Saturday, March 30, 2024

Hope Fulfilled


A Sermon preached on 30 March 2024, Great Vigil of Easter, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

In keeping with the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and one I’ve sort of established here, I am going to read the Easter sermon of St. John Chrysostom, written over 1,600 years ago. It may be old, but it has not lost its relevance and power. John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 14 September 407) was an important Early Church Father who served as archbishop of Constantinople. He is known for his preaching and public speaking, his denunciation of abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders, and his Divine Liturgy – an order of service still used in churches of the Eastern tradition today. Chrysostomos means "golden-mouthed" and denotes his celebrated eloquence.

It is a beautiful, poetic sermon full of allusions and references to Scripture, especially the parable of the workers in the vineyard from Matthew’s Gospel (20: 1–16) and to Isaiah’s image of the heavenly banquet of “a feast of rich food for all peoples” when the Lord Almighty will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” (Isaiah 25:6-9) which is being fulfilled this night. But we also hear references to the prodigal son, to Paul’s letters and the Revelation visions. What John Chrysostom tells us is that in Jesus the whole story of salvation has been, is being, and will be fulfilled. In his Easter message, the ABC Justin Welby writes: “Christians live the realism of knowing that human ambitions, time and again, run into sand, and yet at the same time they also share profoundly the vision of hope Christ’s triumph over death brings to all people.” John’s sermon encapsulates that vision of hope that motivates us live in this world as if it is the one to come: To welcome everyone. To feed everyone. To comfort everyone. To strive for peace at all times. To forgive and be forgiven. To have no fear, for “forgiveness has risen from the grave” and death and hell have been conquered! We just need to live that way!

Here is the Easter sermon of John Chrysostom, first preached around 400 AD.

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?

Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?

Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,

let them receive their due reward;

If any have come after the third hour,

let him with gratitude join in the Feast!

And he that arrived after the sixth hour,

let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.

And if any delayed until the ninth hour,

let him not hesitate; but let him come too.

And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,

let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.

He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,

as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.

He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.

The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;

rich and poor, rejoice together!

Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,

rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.

Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.

Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,

for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;

for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.

He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.

He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,

"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.

It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.

It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.

It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?

O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!

Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!

Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!

Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;

for Christ having risen from the dead,

is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever.



Focus on the Cross


A Sermon preached on Good Friday 29 March 2024 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden

Isaiah 52:13—53:12, Hebrews 10:16-25, John 18:1-19:37

During Lent we offer a weekly Stations of the Cross devotional service here at the church, and this year in addition, Stefan and Sarah have been offering an online version instead of Compline. Many churches make this devotion part of a three-hour service on Good Friday. The Stations or Way of the Cross developed as an imitation of the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the traditional processional route symbolizing the path Jesus walked to Mount Calvary. During our own pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some years ago, one of the most powerful experiences was walking that Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, even carrying a – very light – version of the cross for some of the way.

The traditional stations are made up of 14 pictures or sculptures beginning with    Jesus being condemned to death and ending with him being laid in the tomb. They cover those final steps in Jesus’ earthly life that we heard and read as part of today’s Passion Gospel reading. They’re not entirely biblical, only eight have a clear scriptural foundation. At each station we contemplate that scene, we hear a passage relating that scene to the wider context of the story of salvation, and say a prayer that we might learn and grow through our reflection. In our tradition, as we move from station to station, we sing the Trisagion: Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

Holy, mighty, immortal, God, yet dying on the cross? That is the great mystery of this day, Good Friday. The Stations focus on death and suffering, on Jesus’ suffering, his mother’s suffering, his friends’ suffering, as well as on guilt, our guilt, on sorrow, and shame.

Some people find this difficult and challenging, and so more recently some churches have added a 15th station, the Resurrection of Jesus, so we don’t forget the happy end. Others prefer new forms such as the Via Lucis ("Way of Light"), which starts with Jesus rising from the dead and ends with Pentecost. I don’t think that is necessary or even wise. The Stations are meant to focus on the atoning death of Jesus, and are not supposed to be a complete picture of his life, death, and resurrection. When we pray at the beginning of the service “that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality,” the Cross is not the sole, but certainly a key component in that gift of life and immortality.

Unlike some Protestant denominations, Good Friday is not our highest holiday, the Feast of the Resurrection that we celebrate tomorrow night, and on Sunday morning is. But there can be no resurrection without the Cross. It’s not that we want to dwell in suffering, or even glorify it, but that the Cross and a devotion that focuses on it reminds ourselves that it is part of our reality. There always seems to be a Good Friday somewhere: on the battlefields of Ukraine, in Gaza, in that concert hall in Moscow.  

When we focus on the Cross, we focus on how Jesus willingly sacrificed himself and how he shared fully in humanity’s condition, including suffering. He was not just apparently human, but fully human, and suffered and died as one.

Our first reading today was from Isaiah and is one of four servant songs. On the cross, Jesus takes on the mantle of the suffering servant. Like that servant he was “wounded,” “despised,” “rejected,” “bruised,” “crushed,” and “oppressed.” All on our behalf and for our benefit, that “the righteous one … shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isaiah 53:11)

And so, in turn, today, we venerate that holy Cross and that death that lead to life. There can be no resurrection without death, there is no transformation without sacrifice, and no new life without giving up the old one. As Paul writes to the Christians in Rome (6:5) “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” When we walk the Way of the Cross, when we venerate the Cross later in the service, we both share symbolically in that death and suffering, and we also declare our willingness to take up our cross and follow him. Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen