hopeless. Touching the untouchable. Calling distracted people away from their daily tasks, saying Follow me. Bringing salvation not through the law, but through love.
Jesus calls us not only to be followers, but also to emulate the example of the Good Shepherd. And so students who have experienced and survived a school shooting raise their voices calling for safety for all students in all schools, all the time. Women who have experienced sexual harassment or discrimination band together to support each other and confront predators and seek justice. People whose lives and livelihoods are diminished or degraded by racism or classism or homophobia or other prejudice link arms, support and strengthen each other, and speak truth to power.
They do not languish in the safety of the sheepfold but have heard the voice of the Shepherd calling them into the wild pasture, reassuring them, “I know my own and my own know me.”
The Good Shepherd calls us and when we are united we can say, in the words of another poet:
He’s firmly mine by oath, I his by vow; / He’s mine by faith, and I am his by love; / He’s mine by water, I am his by wine / Thus I my Best-Beloved’s am, thus he is mine.
Poem: “My Beloved is Mine and I am His” – Francis Quarles (1592-1644), from Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson and Rowan Williams. Oxford University Press.
In the name of the One true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
And Jesus said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts.”
Why are we troubled? For the past six decades or so humankind has been in the midst of an era often called, the “age of anxiety” The 1947 six-part poem by the same name by W.H. Auden sought to describe our searching for meaning in an ever-industrializing world. Some have called into question this designation, this title for the era in which we live. Perhaps we are now moving into a time, or an era of over-stimulation. What my experiences in this life have showed me so far is that many who choose to are in a time of being untethered. Of feeling disconnected. It’s now, I believe, an era of being loosed. You may ask from what, and I say that it’s an era in which we are choosing to be loosed from each other, and ultimately from God. Why do doubts arise in your hearts Jesus asked. And now I think many would encounter that same question by asking “Why are you doubtless? Why are there no doubts in your mind? Why do you not call God into question? Why do you think there’s anything else but yourself? Be a good person, sure, but what have you to do with God?
This sort of spiritual weakness or doubt or even hatred of God or whatever it is called we have all encountered it in society. Doubt is normal. Doubt is healthy. Doubt is a part of faith. But doubt when it is in the midst of our faith does not make us faithless. Being completely faithless can mean being filled with hopelessness. That feeling of being untethered.
It can mean being entombed in our own self-serving and deadened ends.
The followers of Jesus, the disciples, had doubt that was turning into such despair, into hopelessness after Jesus’ crucifixion.
They were witnesses of an altogether divine story that had happened and would never be acted out again. It was over and they didn’t quite understand the ending. They were beginning to feel utterly lost utterly hopeless without Jesus.
Envision the scene in which our Gospel reading opens.
The hour is late. The heat of the day has subsided and a slight clean chill enters under the door of the room
Some small fire is burning and casting confusing shadows about. A small gathering of people, a dozen or so, are in different places throughout the room. Some pace the floor, others speak quietly in hushed tones. still others sit in silence with expectant looks that are slowly turning into looks of sorrow.
It is an altogether bizarre sight, the darkness and overall quiet of the place conjure up images of mourning the dead, of depression, of anxiety, of fear. It is a tomb.
These followers of Christ were about to assign Jesus to death, they were about to give him up for dead… and in so doing they were ready to mourn and perhaps even rid themselves of this man who now had caused them to be overcome with grief and confusion.
As the fire casts shadows of abstract dancing shapes upon the rough walls something appears in the dark room. Something has come through the wall, or the door, or perhaps through the air! And this figure, this shape is an altogether terrifying sight.
They had gotten into their heads an idea, an image of death and hopelessness. They were buried, as it were, buried in a sort of tomb. In a sort of tomb they had walled themselves inside of, and this sort of tomb, this sort of mindset is focused only on the possibilities that present themselves in that walled in space. In only the supposed reality of what they can reach for in front of them.
By their own wills they had begun to shut out the endless possibilities that Jesus brings to humankind.
They shut out the notion that anything good could actually enter into the room, it had to instead have been a ghost.
Something untoward, something unnatural, something that caused terror.
The possibility that the Christ had come to them was so distant a thought in their heads that they actually could not bring themselves to recognize their Lord, to recognize our Lord.
