By Bill Carroll
In this season of resurrection, we are reminded again and again of this new birth and this living hope. For Christ has been raised from the dead, trampling down death by death and giving life to those in the tomb. And we, having become his People by water and the Holy Spirit, are called to live in the power of his risen life. We are called to live as if death were not.
True, we see the work of death all around us. We Christians are realistic enough to know the power of sin and death in our lives. All we have to do is watch the news or reflect quietly on our own experience. We know limitation, scarcity, and fear. We know that ultimate limit–death–and it haunts our every step. And sometimes, truth be told, we allow our limits to define us. We settle for something less than the fullness of Christ and his death-defying love.
But we are called to something different. We are called to a living hope. Hope which trusts in what our eyes can’t see. Hope which expects great things–new things–from God, rather than more of the same, day after day. Hope opens up new horizons for us–new possibilities in Christ–possibilities that are not merely latent in the past, but grounded in the sovereign freedom of our God.
True hope is the gift of the Holy Spirit. In the Scriptures, it is closely allied with faith and love, which are infused by grace rather than acquired by effort. We can exercise these gifts and open ourselves to the Spirit’s work, but ultimately they are just that, the gift and work of God within us, rather than our achievement. Peter alludes to baptism, the sacrament of new birth. There’s something to that metaphor–birth is something that happens to us, not that we do for ourselves.
But–and this is an important “but”–(as Kathryn Tanner and Karl Rahner, among others, have pointed out) our absolute passivity before God does not imply a passive existence in the world. Hope changes things. God is not like an especially powerful creature, but is the ground of our very being. When we come to new birth in Christ–when we stop presenting an obstacle to God’s mercy in our lives–we grow in our freedom. The more radically we depend on God, the more fully we become ourselves.
In the Gospel appointed for the Second Sunday of Easter, we see the disciples huddled away for fear. There they are, locked in the Upper Room. Even though they have heard the Good News from Mary Magdalene, they have not yet seen Jesus for themselves. For them, his death still limits their horizons. It confirms the way of all flesh–the ultimate power of fear and despair. His cross remains a sign of bitter defeat.
Then, Jesus himself appears among them–ALIVE–showing them his wounded hands and side. Peace, he says, and their fear turns to great joy. His death becomes for them the gateway to eternal life, and his cross a sign of victory. Then, Jesus commissions them for missionary service, conferring upon them a share in his own authority to forgive or retain sins. Receive the Holy Spirit, he says, As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
This passage has often been called the Johannine Pentecost. In John, the dying and rising of the Lord sets loose the Holy Spirit, who empowers the Church to participate in Christ’s own mission of mercy. In the Upper Room, Christ comes to us through locked doors and commissions us to share in his work of forgiveness and love.
We do so by preaching the Gospel, celebrating the sacraments, and serving others in his Name. We do so whenever we put forgiveness into practice, beginning with those nearest to us. If we are sent by Christ, just as he is sent by the Father, we share in his ministry, centered as it is on the forgiveness of sins. This is about letting each other go. It is about setting each other free from the burden of the past, so that we might keep watch and work, expecting great things from God.
The wounds of Christ, which he shows first to all the disciples, then later to Thomas, remind us that forgiveness is costly. His scars, which others might use as an excuse for vengeance, instead identify him as God’s suffering servant–God’s Paschal Lamb, in whose mercy lies our hope and by whose love God casts out fear.
For the Spirit of new birth impels us beyond the Upper Room, with its locked doors and false promises of safety. The resurrection is not about safety–but new life in God. It’s about our participation in the risky venture of Incarnation. It’s about the victory of Christ’s mercy–both in our lives and in all the lives we touch.
For we have been born again to a living hope by his resurrection from the dead.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.