The First Sunday after Easter


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Almighty father, who has given thine only son to die for our sins…
1 John 5:4-12
John 20:19-23

One of the problems with the Bible for contemporary readers is our culture’s concern for chronology. Our historical practice is concerned with accurate dating and our near addiction to news prompts us to want to know not just what happened but when. Many news stories of corruption are not so much concerned with who did what but when the Prime Minister or President knew about it; leaders may not have done anything but they might have been involved in a cover-up. John, whose Gospel is deeply concerned with the development of Trinitarian Theology, is reasonably specific in Chapter 14 (cf Whitsunday) that after Jesus ascends into heaven He will send ‘down’ the Holy Spirit but here Jesus is breathing the Holy Spirit into his Disciples before He ascends. There is no specific reason why the Trinitarian completion should take place after the Ascension but we simply have to adjust to a rather more fluid and unfamiliar economy.

Fluidity is also important in the way we understand 1 John. Whether or not the two works were written by the same author (cf St. John the Evangelist), their concerns are very similar. Yet again, however, we need to be cautious. John cites three marks of Jesus: water (cf Chapter 5), blood and the Spirit. Just because these are placed next to the ‘Persons’ of the Trinity does not mean that we can draw an automatic correspondence: the Spirit corresponds in both triads and it is easy to correspond blood with the Son but the link between the Creator and the Water of Life is pleasing but not specific. In John 5:1-30 Jesus says to the Samaritan woman that she will only attain everlasting life if she receives the “water of life” which He will give her and we know that He is the intermediate between the Creator and the created (John 14:6) so the correspondence makes sense, even if it is not specified.

There is, too, a rather strange apparent anomaly in the Collect which describes the death of Jesus for our sins but the Resurrection as our means of justification (as opposed to the customary formulation classically expressed in Romans 3:24 that our justification was brought about by redemption through the Cross) but as the Cross and Resurrection are integral this inconsistency is hardly significant. The Collect is on surer ground when it mentions the leaven of malice and our need to lead pure lives which signal the resumption of post Easter business as usual. The post Resurrection accounts are necessarily concerned with the forgiveness of sins because the event itself had radically altered the terms of trade. Before His Death and Resurrection Jesus might have proclaimed his power and that delegated to His Disciples to forgive as late as the Last Supper (cf Matthew 26:28) but the power looked altogether more plausible three days later. The other reason for concern with this issue was that until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD the Jews had a recognised and detailed system of atonement but Christianity before the destruction and Judaism after it had to work out a new formulation. On one point 1 John is classically Jewish in a way that we should note carefully and seek to follow: when it talks about sin, the primary sin is the denial of the Godhead of Jesus; it is the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament sin of blasphemy. We should never forget that in the two classical statements of the law we are to follow (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:1-21) offences against the Godhead take precedence over offences against our neighbour, yet in most contemporary Christian formulations of what it means to be faithful, offences against people seem to take priority over offences against God. Atheists, after all, can be profoundly ethical but only a belief in God would make them Christian. It is a mistake to think that to be a Christian fundamentally means to be ethical; that follows from our faith.

As we have noted elsewhere, there is a tendency for the early writers to veer towards dualism (cf Tuesday in Easter) but 1 John is, above all, concerned with the earth as the perpetrator of persecution. Gone are the days when Paul (Romans 13:1-7) (cf Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany) could urge Christian adherence to the Roman secular state. The severity of persecution which lead Revelation to characterise Rome as Babylon (cf Revelation 17; 18) forced a temporary change of what it meant to render to Caesar. This is a point we ought to bear in mind. There has been a tendency in Western Christianity to develop theories of Church and State (cf Fourth Sunday after The Epiphany) but our adherence might better depend on a practical assessment of what the state does which would entitle us to make our adherence conditional. There have already been instances early in the 21st Century where the UK state has shown signs of legislating to impose modes of conduct which go against the consciences of some Christians. The right course is to commit open civil disobedience and take the consequences but most of us would find that very hard. It is not enough to be familiar with the principle: much of the secular state wants to sanitise religion so that it is simply a segment of the charitable sector, prepared to fulfil public policy on the cheap. We should be clear that there is a price to pay for our co-operation and that price is freedom from persecution by legislative means. Jesus was preparing his Disciples for a hostile world not very different from ours.

Starting Points for Sermons or Discussions:

  1. How important is New Testament Chronology to theology?
  2. How strong is the link between water, blood and the Spirit and the ‘persons’ of the Trinity?
  3. How serious are we about the power of the Church to forgive our sins?
  4. Describe a principled relationship between Church and State
  5. Do we live in a world hostile to Christianity?

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