“Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God… And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life.” I John 5
The Epistle for this Sunday establishes the fact that Christians are those who have been born again, born of God and thus Christians have God as their Father and they have already entered into eternal life; that is, born again Christians, because they have God as their Father, participate in the life of God which is the only eternal life there is. But how is it that our flesh and blood can participate in the eternal life of God? The Gospel for this Sunday is the well known story of the evening of the resurrection of our Lord. Easter Sunday begins with the morning of the resurrection while the First Sunday after Easter begins with the evening of the resurrection. The narratives of Easter tell the story of Mary Magdalene searching for Jesus’ crucified body and discovering instead Jesus Christ resurrected, glorified on the doorstep of the tomb in broad daylight. The narrative for this Sunday tells the story of Jesus coming to his disciples who had gathered in a lighted room, probably the very room in which he had instituted the Holy Communion. Outside the room the dark night surrounded Jerusalem. But Christ, who is the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, stood in their midst, his dazzling body bearing those dear tokens of his passion; he lit up their hearts. Not only did they believe in his resurrection, but he gave them the very commission that his Father had given him before the world was which he verified, confirmed, and authenticated by ordaining them with the apostolic power of absolution:
“And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.” John 22: 22-23
That is a lot to take in and so this Sunday I want to put to you a principle, an axiom that will help you understand how God’s will for humanity and God’s Word to humanity advance in time; that is how God’s will and God’s Word develops in history. The principle I want you to get, the axiom that I want you to take hold of is one you have heard touched upon in sermons before and it is this: “Grace perfects nature without destroying nature.”
God does not discard creation — he retains it, appropriates it, he assumes and widens it into a higher state of being, thus perfecting it. But I want to take this a step further: Not only does grace perfect nature without destroying nature, but in God’s real world, grace requires nature. So what that means is that grace is not something added onto nature like you would add a second story to your home, but rather grace is the thing that completes and perfects nature.
But what is grace? When I was growing up we were taught that grace is unmerited favor; the free and undeserved help that God gave us in order that we might respond to his call be to his children. Though that is partially correct, I want to give you another definition of grace from a slightly different angle and that is grace as a state of being: Grace is participation in the life of God. To be in a state of grace is to be participating in the life of the God who is God which is equivalent to participating in eternal life. How does that happen? The way we normally begin to participate in the life of God is though our incorporation into the human nature of Jesus Christ. That is what the Fathers meant when they said, “God became man in order that man might become god.” How does that happen? How are we incorporated into the human nature of Jesus Christ? The way we are normally incorporated into the human nature of Jesus Christ is through Holy Baptism and once incorporated we are nurtured in the Church as we appropriate the other sacraments especially the Holy Communion. The sacraments are instruments that infuse and nurture a state of grace. So when I say that, “Grace perfects nature without destroying nature” I mean that our participation in the life of God perfects our human nature; it does not make us something other, either more or less, than human beings. It enables us to achieve our full potential as human beings.
Of first importance is to realize that God does not discard creation. It is the way of the world to discard one thing for another, to abandon the old for the new; the world seems to wear out and it is replaced. It may seem right, even natural, to us at first; it seems fitting to cast much of nature on the scrap pile in order to rebuild. That is a prime example of the world’s way of thinking is a prime example of what the children of God overcome by faith which is what the epistle for this Sunday acknowledges. It is the way of the world to think and live according to the principle of destruction but that is not God’s way of doing things.
Let me give you some examples of how this principle works in various ways. This is an example I have used many times in the past: St. Paul was originally an enemy of Jesus Christ and his narrative once was the story of a man named Saul whose life was driven by his love for Israel, his love for the Law and his enmity toward Christ. It was Saul’s judgment that Christ and his followers were in the most dangerous way very much out of touch with reality specifically because they were out of touch with the reality of the Law. Within Saul’s horizon his devotion to the destruction of Christ and his Church was noble and righteous because he believed that Christ and his Church were leading the people of God to destruction. Then Paul was converted to Jesus the Messiah and that changed everything — but not in the way that the world would have expected. Paul did not merely switch allegiances, he entered a state of grace, a state of participation in the very life of the God who is God. He did not reassign Israel to a scrapheap and his deep, personal love for Israel only grew deeper, wider, higher and complete as he yearned and prayed for his kinsmen’s conversion to Jesus the Messiah. My point is that Paul’s former Jewish horizon was not discarded, but in a state of grace, participating in the life of the God who is God, Paul Jewish horizon was assumed, enlarged, transformed, and perfected. He did not hate Israel nor did he hate the Law, rather he came to see and to declare that Israel had not been cast away by God, but rather Israel has been assumed, enlarged, transformed and perfected first through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection and since Pentecost Israel has been assumed, enlarged, transformed and perfected in Holy Mother Church. Supersessionism is in error because it takes the position that Israel has been replaced and thus discarded for the Church which is a failure to see that grace perfects nature rather than annihilating nature.
