Easter 1 — Low Sunday

Preached May 1, 2011

1st St. John 5:4 – 12
St. John 20:19 – 23

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Christ is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! We continue in the celebration of Easter, with today being the Sunday traditionally known as Low Sunday. This is the day when many people do not attend Church, having made a big effort to be there for Easter. I am glad that you are here this morning.

Our Gospel and Epistle lessons today are both taken from the writings of St. John Evangelist. The Gospel of St. John is decidedly different from the Synoptic Gospels. The Synoptics each present a more or less chronological telling of the story of Jesus’ life, each with a different emphasis and intended for a different readership. St. John’s Gospel is clearly written to persuade people to believe in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah. We read in

John 20:30-31 And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

As such, the Gospel of John is not organized chronologically, and the selection of topics covered is dictated by the stated purpose. St. John is concerned with bringing people to faith, not with teaching history. It helps us understand what we read if we keep this in mind as we read what St. John has written.

The Gospel lesson begins on Sunday evening, the day of the Resurrection, with the disciples in a closed and barred room, fearful and wondering what was going to happen next. They knew most definitely that Jesus had been crucified and now they had been told that His body was missing from the Garden Tomb. There were stories that He was risen from the dead, but who could believe such tales? They knew that the Jews had been anxious to destroy Jesus during His life, and with these latest events, it seemed likely that the Jews might come after the disciples as well.

In Ch 14 of St. John’s Gospel, in a long discourse during the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples John 14:16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; so they know that they are not utterly abandoned forever. But they don’t know when the Comforter will come, or just exactly what this really means. Who, or what, is the Comforter?

The room has been completely closed off, and suddenly Jesus appears among the disciples and gives them the traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace be unto you.” This right here is a miraculous event. This Man they all thought was dead suddenly appears among them, very much alive, and in a room that they have carefully barred to prevent entry. And yet Jesus does enter, and He speaks to them in greeting, and then He shows them His wounds. This is to further prove that it is Himself, and that He is the victor over death. Death has not defeated him, but rather He has risen from the grave, the same Person that was placed in the Garden Tomb, is now standing there among them, talking with them. This is not an apparition, not a ghost, not a vision, but Jesus Christ in the flesh, the same Man who had walked the roads of the countryside with them and taught them for three years, the same One whom they had seen crucified on the Cross at Calvary. And now He is with them again. John 20:20b Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord. They believed that it truly was Jesus come back to them there in that closed and barred room.

After this initial period of establishing that it is truly Jesus Himself, in the flesh that has come again to them, Jesus greets them again, rather formally. John 20:21 Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. It is both a greeting, and a commission, a commission to go out into the world in the same manner that Jesus Himself has been sent into the world, as servants of God. Think about that for a minute. These disciples had gathered in this locked room to consider what to do next, to find strength in numbers, to consider their options. They were a frightened group. Then to receive this sort of a commission must have absolutely scared them out of their wits. They have just seen the consequences of Jesus’ mission – the terrible scourging from the Roman soldiers in the Praetorium, the inquisition before Pilate, the agonizing trudge to Golgatha, and then the horror of the Crucifixion itself. And now that Christ has passed through all of this, He is handing it all on to them, — and to us. No doubt that must have tempered their joy just a bit!

And then He breathed upon them, and said, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. This sounds extremely strange to modern ears, but this would have been well understood in ancient times. Since the very earliest times, men have realized that when a man ceases to breathe, his spirit has left him, even if he appears to be physically undamaged. By extension then, the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, is associated with moving air, with the wind, with breath. One of the most vivid examples is in Ezekiel 37 in the Valley of the Dry Bones when all of the bones have been called back together, and the sinews and flesh placed upon them, then we read, Ezekiel 37:9 Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live. So in the case at hand, Jesus is simply giving them the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, when He breathes upon them and says, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.

And then Jesus continues to give the disciples, and through them, the Church, the Power of the Keys, when He says, John 20:23 Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. This is very similar in content to St. Matthew 16:19, although the exact choice of words is different. Matthew 16:19 And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Based on the words of St. Matthew, we can make the argument, based on the verb tenses, that this passage is saying that the power given to the Church is actually simply the power to recognize actions that have already been done in Heaven, not the power to forgive sins. St. Matthew’s statement is better translated from Greek as I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou bindest on earth shall be having been bound in the heavens, and whatsoever thou loosest on earth shall be having been loosed in the heavens. This means that what actions the Church proclaims are simply recognition of actions already completed in Heaven as indicated by the future perfect verb tense. We cannot make the same arguments for the exact words given by St. John, but since we must assume that these are both based on the same event, this is probably a proper interpretation for both passages.

When we turn to consider the Epistle lesson for the day, we need to consider again to whom this is written and why. St. John does not write as an evangelist seeking new converts, but rather he is writing to mature Christians, and he writes to build up and strengthen the faith of those to whom he is writing. One of his great concerns was gnosticsim, Gnosticism is the heresy that says that matter is evil, that God did not create the material world, and Jesus could not possibly be God incarnate. Gnostics believe in a a superior, hidden knowledge, higher than Christianity. Freemasonry is the classic example of gnosticism in our time.

The lesson begins with St. John speaking of the Christian as one who is able to overcome the world, and he is able to do this precisely because of his faith. To be a Christian, to believe that Jesus is the true Son of God, is to be able to overcome the temptations of the world; that is what faith in Christ does for us. St. John says, This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; we may be inclined to puzzle over the meaning of this phrase because we do not speak in these symbolic terms. Water symbolizes purification, the washing away of sin, and blood symbolizes sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin. Thus he is saying that this is Jesus who comes bringing forgiveness of sin, cleansing in every way that we understand that it may be accomplished.

The idea of proving something by the use of witnesses is well established in the Old Testament, and throughout the New Testament as well. We find repeated references to  In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established so this idea is familiar to all to whom St. John is writing. John now uses this idea in a new and unusual manner when he says, 1 John 5:6–8 This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. 7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. 8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one. Now, rather obviously the original understanding of this idea was to the witness of three men, but St. John turns this to mean the witness of the Holy Ghost, the water, and the blood. This shows the remarkable spiritual insight of St. John, that he could see the testimony of these three spiritual entities as being similar to, but stronger than the traditional testimony of three human witnesses. He goes on to say, 1 John 5:9 If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. Surely we cannot reject the witness of God Himself!

St. John then moves on to make two points: (1) 1 John 5:10 He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: This is to say that the man who believes in Christ sees who Christ is, sees his own need for Christ, and becomes his own witness for Christ. And the second point, (2) he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. The antecedent for “him” is less than clear, but what this is saying is that the man who does not believe on the Son of God has made God a liar, and the reason that this man has made God a liar is that he had denied God’s testimony regarding His Son, Jesus Christ. St. John has just previously established that it is God Himself that testifies on behalf of Jesus, therefore anyone who refuses to accept this testimony is saying that God is a liar.

Then St. John restates the testimony, given by God, regarding His Son, Jesus: 1 John 5:11–12 And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. The key words are right there at the end: He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. If we have Jesus, we are saved and have eternal life; if we do not have Jesus, no matter what else we may have, we do not have life and are lost. It is really pretty simple, isn’t it?

Let us pray again the Collect for the Day:

Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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About Father D

I am a priest of the Continuing Anglican Church, the continuation of orthodox Anglicanism into the present 21st century. My theology is definitely that of a Reformed Catholic point of view, neither Roman nor Calvinist.
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