Jesus then says to them, “why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Now why is it they do not recognize the resurrected Jesus?
While we cannot rule out that after the Resurrection Jesus was in someway changed and altered in appearance the scriptures may be eluding to and pointing at another possibility, the possibility that the many people who did not recognize Jesus after the resurrection, were not able to because of their unwillingness to do so, because of their doubts, and because their hearts were so stopped that they could not allow for the possibility that Jesus Christ was with them.
We can be brought to do this as well.
There are those times in our lives when we are unable to bring ourselves to a place where the good, where the holy, where love is able to enter in. It is unable to enter in because we have not lifted our gazes out from the tomb. Out from the negative places where we are sometimes or even often want to go and to stay.
How common it is for us to fail to recognize the risen Christ in front of our eyes. It is prevalent in our world. In fact it is rampant. We fail to recognize Christ and ultimately to recognize just how undone we are, just how untethered we have allowed ourselves to become.
Our eyes, ears, and hearts can become stopped. A sort of blindness that effects more then just our eyes creeps into us, and we are left with figuring out a world that cannot be figured out without the help of Christ. We shuffle around or pace or huddle up like the disciples in that dark shadowy room and whether we understand it or now we are only greeted in this dimmed vision by silence and ultimately by bottomless, bottomless despair.
Why don’t we see Jesus?
Why do we allow ourselves to be kept from fully giving ourselves over to expecting him?
And I don’t mean expecting him and seeing him in every person you look at, or every beautiful wonder of nature you see, or even through every thought you think, but I mean honestly with your heart and whole existence lift up yourself to the possibility that Christ wants you to see him.
He doesn’t want you to evade him, or put him off, or assign him to one day a week. Christ delights in those times when he doesn’t have to say “be not afraid” he delights. He delights in this because he knows that you are as quick to recognize him and embrace him as he is quick to love you.
What Christ is doing in Luke here for his disciples is teaching them what their faith should look like. He is imparting divine wisdom upon them. He must teach of this new faith, a faith in the Son of God, for there was no precedent.
There was no rubric that they could follow! There was no such faith before. A cosmic event had occurred, and Jesus knew that he had to establish the new faith in that dark room and in that time to those women and men who were on the edge of hopelessness. But instead of bottomless despair Christ introduced to them the continued truth of this great story.
He was able to do this because they recognized him. They recognized him and took him in. They realized that in that place. They were able to be reigned in from their wandering, from their being loosed from the possibilities that can only come from God.
So then let us not stay locked inside of our rooms which cast confusing shadows upon the walls. These rooms which do not allow the endless possibilities of Christ to enter in.
Instead let us lift ourselves up to the possibility that Christ wants us to recognize him. Christ wants us to recognize him.
It is a very odd and wonderful word – Alleluia. I wonder how many people here this morning know what it means. Some of you, certainly. But I suspect that those of you who don’t know are probably in the majority. Indeed, I would to wager that hundreds of thousands, even millions of Christians over the centuries have used this word and rejoiced in this word without having any idea at all what they were saying.
What is does mean is this: Praise God ! But how much better is: Alleluia ! There is something joyful just in the sound of the word. Alleluia! What an excellent and strange word. It is a shout ! An acclamation ! A cry of triumph and joy, praise and thanksgiving ! A cry even of surprise !
And that is as it should be, for in this holy season we celebrate something which surprised and continues to surprise the whole world: that Jesus, the rabbi of Nazareth, through the power of God, has risen from the dead and, by his death and rising has defeated everything which led him to the Cross and held humankind in bondage.
And it was a surprise, you know, for they didn’t expect it. Even those who had lived with him and were closest to him and listened to him as he taught. They didn’t expect it at all. They went to the tomb ( we heard the story last Sunday ), Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to mourn ( their teacher, their master was dead ), but they found that the stone had been rolled back from the entrance to the tomb, and what could they imagine but that his body had been stolen away. A desecration of his grave. Another act of cruelty and hatred toward the one who had been so cruelly tortured and killed. What else could it be ?
But then they learned that he had risen and was “going before you to Galilee.” They didn’t expect it and they were surprised. Alleluia !
