SMC – Easter II 2019
Wilbur, one of our cats, wasn’t well. Isn’t that sad? I won’t go into details because it’s a bit messy but one of the telltale signs that he wasn’t well was that he kept crawling under a blanket and sleeping there a lot. I was worried that he would crawl under there and die in my usual cheery way and so I would occasionally get close to him and just check he was still breathing. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to hear he’s doing much better now after taking some tablets but I was always pleased when I got close to him as he slept under the blanket that I could still see his fat body breathing away calmly and regularly.
As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection eight days on from Easter Sunday, Jesus appears and breathes on the disciples bestowing on them authority and peace and sending them out to proclaim the Good News. The Risen Saviour wants His people to share His eternal life. But what is this life, my friends? (My subject this morning) For this Resurrection we are celebrating in Eastertide was not like that of Lazarus. In John 11 Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, died and was raised to life: “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus barks to a dead man. Lazarus has subsequently died again: His being raised to life temporary and a sign of the power of God, which is Jesus’ by right. And therefore this Resurrection we celebrate is something more.
But this is also a Resurrection life which is ours, for we are members of Christ’s body, the Church and so it is perpetuated and shared as we see in our readings. Jesus wants the eternal life shared and so He breathes on His disciples and gives them authority to bind and loose, to forgive sins of God’s faithful. Just as God breathed of old into our human parents and transformed them from the dust of the earth to living beings (Genesis 2:8), so the followers of Jesus - us included - are transformed. The effects of this life being handed on is seen in our first reading, where the faithful, those who had received the Holy Spirit, meet together, gathered around St Peter.
The Risen Life of Jesus is kept going in the Church even in the face of persecution, even when few in number, as St John experienced in our first reading. As but a week and a half ago we commemorated him standing at the foot of the cross, so now we read the record of the revelation he received on the island of Patmos. As we heard: “I was on the island of Patmos for having preached God’s word.” It’s assumed that John had been banished there. He’d followed our Lord’s instruction on the Cross - “Here is your mother” and took Mary, the Mother of God, with him to Ephesus. After her assumption into Heaven, John ends up on Patmos, a small Greek island not far from the Eastern Turkish coast. Not sure it was top of St John’s travel hopes: the sea in his writing from Patmos becomes a negative thing, absent from the new Heaven and earth (Apocalypse 21:1) perhaps because it spoke to him only of isolation and separation from home. But even here was the Church, even here was the Life of the Risen Lord. As a bishop, as a persecuted Christian, through his contact with the churches through that region he witnessed to the life of the Resurrected Jesus still being at work in the Church.
The Church keeps the life of Jesus going, for the body and the head are fed with oxygen by the same heart. We perhaps have a rather more artificial understanding of what life is because we reduce it utility - being able to get out, being useful, being independent, being healthy, being happy - these all become synonyms for living well. And the temptation can be to kill someone off when life does not conform to norms imposed on us by society. I can think of people who have had years of life after many would have given up hope. Now, there may be occasions when we need to stop artificially preventing human beings from dying. The advances of medicine and science are amazing testimonies to the wonder of the creation and the mind God has given human beings, but we are in danger of losing our souls and our hearts, sacrificed for the welfare of the mind, the ego and, of course, the wallet. Individuals do not have the right to determine when their lives or anyone else’s life will end for life is God’s gift to us and His to determine when it shall end.
When we see St John and St Peter along with the other first Christians keeping the life of Jesus going it is not covering up a wound, or keeping a corpse going, this is no clapped out life the Church lives. No, the Church keeps the most perfect and glorious life of Jesus going in our midst. We all too easily forget that we are about life in abundance (John 10:10), the best possible life that God has in store for each one of us: it’s tremendously exciting. Gyms and diets and pills may well be great aids to us looking after our bodies and we should definitely do that, but life is more, more about the breath of God being deeply within us.
On the Tuesday before Easter, Bishop Jonathan blessed the oils we will use in our church for the next twelve months: the oil of Chrism, which will be used to anoint those confirmed here in November; the oil of Catechumen for those be baptised throughout the year; the oil of the Sick for those seriously ill. A curious part of the rite to bless the oil of Chrism is that the Bishop has to breathe on it. So a great glass container filled with olive oil is placed before the Bishop. He then pours balsam in (which is a darker, sweeter perfumed substance) and stirs it. And then he blows on it. And that consecrates the oil of Chrism. It is reminding us of Jesus breathing on the disciples and empowering them for the ministry of absolving sins (John 20:23).
The life of Jesus is contained in the sacraments, these outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual graces, fo which there are seven: baptism, confirmation, Mass, marriage, ordination, anointing the sick and confession. They breathe life into us, into the Church, revivifying us and stirring us up into a whirlwind of grace and reconciliation to draw the world back to Christ. But we have a choice about this, as in Deuteronomy 30:19-21, God renews His covenant with His people and Moses boldly declares to them: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death … choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying Him … so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” This land we are promised, my friends, if we choose life, is not a plot of soil on earth, but the new Jerusalem, Heaven itself. And the sacraments, supreme among them the Mass, are foretastes of that.
So when we gather for the Mass, we are know we are stepping into Heaven, not so as to remain as we will one day, but so as to be nourished for life on earth. It’s why it’s good for us to spend some time in quiet preparing for Mass, clearing our mind of the distractions and thoughts, kneeling that we might get the relationship right with the One from whom we hope to receive grace upon grace. Having the rosary said before Mass as we will from next Sunday and throughout Mary’s month of May will hopefully us to do this. But as we gaze upon the Lord’s Body and Blood let us pray that we might also have a clearer sense of what constitutes life in what we do and say and think day by day and what constitutes death, choosing always life over death. May we as members of the Church continue to be revivified but the life of the Risen Lord and declare it to the world, which otherwise on course, without Christ, for death. Amen.