A. Eastertide and the victory of faith
1. Easter is a season, not merely a day. We experienced the cross by practicing discipline over the season of Lent. Now we experience the resurrection through a season that focuses on what it means to be risen with Christ. This reflects our understanding of spiritual growth. We are changed by what we do habitually, not by moments of excitement.
2. Today’s lessons are about victory. In the gospel, Jesus shows the disciples the scars of the cross. These are now trophies. “See, I have conquered sin and death!” In the epistle, St. John says that his victory is ours also through faith. The word “overcome” in our epistle is too wimpy of a translation. The Greek word (nikao—i.e. Nike) means to means to conquer. St. John is saying, “This is the victory that conquers the world, even our faith.”
3. This leads to an Easter octave meditation: Are we, in fact, conquering the world through our faith? Are we conquering our sins? Are we changing the way we think? Are we experiencing forgiveness and forgiving others? Are we behaving in a new way?
B. The nature of spiritual growth
1. We conquer through faith as we grow spiritually stronger and become able to conquer the things that once conquered us. We grow spiritually according to the same principles of growth that govern physical growth. A plant grows as it is watered, fertilized and exposed to the sun. Babies grow from infants to toddlers to young children as they eat, exercise and are taught new things. The life that is planted in us in baptism grows as it is nourished and developed by spiritual disciplines.
2. Organic processes foster growth over time. Experiences like Easter Day encourage us, but they don’t make us grow faster. Birthday parties celebrate stages of human growth, but the party itself does not make children smarter, taller or stronger. A young athlete may be inspired by watching his favorite player make a game winning shot. However, unless that athlete develops his own skill by habitual practice, he will never be able to imitate his hero.
3. Spiritual growth requires that we practice our faith. In Ephesians, St. Paul exhorts us to “Put off…the old man” and “put on the new man” (4:22-24). This image comes from the ancient practice of taking off old clothes before baptism and putting on new clothes afterwards. However, St. Paul stresses the ongoing activity that puts baptism into practice. Each day we put off the old man through confession. Each day we put on Christ through prayer. Each day we practice the new behavior.
C. The importance of grace
1. Grace is essential to our growth. Grace is that energy or power from God that enables us to rise above the limitation of our fallen nature and do God’s will. What we call “The Life of Prayer,” is simply the disciplined way we live in the grace of God. This corresponds to the way a gardener tends to his plants and mother cares for her child. We gather for the Eucharist to feel the life within us and connect with the Body of Christ. We engage in that daily pattern of prayer and Bible reading that we call the Daily Office. We talk with God and practice silence, contemplation and meditation. Through these habits the grace of God forms and changes us.
2. We grow in grace as we practice holy behavior and good works. We practice saying no to sinful thoughts and actions. We practice honesty —“speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). We practice using our gifts in service to others—rather than thinking only about what others can do for us. We practice being agents of forgiveness and reconciliation.
D. The role of failure in our growth
1. Now, practice assumes failure. Infants fall down often before they learn to walk. By grace, we are becoming what our baptisms have declared us to be, but the old man is not fully dead yet, and we are not yet fully formed in the image of Christ. Thus, from time to time, in the heat of the battle, we will forget who we are; we will be overcome by the world, the flesh or the devil; we will act selfishly; we will say unkind things; we commit sinful acts.
2. This failure does not mean that our faith is not genuine. It means that we are still spiritually young and weak—like a child who can’t yet lift the heavy object or is still governed by childish emotions. Failure is part of growth. It shows us what we need to work on. We handle failure through confession, a renewed experience of forgiveness, and the grace and wisdom God gives us to do better next time.
3. This continual experience of grace is central to change, for it is the continual experience of Easter. Failure brings us to point of frustration and surrender—and, thus, to death. Death is the necessary prelude to resurrection. As come to realize our natural inability to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves, we turn to God with greater trust and dependence and are filled with increasing spiritual strength. As St. Paul said, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
4. The grace of God overcomes our fallen nature. Our sins are forgiven every time we come with repentance and faith to die and rise again with Christ. This is the point of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament. Every week we come to the altar as sinners, and every week Jesus is still here. Our sins do not chase him away. Rather, as we persevere in the faith over time, his grace conquers our sins. “This is the victory that conquers the world.”
E. A barrier to our growth and our ongoing experience of Easter
1. To grow we have to want to grow. Jesus asked the paralyzed man by the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Jesus healed him—and the man was angry about it. He did not really want to get well. He was comfortable sitting by the pool complaining about his condition. We are often very attached to the behaviors we complain about, and are afraid to let that part of us die. As long as we insist on clinging to regret and victimhood—the feelings of “poor me” that comfort us in some strange way—we cannot fully experience the resurrection. Jesus does not sit on his throne of glory bemoaning all of the bad things that were done to him in Holy Week, and we cannot enter into God’s new story with him until we are willing to put our old story to death.
2. On the Sunday after Easter, we remember that Easter is a season, not merely a day. Our spiritual growth, our participation in the resurrection, is the result our habitual experience of grace over time, not merely a moment of excitement. Our vocation is to persevere in faith so that God’s work in us continues until it is completed on that Day. “This is the victory that conquers the world, even our faith.”