And today, we heard the story of Thomas. Not only did Thomas not expect it, he refused to believe it. “Unless I see in his hands the print of 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.” But Thomas was surprised. Alleluia ! Jesus appeared to him, and Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God !” Alleluia !
And for so many reasons we don’t expect it either, do we ? Human life and the world around us so often seems caught in a grip of grim fatality, destined to repeat again and gain the same boring sins and stupid mistakes, condemned to endure the same disappointments and sadnesses. Good Friday seems the last word on the world and the lives we live. Hopes dashed to pieces, goodness crushed. Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed. That’s what a great aunt of mine used to say, and most of us agree with her. Expect nothing and you’ll never be disappointed.
And so, we too are surprised; for the last word, you see, is God’s word not ours, and not the world’s. And Good Friday is not what it seemed to be, for in Easter tide we learn that that seemingly awful day was really a triumph. Love won the battle of the Cross. Obedience and faithfulness prevailed, even in the midst of evil and hatred and pain – and the Christ, our dear Lord Jesus, is proclaimed by God victorious. He lives ! The tomb cannot contain him. Love is larger than sin and death. In this sad old world, one hears a new shout: Alleluia ! The weeping and the tears are ended. Alleluia ! He is risen. Alleluia!
And this is what it is: a shout ! An acclamation ! The proclamation of a victory !
There are no proofs and it can’t be proven. But those who know the love and the power of the risen Jesus need no proofs. There are no explanations, and it can’t be explained. Jesus is risen from the dead. It is a new fact about the world and about human life which goes beyond all the old fatalities, and itself creates a new world. It is unexpected. A reversal of what we thought we knew. A complete surprise. Alleluia!
And so, my sisters and brothers, let us not look for proofs in Easter tide. Jesus is risen from the dead; his victory proves itself. And let us not try to explain. God acted in Jesus, and his love is its own explanation.
If we boast, let our boast be of God.
If we weep, let our tears be tears of joy.
And if we shout let our shout be that ancient and always new cry which overcomes the world. Praise God ! Alleluia! Alleluia ! Alleluia !
There are actually three kinds of people who travel. There are wanderers, there are tourists, and there are pilgrims.
Wanderers can’t stay still because they can’t stand themselves, and so constantly wander, thinking that someplace else will be better – it doesn’t matter where; just keep going.
Tourists like to be interested in things, but don’t like to get involved. Much better to stay at the Hilton than to deal with the natives.
And then there are pilgrims. Pilgrims can take all shapes and sizes, but they all have one thing in common: they know where they’re going. They have a purpose. They have an intention.
And one of the most important things about the whole Hebrew/Christian tradition is that, unlike much of the ancient world, the Asian world, and the classical world, we are not wanderers. We are not involved in a cyclical cycle that repeats itself with no intention. We are in a world that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are now in the middle, but it was begun because God loved the world into being. It will end because God wants it to be sufficient unto Himself, and complete. And we as pilgrims in the meanwhile move from that time of creation to the time of fruition, but we know where we’re going. That’s very important, and all of Holy Week we have been on that pilgrimage, walking alongside our Lord as he trod the Via Dolorosa, endured the Cross, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
Today’s Gospel is actually my least favorite of the four resurrection stories, because it doesn’t give all of the wonderful bits and pieces about the angels coming, and the stone being rolled away with thunder and all sorts of things. It ends with the three Marys, who after all had come to give reverence to a dead body, being fearful and afraid. It had been a wonderful thing to see the empty tomb; but the empty tomb isn’t the point. The empty tomb is only half of it. The empty tomb is an empty tomb because of the Risen Lord. His body was not there, because it had been resurrected. And it’s very important for us to know as Christians two things: Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily resurrection; and he has promised that we too in Christ shall know our own bodily resurrection. We’re not going to be spirits somewhere in the way-out-there, floating around with nothing in particular to do; we are going to be resurrected in a new life that is consistent with our old life, in the sense that that which makes us who we are is retained, so that we will know face to face those whom we’ve loved in the past, even as we see Our Lord face to face as well. So let’s look first of all at the issue of Our Lord’s body, and then talk about our bodies.
