If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory
-The Easter Epistle
I. Easter and remembrance
The concept of remembrance is central in the Bible because we are forgetful people. We were created in God’s image and given dominion over the creation, but we forgot the goodness and generosity of our maker. We believed the serpent’s lie, forfeited our throne, and became servants of the creation rather than its rulers. Whenever God intervened in history to save his people and restore them to their former dignity, he commanded his people to remember. “Remember this day when God led you out of Egypt” (Ex 13:3). Remember how God led you through the wilderness to test you (Deut. 8:2). “Do this in Remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
To remember in the Bible is not just to think about some past thing. To remember means to experience God’s saving power again, right now. The ancient rabbis taught that when each generation of Jewish people celebrated the memorial feast of the Passover (Ex 13:3), it was as if they set their own feet on the bottom of the Red Sea. During Holy Week, we remember, and experience again, the Passover deliverance of Israel as it was fulfilled by Jesus in the new Exodus. We freed from the tyranny of Satan, sin and death through the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
On Easter, we remember our baptism. Baptism is the historical moment when each of us participated in the events of Good Friday and Easter. As St. Paul explains in Colossians (a few verses before the Easter epistle), you were “buried with [Christ]in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith” (Col. 2:12). In Lent we focused on remembering one part of baptism; our death to sin through renewed repentance. Easter calls us to remember the other part of our baptism; rising again to new life through renewed faith.
As we remember that we died and rose with Christ in baptism, we remember that baptism gives us a vocation. The Easter epistle exhorts us, “If you then were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above.” “Seek” is a present tense verb that implies constant activity. Easter is not just a day. Easter is a forty-day season and a way of life.
We adopted certain practices for Lent. Easter calls for its own unique disciplines and practices. So, what will we do for Easter? How will we seek those things which are above? One answer is simple. We will do all the things we weren’t doing for Lent! However, there a danger of turning the Lent/Easter baptismal experience into a kind of purge/binge disorder. We fasted to detach ourselves from things and make more room in our lives for Christ. We feast now to embrace the life for which we made more room. What does that life look like?
The first discipline of Easter is to establish prayer as the foundation of our lives. We do not fast and pray in Lent so that we can feast and not pray in Easter. In Easter the focus of prayer shifts from the penitence and preparation of Lent to praise and thanksgiving for the life we have received. The central act of Christian prayer is called the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving. We gather around the altar to give thanks for all that Christ has done for us. Easter is a Eucharistic season, a season to leave behind the murmuring and grumbling of the wilderness and give thanks for our entry into the Promised Land of God’s New Creation.
But someone might object: “My life is difficult and painful. How can I give thanks?” Consider this. Apart from the experience of baptism into Christ, the pain and the challenges of life remain. We are just alone in them. We give thanks that Christ is present with us; that our pain is united with his pain through the cross in the hope of resurrection. We give thanks because “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
During Easter, practice giving thanks to God each day. When you are tempted to grumble and complain, give thanks instead. Give thanks for the good things he has given you. Give thanks for his presence with you in your tribulations. During Easter, cultivate a Eucharistic heart.
During the season of Easter, practice reconciliation. Our sins have been washed away in baptism. Now, let us forgive those who have sinned against us. In a world full of lust for revenge, let us be agents of grace. Reconciliation in not possible in all our relationships. However, in Easter, let that not be because we are unwilling.
During Easter, let us seek the things which are above is by cultivating the virtue of detachment from the world. The witness of the church is handicapped by the captivity of its member to temporal causes and goals that overshadow their faith. Christ becomes the means to getting something in this world. Detachment means not being enslaved to temporal goals and to the false promises and anxieties of the world—the very things we renounced in baptism.
Detachment is not a lack of concern for the world. Rather detachment remembers that this world cannot be perfected, and death cannot be conquered, apart from the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is not to “make this world a better place” or end hunger, poverty, or injustice, or create the perfect economic system. Our aim is to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves; to grow into the people God made us to be in baptism as we “look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Our aim is to be faithful witnesses for Christ and for kingdom.
Mother Theresa is arguably the most notable saint of the last two generations. She provides an example of detachment. Mother Theresa did not aim to end poverty in Calcutta. Her aim was to love and serve the image of Christ in the poor. She said on one occasion. “We are not social workers. We do it Christ.” Detachment focuses on the acts of love themselves, not the goals that may or may not be achieved. Detachment seeks first the kingdom, and trusts God to add the things to us, or not, as he pleases.
III. Conclusion: Remembrance and the goal of life
On Easter we rise from the dead with Christ as we remember and renew our baptism. Therefore, during Easter, let us seek those things which are above. Let us practice giving thanks, let us practice reconciliation, and let practice detachment from the goals and anxieties of this world. “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, May 21, 2017
The Epistle, James 1:22-27 – The Gospel, St. John 16:23-33
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
- Rogation days and Ascension
The Fifth Sunday after Easter is called Rogation Sunday, and the next three days before the Feast of Ascension on Thursday are called Rogation Days. The word rogation comes from a Latin word that means “to ask” or “to pray.” As Jesus returns to the Father, we focus on the privilege and power we possess as his disciples to pray in his name. As Jesus said in the gospel, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you…. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”
- The Epistle from James
The epistle focuses on behavior rather than prayer. St. James writes,
If anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.
