May 07, 2017
“‘Join me in the Resurrection,’ Jesus calls out to us today. ‘Even now, even today—don’t wait ’til you’re dead. Come out of the small, dark, confining places of life into the broad and bright places—stand up, rise to your full height.’”
These words from Br. Mark Brown, an Episcopalian monk, point to what Jesus means in today’s gospel when he speaks of the abundant life that he came to give us, the resurrected life into which we are baptizing two beautiful children today. Their parents and godparents, and indeed all of us, promise that we will help them grow into the full stature of Christ, that we will help them rise to their full height, out of the small, dark, confining places of life into the broad and bright places.
But what does this abundant life look like in practice? One good example, of course, is what happened to the Lord’s original followers. By all accounts, they were certainly confined in small, dark places after the crucifixion. They retreated from the world in their shock and fear, often with a profound sense of guilt. Two of them, we read last Sunday, did venture out toward the village of Emmaus, but they were so overwhelmed with grief and a sense of hopelessness that they didn’t even recognize the risen Christ when he met them on the road. But as Linda Brown pointed out in an excellent homily last Wednesday evening, Jesus turned their situation around. This apparent stranger began opening up the scriptures to them, showing them what God had promised to fulfill in and through Jesus the Messiah. Then the two disciples took a crucial step from the dark, confining spaces of their grief into a much brighter, broader place. Their hearts had so warmed that, when the stranger seemed about to leave them they offered him hospitality saying, “Stay with us, for evening is at hand and the day is past.” The Lord did just that. Then, at supper with him, after he blessed and broke the bread, the disciples recognized him, and their lives were never the same again. His presence in the scriptural Word and in the Supper gave them profound hope. It took them out of their despondency, guilt, and sense of loss; it took them out of themselves so that they could engage with God and others, praising and witnessing and serving and rejoicing. They proclaimed the good news and healed people, even in the face of potentially deadly opposition from the authorities. They cared for each other, even to the point of selling their possessions and distributing the proceeds according to people’s needs. This is definitely a picture of the abundant life Jesus came to give us, and which he offers us today. It is a picture of liberation and empowerment.
It is crucial to remember that this liberation and empowerment did not come easily. The obstacles in the way of our living abundantly were so great that Jesus could overcome them only by suffering, dying, and rising again. The loving care of the Good Shepherd for his flock went even as far as this. In his glorious post-resurrection appearances, his followers began to come to life, but Jesus knew that the road ahead would still be treacherous. He therefore, as one of our Eucharistic prayers says, “sent the Holy Spirit . . . to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” In this way, the Good Shepherd remained to lead his sheep toward abundance, even amid dangers that he himself had faced. Many of our images of the Good Shepherd, such as the beautiful one in our chapel, give no hint of dangers, with Jesus and his sheep walking through a lush and blooming garden, but the 23rd psalm better conveys the point that we still walk through the valley of the shadow of death surrounded by forces that would harm us.
The magnitude of threats to our abundant life in Christ has become clearer to me during the ongoing dialogue between members of our Cathedral parish and members of our neighbor and partner, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Works we have read by Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as my own study of American history, convince me that racism is deep, insidious, and very hard to eradicate. It is one manifestation of our basic human tendency to sin by imagining and acting as though another person is of less worth and dignity than we are. These days we sometimes want to sweep under the carpet how prone we are to go astray because of forces both outside of us and within us, but the Bible attests to this tendency, as does Christian belief in every century.
Today’s baptismal service from the Book of Common Prayer gets to the heart of the matter. Parents and godparents speaking for themselves and for these children acknowledge obstacles to abundant life when they renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God; when they renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God; and when they renounce sinful desires that draw us from the love of God. The Christian faith into which we baptize people is so credible in part because it fully takes into account what we are up against.
However, thanks be to God, there is much more to our story. After renouncing evil, the parents and godparents in our baptismal service acknowledge and put their trust in the power of God, who is Love, and whom we know in Jesus the Christ—a power so strong that it overcomes all threats to abundant life. He is the only one who can turn our darkness into light, our sadness into joy, our death into life. The Resurrection assures us of this power, and mercy, and love, so with confidence we put our trust in him and turn out lives over to the Good Shepherd, promising to follow and obey him.
The outcome won’t always be easy, but it will without doubt be glorious and life-giving. If we pay attention and follow the Lord day by day, he will lead us from the dark places in which we are confined into broad and bright places where we can stand tall, flourishing in loving and eternal communion with God and each other.
“‘Join me in the Resurrection,’ Jesus calls out to us today. ‘Even now, even today . . . .’”