Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we
should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
(St. James i. 18)
It seems so difficult for us to imagine the Resurrection joy and excitement that characterized the life of early Church- the Church of the Apostles and Disciples of Jesus Christ. It all happened so long ago, and is separated from us by vast distances of time and experience. The world appears to us to have been such a different place way back then, and so alien in its customs and mores.
We struggle to imagine life in the Empire that Octavian had formulated- an Empire into which Christ was born, lived and died. We struggle to imagine what it was to know and see the risen Lord as they had, when we have only history to initiate our wonder. And yet if we think clearly about what transpired in it, through the interruption, in time and space, of that thing called the Incarnation, and how that event changed the world forever, we might begin to seek and follow it with the same wonder and awe that carried and lifted the Apostles into salvation.
For no sooner had Christ risen from the dead, but the world as men knew it began slowly, perhaps imperceptibly, to change forever. Outside of and external to the souls of the Apostles, the world was a very comfortable place. Octavian’s ministers and minions had ensured that the latest forms of technology should meet the needs of diverse peoples, races, and tongues now bound together into one huge multicultural empire. There was running water thanks to water mills, aqueducts and dams. There were public latrines and even flushing toilets. There were heating and cooling systems. There were bridges and roads which all led to Rome. There were buildings and architectural structures that continue to marvel men today. Books were first invented to surpass and supersede the scroll in utility and concision. There were amphitheaters, coliseums, and libraries. In sum, the Romans lived in a materialistically comfortable world. If they wanted to –and most did, they could live very happily on the outside of themselves. The comfort and ease that earthly existence yielded provided a goodness that few men could imagine imperiling for the sake of a world that they could not see.
And yet underneath this world of material and earthly indulgence there was always a spirit of unease and discomfort, and so the emergence of mystery cults, gnostic sects, and other paranormal spiritual movements sought to overcome and placate men’s fears and superstitions. The best of men were caught idolatrously between the fear of the good they might lose externally and visibly, and the inward and spiritual sense of the soul’s unease at the inability of the same good to provide lasting happiness. Yet it was into this world that a phenomenon appeared that would forever challenge both its external peace and its inner uncertainty –again, slowly and almost imperceptibly.
It began to spread in an outpost of Rome’s Empire, in Palestine, and there only in the hearts of a small band of men who had followed one Jesus of Nazareth, who had lived and died inconspicuously. This Jesus’ death had caused something of a minor stir with the local Jewish establishment. And His purported Resurrection and Ascension caused even more trouble. For from that point on He seemed to be making something that the world had never heard or seen out of the hearts and souls of His faithful friends. He seemed to live on, enlarging His body, fashioning a new community, and unbeknownst to them, a new civilization.
Nobody really knew about it at first since it was being made from the inside out, from the soul to the body, from the land of the spirit into the flesh,offering a more perfect alternative to the material world in which it grew. And this body, community, and civilization would be crafted, molded and created using the raw materials of His friends’ incipient and embryonic faith, hope, and love. He appeared to them in the body only to usher and escort them into the rebirth of their souls. He addressed and summoned them first externally and visibly in order to show them the power that would, second, rise up and carry them internally and spiritually to the Kingdom of His Father.
Nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you (St. Luke xvii. 21), He said to them. Then and there the Apostles began to understand the meaning of human destiny. It was then and there that they began to be called into another kingdom, another empire, another city not made with human hands, but crafted by the Spirit of God’s mercy and forgiveness. In describing the new world that the Apostles found, through the Spirit of the Risen Jesus, T. S. Eliot says this:
Then it seemed as if men must proceed from light to light, in the light of
Through the Passion and Sacrifice saved in spite of their negative being;
Bestial as always before, carnal, self-seeking as always before, selfish and
purblind as ever before,
Yet always struggling, always reaffirming, always resuming their march on
the way that was lit by the light;
Often halting, loitering, straying, delaying, returning, yet following no other
(T.S.Eliot, Choruses from the Rock)
The Apostles began to rise with Christ long ago. The time of his bodily Resurrection –the period in which they experienced His transfigured nature, physically and tangibly, was short -forty days to be exact. The new time of their resurrections in and through His spiritual being began and continued after that. He told them that it was necessary that He depart from them in body that He might return to them in the Spirit that would reanimate their flesh. He needed to leave them in the body so that they might receive and embrace Him in their souls.
Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. (St. John xvi. 7) His plan and purpose was that they should become His new body, the space and place of a new civilization and empire, marching through time and into eternity, proceeding from light to light, in the light of the Word. (Idem)
Long ago, Christian civilization was born from the Word made flesh in the hearts and souls of the Apostles. But where does that leave us? Is it all ancient history? Is it all a pleasant story involving a peculiar people of a curious culture whose ideas and notions are now unseen and unheard? Does it form some kind of long-lost romance whose time is spent, whose dream is lost? Are we too far gone in this age of ours to rise up in Christ and live again?
In T.S. Eliot’s time- the 1930s- the external world and its empires were fast giving birth to apostasy and irreligion. He asked, what have we to do but stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards / in an age which advances progressively backwards? (T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock) The 1930s were bad enough; our age is worse. What are we to do, we ask ourselves?
For starters, we ought to be unsettled, as some of the ancient Romans were, with earthly empire, human culture, and the impermanent things. As the Apostles’ example teaches us, only idolaters are moved and defined by human customs, conventions, and constructions that offer only fleeting and impermanent earthly solutions to temporal problems among the sundry and manifold changes of this world. (Collect) Only idolaters worry about their present security against their eternal salvation. Only idolaters are exorcised and roused more over their earthly condition than their spiritual standing with God. Clearly then, idolatry is not the answer. And if the idols of this world bother us so much, perhaps we should ask ourselves why this is the case. Shouldn’t we be praying first and foremost to love the things which [God] commandest, and desire that which [He] dost promise…that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found? (Collect)
The Apostles of Jesus left the world behind, turning inward and upward, in order to become citizens of another kind of kingdom. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures. (St. James i. 17, 18) The Apostles’ witness shows us that God desires to conceive, birth, and raise up in us the good and perfect gift of His Word of truth, that we might be born again, from above, in order that we might become the first fruits of His new creation.
And so this morning, once again, the Risen Christ invites us to become part and parcel of his Resurrection. If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1) Today my friends let us turn away from this world, leave it all behind, and move inward.
In turning inward, may our hearts soar upwards. Let us seek the Father, hear his Word, and receive his Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is within us. The time has come for Christians to be born again! Today Jesus says to the few, the brave, the faithful, hopeful, and loving that He has gone away because He desires to live in us in a deeper and truer way as His Holy Spirit grows that redemption which leads to salvation from the inner ground of our hearts in the soil of our souls. If we open to him, He will send his Holy Spirit into us. Jesus says, He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it unto you.(St. John xvi. 13) He will reveal to us the glory that He shares with our Father and offers to us as our future and destiny.
So let us receive with meekness the engrafted Word, which is able to save [our] souls. (St. James i. 21) And when we do this, He will once again pave the roads and build bridges that will lead many others to His kingdom also, as your soul and mine become a moment in time where the conversion of the nations can begin once again. Let us close, again, with the words of Mr. Eliot:
Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice.
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction.
Let us therefore make perfect our will.
O, God help us. (Ibid.)