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 20:19-20).
When the prophet Ezekiel was born, around the 620s BC, in Jerusalem, King Josiah had instituted sweeping cultural and religious reforms in order to restore the nation of Israel and keep the commandments of the Law. The city was thriving and the people were enjoying the peace which their king had brought to them. However, the safety did not last long, and Ezekiel saw the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians and he himself died in Babylon. I say this to set some background to Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of the dry bones. Ezekiel wrote down his vision of the valley of the dry bones while in exile, while he yearned to be back in Jerusalem in the presence of God at the temple. In his vision, Ezekiel walks through a valley of scattered bones. He tells the bones, at God’s command, to put themselves back together. Then God puts flesh back on the skeletons and finally, breathes new life into these bodies. It is a striking vision. It is a vision of resurrection, a new body and a new life. But today, in our Easter season, we are looking at a prophecy but a historical account. We no longer hope in a vision, but look towards a person. We do not have a dream but a real body, the presence of Jesus Christ.
The Lord has Risen! The Lord has Risen Indeed!
New bones, new bodies, new life. It is sometimes hard to see how glorious this reality is! Rather, we live in Ezekiel’s frame of mind, in a world of visions and just future expectations. In our day to day lives, it easy to forget the facts in front of us. We might live as pragmatic athiests, letting the resurrection of Jesus and the presence of God have little to do with our day-to day lives, but, the reality is that Jesus has truly been raised from the dead. And it is that reality, that person, in whom we live today. This requires an extraordinary change of mind. No, it is more than that, it requires a change of your entire being to realize this.
This type of change is exactly what happened to the Apostles. In our Gospel reading today, we find the Apostles back in the Upper Room, the same room, probably, that Jesus had washed their feet and led them through his last Seder meal. John tells us, to no surprise, that the Apostles are afraid. Their Messiah has been killed not just by the Jewish leadership in Rome, but they had managed to convince the Romans to kill him. For the Messiah’s followers, this meant certain death if they were also caught. In the Garden of Eden, after God had created man and woman, Adam and Eve hid from the presence of God. In the same place where they had shared his presence, now they hid in fear. The Gospel account now completes this great chiasmus, and Jesus recapitulates the error of our First Parents. The power of death and shame held Adam and Eve in fear, but the presence of the resurrected Jesus brings new life to the Apostles, destroys the power of death and feeling of shame.
The presence of Jesus brought a great change for the disciples. With the breath of the spirit, the disciples now gained true faith in their Lord. The word John uses here to say that Jesus breathes on them is a very rare word–in fact, it is only found in the bible three times. First, in Genesis 2:7, when God breathed life into the nostrils of Adam. Second, it is used in Ezekiel when God breathed life into the new bodies. This action was clearly an action of God, and it signified new life. Jesus’ action, therefore, is significant because it signifies the new creation of life in the Apostles. But it also sets Jesus, again, as God. Not only did God breath new life into Adam, it was emphasized in five books in the OT that only God would pour out his Holy Spirit. Therefore, in the story of John’s Gospel, the Apostles have just been re-created within the presence of God.
Their faith is centered upon his presence. The change of the Apostles is striking for they now look towards a new reality. Death has no hold on them, their fear is gone. Our translation seems to downplay this a bit. Here you have our Resurrected Lord reveal himself to them, show him his wounds, and the KJV says: “they were glad.” Glad?! This is the same word that Jesus uses earlier in John to warn them that he will go away for a while but then return. He says:
“And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” (John 16:22)
This is the victory that they found in Jesus, and it is the same victory that we find today in the Church. We are in the same Church–it was a bit smaller back then, to be precise, the Church was the Twelve Disciples, but even now we share in the same faith.
Our Epistle reading tells us exactly what this faith is:
“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?” (1 John 5:4)
John is clear that our Faith is not some esoteric and confusing teaching. Rather, our faith is based on a person, one who is a historical fact. This faith is just as open to us as it was to the disciples.
