Homily for Christ’s Chapel on Easter 5, 9 May, 2021; Rogation Sunday
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. Luke 11:5-13
It’s the 5th Sunday after Easter, which is also called “Rogation” Sunday in the Anglican Church and some other Catholic bodies. “Rogation” is a very old English word that translates an even older Latin word, rogare meaning “to ask”. On the Rogation Days, we “ask” for special blessings on the days leading up to Ascension Day, which happens this Thursday. When you think of “rogation”, think of the English word “interrogation”, which means “to question”, or to ask questions. We ask for blessings.
Actually, the history of the rogation days can be traced back to the Roman holiday of Robigalia, at which a dog was sacrificed to propitiate Robigus, the god of agricultural disease. The “god” was asked for protection of crops from such things as wheat rust. The Rogation Days as we know them in the Church were introduced around AD 470 and eventually adopted elsewhere. The faithful typically observed the rogation days by fasting and abstinence in preparation for celebration of the Ascension, and farmers often had their crops blessed by a priest at this time. Perhaps in continuation of this Roman custom, a common feature of Rogation days in northern Europe included during the Middle Ages was the ceremony of “beating the bounds”, in which a procession of parishioners, led by the parish priest, would proceed around the boundary of the parish, or the estate on which they all lived and worked, and pray for its protection in the forthcoming year. At this time, too, allocations of agricultural land might be made, or made official.
Rogation Day ceremonies are thought to have arrived in the British Isles in the 7th century, but the oldest known document in England that mentions the Days is a Sarum, or Salisbury, text dating to somewhere between 1173 and 1220. In it, celebrations in the south of England are described, where these processions were led by members of the congregation carrying banners which represented various biblical characters. At the head of the procession was the dragon, possibly representing Pontius Pilate, (or maybe the devil) which would be followed by a lion, perhaps representing Christ. After this there would be images of saints carried by the rest of the congregation. It is probably not surprising that the lion was already becoming a symbol of the English monarchy.
Well, we are not going to process today. We might, someday. We have a banner and we have a field. But let’s leave that for now, and move on to another of the meanings of the day.
Today is also Mother’s Day. Our American Mother’s day is not directly related to the many religious and quasi-religious days celebrating motherhood. Our American holiday of was first celebrated in 1908, when a woman named Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her mother in Grafton, West Virginia. Her campaign to make "Mother's Day" a recognized holiday in the United States began in 1905, the year that her mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, died. Anna’s mission was to honor her own mother by continuing work she started and to set aside a day to honor all mothers. Anna's mother, Ann Jarvis, was a peace activist who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides during the War Between the States. During this time also, she had created Mother’s Day Work Clubs to address public health issues. By 1910, several states had recognized Anna Jarvis’s work by adopting the day, and in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making it a national holiday.
Well, anyway, as I said at the outset, it is traditional to mention, at least, the lesson in a Sunday morning homily, and so I had better do so. Our lesson this morning is from the Gospel according to Luke, and concerns the establishment of what most of us call The Lord’s Prayer. “And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples. And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.” You’ll note that the prayer stops there. So, why do we say “For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever, Amen”? The easy answer is that we say the prayer as it is recorded in Matthew, and we see it today as it is recorded in Luke. Is that a contradiction between the two? No, it’s not. The prayer stops at “evil”. The rest is called “a Gloria”. It’s said in the same way that we say the “Gloria Patri” after psalms. It’s just a way to emphasize the importance of the prayer. Why didn’t Luke put it in? I don’t know. Probably, he didn’t see any point. Perhaps EVERYBODY always said the Gloria, and he didn’t want to waste ink. Whatever: it’s the same prayer. It’s a shame that people argue about it.
And, as He usually did, Jesus went on to teach a lesson in addition to teaching the prayer. Two, really, and both are about “asking”. In the first, a neighbor wakes someone up and asks for some bread to feed a traveler who has arrived late, and the other about a son asking his father for something to eat. To the first, Jesus taught us “ask and ye shall receive” and to the second, “If ye know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Both relate to the Prayer.
