“This is the victory that conquers the world, even our faith” (from the epistle).
We read Life of Antony by St. Athanasius at our Fullerton group during Lent. Antony gave his family fortune away to live a solitary life of spiritual combat in the desert. Antony’s spiritual battles were characterized by confidence. He knew that he was able to defeat the demons with the power that comes from God. In one story, a demon came to Antony’s door disguised as a person in need. Antony recognized the demon and tried to grab him by the scruff of the neck. The demon barely escaped. The demons were reduced to begging Antony not to be so hard on them.
We’ve been studying Revelation in our Thursday Bible study. In chapters 2 and 3, Jesus dictates letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, highlighting their virtues and warning them to correct their errors. Each letter concludes with a promise that the one who “conquers” will enjoy various blessings from God. The implication is that we are able to conquer our spiritual adversaries through the power we have from God.
Our epistle picks up the theme of conquest. St. John tells us, “Whatsoever is born of God overcomes the world.” The word translated as “overcome” is the verbal form of “nike,” the word from which the shoe company takes its name. It means victory or conquest. The word “overcome” is too weak of a translation—filled as it is with the therapeutic overtones of our age. St. John is telling us nothing less than that Easter faith conquers the world.
In the gospel, the Risen Christ appears as the Conqueror. The scars of Good Friday defeat are now the marks of Easter victory. The One who humbled himself at Christmas to become man has now completed the run of his earthly life. Jesus has taken on the world, the flesh, the devil and death itself and has thoroughly crushed them all. He is now the Risen Lord of the New Creation.
In Genesis, God formed man from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7). Now, Jesus breathes on the apostles the breath of new life so that those who are dead in sin can be restored to life in union with God.
The breathing of the Spirit also calls to mind Ezekiel 37, where God shows Ezekiel a valley full of dry bones and tells Ezekiel,
Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, `Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”‘ So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. (37:9-10).
By the gift of the Spirit we, who were dead because of sin, are raised up as the new Israel, as an exceedingly great army, to conquer our enemies in imitation of our Risen Lord.
The victory of God begins with forgiveness. “Whosesoever sins you remit they are remitted unto them.” Jesus gave the church authority to forgive so we can know we are forgiven. Forgiveness is not an opinion. It is a fact that results from the resurrection of Christ. If you turn from sin to Christ, you are forgiven—no matter what your think or feel.
The next step in our conquest is to change our sinful patterns of behavior. We are free, not only from the guilt of sin, but also from captivity to sin. Do you have habits that always results in guilt and unhappiness? You have the power through the Holy Spirit to stop, if you really want to. You have to power, in Christ, to stop speaking and behaving in disobedient and harmful ways. You have the power to begin speaking and behaving in ways that honor God and edify others—if you really want to.
The victory of Easter changes the theme of our life stories. By itself, Good Friday was a tragedy. But Good Friday became the thing the Easter conquered. This is the pattern of our lives in Christ. God uses our tragedies and afflictions to accomplish his will; to produce humility, spiritual strength, faith and holiness. The Risen Christ brings the order and beauty of his new creation out of our disorder and chaos. As Romans says, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
In Lent, we battled the world, the flesh and the devil through spiritual disciplines. In Eastertide, we can begin to look at them as defeated enemies. We can begin to practice spiritual disciplines the means of constant victory. The fast we engaged in to subdue the flesh has given way to the feast. However, as we enjoy the celebration we retain the fruit of the fast in the gift of self-control. We are free to enjoy the good things that God has given us, but we are also free from being captive to them.
By almsgiving we combated the world. Now, we celebrate our victory over the world with the continuous attitude of generosity that the Holy Spirit gives us. We are not captive to the covetousness of the world. We do not have to live greedy lives in pursuit of money like those who do not know God. We are free to do good work to the glory of God, to tithe and give and enjoy the blessings God bestows in his kingdom upon those who are generous.
By prayer, we combated the devil. We confessed our sins and interceded for various needs—and, to be sure, the need for confession and intercession does not stop with Lent. However, now we can celebrate the victory of Easter with the prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Now we can cultivate, through constant prayer, the experience God’s joy and peace. If Christ is risen, and we are risen with him through baptism and faith, there is no reason or justification for being miserable and discontented.
And let us always remember that death has been conquered. On Easter Day, I had the privilege of giving communion to a member of our church who is dying. He thought Easter might be his last day, but he was still able to receive the Sacrament. In the face of death, on Easter Day, he received the bread of life. As Jesus said, “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.” And, again, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:50, 54). “O death where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
The Lord is risen indeed. He has breathed on us the breath of new, resurrection life. We now live as new people in God’s new creation. We have eternal life and we will be raised up on the Last Day. There is literally nothing that can defeat us—not even death—if we persevere in faith and faithfulness; for “Whatsoever is born of God conquers the world: and this is the victory that conquers the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).