A Sermon for the First Sunday after Easter, April 8, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. John 5:4-12 – The Gospel, St. John 20:19-29
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life (1 Jn. 5:11-12).
I. Spiritual death
Easter is the culmination of the biblical story that began in Genesis. The life that St. John proclaims in the epistle and Jesus bestows in the gospel is the answer to the death that was the consequence of sin.
The first mention of death in the Bible is in Genesis 2:17. God warned Adam of the consequence of disobedience: “In the day that you eat the fruit thereof, you shall surely die.” We naturally think that this passage refers to physical death. However, if God meant that the first humans would suffer physical death the day they sinned, then God did not speak truthfully. For in the day they ate the fruit thereof they did not suffer physical death. In fact, except for Abel, who was killed by his brother, most of the first humans lived long lives. Genesis 2:17 is taking about spiritual death; the severing of the bond of communion between God and Adam.
Adam was created in a state of union with God. The first humans lived in God’s presence and walked with God in the garden. Sin broke the communion between God and Adam. In the place of peace and harmony that results from union with God, sin introduced guilt, shame, and fear. Adam and Eve hid from God in the bushes. The first sin also produced disharmony between the first humans. Rather than taking responsibility for their actions, they blamed others.
This is the natural state into which human beings are born. To say we are born as sinners does not mean that every baby is desperately wicked. It simply means that we are born into the condition of separation from God that results from the disordered condition of humanity. We are like branches cut off from the trunk of the tree. A branch will retain the appearance of life for a time, but the minute you cut it from the tree it is dead.
II. The Gospel. Jesus raises the dead.
The action of Jesus in the gospel is meant to be understood in the light of Genesis. There are three things of note. First, Jesus proclaimed, “Peace.” This is not just a casual way of saying, “Hi.” This is the Jewish “Shalom,” the word that describes the result of God’s covenant with his people. Sin brought hostility between God and man, and between human beings. Now Jesus, having fulfilled the covenant in his life, death and resurrection, proclaims peace. As Ephesians says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:13-14).
Jesus breathed on the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is an echo of Genesis 2:7. “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). The living being of Genesis 2:7 died the day he ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. Sin severed the bond of the Spirit that united God to man. Now, Jesus, the new Adam, rises as the first born of the New Creation and restores humanity to life through the gift of the Spirit. Through the gift of the Spirit, man is, once again, a living being.
The gift of the Spirit is integrally connected to the forgiveness of sins. Life can be given only after the barrier to life is removed. Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins, which means he gave them the authority to give to others the same life he has just given to them.
The life that comes through the forgiveness of sins is given to us in baptism. As we just said in the Creed, “I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” The water of baptism is an outward and visible sign of the inward gift of the Spirit. In baptism our sins are washed away, and we are restored to union with God through the Spirit. We who were dead in our sins are given life.
In the epistle, St. John tells us, “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith (1 Jn. 5:4). We receive the life that God gives us in baptism through faith. When we repent, when we give up our attitude of rebellion against God and his commandments and put our trust in Jesus Christ, we receive the baptismal gift of forgiveness and life. The water of baptism is the objective sign of the gift of life; our interior attitude of faith and trust is how we receive the gift.
IV. Eucharist and life of prayer
We misunderstand this gift of life when we reduce it to a static possession; when we over-emphasize either the moment of our baptism or the moment of our conversion when we opened our hearts to the gift of life. The church has never believed that merely having been baptized at a point in time or merely having had an experience of conversion at a point in time is a guarantee that the life we have been given will come to its full form in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.
The life we have received from Jesus is organic, not static. It grows, or does not grow, according the principles by which all forms of life grow or do not grow. If we plant a seed in soft and fertile ground, it begins to grow. But if we fail to water the plant and if we do not pull the weeds from the soil and keep the soil soft, the plant may stop growing. If the life that is planted within us in baptism is not fed by the sacrament and sustained by prayer and connection to other believers in the Body of Christ; if we do not pull the weeds that grow in our heart through confession and do not keep our hearts open to God’s love by continual prayer, the life that has been planted within us in baptism will stop growing.
In the Eucharist we renew and grow into our baptism. We come to Jesus again to receive the objective gift of life through the Spirit. We come to clean out, through confession, the sin that has begun to grow in our hearts. We come to experience grace and receive life again. As Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:54-56). The faith that overcomes the world is the faith that continues to believe in Jesus and continues to feed on the Bread of Life.
What we call “the life of prayer” is not merely a series of activities we engage in. The life of prayer is the privilege to which we have been restored in Christ. Because our sins are forgiven, and because we have been raised to life through the gift of the Spirit, we have the privilege of living in communion with the Father through the Son in the Spirit. We do not pray so that we will not sin. Rather, we avoid sin so that we can maintain our prayer, our experience of union with God in Christ through the Spirit. As we persevere in the life of faith and prayer, as we continue to come to Christ with repentance and faith to receive life, we experience a gradual, but sure and certain conquest of the world, the flesh, and the devil. The life we have been given bears the fruit of holiness and good works; and we experience God’s peace.
For, “This is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:11-12).