In this lesson, Jesus is explaining why the Prayer is constructed as it is. It is not just meaningless words. It is not just noise. Every word and phrase means something, and Jesus was telling them, as He tells us, that God will answer this prayer. Every time. He will not give us a snake or a scorpion when we ask for an egg or a fish, and the prayer asks for eggs and fish. He will invariably give us good gifts, if we will just ask. And, that’s what the prayer asks for: good things. The problem is that we too often ask for other things; things that are not good for us, and then we sometimes complain that our prayers aren’t answered. Well, they are answered! It’s just that we don’t like the answer. If we’ll ask for what the prayer tells us to ask for, we will be given them.
Homily delivered at Christ Chapel Anglican on 2 May, 2021, Easter 4
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. John xvi. 5.
Ah, Saint John! We read a lot from his Gospel, this time of year, don’t we? I don’t suppose it ought to be surprising; Easter is about the resurrection, and the weeks of Easter Season focus on the resurrected Christ. John wrote his Gospel to show Jesus to the world as the Son of God. The two seem made for each other.
And so it is, today. John 16:5 focuses on Jesus’s saying to his disciples, probably just the 12, but maybe also the 70: “Now I go my way to him that sent me;” Jesus is preparing them for his departure, to return to the Father permanently. He told them, before that he would leave, but would come back. This time, he’s telling them he WON’T be back, but that he’ll ask the Father to send a surrogate; not a replacement, but rather one who will be to them as he had been, since the resurrection. A guide. A comforter. An information source! As he told them, “if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” Perhaps we ought to take a short break here, and talk for a minute about that. “The Comforter” is what the King James Version of John says here, but it is not the word universally used, nowadays. “Comfort” had a very different meaning, in King James’s day than it does, today. Modern translations deal with this by translating the Greek word differently, The word, in koine Greek is “parakletos”, or “paraclete”. “Paraclete” itself is hard to translate. “para” means “alongside of”, and “kletos” seems to mean something like “to call to” or “to urge on”. The NIV used “advocate” to translate “paraclete”. That sounds about right.
On the Bayeux Tapestry, there is a scene in which Bishop Odo, the brother of William the Conqueror is shown waving his mace, apparently at his own men. The text says “Bishop Odo comforts his men”. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t take being threatened with a mace as being very “comforting”. But at the time of the Battle of Hastings, and for several Centuries afterwards, “comfort” meant “encourage”. Bishop Odo was urging his troops not to quit: to continue the attack against the English forces. That. I think, is what Jesus was telling his disciples. That he, Jesus, was about to depart again, but that they shouldn’t despair, for the Father would send in his place a perpetual source of encouragement. The Holy Ghost.
“And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away:” It’s expedient for us, too.
Would it be nice for Jesus to still be here on earth, with us? Well, sure, but why? He was one man. He had a very limited presence. He said himself that he had been sent to offer salvation to the Jews, who killed him for trying. But the Holy Ghost! That is a different matter!
The Holy Ghost “he, the Spirit of truth…, will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will shew you things to come. He shall glorify me:” And, furthermore, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you.
The Holy Ghost is our link with the Father. And, for that matter, with Jesus. We all go to the Father in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, but we can only get there because the Holy Ghost in us opens the circuit.
So that’s the meat of our lesson, this morning. God created us and we fell. When we fell, we became separate from Him. He didn’t throw us out, we pulled away from Him. He wanted us back, but by that time, He could not draw us back. Our sins were too great for Him to even communicate with us. Yet, he desperately wanted to. So He sent His own Son to be born, live and die a sacrifice for our sins. In that way and only in that way could He send the Holy Ghost to live in our hearts and guide us back to Him. And to encourage us and give us directions, when we seem to be about to lose our way. We can, you know. Even as baptized and observant Christians, we can still hear the devil calling us to him, instead of Jesus. And sometimes we listen. But when that happens, we’re not lost. The Holy Ghost is still there, in our own heart and soul, ready to give us encouragement and to show us the right way. Always!