The important thing about Jesus’ body is better explained in a poem by the American poet John Updike. Cynics among you might think, “Oh, what a depressing man.” He was actually a committed Episcopalian and a very devout Christian, and one of the poems that made a splash because it was so terribly un-contemporary was his poem called “Seven Stanzas at Easter.”
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
It was not as the flowers,
Each soft spring recurrent;
It was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
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-mache,
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.
And if we have an angel at the tomb,
Make it a real angel,
Weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in
The dawn light, robed in real linen
Spun on a definite loom.
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.
If our Lord has not raised bodily from the dead, as St Paul says, then our faith is in vain. One of the problems that has passed with many people in terms of the Resurrection is that many of you grew up in a Newtonian world, a world where Deism and those who liked Deism reigned, and where reality had to be physical, and there was a separation between matter and energy. They were different. But we now live in an increasingly post-Newtonian age, where physicists (I have a son who is a particle physicist) talk about the fact that the cosmos is an incredibly intertwined mystery, where we don’t have easy answers, where matter becomes energy, energy becomes matter, where time is transferable, time is changeable, time is relative. And so consequently, all of the stabilities of a modernist age are now in disarray. Why not have the body of Our Lord transformed? Why not matter into energy?
St Anselm, the great philosopher-theologian, said, “I believe in order that I might understand.” He didn’t say, “I create my understanding to what I want to believe,” but “I believe in order that I might understand.” We as Christians today are facing many people who have varying theologies, who think that we have to be relevant to the age. Those who say that are actually already themselves antiques, because they’re talking about being relevant to the former age. Newton is dead; his apple is rotten; and people like him in the grave may have a great surprise at the end of time.
Jesus rose from the dead because he wants us to be a part of him, and as I said last night, one of the beautiful things in the Mass that normally is not perceived by the congregation is that as the wine and the water are prepared for Mass, the priest says a prayer, as he mixes the water and wine, and says, “By this mingling of water and wine, may we participate in Christ’s divinity, who partook of our humanity.” Remember the water and the blood that flew out of Christ’s side at the Crucifixion. The imagery there is that, because Jesus took on our nature – our physical nature – we of all creation are unique, and that we now have been divinized through Christ even as he has humanized God in our relationship. We are a part, we are brothers and sisters, of the Godhead. It doesn’t mean we are divine; and indeed one of the great dangers of a lot modern “spiritual but not religious” is that self-actualization is equatable with spirituality. Self-actualization is impossible, because you cannot be actualized except in relationship. A child brought up, as we know, terribly, from experiences in the Eastern bloc countries where infants who were orphans were raised physically but never nurtured, and in the end result was that they had no relational ability. They were smothered and small.
CS Lewis in The Great Divorce, a wonderful novel, talks about a human being given the privilege, like Dante’s figure in the Divine Comedy, where he goes to both Heaven and Hell. In Hell he finds people getting smaller and smaller and smaller, because they feed on themselves. They have nothing else. They’re given the chance of going to Heaven, but they refuse. Each has an excuse. My favorite is a bishop (I think I know who it is, exactly) who is a great debater and much prefers the uncertainty of Hell, where he can debate the possibilities, than having to face the reality of Heaven. And when that same human person goes to Heaven, he finds everything bigger and more real than it was in his human experience, and he realizes that the transformation in the Resurrection doesn’t mean, mercifully, that you’re going to need some kind of skin care after you’re resurrected. The “is-ness” of our resurrection is not about the fact that we look exactly as we did, but that which makes us who we are continues.
So much of Eastern spirituality talks about us being merged into the great ooze of being. Well, I’ve never liked ooze, nor do I find it very relational. Squishy, yes, but not relational. And so consequently, it’s important for us to recognize that what Jesus is talking about in his own resurrection is a life transformed and made fuller and richer and more real than even the life as we know it now. That has implications for us as well. When I have a really difficult point to make I always quote somebody bigger than I am. N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham, has a wonderful thing to say. He says, “The continuing message of the resurrection of Jesus is precisely not that there is life after death. There is of course life after death, and all God’s people will inherit it, but the point is that it won’t be what most modern Westerners think, as if life after death was a mere continuation. It will involve God’s people being given new bodies, like Jesus’ body, to share in the new heavens and the new earth that God will make.”
