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A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Easter
by Dr. Robert Crouse 

“Ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”




In the cycle of the Christian Year, in the ancient lectionary – that cycle of Epistle and Gospel lessons which has served the church for well over a millennium and still survives in our Book of Common Prayer – the essential message of Holy Scripture, God’s word to us, is set before us in an orderly and supremely logical way.  As we follow the lessons appointed for the Sundays and the great festivals, as we meditate upon them, as we open our minds and hearts to understand the pattern and meaning of them, we are led, step by step, into an ever deeper and clearer perception of Christian truth and the essentials of Christian life.  What is involved in this is no arbitrary scheme for Bible reading, but a spiritual system, a design for sanctification, a coherent programme of practical spirituality.


Thus, our scripture lessons for these Sundays after Easter speak to us not only about our Saviour’s resurrection, but also about the character of our own risen life in him.  The Gospel lessons for the last three Sundays after Easter are all taken from St. John’s Gospel – from Jesus’ discourse with his disciples at the Last Supper, one of the most beautiful and beloved passages of scripture, and full of the deepest theological significance.  The three portions appointed for the Gospel lessons form a series.  In today’s lesson, Jesus warns his disciples about his departure from them, and about the anguish that will involve.  But there will be a purpose in that suffering, he tells them; it will be like the pains of travail, it will be the birth-pangs of a new form of life.  “Ye now therefore have sorrow,” he says, “but your sorrow will be turned into joy.”


In next Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus explains more precisely what that new form of life will be. “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you;  but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”  That is to say, the removal of the visible, bodily presence of God in Christ, his departure through death, resurrection and ascension, would be the beginning of a new inner and spiritual relation to God.


And then, the Gospel lesson for the fifth Sunday speaks more fully of that inner spiritual relation to God in the life of prayer.  “The time cometh when I shall no more speak unto you in parables, but I shall show you plainly of the Father.”  That is to say, no longer will it be a matter of knowing God by external things, by the visible, earthly presence of Jesus:  God, who is Spirit, will be spiritually known and loved.  This, these three lessons set before us the essential meaning of the Easter season:  suffering and resurrection, death and rebirth; they speak of transformation, an elevation from worldliness to new life in the Spirit.  And thus they prepare us to understand the meaning of Ascension and Pentecost.


That is the general pattern and argument of these lessons.  But today we must concern ourselves more particularly with the details of today’s lesson.  “Ye shall be sorrowful,”  says Jesus, “but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”  Think for a moment about the context of these words, at the Last Supper.  It was an occasion of high tragedy:  the powers of darkness were fast closing in; Judas had already gone out to betray him. “And it was night.”  All that remained was to prepare the faithful band for the terrors of the morrow.  “Ye now therefore have sorrow.” Sorrow indeed. Not only the sadness of a final farewell of friends; but the hopeless sorrow of the death of every hope and every good expectation. “We trusted that it had been he who should have redeemed Israel.”  Not just a discouraging incident, not just a great disappointment, but the end of all hope:  the very sun would be darkened, and the foundations of the earth would quake.


In that context, the words of Jesus must have seemed very strange indeed: “What is this that he saith, a little while?  We cannot tell what he saith.” What is this talk of departure and return, of sorrow being turned into joy?  “We cannot tell what he saith.”  Jesus spoke of his going to the Father:  “Now I go my way to him that sent me, and none of you asketh me Whither goest thou?  But because I have said these things unto you, sorrow hath filled your heart.  Nevertheless, I tell you the truth;  it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you;  but if I depart, I will send him unto you.”


They would have sorrow, he told them:  but it would not be a barren, empty sorrow.  “A woman, when she is in travail, hath sorrow, because her hour is come:  but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.”  Sorrow with a purpose:  No new life without suffering, says Jesus.  And so it must be with the disciples.  Only when their limited hopes and ambitions were shattered in the darkness of doubt and despair would they give birth to the new life of faith.  Only when they had learned the radical insufficiency of their old nature could they find their true sufficiency in the enabling divine Spirit, the Comforter.  Only then would they learn to know God as Spirit.  “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.”  That shattering, that sorrow, would be the pre-condition of true joy.


Thus Jesus explained his departure, and foretold their sorrow.  But to explain sorrow is not in any measure to mitigate the reality of the experience when it comes.  If the explanation is remembered at all, it seems rather cold comfort.  So it was with the disciples.  The death and resurrection of Jesus was not for them an immediate occasion of joy, but of fear.  They did not – could not – see the point of it all.  They were afraid.  They could not even find his body.  They ran away and hid.  But, as Jesus had promised, their sorrow, this fear, this bewilderment, this shattering of natural hopes and natural sufficiency was not pointless.  It was only through all this that the disciples were able to know the risen Christ, and to receive a new sufficiency of knowledge and action in the presence of God’s Spirit.  “He will lead you into all truth.”  “He will show you things to come.”  All the sorrow was as pains of travail – our of it came new life, a new kingdom of the Spirit, a new world.


What was true for those first disciples is true also for all who would be Christians.  We who would be risen with Christ must heed his admonition:  No new life without the pains of travail.  “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” and that is not just an unfortunate accident:  it is part of our dying with Christ.  It is only thus that our salvation is worked out – “like as silver, which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire.”  Only in that refinement is he Spirit’s gift realised in us.  In the perspective of God’s providence, in the pattern of salvation, sorrow and fear and doubt are not just unfortunate accidents;  they are elements in God’s fitting us for glory. Christ’s wounds are the signs of his glory, and so must ours be.


This liturgy we celebrate this morning is our constant reminder that the signs of body broken and blood shed are the signs of the Risen Lord, and new life in the Spirit.  “Be of good cheer,”  says Jesus, “I have overcome the world.”  “Your sorrow will be turned into joy.”