That’s why Jesus had to leave. As he said, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you” Jesus knew about the Falll of the Roman Empire. And dozens of other empires. He knew about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. He knew about the Holocaust. But he could not tell them these things. There are things he can’t tell us, either. It’s not his fault; He knows everything, but we cannot yet stand the knowledge. When the Holy Ghost thinks we’re ready, it will be shown to us. That’s what the Holy Ghost is all about. That’s why Jesus had to leave.
Homily for Easter 3 (Feast of St. Mark) at Christ Chapel on, 25 April, 2021
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. John 15:1-10
Today is the feast of St. Mark. It marks, of course, that Saint’s birthday. It is also the “Name Day” of St. Mark’s Anglican Church, in Benton, which we at Christ Chapel have a very close relationship with. Interestingly enough, though, our lesson doesn’t come from the writing of St. Mark, it comes from St. John, but since it’s Mark’s feast day, I think we ought to say something about him. So I will.
St. Mark was not one of the Twelve apostles. He may have been too young to be one; certainly he was young, but he may also have been one of the Seventy followers of Jesus who were constant disciples, just not among the Twelve. I should say that while we Catholic Christians believe that “apostle”, which means “one who is sent” refers to the Great Commission, given to the Twelve, some ancient Christians believed that it refers to the time Jesus sent the seventy out to preach, and if so, then Barnabas and John Mark, and even Luke may have been accepted as such, in the First Century. Mark appears from Scripture to have been a native of Jerusalem, which would explain why he was not one of the Twelve, who were Galileans. Mark is often referred to in the New Testament as John Mark. He was a cousin of Barnabas, and a close associate of both Paul and Peter. He went with Paul on his first Missionary Journey, but left to go home during that effort. We don’t know why he left, but we know it irritated Paul, and caused hard feelings later between him and Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them on the Second Missionary Journey, but Paul would not hear of it, and Barnabas left. He and John Mark instead went to Crete, to evangelize there. Mark later became a member of Peter’s group and eventually Peter’s secretary. It is said that when Peter was preaching in Alexandria, the people asked Mark to write it all down for them, so they could remember, and that that was the genesis of the Gospel according to Mark. Modern scholars dispute this, but what don’t they dispute? Personally, I like the story. In any case, John Mark ended up being named the first Bishop of Alexandria.
But our lesson comes from John. Why, I’m not sure, with a whole book by Mark to draw from, but in any case it does, and it is a very worthwhile lesson, in itself! It is the parable of the vine and branches, in which Jesus taught his last actual lesson to the Twelve. Everything after was part of the Passion, death, resurrection or post-resurrection story. This was an old-fashioned Jesus parable: the Parable of the Vine and the Branches. It only appears in John, but that is not really too surprising. John’s object, almost always, was to show that Jesus was the Son of God. The others were telling the story to various groups shortly after they occurred so they would know. John was telling committed Christians almost a hundred years into the life of the Church theological truths about the nature of salvation. And that is exactly where this parable comes in.
“I AM the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you.”
Did you catch that “I am”? See what I mean about making a theological statement? “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.” “I am” means “God”. Always, for all intents and purposes, at least in the writings of John, it does. So translated, what John is saying is “God is the true vine, and the Father is the farmer who planted it and tends it.” Then he goes on to show the Apostles that they, and all Christians, are branches off the vine. God the Father has planted a vine, God the Son, and given it life through God, the Holy Spirit, so that branches will grow out of it, and they will then produce fruit. Not only did he explain the nature of the Trinity, he established the idea of the Priesthood of all Believers. And he did it in the very literal shadow of the Temple! You see, You cannot GET fruit in any other way. Nothing else will work at all. Husbandman (another word for farmer) plants a plant, The plant grows (vine, stalk, tree, whatever) and produces branches, which bear fruit. God the Father, God the Son, through God the Holy Ghost produce branches (us) that bear fruit: people who love God and one another and make God’s creation a wonderful, joy-filled place to live in! The Temple soaring above them should have done that, but it did not. That was the Old covenant. The Old Testament. It was just about to end, but they didn’t know that. Jesus was giving his closest flowers a peek at the future here.