Every time we say the Creed, we say, ‘And we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.’ Now, what does that imply? I think there are four things we as Christians need to rejoice in about the resurrection of the body of our Lord and the fact that we have the hope of resurrection of ourselves.
The first is that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of our own. We will have a continuity with our past lives, but washed and enlarged. And our life won’t be static. Think of the three virtues – “Faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest is love.” Why is love the greatest? Because when we come into fullness of life in Heaven, we won’t hope; we will know. We will no longer have faith, for we will have sight. The one thing we will have, the one thing that continues and grows in us, is love. So that the love which Christ gives us – and indeed, for a Christian, love is not something we possess; love is something for which we are a channel; God’s love abundantly flows through us out to the world, if we but let it. And by means of the Sacraments, by means of hearing the Word, by means of prayer, by means of coming together and sharing with each other, we activate that love, which then flows through us out into the world and establishes a greater part of God’s kingdom. So, we will be whole and complete, and we will know and love and be loved in ways we never could have anticipated.
Secondly, Jesus’ resurrection empowers us to experience new life right now. God the Father fully reigns in Heaven, as we say every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, but his dominion on earth is not yet complete. By these words and sacraments and our actions, we continue and extend that reign of God. He works in us and through us to extend his will. As St Teresa of Avila once said, “God can work without us, but He wills to work with us, because He wants us to cooperate in this dominion of love.”
Thirdly, Jesus’ resurrection demands that we see a wider vision of the cosmos, and the limitations of our own understanding. We are part of a greater reality than we can see, that transcends our own limitations. One of the things that many of us forget in the West is that we talk in the Creed about, “He descended to the dead”, or “He descended into Hell.” Many people in the 18th century got rid of that, because it was too downbeat. You probably know that the person who became the Minister at King’s Chapel told people that he’d love to be their minister as long as they got rid of all that stuff about the Trinity, because it didn’t make any sense. But that’s again a misunderstanding of dogma and true doctrine. What happens is that we are a part of a huge, very deeply interconnected experience, and all of that is tied together in love. One of the ways Paul talks about the importance of Jesus is that he says – and this is a mis-translation of the Greek – “Jesus is the glue that holds the whole world together.” It’s the divine energy of love that created the world; it is the divine energy of God’s love that maintains the world, and we only see a small portion of that.
Finally, we will rise with our bodies, not as dismembered spirits, and we will meet and greet all those whom we have loved in the past, and get to greet all those people we’ve wanted to but never could. Can’t wait to talk to Anselm, myself. Revelation, the great Apocalypse, describes a new heaven and the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth; a new and renewed physical world. Jesus calls us into that reality now that will continue forever.
I want to leave you with one Yankee thing. Every time you walk through a graveyard, especially in those graveyards that were established before the 18th century, notice the fact that the tombstones are all at the west side, because the body was always laid with the head toward the tombstone. Why? Because from the early Middle Ages on people understood that when Jesus came back, he came back from the east, with the rising sun, and so everyone wished to be buried so that as they were resurrected, and they came up out of their tombs, they would see Him face to face.
The joy of Easter is ours. Let us rejoice and be glad, and as we come to what I call the “Anglican altar call”, and receive our Lord’s presence in His Body and Blood, let us know that this is a foretaste of the feast to come. Amen.
We’ve just completed Act III of a drama that will continue for two more acts, but those acts are the deepest and most important acts that any human being can do, because we are to participate in that dying and rising with our Lord, even as Noah this evening received baptism so gloriously that he will have to be told about it when he’s a little older; but the important thing about tonight is that this is the most important day of the year. Not only is it the birth of the church, but it is that point in the year when all of God’s glorious creation is focused on the renewal of that creation in a new humanity provided for us in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The priest at the mass, when he blesses the water and wine about to be used for the Eucharist, says a wonderful prayer that is not normally heard by the congregation: he says as he blesses it, “By the mystery of this water and wine, may we who participate in Christ’s humanity also participate in his divinity.” Tonight, we are becoming divinized.
