holy cross sermon for the fourth sunday in easter, year c, april 21, 2013

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.  I and the Father are one.”

I and the Father are one. In today’s gospel reading Jesus makes known the unity that he shares with God the Father. There has been much talk within in the Church in recent years about unity, about what it means for Christians to be one.  In today’s gospel reading we see the source of all unity for Christians: the unity that the Son shares with the Father.

You hear a lot of talk these days about the identity of Jesus.  Who was this Jesus? Out of a desire not to offend people of other faiths, one often hears Jesus described as “our way to God,” or as “one way to God.” One sometimes hears this even from church leaders. It’s a pretty lame interpretation of John 14 where the Lord says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me.”

In today’s reading from John we see why no one comes to the Father but by Jesus: because Jesus and the Father are one.  Every Sunday we claim to believe this when we say the words of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus is “of one being with the Father, through whom all things were made.” This is a radical claim: we’re saying that we believe that this man, walking around an obscure corner of the planet two thousand years ago was of one being with God the Father: that the universe came into being through his word.

At the center of the gospel message is this claim: that Jesus and the Father are one: that Jesus IS God. Not merely that he reveals some things about God, not just that we can come to understand God through his teachings, not just that he kind of shows us what God is like – but that he, in point of fact, IS God. Yes he reveals God, yes we can understand things about God through his teachings, but that is only because he is God. As the Lord himself says, again in John 14: if you have seen me, you have seen the All-powerful Father. For us this means seeing him with the eyes of faith. Blessed are those, the Lord says, who have not seen and yet believe. This means: blessed are those who have not seen with the eyes of the body, with physical eyes, but who have seen with the eyes of faith.  And the author of Hebrews says: faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen. This is why it is important to pray: regularly, daily to have intercourse with the unseen supernatural: to train ourselves and, by means of faith, to find more and more faith.

The central message of the Gospel is that the Father sent the Son in order to reconcile us to himself. St. Paul said, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” The whole reason Christ came into the world was because we had become estranged from God because of sin. We had become cut off from heaven. The technical way to say this is that we had “fallen from grace.” And the problem is that we are not able, as humans, to restore that relationship. Why? Because we cannot naturally have communion with the Supernatural, with what is above the natural. So if our relationship with God is to be restored, God has to do it. We can’t. So God sends Jesus, his only Son, who is himself God. The supernatural God takes a natural form, without ceasing to be supernatural. And this is why we kneel at the words in the Nicene Creed: “He came down from heaven.” Because this is the central message of the Gospel: that God came down from heaven, assumed flesh and blood, and dwelt among us as a human being, teaching, sleeping, cooking breakfast, fishing, walking around, and being nailed to a tree.

This is the import of what the Lord is saying in today’s gospel lesson: that he, the natural person going around doing all of these things, is not just a special teacher like the Buddha… but Jesus is one with the Father. That is the secret that Satan does not want us to realize. And that’s why Christianity is not just OUR path to the divine, not just one among many equally efficacious pathways to God. We are the only people who claim that the undifferentiated maker of heaven and earth came and took on flesh and blood, lived, died, and rose again. Our Lord is the supernatural God made natural man.

And THIS is the source of our unity. Why? Because of what Jesus Christ, the God-man, came down to do. Because of what he accomplished when he came down from heaven. And what did he accomplish? Again, Paul says: In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. And in today’s gospel reading the Lord says: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father… is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I am the Father are one.”

This is how God reconciles the world to himself in Christ. This is the point of God’s being made man: to give divine life, eternal life, the supernatural life of God who brought the universe into existence – Christ came to give this life to those who are in the world of nature, and who have been cut off from that supernatural, divine life. Only Christ can give this life, because Christ alone has it to begin with – Christ alone among men is himself God. And we – through our COMMUNION (oneness) with Christ – are reconciled to the Father. Because we share Christ’s life, and his life is the same as the Father’s: he and the Father are one. His life is the life of God. His blood is the blood of God. By accepting, through faith, the life offered by Christ, the life that he pours out on the cross, we become partakers in divine life, and we are reconciled to God by accepting into ourselves his own life, which is eternal. The pall of sin that had covered us, that had shut us out of heaven, is penetrated by God coming down from heaven – he pierces the veil, and he gives his own life to us.

