FIRST SUNDAY AFTER EASTER
April 28, 2019
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
He is Risen! Good morning.
To better understand and appreciate the many themes of our lessons this morning it is important to think back to how Easter was celebrated in the ancient church. Today - Easter 1 - has several informal names, including ‘Low Sunday’, which I was first told had to do with the lower attendance we notice this Sunday as opposed to last week on Easter Day.
However it is more likely called that because this is the final day in the Octave of Easter, but of these two Easter Octave Sundays, this is the one of a lower solemnity than the great day of Easter itself. Fr. Neil read two collects this morning: one for the first Sunday after Easter and one for the Octave of Easter.
What’s an Octave? I can’t answer that when it comes to music, but in our Catholic tradition, an Octave is eight days which include and follow certain holy feast days in the Christian calendar. Our prayer book recognizes five Octaves throughout the year. Bonus points and free coffee if you can tell me after Mass what they all are.
The Biblical authors frequently attached special meaning to numbers, and that tradition continued into Christian practice. Seven, for example, means perfection or completion, and therefore 8 can signify a new beginning or even eternity, that is no end. In the early church “the eighth day” meant Sunday, Resurrection day, our day of corporate worship. As you know, in Jewish tradition circumcisions are traditionally performed on the eighth day after birth. Baptism, its New Testament equivalent, also has associations with eight. You might notice, for example, that although our baptismal font here at Mary Magdalene is round, most traditional fonts have eight sides. Baptism is an outward and visible sign of regeneration, a new beginning: We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, St Paul writes, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
I mention baptism specifically because for the ancient church this Octave of Easter which we are finishing today had a central theme and a specific audience. Our prayer book preserves this tradition in the four masses and daily readings for the Easter Octave. So, historically, for whom was this a special week? -- for those who had just been initiated into the Christian faith on Easter, the newest members of the church.
Traditionally they would have gone through Lent in preparation as catechumens. These converts would have spent all of last Saturday - called Holy Saturday or Easter Even - in pre-communion rites: lighting the Paschal candle, reciting the creeds, saying the litany, then receiving baptism and/or the laying on of hands at confirmation, and then at dawn on Sunday, they were allowed to join the Easter Mass and receive their first communion. Water, the Blood of Christ, and the Holy Spirit all testifying to who they now were in Christ.
After such a powerful experience on Easter morning, what then should the church tell these newly baptized Christians? What message should they be thinking on and praying through during this their first week as full members of the Body? The central message throughout the Octave, now accentuated in our lessons this morning, has to do with Christ’s victories over death, sin, and the world, the surety we should now have in our own identity as God’s people, and since this is a new beginning - there is also a clear exhortation to live a pure life. A life, which our Epistle lesson told us last week, is now hid with Christ in God.
The Collect this morning takes its words from the gospel of John, and St Paul’s letters to the Romans and Corinthians: ALMIGHTY Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth…
At this time of Easter, leaven should bring to mind the Passover - which actually just ended yesterday. During Passover Jews ceremonially eat unleavened bread. I’m not much of a baker, but from what I understand leaven is very infectious: yeast can spread easily to other lumps of dough and multiply. Consequently, leaven is used in the Bible to symbolize sin and corruption. The Hebrews, free from their old lives as slaves in Egypt, were instructed to commemorate their new life and fresh start with unleavened bread, symbolizing that they should leave behind idolatry and all those other corrupting practices of their former masters.
Referencing the Passover, St Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival not with the old leaven...malice and evil...but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
It’s the end of a long process for these new converts to Christianity. Now at the end of the Octave the priest is telling them in the words of St Paul. “OK, so now you are free… What are you going to do now? How are you going to celebrate this and live it out?”
The Epistle and Gospel lessons today both come from St. John. John’s words always have great significance for us, but especially for those who are new to the faith. A central message in John’s writings is assurance: being absolutely sure in who God is by seeing who Christ is (light, truth, love), being sure about the victories we share with Christ over death, sin, and the world, and being sure of our own identity which should be now characterized by these virtues Christ exemplifies, especially love.
“I write these things,” John states at the beginning of his first Epistle, “to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” John later refers to his readers as “my little children” and wants to give them confidence in the message of Christ’s Gospel. Elsewhere in this Epistle, he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands... life made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim it to you...so that you too may have fellowship with us...with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ”.