Evelyn Underhill once said that it’s hard for many people to realize, but if they could really see other Christians as God sees them, they would realize that they are actually before the face of gods and goddesses. Not that we are equal to God, but that one of the great parts of the Anglican faith is that theosis – becoming one with God – is part of our cooperation in response to what God has given us in his Son. And at Ascension, we see that Jesus is now with the Father in heaven, having brought our humanity with him, himself, into the heavenly presence of God.
No other creatures, angels or other forms of creation, have that privilege of being brothers and sisters of the God-Man Jesus Christ. It is the deepest and most wonderful privilege of anything in God’s creation, and tonight, in each of the various acts we’ve gone through, we are participating in something that is deeper than the present moment, and a part of that resonance from the past we call anamnesis (we’ve talked of that before). The fact is that we’re not just looking back to what once happened in history, we are eyewitnesses participating in that event.
And tonight also, we’re doing something else – another Greek word that’s wonderful for cocktail parties after Easter Mass: it’s prolepsis. Even as anamnesis is our participation in what once happened in the past, at each Eucharist, and especially tonight, we are also experiencing prolepsis: the experiencing of that which is yet to come, but is already a part of who we are in Christ Jesus. So even as each Eucharist is the anamnesis of bringing us back in time to the presence of the Lord at the Last Supper, each Eucharist is also a prolepsis where we enter into the Heavenly Banquet itself. In that which is for the Bridegroom and all those who are with the Bridegroom at the Heavenly Banquet. What a wonderful privilege for us.
Let’s unpack that a bit as we go through because the liturgy itself teaches so much, but is so rich that it’s very difficult for us to catch much of it. And the particular beauty of this service in this place is something hardly found anywhere else in America. I’ve been lots of places, so I can tell you that. (And I’m not being paid to say that!)
The reason I say that is because, as slowly as we progress through this, with the silences, we are allowing ourselves to enter into this great drama of salvation. We began with the lighting of the fire. In the ancient world, of course fire was the only source of heat and light and the only way to cook food, so fire became very much a symbol of life, and the kindling of the new fire was something that was very often done where all the fires had to be extinguished, and then on the Solstice, the fire of the king or the high priest would be the first to be lit from which all other fires would be lit. You might know from the legend of St. Patrick that he proclaimed Christianity by an act of civil disobedience. He did so by lighting the first fire that was the right of the High King of Ireland on the solstice that happened also to be Easter, and here he proclaimed with the new fire of Christ was greater than all of the mystery religions of the past.
[Editor’s note: the interruption in the sermon at this point was the result of the noisy collapse of a floral arrangement at the altar.]
The lighting of the Paschal Candle, then, is something that is not just a large candle – although this is a magnificent one, and I give the deacon and subdeacon tremendous credit for managing it without lighting themselves aflame as well. But the Paschal Candle represents the pillar of fire that went with the People of Israel in the time of the desert. For those 40 years in the wilderness it was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that represented the Shekinah, the presence of God in the midst of his people.
Early on in the Church, the Paschal Candle became the symbol of Our Lord’s presence upon earth for the 40 days He was alive in His resurrected body before He ascended to the Father. Consequently, the pillar of fire represents that presence of Christ with us in human, resurrected form, that is now also his Body, you and I, the Church.
The various passages from the Old Testament that we heard are a part of that salvation history that begins with creating the world. Why did God create the world? He had no need of the world. He created the world for something to love. And because of all the creatures He had created in the world, none could respond like we could, He created our first parents, Adam and Eve. And you might have heard in the Exsultet, what in Latin is called O felix culpa, O happy fault, that our disobedience to God had brought God’s response by bringing his Son to save us and to redeem us, and not only redeem us, but transform us into his likeness. Then we go through the covenants that God had given us. The covenant with Noah; the covenant with Abraham; the covenant with the people of Israel, the hope of the resurrection of the people of Israel in the Dry Bones.
And finally we come, at the end of that darkness, into the baptism. In the ancient Church, there were two times of the year that Christians were baptized. They were baptized on Easter, because to rise with Jesus we die with Jesus, and also on Epiphany, because that was the baptismal day of Jesus according to the Gospels. And indeed, Advent and Lent are actually the six weeks of preparation for baptism before Christmas or Epiphany and Easter, with the whole congregation participating in penitence and prayer for those candidates about to be baptized.