And, he said all this when? On the walk down into the Kidron Valley after the Last Supper. After the Maundy and after establishing the Eucharist, he led them on that last walk—it was late in the day; perhaps after sunset. Probably after sunset, as they turned up the valley at the mount of Olives, on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the head of the valley. It was his last voluntary walk with them, in this life. He was teaching his last lesson to them, before the horrendous events about to transpire just a few hours hence. If I may pre-empt the Roman Centurion from half a day then still in the future, “Truly this was the son of God”. Indeed He was. He knew it, just as he knew that he had to endure his last, terrible trial before it could come true. And, he used the time to teach this wonderful theological lesson. We serve an awesome God!
Homily for Easter 2 at Christ Chapel, 18 April, 2021
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. John 10:1-10
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that entereth not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbeth up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. But he that entereth in by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the porter openeth; and the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.”
What are we to make of this passage? Well, to tell you the very truth, I have to say that a very great deal indeed has been made of it. Google it and you’ll find dozens of sermons, homilies and commentaries. I like one of the older ones: Matthew Henry’s Commentaries. Henry was a Presbyterian who wrote between 1704 and his death from apoplexy in 1714. It’s easy to believe he died of apoplexy, for he very definitely wrote apoplectically! But, be that as it may, his commentary on this passage is excellent and I recommend it.
Furthermore, as Henry points out, Jesus himself explained what he meant. It shouldn’t be necessary to try to figure it out and explain it: Jesus himself did so: “ This parable spake Jesus unto them: but they understood not what things they were which he spake unto them. Then said Jesus unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.” Maybe we’d better go back a few verses and figure out exactly who Jesus was talking to, if we’re going to make much sense out of this. The passage is very clear that Jesus was speaking directly to somebody, but it doesn’t really tell us who. So, since our lesson begins with the first verse of John 10, let’s go back and look at the closing verses of John 9.
Here, we find Jesus speaking to a group of Pharisees, while at the same time, carrying on a conversation with a blind man who Jesus had healed a short time earlier. The formerly blind man had been taken to the Pharisees, as proof that Jesus was a holy man. They had told him otherwise, but he had protested that he had the proof: he could see! The Pharisees had thrown him out.
Now, the Pharisees thought of themselves as the shepherds of the “flock” of Israel. The Bible doesn’t tell us this, but Matthew Henry does. Jesus knew this. He knew perfectly well, Henry tells us, that the parable of the sheep would be one that was familiar to the Pharisees, even if not to the rest of the people. So, he told it to the Pharisees. They seem to have understood the story perfectly: they were the shepherds and the people were the sheep. They felt perfectly capable of going after the sheep, calling to them and having them follow. They saw nothing wrong with Jesus’s logic: it was exactly what they believed! In other words, they had no idea what He was really saying. He had to explain it to them. In the lesson it says “ All that ever came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” Note that he did not call the Pharisees “thieves and robbers”. He treated them as potential good shepherds. He left it up to them whether they would be thieves and robbers or not.
Jesus said “Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep.” And again: I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” Jesus did not say “I am the good Shepherd”, though this lesson has been interpreted that way, and in other parables he did call himself that. Here, He called himself “the door”. He left the way open for the Pharisees to be the good shepherds, but he told them in no uncertain terms that if they wanted to be good shepherds, then they ought to act like good shepherds. How can you tell a “good” shepherd? Well, Jesus tells us that one good way is to check the route a man takes into the sheepfold. If he comes in at the door, checks in with the porter, or watchman, and calls to his sheep openly, then chances are he’s a true shepherd. If he tries to sneak in by some other route, then there’s a very good chance he’s a thief or robber. See, he leaves it up to the Pharisees which they want to be. Jesus is the door. What good is a door?