The trustworthiness of Jesus is very important to the apostle John. He had to deal with some popular heresies that taught Jesus was not really incarnated in the flesh but merely appeared to be human. This John could not stand for. It was important that his own spiritual children understood the incarnation and its implications. Because first, through Jesus the incarnate Son, who John had seen, heard, and even touched, we can know with great assurance who the transcendent Father is. If you know me, then you will know my Father, Jesus says in John Ch 16. Secondly, incarnation is important to John because if Jesus did not truly come into the world to dwell among us but only appeared to do so, then how can he have told us that he had overcome it?
In the beginning was the Word, John writes at the beginning of his gospel account, and I imagine the gnostics and other heretics could have nodded to that. And yet, He was in the world, and the world was made through him yet the world did not know him...and the Word became flesh. Eh, the heretics didn’t like that part. That goes strongly against the religious and philosophical sensibilities of the time. But the reality, John is arguing, is Jesus was incarnated, fully man and fully God, and he came into the world. And not just into it but through every dark part of it. His incarnation took him through temptation, betrayal, rejection, torture, and down through death itself. In other words, there is no part of the world that was untouched by the incarnation. The apostle John testifies to this so that those who come after him could know that Jesus had overcome it all, not just some part but all of it. And John wants to be sure that future Christians, newly baptized into Christ, understand they too now share in this same victory.
In the Epistle lesson he writes, For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? It is he who came by water and blood -- The resurrected Jesus, John tells us in both lessons this morning, was no ghost or demi-god who only seemed like a man. His disciples saw his hands and his side where water and blood had poured out. This gave them assurance in everything that Jesus had taught and claimed.
If we receive the testimony of men, John continues, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. John is saying that God the Father is testifying on behalf of who His Son is. God raised him from the dead - that’s the testimony, that’s exhibit AB and C. And that should give us assurance in all that Jesus told us concerning the Father and himself. And if that wasn’t good news enough, John adds, “...Whoever believes in the Son of God has that same testimony in himself….Whoever has the Son has life”.
In his earthly ministry Jesus testified to who God is, saying that to know and listen to him is to listen to the one who sent him. By raising Jesus from the dead on Easter, God testified to who Jesus is...the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of Man foretold. And now today, all of you newly baptized Christians this lesson was chosen for, who spent Lent in preparation, who were just baptized with water into union with Christ because you have listened to the witness of the apostles, who received the Holy Spirit at your confirmation, who have received the Body and Blood in the Eucharist, now you carry these testimonies in yourself and take into the world. You are now Christ’s resurrected body - his testimony - in the world, testifying to who he is until he comes again.
And what about this world? “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world - our faith.” The word overcome is nika (nike; victory) and though there are a couple of words in the New Testament for “world” John uses this word cosmos a lot and it refers to where the drama of human history is playing out, the entire fallen human system. There are well-known verses in John like,
● “God so loved the world” (3:16),
● “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17)
● “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (16:28)
● “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices”(16:20)
● “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (16:33)
Christ overcame the world by coming into it and passing through it all without sin: the perfect unspoiled and unleavened bread ...broken for us. We shouldn’t forget that he won the victory not just to show us sinners who’s the boss. No, he overcame the world in order to save it ...because God loves it. Hard to believe as it might be at times, God loves this world that is going to rejoice when His people have tribulation, and weep, and mourn. But we have heart because Jesus has overcome it all and we who are born of God overcome it by the very nature of our faith, which unites us with Christ. I can’t think of a better and more encouraging message to pass on to new Christians still young in the faith.
And by faith John doesn’t mean a warm fuzzy feeling type faith, but one that leads to obedience, withstanding temptation and trial like Jesus did. An obedience that, unlike the Hebrews of old, puts away the leaven of malice and evil.
In their baptism these new Christians would have vowed to renounce the devil, the world, and the flesh. But they would not always live up to the testimony they carry within themselves. The Greek word for testimony is marturion from which we get the word martyr, but sin is... hamartiōn - which means not being a witness.
For this John has a final message for our new Christians regarding this. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous...He is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The one he overcame for us.
And so, brothers and sisters, as we close out this Octave of Easter, let us re-dedicate ourselves as the Collect states, to serve in pureness of living and truth. And let us pray for the newly baptized who are joining the church this Easter season. God alone knows how many there are. The American bishops of Roman Catholic Church published that they baptized or received some 37,000 men and women this Easter, and that’s just one denomination. All over the world new brothers and sisters are joining in the Easter victory and being witnesses to who Christ is.
Let us also pray with intention for our brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka, some of whom on Easter morning may also have been newly baptized before the terrorists’ attack. This is definitely still a time that Christians will weep and mourn and see troubles. We all must remember that by their faith they too overcame the world that hated them, and that they like us are eternally victorious in Christ.