So we’ve now done that: we’ve now experienced that dying and rising and renewing those vows which were made for us by our parents or made by ourselves, and anointed by the oil of the Spirit.
And then, as the Litany of the Saints progressed, and we realized that we are at every Eucharist not alone, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses because when at the celebration the priest says, “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” they’re there. They’re here. All those who’ve gone before us in the Faith are present with us in this great time, because in the Mass, all time and all space is transposed into God’s time and God’s space. And God’s space is forever and God’s time is always. And so we then join with the whole host of Heaven, with angels and archangels and all those who’ve gone before, and the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant are joined together in this great celebration of our Lord’s triumph. Now finally you come to the words of the Gospel and the words of a mere preacher that help to exemplify and bring into our experience that which we’ve touched and seen and heard.
Now, what am I supposed to say after having given you that as a preface?
Tonight, we have already experienced all that we will of that anamnesis. It’s our privileged position to know the happy ending of the story unknown to the three Marys. Can you imagine the experience of those women, coming to embalm a dead body, to find the tomb empty and this being – we don’t know what angels exactly looked like; angels don’t necessarily have to have a human form – but this divine presence announces to them that He has risen and gone on before them. And you can just see those Marys, with all of these herbs and spices brought to embalm the dead body, totally and utterly confused. We don’t even hear any bit of joy in what’s happened. It’s too overwhelming for them to have any indication of what this absent body meant.
We too often in our own Christian lives can be like those Marys. We can go through our routines, our formalized practice of religion, we can have a Christian faith that we inherited from our parents and grandparents at second- and third-hand, or we can have a compartmentalized faith that’s fine for Sundays and saint’s days and has nothing to do with who we are or what we do the rest of the week. But then at some point in our lives, that angel and the empty tomb will come into our own experience and devastate us. Not necessarily bring us joy, because the demands and the transformations expected are not where we are, and very often not what we want to be.
Let me share with you briefly what happened to me in a very strange situation. I was teaching in a college that shall remain nameless, and was denied tenure. We won’t go into that, but I was totally and utterly crushed. I had had good responses from my students, I was successful, I was publishing, I was doing all the things I was supposed to do, and suddenly my whole life fell apart. And I realized, in my desolation, that as much as I knew (because I was ordained by then) about the Scriptures, and as much as I knew about theology, my theology stunk, because my God was too small. My God was what I call a “gimme God.” A God who gave me the things that I wanted. I was obedient, and he provided me with my tenure and my family and my two kids with perfect teeth, and everything was going hunky-dory and that would continue until I retired and became a Professor Emeritus and lived happily ever after in Florida. But suddenly that world crashed, and I had a dream. It was Holy Week, and I was actually the celebrant that Sunday for the Easter Mass, and I was wondering in my depression how on earth I was going to get through that. And in the dream, I woke up in Jesus’ tomb, just like it was described in the Gospels. It was cold, and it was dark, and suddenly the stone was rolled away. And I was petrified. And I heard a voice outside the tomb say, “Arnie, come out.” And I responded, “I’m mad, and I’m not happy, and I don’t like the way things are going, so I don’t want to come out!” And the voice kept calling, and calling, and calling, and finally it said, “Look, we’ll compromise. I’ll put up a pup tent, so you’ll come out of the tomb, the stone’s rolled away, but you won’t have to be in the sunshine yet.” And I woke up.
I was able to celebrate Mass that Sunday, thankfully, but it came to me that I had been embalmed with the dead Jesus and God had to break the idol of my own contained image of God before I was able to have a greater understanding of who God was in Jesus Christ and who I was because of that, and that my worth came not from being a husband, or a father, or a professor, all of which were good things in themselves, but I was a child of God, and I was a beloved of Jesus, and that the resurrected Lord had called me out of love, that I would also know something of resurrected life. And indeed, my life was far better than it would have been if I had stayed in that podunk town for the rest of my life. God had plans for me to go on, just as he told the Marys, “I will meet you beyond.” He calls all of us out of our own depths and our own experiences of crucifixion, to that new life, that new experience that he’s calling all of us to possess in our love for him.