A door is a very functional piece of woodenware. It has several functions. First, it keeps the sheep safely within the fold, during times of danger. It protects them from rampaging wolves and lions, and even men. It gives them a place to eat and sleep in safety. At the same time, it keeps predators outside. Isn’t this the same thing as protecting the occupants on the inside? Not quite. Protecting the sheep is one thing. Defending against the predators is another, and the door serves both functions. Jesus will, in fact does, give us both protection and defense. A door also serves as a passageway, and Jesus refers to this in the lesson, as well. We are safe behind the door and predators are kept away from us by it, but when the time comes to leave the safety of the fold and venture out into the world, to pasture, the door serves as the portal through which we can pass in safety and assurance. Just as Jesus protects us from the Devil and his minions while we are inside his Church, he also provides us with a way to access the world under the guidance of proper shepherds who’ll lead us properly. And, when we’ve eaten and drunk and rested, he provides us with a path back into the safety of the fold.
It’s an almost magical parable; In the very next verse after our lesson comes the “I am the Good Shepherd” passage, and an entirely different point is made, but I think there was a reason for stopping our lesson this morning at verse 10; with the parable of the door. The Pharisees never did get it. Especially when He started talking about Him being the Good Shepherd, they felt threatened, and began to press Him concerning His true identity, they set in motion the line of reasoning that eventually led him before Caiaphas and Herod and Pontus Pilate. But in the first 10 verses, we ought to note that He never closed the door on them. He simply told them the truth: that if they really wanted to be leaders of the people of Israel, they had to come to them through Him.
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.
Homily for Easter 1 at Christ Chapel, 11 April, 2021
Rev’d Dr. T. Y. Hiter
St. Luke 24:36-49
Our lesson this morning, taken from the Gospel according to Luke, deals with the first actual encounter between Jesus and his Disciples after the Resurrection. Before this, several of the followers, Mary, his mother, Salome, Mary Magdalene, among the women, and Peter and John, among the men, had been to the tomb, and even been inside, and some of them had encountered an Angel, but until this part of the story, they had not encountered the risen Christ, themselves. This is not the first time we’ve seen this part of the story, this season. We spoke a bit on Easter Morning about the meeting. Then, we were looking at the Gospel according to John. Luke’s account is not very different from John’s, but Luke gives us a bit more detail. This is not unexpected. As we’ve discussed before, Luke was writing as a scholar, trying to set straight the various versions of the story that were circulating about the middle of the First Century. John was writing as an old Jewish priest, then serving as a Christian Bishop at or after the end of that Century. Their points of view and their literary objectives were very different. Let’s look at some of those differences.
John told us that when Jesus came to them, locked in the upper room, Jesus said “Peace be unto you”. Luke tells us the same thing. It seems almost certain that that is, in fact, what Jesus said, and what he meant. That’s why it is so important to us that he gives us peace, as well. John tells us that the disciples were locked in the upper room for “fear or the Jews”. Luke doesn’t mention any such fears; he tells us that the appearance itself terrified them! I’ll bet both are true.
I think it is worth noting that when Luke wrote, little if any Jewish persecution of Christians had taken place. In fact, Christians were not even being called Christians, yet. They were Jews, for all intents and purposes. Paul was still working, evangelizing Greeks, but the Church, the vast majority of Christian believers, was in Jerusalem, and it was made up almost entirely of Jews. When John wrote, not only had the first, violent wave of Jewish persecution swept through the Jerusalem community, the Roman armies had destroyed the Temple itself, and the Jews were in the process of reinventing their worship, itself, via the Synagogues. Synagogues were actively trying to root out Christian ideas all around Asia Minor. John remembered the disciples being afraid of “the Jews”, but what he was thinking of was probably Caiaphas and the Temple ruffians, more than the population. Of course, we do have to remember, though, that those twelve or so Galileans were just about all there were. Peter had not preached his magnificent sermon at Pentecost! What Luke believed they were most scared by was the appearance of Jesus, himself!