That is how we are reconciled to God in Christ, and that too is the source of our unity with one another. Because we are no longer leading separate lives. If we have accepted Christ’s life, if we receive him, then we share his unique, eternal life. We all do. We no longer lead separate lives, because suddenly we who believe in him, who hear his voice and follow him, who were baptized into his death and partake in his life – we no longer lead separate lives; we now lead his life. Or rather he leads his life inside of us. That also is why the Lord says that we, his followers, will also do the divine works that he does: because that’s how he leads his life, and he will lead that life inside of us. Therefore we will feed the hungry, heal the sick, forgive sins, cast out demons, and even raise the dead. But most of all, we will give our lives, in love, to reconcile the world to God: because he is leading his life inside of us, and he gives his life, in love, to reconcile the world to God.

Once Jesus is alive inside of us, and we are living by faith in him, our task is to realize this more and more, by willing that our wills be conformed to his will. Our task is to stand aside, to let our old carnal nature die a natural death, so that we can ourselves manifest more and more the supernatural, divine life of Christ – to share in and further the work of God reconciling the world to himself in Christ.

This is all well and good in theory, but how does it work on a day-to-day level? One of the main challenges is that while we may assent to this on some level, we don’t really feel it working in our lives. But this gets things backward. This is to let your feelings dictate to your intellect and your will, which then collude together to destroy your faith.

The acceptance of the gift of life in Christ is a process that takes place through our whole life. And the need for conversion will manifest itself every day. What does the Lord say in today’s reading from John? He says: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” [1] My sheep hear my voice… and [2] they follow me… and [3] I give them eternal life.  To realize the gift of divine life, you have to hear Christ’s voice. Then you have to follow him.

How do you hear his voice?  If you are to hear his voice, you must first listen for his voice. This means prayer. Prayer is conversation with God. It is absolutely essential to cultivate a habit of prayer. And don’t stop praying because you don’t have an ecstatic experience during the first five minutes. You don’t need to feel like God is speaking to you, but to rest in the assurance that he is speaking to you. Sometimes you will feel good about it, you will feel consoled, sometimes you will feel anxious, or convicted, or you’ll feel bad, or you’ll feel nothing. Your feelings aren’t really important. Take them as they come, and get on with the business of prayer.

God speaks clearly and perfectly in the person of Jesus. So your prayer life should always be most fundamentally a turning toward HIM. Prayer should be conversation with Christ, but more fundamentally it should be filling your heart and your mind with him. And of uncluttering your heart and mind of the things that crowd him out.

St. Augustine asks (in the opening of his “Confessions”): Where might I withdraw beyond heaven and earth so that God can come into me when God has said “I fill heaven and earth”? God is everywhere. But in order to see him everywhere, we must seek him in the person of Jesus Christ. This means turning to the Gospels, which reveal Christ. It means meditating on Christ – the events of his life and death (here things like the Rosary are a great help). It means studying Scripture. And not just studying it the way a scientist studies an amoeba under a microscope – but the way an afficianado looks at a great painting, or listens to a great piece of music – carefully, leisurely, savoring colors and tropes and phrases, noticing and delighting how one part relates to another, and so on.

In the Scriptures, the Old Testament points to the Gospels, which narrate the Incarnation of the Christ, and the Epistles expound the meaning of the Incarnation. But the practice of prayer and meditation – HEARING the voice of God – begins with FAITH: in order to hear God speaking, we must be assured that he is speaking. And then listen for him by seeking Christ with our whole heart and mind. And as we begin to hear his voice, we must then follow him, by willing our wills to be conformed to his will. Thus we will realize the eternal life that he has assured us is ours in him. Thus we will realize his gift of eternal life – we will find ourselves in Christ, we will find ourselves hid with him in God, as St. Paul says, and no one will be able to snatch us out of that divine unity.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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