We’ve gone on long enough, but I think I want to end with my favorite poem of George Herbert. I know it’s the Rector’s favorite as well. It’s “Love bade me welcome.”
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, tonight you have the chance to do the Anglican altar call, which means:
Come and receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.
Come and greet your Lord in his resurrected self
and make your Easter Communion rejoicing in the new life he has offered for you.
We have come to the end of the Passion narrative, as Our Lord says, “It is finished.”
We have heard the story of Jesus betrayed, mocked, physically and emotionally abused.
Who could have done this? We did. In A Matter of Eternity, Dorothy Sayers says:
“God was executed by people painfully like us in a society very similar to our own—in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a government known for its efficiency, he was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators.”
Why did Jesus have to die? What did he “finish” or “accomplish” with a public demonstration of humiliation and diminishment by means of a sadistic instrument of torture?
Is this not the ‘worst-case’ scenario of that unanswerable theological conundrum of THEODOCY: how can a just God allow such horrors to happen to innocent people? But…
THE CROSS IS GOD’S ANSWER
Let us reflect together on three ways in which the cross is God’s answer to theodocy:
The cross as a sign of God’s vulnerability
The cross as a defense against idolatry
The cross as our bridge to intimacy with God
The cross as a sign of God’s vulnerability
Vulnera is the Latin word for wound or injury, therefore to be vulnerable is to be open to hurt, wounding, pain and diminishment
Our Lord’s vulnerability on the cross was the clear indication that God was not impassive to our pain, or unaware of our diminishment; rather, God’s concern for us was so great that God himself would risk injury, rejection and alienation in order to identify with us in love.
Any love relationship is risky—we fear rejection, misunderstanding and betrayal on the one hand, or we can fear our engulfment by the ‘other’—and the deeper our love the greater the risks involved.
God’s love is “so deep, so broad, so high” that God risks death itself to gain our love; but such a love demands a response, God’s risk must be met with our trust.
But no! Would it not be safer for us to have a god of thunder who demands justice rather than love, and shows domination rather than vulnerability? This is where…
The cross as a defense against idolatry
The gods humankind has always preferred are gods made in our own image: gods who will deliver what we want and when we want it. Our culture still worships Zeus, the god of thunderbolts and fury, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love turned to lust.
Against these false gods the cross of Jesus is a brutal reminder of what our God is not—a God who does not make cheap deals with us or bargain for better terms.
The God revealed in Jesus’ crucifixion is too big for our minds to fathom, too generous for our hearts to measure, and too noble for our self-centered souls to encompass.
The cross reminds us that our vision of God is too small, and our grasp of His plan is too short.
But if we cannot come to God on our own terms, how can we connect
The cross as our bridge to intimacy with God
Even as the cross breaks down our petty illusions and false idols, so it also builds a bridge between our limitedness and His immensity of self-giving love.
The wood of the cross becomes the platform for God’s intercession for us. Intercedere is the Latin for “to go between” or to “bridge the gap.”
So that we could have access to God the Father, Our Lord had “to go between” our need and God’s mercy, our imperfection and God’s perfect love.
But it not just on the cross that Jesus intercedes for us, His whole life was one great movement of intercession:
–His incarnation brought the divine into our limitedness
–His ministry brought God’s healing into our woundedness
–His teaching brought God’s wisdom into our ignorance
–His love brought God’s presence into our fearfulness
–His suffering brings God’s forgiveness to our sinfulness
And when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” he even goes to the gates of Hell—the ultimate alienation—to bring us back into intimacy with His Father.
‘IT IS FINISHED’
Jesus, on the cross, offers Himself to the Father to intercede/to go between/to bridge the gap between our emptiness and God’s immeasurable love.
Even in the total alienation of the darkness of God’s absence, of a God He can no longer see, Jesus still trusts enough to say: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Let us then, both you and I, respond to that invitation to partake of intimacy with God,
And “risking not less than everything,” step out onto the wood of the cross, and walk the “narrow way” across the chasm between our sinfulness and God’s lovingkindness,
–admitting our woundedness
–casting aside our idols, and
–opening up our emptiness
so that we may know the never-ending extent of God’s love for us.