Look at the text: “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.”
I think it is a shame that our Gospel has been so dumbed down by the modern world that we have lost so much of the wonder and the mystery of the resurrection. I regret, too, that it is our mother church that has done perhaps the most to make it so. Many, too many modern so-called “Christians” will happily tell you (and too many of them are priests and even Bishops) that when Jesus returned, he was no longer in a solid body; that he was an “embodied spirit”, and that what we can expect, when we arrive, is to be something like that. Not a ghost, exactly (the text makes it pretty clear that that is not the case), but that any rational, science-believing person knows that our bodies cannot “come back”. What about the ones who are cremated? What about the ones who are drowned, and eaten by the fishes? Well, folks, I’m here to tell you: His did! Look at the words! That’s the real point of this lesson. It was not some sort of spiritual phenomenon! It was him! And, he handled it the way he always did: he met it head on. “Touch me”. “Handle me”. He told Thomas to stick his finger in the nail holes! To stick his hand in the spear-thrust wound in his side. Do you suppose Thomas took him up on any of that? Would you have?
And then, as Luke has a way of doing, he gives another example. Not only did Jesus invite them to see and feel his physical wounds, he asked them for something to eat. “And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.” And, as he so often did during the three years he had spent with them, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to trach them a lesson. He had their attention! “And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,” That’s what he tells us, too. The Old Testament is all about him coming. The New Testament is all about what he did, while he was here. It’s all there for us. All we have to do is study it.
Easter Sunday has come and gone. All the chocolate bunnies have been eaten and all the dyed eggs either discarded or left to rot under the leaves where we hid them. We now have the glorious Spring Easter season to live out, and we will. We’ll celebrate Pentecost and Trinity and then we’ll settle into the long, green six-month period that most modern Churches call “ordinary time”, but there’s nothing ordinary about it. At least now, during Easter, we can say it: He is Risen! He is risen, indeed.
Homily for Easter Sunday at Christ Chapel, 4 April, 2015
Dr. T. Y. Hiter
It’s hard to decide where to start on a sermon for today. We’ve pretty much read all the Gospel accounts. We all pretty much all know the stories. What is there that’s new, that can be brought to bear on this of all days? Not much, I’m afraid.
But, by the same token, this is, by any possible measure, this is the most important day in the Christian calendar! One has to say something about it! And, so I will. I’m going to refer to the Gospel as related by John, though for no particular reason. The news is good, in all of them. I like John’s verbiage.
As for the day, itself, it’s been being celebrated almost literally right from the first. We have written accounts from the mid-2nd Century that assure us that celebrating Easter was already an old tradition among Christians. Most Christian holidays were very early set on the solar calendar, but Easter has always been celebrated as it occurs in relation to the Jewish Passover, and so it is celebrated based on a Lunar calendar. Celebrations are a bit different, east and west, but both emphasize one thing: the deep emotional impact that the resurrection had on the people who were there, at the time.