The next part is harder render the Greek well here, but it is something more like this: “This very one, He that came, came by water and blood; not by thewater only, but by the water and the blood.” By using the articles here, John takes the water and blood to refer to specific, historical acts–the ones by which Jesus fulfilled his mission.. The first act was his baptism. Matthew tells us (3.15) that Jesus was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. Even more, by Christ’s baptism, Christ fulfilled for all of humanity the condition of regeneration. Now, we are baptized, into HIS humanity. But the water also refers to another act of Jesus, when the soldier at Golgotha pierced the side of Jesus and out poured blood and water. Out of his side poured the two healing elements for all of mankind, water and blood. Scientifically, they confirmed death, but in our reality, the reality of the Church, they are the source of life: the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion.
The blood of Jesus, then, purifies us from all sin. The Author of Hebrews puts it well:
“For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb 9:13-14).
By his blood we are sanctified and each day when we celebrate the Mass we remember His “full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins the whole world.”
I want to include and finish with one other important image in the life of Christ, connected with Holy Communion. When God laid out the plans for the Tabernacle, he first told Moses about what would go inside the holy inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle. Three objects were put inside: the Ark of the covenant, which was the mercy seat, the golden Lampstand or menorah, which was a perpetual lamp for the room, and then the golden table, which was there to hold the Bread of the Presence. This Bread, which could literally be translated as the “Bread of the Face,” meaning that this bread was an earthly and visible sign of the invisible heavenly face of God. It signified the presence of God. According to the book of Leviticus, the priests, the sons of Aaron,
“shall set in in order before the LORD continually on behalf of the sons of Israel as an everlasting covenant” (Lev. 24:5-6).
This bread, therefore, was an everlasting covenant which was perpetually offered, as a sacrifice. In the Mishnah, which is the oral Jewish tradition written down during the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Rabbis said that the 12 loaves of the Bread of Presence had horns on each corner of the bread, signifying a bronze altar of sacrifice in the outer court of the Temple. Even more, during the three main Jewish feasts (Passover, Festival of the Weeks, and Festival of the Tabernacles), the bread would be brought out of the temple so that Jewish pilgrims could see it. The Talmud, a Jewish commentary on the Mishnah, records that the priests used to lift up the Table and exhibit the Bread of the Presence on it to those wh o came up for the festivals, saying to them, ‘Behold, God’s love for you!’ (Babylonian Talmund, Menahoth 29A). This was no ordinary bread! In fact, it makes much more sense why the law in the Book of Exodus says, “Three times a year shall all your males appear before God” or in a more literal translation,
“Three times a year shall all your males see the face of the Lord, the Lord God of Israel.” (Ex 34:23; 23:17).
When Jesus claims at the Last Supper that his body is the bread of the covenant, he is claiming now that it is his body which is the presence of God. It is His presence, his body and blood, which leads his followers to God the Father.
Therefore, when we come before the altar this morning, having been brought into New Life by the waters of our baptisms, we are entering into the Presence of God. As Anglicans who view the whole world sacramentally, who emphasize the presence of Jesus at Mass in the elements of bread and wine, it is sometimes hard to keep a lively faith. For some of us, liturgical repetition leads us through different stages of attentiveness and meaning that makes it hard at some times to “see the point” or understand what is going on. For others, the constant pressure and busyness of our lives distract us so as to never let us mine the depths of the liturgy. But we cannot escape the resurrection.
To the Apostle John, the world in which we live seems almost as a phantasm for he is always looking at, pointing towards the true reality. This spiritual realm is the true, and it is there that our faith resides. According to John, our faith has already gained a victory against the world. We are already living within the new spiritual reality. Do not, however, confuse John’s point. To say that we live in a new spiritual reality does not mean that we denigrate the physical, the created order. The spiritual world that John focuses on is not at odds with the physical, it is at odds with the World. In fact, the Spiritual reality is supremely physical for it came about through the flesh of Jesus Christ at a certain historical point. The Apostles’ lives were changed by their encounter with the presence of Jesus Christ, and you are faced with same encounter. We must strive to enter into that Easter joy, the Easter amazement and shock which the Apostles all shared. In our lives today, we live by faith, and we are blessed by it. As Jesus told Thomas,
“Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed” (Jhn 20:29).