The evolving mystery of the risen Christ

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- In this Easter season the compilers of our lectionary want us to explore the meaning of the Easter experience, the real meaning of Easter, of Christ’s rising from the dead and what it has achieved for us.

Our translation of 1 John (3:1-2), “Think of the love…”, and by its use of the pluperfect tense (has lavished), gives the impression of a state of affairs already achieved by Christ for us. If we look at the Greek however something less completed and much more mysterious emerges; “You see the manner of the love the Father has given us in order that we may be called God’s children”. Of course, in one sense all is completed by Christ’s death and resurrection, but there must also be an on-going dynamic attached to our life in Christ too. First it is the daily work of the Spirit upon us for our salvation, and secondly our response, how we allow God to work in us for the unfolding of his plan of salvation, is never simply one dimensional. The Greek of the following verse helps this understanding: “Beloved, we are now children of God but it is not yet manifested what we shall be. We know that when it is manifested we shall be like him.” Here something of the still evolving mystery of God in Christ is suggested, in each and every one of us as we live out our lives already as children of God, moving into ever closer union with Christ, so as to ‘see him as he is’. It was a promise made to the Greek Christians of John’s communities in the Province of Asia, western Turkey, and for them, as for us it surely involves an exploration of our life in Christ as we live out lives conformed to his image.

John has already begun this work in his gospel, as we see in John (10:11-18). First of all, his Jesus makes the sharp division between his followers and those who oppose his mission, and previous chapters have seen him in sharp conflict with the Jewish authorities. He begins this work of criticism by appeal to a very old tradition, here Ezekiel 34 with the prophet’s denunciation of the false shepherds, those who are in charge of Israel and have betrayed the people and whose conduct led to the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.

In sharp contrast to those false leaders, who are responsible for the ruin of the nation Jesus compares himself: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep.” I guess that this serves not only as a model for Jesus, but is meant to act as the model for us all to follow as we seek to ‘become like him’. Clearly it does not specify the actual manner of imitation of Christ, but it does set a trajectory for us to follow and this is something which is crystal clear. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” What we are talking about here is an openness, a transparency – not simply between God the Son and God the Father; but between each of us believers and Father and Son, something already given by the death of Christ and still to be achieved in the lives of each of us.

One gets the impression that the Johannine Christian communities were tightly knit, and even intensely overseen groups, probably with strict rules and careful tutoring. As if to recognise this our text goes on to speak of the “Other sheep, not of this fold”. Clearly these were also believers, and accepted as such by John, and there was a willingness to see these groups as acceptable within the Christian circle. This widens the whole sense of who the true believers were and are, so that for instance John’s communities were different from Jewish Christians, as they could have included converts from paganism – Gentiles; those with a different gloss on the remembered accounts of Jesus’ life, mission and death. The fact that we have four accepted gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, with quite different emphases, speaks volumes of the differing understanding of Jesus current in the very Early Church. ‘Being like Christ’, it appears, may be full of surprises and involve very different styles of worship and practice. Clearly, what all universally held was the belief in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, who freely laid down his life, in the manner of the true shepherd for his sheep; and also, by his own will and power, could take it up again after death. Quite clearly there were things fundamental to the faith, things not negotiable such as the real bodiliness of Jesus, his death and resurrection and his commands that we meet him in the Eucharist.

What all this does is to change lives. It did it then – as we see in our reading from Acts (4:8-12) – and it does it now. Ours is not simply an intellectual pursuit for information about Jesus, though that is very important, it requires a metanoia, a visible change in the lives of believers; and each of us can be participators in this miracle of transformation, both in our own lives and in those of others.

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