(Modified 2021-04-25: Added recorded audio.)
St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, April 25, 2021 , Third Sunday after Easter
Revd.Canon Claude Schroeder
So today is the Third Sunday after Easter, and we are at the half way point in the season of Easter. Aside from Trinity season, the 50 days of Easter comprise the longest season on our calendar, and with good reason, given the centrality of the Resurrection for our faith. As St. Paul wrote, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15.19) But if Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that changes everything, and there is more going in the world and in our lives than meets the eye.
I was standing in the chancel on Tuesday after Morning Prayer this week, beholding the sunlight shining through and illuminating the Resurrection window here at St. Mary’s, which is tucked off in the corner to the right of the altar. Facing the Resurrection window on the opposite side tucked in the corner to the left of the altar is the Annunciation window. It made me wonder, “What were they thinking?” Here we have the two central mysteries of our faith, the Incarnation and Resurrection of the Son of God represented in places where nobody hardly gets to seem them, unless you steal a glance when you come up for communion. How strange! But then it hit me. This is exactly right, because both the Annunciation and the Resurrection were events that took place in secret, hidden from public view. Nobody saw what happened, and yet there were witnesses, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Apostles, who testified to these mighty acts of God.
The scene depicted in the Resurrection window is from St. Mark’s Gospel where we have the women coming to the tomb on Easter Sunday to anoint the body of Jesus, only to find the stone had been rolled away, the tomb is empty, and the body gone. And the words of the angel whom they met, are the top of the window, “He is not here, He is risen.” In and of itself, the empty tomb proves nothing. But it is for a sign, one of many, which speaks to us of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The stone was not rolled away to let Jesus out, but rather to let the women come in and make their earth-shattering discovery.
C.S. Lewis, who many of us will know through his children’s stories, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” had been raised as a Christian by his parents. But while he was still a child, his mother died, and he was sent away to boarding school, during which time he started to read the Bible for himself, but it really didn’t take. Instead be became enamored with Greek, Norse, and Irish mythology and literature. In 1917 on his 19th birthday he arrived in the Somme Valley in France and experienced trench warfare for the first time, was wounded, witnessed the death his friends, and came back to England with PTSD. Later Lewis would write that it was the experience of the death of his mother, his loneliness at school, and the horror of war that formed the basis of his pessimism and his atheism. He wrote, “I was very angry with God for not existing, and equally angry with Him for making the world.” And so during his 20s, his university years, C.S. Lewis lived as an atheist, and regarded religion, as he put it, as “a kind of nonsense in which humanity tends to blunder.” Christianity, in other words, is a big mistake.
I bet you know somebody, perhaps one of your adult children, who thinks this. But don’t despair, and keep praying for them, because look what happened to C.S. Lewis! It wasn’t until he was 32 and well settled in his professional career that he began to pray and live, and speak, and love, and hope as a Christian, and would later become a world renowned lay theologian, who wrote more than 30 books translated into 30 languages, selling millions of copies all around the world.
What a miracle! How did it happen? And as often happens, C.S. Lewis had a Christian friend who helped him along the road to faith. Nobody becomes a Christian without having good friends like this. Pray for your children to find a Christian friend. Lewis’s friend was a fellow by the name of J.R.R. Tolkien, whom we know through The Lord of the Rings stories.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic who taught with Lewis at the University of Oxford during the 1930s. Today you can go to Oxford and visit the pub, “The Eagle and Child “and sit at the table where Lewis and Tolkien met regularly for a pint of beer and conversation. If you never make it to Jerusalem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where you can walk into the empty tomb where the body of Jesus Christ was buried, “The Eagle and Child” pub in Oxford is probably the next best thing, because it’s only because of the Resurrection that we have “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings” to read to the children.