What James says will convict most of us at some level. We are all, at times, forgetful hearers. We come to Jesus in our prayer. We hear the word of God and say, “Amen.” Then we go back into the world, forget who we are, and practice behavior that is not consistent with God’s word.
Why do we do this? One reason is that the world, the flesh, and the devil, tempt us to act unfaithfully. Our transition from prayer to life in the world follows the pattern of the baptism of Jesus. The Holy Spirit descended on him and the Father declared him to be his beloved Son (Matt. 3:16-4;1). Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to have that identity tested. We receive our new identity in baptism and we renew it constantly in our prayer. Then we go into the world to face various tests and temptations that pull us away from Christ.
We grow into our Christian identity over time as we continue to pray and hear God’s word. Some measure of behavioral failure is part of the process of our growth. We admit as much when we say the confession each week in the liturgy. We grow as we come to see more clearly how sin promises us a fulfillment that is does not deliver. We grow in our desire to do God’s will. As we continue in our prayer, we become stronger in Christ, in the Spirit, to resist the pull of the temptation. We increasingly become doers of the word and not hearers only.
We also become forgetful hearers when we have an unresolved past. We all carry with us deeply embedded emotional patterns that come from past relationships and experiences. These patterns include deep anxiety that is triggered by certain circumstances; a difficulty in trusting God because those who represented him to us before were not trustworthy; anger and resentment over past mistreatment; and denial, a tendency to insist everything is okay when, clearly, it is not. Our unresolved past creates a secret, hidden identity that acts out in unfaithful ways.
We retain these hidden identities because the gospel has not yet touched these areas of our lives. We need to forgive others to resolve these inherited patterns. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Our own forgiveness is linked to our forgiveness of others. This is true in part because our failure to forgive others keeps us stuck in vengeful or victimized patterns of behavior. Forgiving others makes us free from them.
To forgive others requires that we acknowledge our pain. We cannot deny what we have experienced and also forgive those who hurt us. To forgive others does not require that the people we forgive intended to hurt us. If someone intends to throw a rock into the water and it hits us in the head instead, it still hurt—even though the person did not intend to hurt us.
The key to forgiving others is learning to trust in the sovereignty of God. The gospel message is that Jesus is Lord. He is in control of everything, even our past. This is the foundation for teachings like Romans 8:28, “In everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” God is bringing his new creation out of the chaos of our lives. As Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Trust is the best synonym for faith. We are saved by faith, which means we are saved by trusting God; trusting in his power, trusting in the good that he has for us; trusting that he is changing us into new and glorious creatures; trusting that everything that has happened to us will be redeemed by God for good.
- The meaning of “the gospel”
Too often in our time, “the gospel” has been reduced to a mechanism for having our sins forgiven in a legal sense so God won’t punish us and we can get to some future place called heaven. This limited meaning creates a non-transformative practice of the faith. To accept the gospel means to trust that Jesus is Lord, and to apply that truth to every area of our lives right now, including our past.
To put our trust in Jesus means to live in his new story. The brutal execution of the Son of God is the means of our salvation. Following this pattern, the bad things that have happened to us are used by God as the means of our sanctification. To embrace the gospel, to trust Jesus, means to trust that Jesus is Lord and to accept the good that God is giving us right now in our real lives rather than holding on to the good that we wanted but did not get in the past.
When we do not trust that Jesus is Lord and is in control of everything, we become forgetful hearers. We hold on to hidden past identities that are triggered in real life and cause us to act out in unfaithful ways. We try to control things rather than trusting God and surrendering to his will in our lives. We become victims of the past rather than sons and daughter of God in the present. We become vengeful, seeking to make others pay. Or we remain captive to emotional impulses connected to past events.
The perfect law of liberty that James speaks of is not just a list of moral rules that we must obey to avoid being hypocrites. The perfect law of liberty is the truth that Jesus is Lord. It leads to corresponding truths that our sins are forgiven and that we can forgive. We can let go of the pattern of human sin that enslaves us. We can live in God’s kingdom right now.
This is what we are working on in the life of prayer. As we come to the altar of God to look into the perfect law of liberty, we are growing into the new identity God has given us. Our work in the life of prayer is to be honest with ourselves and with God. We must ask him to help us let go of our anger and regret. We must ask him to heal our wounds, to replace our pain with a new experience of his grace, so that we can practice new behavior that is rooted in our new experience of his love—and not in our past experiences of pain.
As we persevere in our prayer, as we practice trusting God, we grow in our ability to trust. The grace that comes to us through prayer enables us trust rather than control; to let go of our secret, hidden identities and embrace our new identity as children of God. God is able to do in us through our prayer what we are not able to do by our own unaided effort. This inner transformation is the true power of prayer. As Jesus said, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you….Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”