So, that’s what I’d like to talk about, this morning: emotion. Real, human emotion. The facts of that day, and the several days afterwards, may become clear to all of us, someday, in eternity. I don’t think they’re likely to do so before then. I don’t think they need to. I don’t think that’s what the Apostles and the Evangelists were trying to do, even though they certainly give us a lot of them. Mostly though, they describe feelings. Look at the way John’s text opens:
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews…,” Fear. Fear is a powerful emotion, indeed. Let’s think about that. It’s Sunday evening. Your leader; the man you’ve invested three years of your life in following, has, just slightly more than three days ago, been forcibly arrested, causing you and your friends to run off in so much fear that one of you lost all his clothes to get away; he’s been subjected to a kangaroo court, beaten bloody, humiliated and hanged on a wooden cross to die! You know you’re as guilty as He was. You know that “guilt by association” is a regular part of the court system. You are well aware that you are a hundred miles from home, in a strange city full of people who hate you. You know you’ve been hiding for two days, and you know that now, on top of all this, his body has disappeared. You’re worried. You’re scared. Shoot, you’re terrified! Not one of us here has ever been that afraid. That’s what John was trying to communicate. And then comes the next sentence:
“Jesus came and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.” Can you imagine? Peace. Well, unfortunately, a good many people have imagined quite a lot about this passage. I’ve heard it preached at considerable length that Jesus could walk through walls, based on this passage of scripture. And, maybe he did. Certainly, the doors were locked. John has just told us that. I’ll bet they had a chair pushed in front of it, too, just to be sure! But that’s not the point. If we start talking about “glorified bodies” and “materialization” and a lot of other magic stuff, we miss the point. The point is that Jesus came to them and greeted them as He always had: “Shalom”, probably, or the Aramaic equivalent. In the New Testament, it says “eirene”, but that’s in Greek, like the rest of the book. What’s important is that He stood among them and He spoke to them. One recalls some of the opening lines of Charles Dickens”s A Christmas Carol: “Old Marley was dead to begin with…dead as a doornail…this must be understood or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.” That’s pretty much what John is telling us, here.
Jesus was dead. Of that there was no doubt. And they were in grave danger of being so themselves at almost any moment! And, Jesus came to them and said “Peace be with you.”
He went on, of course, to show them his wounds and, perhaps, as John relates, to give them the great commission. Thomas, called “the Twin”, didymus seems to mean “twin” in koine Greek, didn’t believe them when they told him about it, but a week later, He came again, and Thomas was there that time, and Jesus teased him a bit, and challenged Thomas to put his fingers into the wounds. For this Thomas has come down to us as “doubting” Thomas. Evidently it worked; Thomas believed so strongly that he later went to Persia and started the Mar Thoma Church there, and to India, where he was himself martyred for preaching Christ. The Syro-Malabar Church still exists in India, and honors Thomas not for his doubts, but for his faith. For those who care about such things, the Gnostic heretics thought highly of Thomas, too, and attributed a couple of their non-canonical books to him. Some of them even believed that the “twin” name meant that he was the twin brother of Christ, himself. The Gnostics thought very highly of Thomas, indeed.
John doesn’t tell us any of this, though. He simply tells us that Thomas, in addition to his fears, had doubts. And that Jesus gave him peace, too. And, comfort. And, then, John tells us something that ought to give us a good deal of peace, when we start worrying about things like why the Gospel stories don’t exactly match one another. He tells us that Jesus did a lot more, things while He was with them. Things that are not listed in the book. And, he tells us why, too: “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.” Of course, you all know me, and knowing me, know that I can’t let anything stand as is, so I need to close this morning by taking another look at that final line, too. Michael Gorman, who wrote a textbook on Biblical exegesis says that our preferred version of the Bible isn’t fit for interpretation, at all, because the English language has changed dramatically since it was translated, and also because modern translators have access to older and better manuscripts. If that is so, and it may be, then even if the original Gospels matched perfectly, we might not know it because of translation errors. So, what does that last line say in some more current translations? Well, in the NRSV, Professor Gorman’s preferred text, it says “ But these are written, that ye may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God; and that through believing you may have life in his name.” Not quite the same, is it? Notably, several words are reversed. But then, in the ESV, a version that Gorman likes with a few cautions, it says “ But these are written, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Small differences again, but again perhaps significant. What does the original Greek say? “ but these have been written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God, and that believing, life ye may have in name his.” It says it in Greek, of course; that’s why the word order is kind of messed up, but this is the literal translation, word by word.
Does it matter to us, this Easter season, that there are small differences in the accounts? You decide. As for me, I have decided that it does not matter to me. What matters to me, here and now, is that John did the best he could to write the truth. The copiers of his manuscript did the best they could do to copy it correctly. The various translators did the very best they could do, to get it right. And every single possible translation is close enough for us to get the point. Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and if we believe that, we can have eternal life in his name.” Now, that’s good news.