Here is the thing about Tolkien: he didn’t quote Bible verses to Lewis, and argue with him about religion. Instead, Tolkien took a more philosophical and literary approach which had to do with the relationship between myth on the one hand and reality on the other. Although now a Professor of Literature at Oxford who taught courses in mythology, as far as Lewis was concerned, myths were primitive attempts by means of story to explain something which people did not have any answers, and as such were fundamentally untrue. This is what people mean when they say, “That’s nothing more than a myth!” Think about all the myths floating around with respect to COVID, although sometimes it is not easy to tell what is a myth and what isn’t…
What Tolkien tried to get Lewis to see is that myths are not lies, but reflections of the character of reality. They are descriptions of the way things are, which could not be described in any other way. So, for example in Greek mythology we have the story of Narcissus, who was an impossibly handsome young man fell in love with a reflection of himself in the waters of a spring, and spent the rest of his life pining away at the spring looking at the image of himself until he finally died of starvation. But his corpse was transformed into a beautiful flower which we call “Narcissus.” This is also where get the word narcissist from, which refers to someone who is self-absorbed and self-obsessed and incapable of loving God or their neighbor.
Is the story of narcissus historically true? That’s to ask the wrong question. You need to ask, “Does this story describe something real?” The answer is clearly “yes.” We meet people who are narcissists all the time.
Tolkien, once said, “If God, is mythopoetic, then we too must become mythopoetic,” which is to say that reality is something that can only be described by means of poetry and myth, because that’s the way things are.
It was the acceptance of this that led to C.S. Lewis becoming a Christian. He would later write, “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens–at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact, it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other…We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology.”
The mythical radiance resting on our theology! This is exactly what is on display when we come to St. Mary’s on a Sunday morning. You see in the windows. You hear it in the Scriptures, the hymns, and in the liturgy. You eat and drink it in the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.
All of which is to say when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and somebody accuses you of believing “a myth,” you can say, “Absolutely. Of course, it’s a myth! But it’s a myth that has become a fact, and accurately describes the way things are in a way that could not be described any other way.
Which is brings to today’s readings. What have we got here?
In our reading from Acts we are in the historical aftermath where Peter and John have been hauled before the religious establishment in Jerusalem on account of the fact that they healed a lame man and have been preaching the resurrection of Jesus. Is what Luke is telling us here, actually happen? Bet your boots it did! What Luke is telling us here is not a myth, it’s not a story that he made up. He is giving us the facts. Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4. 8-11)
Once again, in this sermon Peter is simply stating the facts of the case. But having stated the facts, Peter then turns to the poetic, the mythic, when he says, ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the chief cornerstone.” The fact and the myth belong together.
In our Gospel lesson today, we have Jesus telling us this story about a flock of sheep grazing happily in the pasture. Everything is as it should be, but then all of sudden, trouble. A wolf shows up, and the hired hand who was supposed to look after the sheep, takes off to save his life. And we all know what that means. It’s lamb chops for supper! But all is not lost, because the shepherd, whose sheep they are, arrives on the scene. He is the Good Shepherd, who cares about the sheep and knows them each by name. But then the story takes a strange turn, because instead of fighting off the wolf, the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He says to the wolf, “Leave the sheep alone. Take me instead…”
What kind of a story is this?
It’s a kind of myth, a myth that describes for us something of what actually happened in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the Cross, Jesus laid down his life for us, and in the resurrection, He took it up again, and lifts us up on his shoulders and carries us home to the Father. And so we understand by means of the story, what the power of the Resurrection is. It is the power of self-emptying, self-giving love.
Now, what about you? What about me? If in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ, who is the only begotten Son of the Father, comes down from heaven, suffers, dies, descends into hell, and rises on the third day, in order to fill all things and to unite all things in heaven and earth in Himself, how are we to describe the reality of the presence and power of the Risen Lord in our lives?
We have that lovely icon on our bulletin this morning of Christ the Good Shepherd, carrying on his shoulders one of his lost sheep, that is you, and that is me. How shall we put this experience into words?
“If God is mythopoetic, then we too must become mythopoetic.”
I think we might say something like,
THE LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He shall feed me in a green pasture, and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort. He shall restore my soul, /and bring me forth in the paths of righteousness, for his Name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; / for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. THOU shalt prepare a table before me in the presence of them that trouble me; / thou hast anointed my head with oil, and my cup shall be full. Surely thy loving-kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; / and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23) Amen.