Strangers and Pilgrims
A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter
by Dr. Robert Crouse
"Your sorrow shall be turned into joy." (John 16.20)
The Gospel lessons for the Sundays after Easter are all from St. John's
Gospel. Three of them come from Chapter Sixteen, part of Jesus' discourse
with his disciples at the Last Supper, and have to do with Jesus' departure.
It would seem, therefore, that we ought perhaps to read these lessons in
Holy Week rather than in Eastertide. "Ye shall weep and lament," says Jesus
in today's Gospel. What has that to ' do with Easter, which is surely the
happiest of seasons? surely the happiest of seasons?
"Ye now therefore have sorrow," says our Gospel. But what sorrow can there
be in Easter? There is sorrow, certainly, in the crucifixion of Jesus; there
is sorrow in Good Friday. And that is a very natural, a very understandable
sorrow. A tragedy, it seemed. But we manage somehow to cope with tragedy.
In one form or another, it belongs to our human experience, and however
bitter it may be, we learn to accept it. It was a terrible disappointment
to the followers of Jesus, but they knew what to do about it. They buried
him, in a sepulchre, and mourned their loss. They could never forget the
disaster, of course, but somehow, things would return to normal, and life
would go on. That seems to have been the limit of their expectation, and
that seems perfectly natural, doesn't it?
Come ye sad and fearful hearted
With glad smile and radiant brow;
Lent's long shadows have departed,
All his woes are over now.
And the passion that he bore
Sin and death can vex no more.
(from hymn by C.F. Alexander)
But the resurrection changed all that. Can you imagine the sheer bewilderment
and consternation of Easter Day, and those appearances of the risen Christ?
No wonder Thomas doubted! Can you imagine the state of mind of the disciples
during those fifty days from Easter to Pentecost? Charles Williams, the
great British novelist and poet, wrote a play about this called "Terror
of Light." In it Peter says, "I do not see his meaning in all this waiting
and watching," and Thomas replies: "I do not see his meaning in anything
at all, and the longer we wait the less I see his meaning. I am quite sure
that our Lord was incredibly important, and I haven't the least idea what
we ought to do about it. . ." "Behold, the former things have passed away."
Peter and Thomas express bewilderment and dismay, but the meaning was
there in the words of Jesus: "A woman, when she is in travail, hath sorrow,
because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered, she remembereth
no more the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world." All
this bewilderment, all this perplexity, all this anguish, he tells us,
is nothing but the birth-pangs of new life. It is not the dumb pain of
mourning. It is the pain of struggle and transformation, the breaking of
the preparatory state of our old nature, which involves our old attitudes
and expectations. It is the birth-pangs of new life in the spirit, the new
life of faith, which dares to believe what it has not yet seen. "Behold,
I make all things new." (Revelation 21.5)
The joy of Easter is the joy of faith, which sees beyond circumstances,
beyond the natural and inevitable. This joy sees beyond the grave, and
rejoices in hope and love and makes all things new. And that joy, "no man
taketh from you."
That transformation to new life, that passing over through sorrow to
joy, is the meaning of our life as Christians. We wayfarers "strangers
and pilgrims," says St. Peter are not without sorrow. We are not without
bewilderment and perplexity as new life takes form within us. St. Paul says:
But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with
patience. Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know
how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with
sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what
is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints
according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for
good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.
Bewilderment and perplexity, the pains of travail, are not loss, but gain.
They pertain to our salvation. "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy."
Archdeacon Mark Frank, a great seventeenth-century preacher, puts it
The sum of all is this that though it sometimes falls out
to us that we lose Christ, or cannot find him for a while, and so fall
into perplexities and fears, and go up and down dejected, with downcast
looks; yet if we so seek him with a solicitous love, a reverent fear, and
humble diligence, we shall meet angels after a while, to comfort us and
bring us news of our beloved Lord, and find him risen or rising in us ere
we are aware. And the close of all will be our duty ... to make ourselves
sensible of the perplexed and sad state of those that are without Christ,
who have lost him in the grave, or know not where he is, or how to find
him; and thereupon, to set ourselves to seek him that we may be sure at
last to hear of him, and be made partakers of his resurrection."