Let me give you another example from last week — the tableau of the angels setting on the stone slab where the body of Jesus had lain wrapped in the bloody shroud provided by Thomas and Nicodemus. I pointed out to you that that was a living icon presented by John in order to communicate to the Church that in Jesus the intentions of the sacrifices summed up in the Mercy Seat were assumed, enlarged, transformed and perfected in this scene. The Mercy Seat of Moses is perfected, and by perfected I mean it had achieved it perfect end, God’s finality, in the Mercy Seat Mary found the first Easter morning. The Mercy Seat of Moses is not set aside or thrown onto the scrap heap of history. It is the way of the world to destroy and caste away. God continues to retain, to assume, to enlarge, to transform, and to perfect his works. It may even be the case that St. John’s vision of the Ark of the Covenant in Heaven as recorded in Revelation 11:19 carries forward this very point that God retains but transforms without destroying and in such a way that the thing achieves its finality and frequently that perfect end is achieved in a way we could not have guessed. And so the Mercy Seat that Mary discovered, retained, assumed, enlarged, transformed, and perfected the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament, while at the same time the Mercy Seat that Mary discovered is itself assumed, enlarged, transformed, and perfected in yet another Mercy Seat. On the night in which he was betrayed Jesus said:
“For this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”
Specifically the final Mercy Seat which assumes and transforms the Mercy Seat of the Old Testament, and assumes the Mercy Seat of Calvary is the Altar of God where the Holy Communion is celebrated daily and will continue to be celebrated till he returns. One final example of how grace perfects nature without destroying nature:
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.” John 22: 19-20
The narrative for this Sunday tells the story of Jesus coming to his disciples who had gathered in a lighted room, behind closed doors because they feared what the Jewish authorities would do next. Outside the room the dark night surrounded Jerusalem. But Christ, who is the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, stood in their midst, his body bearing those dear tokens of his passion. In other words the Jesus that appeared to his disciple when the first Easter Day came to an end was the same Jesus in the same body that was nailed to the Cross of Calvary. As I said at the beginning today to really grasp the analogy of faith requires of us to take it a step further: Not only does grace perfect nature without destroying nature, but in God’s real world, grace requires nature. The human body of Jesus has been changed and it has taken on qualities that are entirely new for human beings. When the text indicates that suddenly “came Jesus and stood in the midst” that means that our time-honored, customary way of getting into a room, by walking through the front door, will become obsolete. Furthermore, Jesus’s body was recognized by everyone in that room to be Jesus’ body and not someone else’s body which mean that in the resurrection though our bodies will emerge transformed as creatures of beauty, agility and unimagined powers, we and others will still recognize us for who we are as well as who we have become in a state of grace. As a winged Monarch Butterfly emerges from the state of being a worm, the fact of the matter is that the worm was made, the worm was fitted to become a Monarch. In other words it was the nature of the worm to end up with splendid wings and to float into the clouds.
Now one last thing: I do not understand why God works this way. I do not understand why he loves this clunky, fleshy, material stuff and I do not understand why it takes what seems to me an inordinate long time to get from one thing to the other. Why go through all this stuff and all this time to get to where God wants to take his creation? Why do we have to go through all the Old Testament narratives to get to the New Testament? Why not just get on with the Incarnation and get it all done rather than to have one narrative after another opening up new narratives that in their turn open up new narratives? I do not know. But I do know we have a tendency to blame everything we do not understand as well as things we find formidable, wearisome and onerous — have a tendency to blame it on the Fall. But I do not think that the time required for matter to reach perfection is a result of sin because time itself, marked by such phrases as “the first day,” was part of God’s work and clearly maturation over time was part of the story world of Genesis before the Fall. And that is enough for today.