06 June 2011

‘Even So Send I You’—A Homily for the 1st Sunday after Pascha

This was my last homily of the school year, preached on the Monday after the first Sunday after Pascha, using the BCP readings for that Sunday. Orthodox readers will note a larger number of quotations from non-Patristic sources, including Jim Elliot, Corrie ten Boom, and John Keble. I don’t apologise for this, since these are sources that I thought my audience might be able easily to relate to and which expressed ideas that I do not find at all opposed to the Patristic tradition. I do ask that sensitive readers please excuse my paraphrase of the first quote from St Isaac the Syrian. I was afraid a great deal of my audience might find it difficult to follow Dana Miller’s rendering of the passage, and so attempted to simplify without—I hope—distorting the meaning.

I John 5:4-12
St John 20:19-23

‘As My Father sent me, even so send I you.’

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christ is risen!

When preaching on a text from Scripture, I’m nearly always tempted to explain the passage as whole—looking for a structure, drawing out a dense complex of ideas. But today I want to focus closely, and draw out my homily from one fairly simple idea.

In today’s Gospel, Christ shows His disciples the wounds in His hands and side—glorious scars of His suffering and death. It is then that He speaks the words I have quoted: ‘As My Father sent me, even so send I you.’ What I want to point out today is that these two things—the action and the words—are not unrelated.

Commenting on this passage, St Gregory the Great writes:

As the Son is loved by the Father and yet is sent forth to suffer, so also the disciples are loved by the Lord, Who nevertheless sends them into the world to suffer; that is, ‘I am loving you with the love with which the Father loved Me, Whom He sent into the world to undergo sufferings.’ [1]

Today’s message is that just as Christ was sent to suffer, so He sends His disciples to suffer too.

The showing of His wounds confirms the Resurrection, it builds that faith by which the world is overcome, according to the first verse of today’s Epistle reading. But this overcoming of world, though it is by faith, is nevertheless a struggle which requires suffering. In other words, God’s grace enables us to overcome world, but only through much suffering: physical, emotional, and spiritual. And what I am struck most by is the implication that this is the normal life for Christ’s disciples. Thus a line has long stuck with me from the journal of the famous Protestant missionary, Jim Elliot:

‘We are the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.’ And what are sheep doing going into a gate? What is their purpose inside those courts? To bleat melodies and enjoy the company of the flock? No. Those sheep were destined for the altar. [2]
In other words, they are destined to be slaughtered as a sacrifice.

Similarly, the great spiritual teacher of 20th-c. Serbia, Elder Thaddeus, says ‘there is no life other than that of serving others and patiently bearing sorrow and pain’. [3]

I’m afraid that more than at any other time or place, we Americans in the 21st c. fall into the trap of thinking that a life of ease and comfort, material prosperity and the respect of society, doing fun and pleasing ourselves, is somehow compatible with Christianity.

Make no mistake: Christian life is a cross!
Christian life is sacrifice!
Christian life is difficult!

St Paul writes, ‘That no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto’ (I Thess. 3:3).

The great contemplative of the eastern desert, St Isaac of Nineveh, writes:

The person that wants to fulfill the Lord’s word is like someone prepared to be crucified who can think of nothing but dying, and no longer cares at all about the life of this present age. That’s what it means to ‘take up one’s cross and follow Him’ (Matt 16:24). The cross is a choice to be ready to suffer all the time. . . . Therefore by yourself prepare your soul to forget completely about this life. . . . When you struggle for Christ with this preparation, then everything that seems painful and bad will seem like no big deal at all. When your mind is prepared like this, it has no struggle or affliction when it faces death. If you don’t forget about life in this world because you want the blessed life to come, you’ll never be able to get through all the tribulations and pains that are gonna happen to you. [4]

The memory of the Church records that Christ’s words were certainly fulfilled by His immediate hearers—of the twelve Apostles, St Peter was crucified upside-down; St James, son of Zebedee, was beheaded; St John, son of Zebedee, died in exile; St Andrew was crucified on an x-shaped cross; St Philip was crucified; St Bartholomew was flayed (skinned) alive and beheaded; St Matthew was killed by an axe; St Thomas was killed by a spear; St James, son of Alphaeus, was crucified, stoned, and beaten to death by a club; St Jude was crucified; St Simon the Zealot was crucified; and St Matthias was stoned and beheaded.

