A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Easter, April 22, 2018
The Epistle, 1 St. Peter 2:11-17 – The Gospel, St. John 16:16-22
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
I. The gospel and labor pains
In the gospel Jesus describes the emotions the disciples experienced in the transition from Good Friday to Easter as labor pains.
A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Therefore, you now have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice and your joy no one will take from you (John 16:21).
Jesus is picking up a theme of biblical prophecy. It began with the punishment God gave to Eve in Genesis. “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing” (3:16). God also promised that the seed of the woman—the product of painful childbearing—would “bruise the head” of the serpent” (3:15). This has been interpreted in the Christian tradition as Jesus crushing Satan under his feet (cf. Romans 16:20).
Isaiah 26 develops this image and connects it to the resurrection. Isaiah describes the tribulation of Israel; the hopeless condition of the nation in captivity. Isaiah 26:17-18 says,
As a woman with child is in pain and cries out in her pangs, when she draws near the time of her delivery, so have we been in Your sight, O LORD. We have been with child, we have been in pain; We have, as it were, brought forth wind; We have not accomplished any deliverance in the earth, nor have the inhabitants of the world fallen.
God promises that Israel’s labor pains will lead to life through resurrection: Isaiah 26:19 proclaims the results of Israel’s labor:
Your dead shall live; Together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; For your dew is like the dew of herbs, And the earth shall cast out the dead
Revelation further develops the image of Israel’s labor pains and connects them with the Messiah. Revelations 12 describes Israel as “a woman clothed with the sun” who is giving birth to a child. “She was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery…. And she brought forth a male child…who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (12:2, 5).
When we think of childbirth in the Bible we usually think about Christmas, but the biblical imagery here focuses on Good Friday and Easter. The passion and death of Jesus are the labor pains of Israel. On Easter a new humanity is born. Revelation describes Jesus as “the firstborn of the dead” (1:5). The connection between birth and resurrection continues in baptism. We participate in Good Friday and Easter. We are born again; that is, we are raised from the dead.
II. The continuous nature of our birth pangs
Baptism is the beginning of our labor pains. New life is conceived in us in baptism, but this life is not yet fully formed. We experience labor pains as this life struggles to grow within us. Often the most painful things cause the most growth—and few people experience profound spiritual growth without significant struggle and pain. As St. Paul wrote in exasperation to the Christians in Galatia: “My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
Just as the child within a pregnant mother is destined to break free from the confines of the womb, so the life within us is destined to break free from the confines of our mortal bodies in the Resurrection on the Last Day. As 1 Corinthians says,
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Cor. 15:50-52).
Too often, the Christian hope is reduced to a vague idea that we will “go to heaven” when we die. Heaven, in this sense, is thought of as purely spiritual existence, as though to be saved meant to somehow escape from our bodies. The image of childbirth helps us to understand the error. We do not want to be free from our bodies; we want to be free in our bodies. Freedom in the body is the completed form of human life that we will experience in the Resurrection.
III. The Expectant nature of the Christian life.
The image of childbearing helps us to understand the expectant nature of the Christian life. The life that has been conceived in us in baptism cannot be satisfied with anything in this world. As the epistle exhorted us, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11). To call us sojourners and pilgrims means that this present world is not our true home. We are waiting for the Resurrection and the life of the world to come.
Some explanation is needed to understand the meaning of “fleshly lusts” because these words can give the false impression that all bodily desire is wrong. Fleshly lusts are the disordered desires of our fallen nature. Apart from the redemption we experience through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we pursue the things of this world as though they were the source of ultimate fulfillment. We make them idols. Since the things of this world are not ultimate, they can never fulfill us. Thus, the desire to find fulfillment in this world wars against the new life within us that longs for ultimate fulfillment in the world to come.
However, as we live in Christ in the Spirit in this world we can enjoy created things. The Holy Spirit purifies and redirects our desires so that we can enjoy things in the way that God intended. We enjoy things sacramentally. We see created things as gifts from God, as signs that point us to the kingdom of God. When we enjoy the creation sacramentally, we give thanks to God for his good gifts, and we use them in ways that honor him, in accordance with his commandments.
We discipline our desires so that created things will not control us and make us slaves to our appetites. The birth pangs we experience include the way the Holy Spirit works to subdue our disordered desires. There is a struggle because our disordered desires fight back. In the Resurrection, the conquest of our disordered desires will be complete. Our desire will be in harmony with God’s will. We will experience freedom in the body and peace within ourselves and with all people—indeed with all creation.
For now, some conflicts, or birth pangs, remain. This is the reason the Christian life requires a balance of fasting and feasting. We fasted during Lent to learn to discipline our desire and direct them towards God. We feast during Easter to celebrate the gift of resurrection life. The regular practice of our faith requires a balance of feasting and fasting; feasting to celebrate the redemption of life in the body and fasting to practice subduing our appetites to the Holy Spirit. Both feast and fast point beyond this world to the Resurrection and the life of the world to come. For we are sojourners and pilgrims here. As Romans says, “We…who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:23).