A Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Trinity, November 13, 2016
The Epistle, 1 John 3:1- 8 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 24:23-31
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- The revealing of Jesus
In the epistle, St. John expresses the Christian hope as both something we already possess and something we look forward to receiving in the future:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We have become children of God in baptism through the gift of the Holy Spirit. The life that was planted within us is growing towards a future fulfillment—much like a tree that is planted grows to maturity. When Jesus appears, our change into his image will be completed.
St. John says that the final transformation will take place because “when he is revealed, we will see him as he is.” The very act of looking at Jesus will be transformative. This is what the tradition refers to as the Beatific Vision. Hymn 204 (v 4) describes it this way,
Jesus whom now veiled, I by faith descry
What my soul doth thirst for, do not Lord deny,
That they face unveiled, I at last may see,
With the blissful vision, blest, my God, of Thee.
John says that Jesus will be “revealed.” This helps us to understand what is often called “the Second Coming of Jesus.” The word “coming” suggests the idea of distance in space, as if Jesus were now living in some distant galaxy but will make a trip back here at the end. The word “reveal” helps us to understand this in contemporary terms. We know there are dimensions of reality that we cannot see, even though they are very close to us. Jesus is very close to us, but we cannot see him in the fullness of his glory yet. At the end of time, dimensions of reality that are now hidden from our view will be uncovered. We will see things we cannot see in the current framework of space and time.
- Restored Vision
Our ability to see Jesus as he is will result from two things. We will see him because reality that is now hidden will be uncovered. What is invisible will be made visible. Jesus, who is now veiled, will be unveiled. But we will also see Jesus because our eyesight will be restored. One consequence of sin is spiritual blindness. We are unable to see things as they are. Our main visual affliction is that we see the creation as an end in and of itself. We see a tree and see only a tree. Spiritual blindness leads to idolatry; it mistakes the creation for the creator.
The gift of the Spirit heals our spiritual blindness. We begin to see things with sacramental vision. We look at a tree and see God. We see the Creator in his creation. We look at bread and wine and our neighbor and we see Christ. Restored vision enables us to see things as they are—to see their true value. This changes us and changes our behavior. We cannot treat created things the way the world treats them after our spiritual blindness is healed. We cannot treat our neighbor who bears God’s image in the same way we can treat someone we see merely as a means or an obstacle to getting what we want.
Thus, we are already being changed as our spiritual vision grows and we see Jesus more clearly in this life. This helps us understand how the revelation of Jesus in the fullness of his glory and the end of time will lead to the completion of our transformation into his image.
- Sin as spiritual blindness
St. John discusses sin immediately after he mentions the Beatific Vision. “Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him.” We sin for two reasons. First, we all struggle with sinful tendencies because we still have remnants of our fallen nature. We want to do things that are not God’s will, and we have not yet grown strong enough in the Spirit to resist these impulses. The life of prayer is precisely the ongoing practice of confession and spiritual disciplines through which we put off, or die to, this old self, and through which we practice new forms of behavior that orient our lives toward their true fulfillment in Christ. The primary evidence of Christ’s presence in us, of our status as children of God, is that sin and its influence is decreasing in us over time.
The second reason we sin is because of spiritual blindness. In the epistle, St. John is talking about the practice of sin. That is, willfully doing things that are not God’s will—planning tomorrow and next week to disobey. Willful sin reflects spiritual blindness. When we practice habitual and willful sin, this reveals that we do not see things as they are. We are pursuing the visible creation as the goal of life. We are finding our highest fulfillment in the things themselves. We are practicing idolatry.
- The vision of Christ as the goal of life.
St. John’s discussion helps us to understand why we can only conquer sin by growing in our vision of Jesus. If our struggle against sin is based only the attempt to not sin, we will lose the battle. We will only say no to one thing because we want to say yes to some other thing that is more important to us, something that we know will bring us true fulfillment.
Sometimes Christian faith is presented mostly as a prohibition. People are told what they can’t do if they want to follow Jesus, but the vision of Christ, the end and goal of our faith, is not presented in terms that are compelling. There is a no without any corresponding yes. This misses the point that St. Paul highlights in Philippians:
What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord (3:7-8).
The Christian life begins and ends with the vision of Jesus. It begins in Sacrament, prayer, and the Word of God. It is cultivated in the authentically intimate relationships we develop with others in the Body of Christ. It is sustained through lives of service to others in Christ’s name. The more we pursue this life and this vision, the less we are attracted to the practice of sin that never made us happy in the first place.
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, even as He is pure.