Now, in context Christ’s words, ‘even so send I you’, obviously apply first of all to ‘clergy’. Our Lord is speaking to the Apostles—to whom He gives the power to ‘bind and loose’ (cf. St John 20:23). According to the English Puritan, Matthew Henry: this power ‘puts immense honour upon the ministry, and should put immense courage into ministers’. [5] Unfortunately, even the clergy often forget that it is their calling precisely to suffer.

But our Lord’s words also apply to all believers. All Christians are ‘sent out’ into the world. It is true that the laity don’t have the special task of ‘binding and loosing’—but we too can spread Christ’s forgiveness, if not sacramentally. The 6th-grade class just finished reading The Hiding Place, about a woman named Corrie Ten Boom who was imprisoned by the Nazis for helping Jews. After her release from the Ravensbruck prison camp, Corrie meets one of her former guards—who does not recognise her—when speaking at a German church. We read:

His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.

Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help to forgive him.

I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.

As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.

And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself. [6]

As I mentioned early on, by faith through grace we ‘overcome the world’. But what do we mean by ‘the world’? Is this the same as that world into which we’re sent?

In a homily on today’s Epistle delivered over 150 years ago, the great Anglican preacher, John Keble, said: ‘The world is the visible and outward course of things, amidst which we live and move. It is something different to each one of us but each one finds it the same in this respect, that by things in sight it tempts and draws him away from things out of sight.’ [7]

Thus the ‘world’ is not just outside, but, sadly, within us in the form of the passions which St Paul says ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified’ (Gal 5:24). Indeed, as St Isaac has famously written:

World is a collective noun which is applied to the so-called passions. . . . When we wish to give a collect name to the passions, we call them world. And when we wish to designate them specifically according to their names, we call them passions. . . . These are the passions: love of wealth; gathering objects of any kind; bodily pleasure . . . ; love of esteem, from which springs envy; the wielding of power; pride in the trappings of authority; stateliness and pomposity; human glory, which is the cause of resentment; fear for the body. [8]

All of this can be overcome by faith in Christ, through which His grace transforms us. The mediaeval English monk, the Venerable Bede, says that:

The commandments of God are not burdensome. If we keep them with true devotion, even though the world is difficult, we’ll pass by its temptations without being troubled, and we’ll even look forward to death, because it’s the gateway to the heavenly country. Of course we can’t achieve all this by our own efforts, so St John adds that our victory is a result of our faith, not our works. [9]

Finally, as Keble observes:

To overcome this world is really to turn away from the things which seem desirable in it and to give them up for the sake of better things out of sight, and when our faith has this effect on us—when it actually causes us to forego earthly things in order to secure the things eternal to please God and show duty to Jesus Christ—then it is a faith which overcomes the world. [10]

May we all learn to acquire and practice this kind of faith so that we can repeat in our own lives the great sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] The Orthodox New Testament, Vol. 1: The Holy Gospels, tr. & ed. Holy Apostles Convent (Buena Vista, CO: HAC, 1999), p. 552, n. 365.

[2] Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life & Testament of Jim Elliot (NY: Harper, 1958), p. 89.

[3] Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life & Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, compiled by the St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, tr. Ana Smiljanic (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2009), p. 15.

[4] Paraphrased from Homily 37, in The Ascetical Homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, tr. Dana Miller (Boston: HTM, 1984), p. 168.

[5] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible: New One Volume Edition, ed. Leslie F. Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1966), p. 1628.

[6] Corrie ten Boom, with John & Elizabeth Sherrill, The Hiding Place (Washington Depot, CT: Chosen, 1971), p. 215.

[7] John Keble, Sermons for the Christian Year, ed. Maria Poggi Johnson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), p. 127.

[8] Ascetical Homilies, pp. 14-5.

[9] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, Vol. XI in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 222.

[10] Keble, p. 127.