St Stephen Lewisham
26th March 2005
Love’s Redeeming Work
As you have often heard me say, poetry, and hymns in particular, are an excellent way of learning about our Christian faith. Poetry is not (as many people suppose) a rather long-winded way of saying things; on the contrary it manages to put into a few memorable words what we believe. Saying the same thing in everyday speech would take much longer.
This evening we are going to look through, verse by verse, one of the best known Easter hymns, Love’s redeeming work is done. It was written, like so many of our hymns were, by Charles Wesley, towards the end of the 18th century, for his "Foundery Collection" – so-called because the premises in City Road near where Old Street Station stands today, and which John Wesley his brother John had converted into his Headquarters, was once a gun foundry. This conversion he recognized was a parable of Christ’s redeeming work in transforming our relationship with God from one of enmity into one of peace. In St Paul’s words to the Colossians ‘God wanted everything to be reconciled to himself through [Christ] when he made peace by his death on the cross’.
So let’s plunge straight in to Verse One:
Love’s redeeming work is done,
Fought the fight, the battle won,
Lo, our Sun’s eclipse is o’er!
Lo! He sets in blood no more!
‘It is finished’, gasped Jesus with his last breath as he died on the cross. ‘Finished’ not in the sense that his mission from God the Father had come to a dead-end; but ‘finished’ in the sense of ‘completed’, because that mission had come to perfection on Calvary. The perfect sacrifice had finally been offered; the war against the ‘principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of this world’ had been won; and mankind has been set free from sin and death which began in Adam. The darkness which came over all the land as Jesus died for us on the cross was lifted and ‘the Sun of Righteousness [had] risen with healing in his wings’ as the prophet Malachi foretold that it would.
Verse Two takes us to the Empty Tomb:
Vain the stone, the watch, the seal,
Christ has burst the gates of hell;
Death in vain forbids his rise;
Christ has opened Paradise.
The princes and powers of this world, now as then, still do their very best to prevent him rising, or at least to stop people believing that he has risen. They want us to believe that ‘death closes all’, fearing lest the Risen Christ might interfere with the fulfilment of their plan to subjugate all men to their service. All that they succeed in doing is, of course, precisely the opposite of what they intend: for by his death and resurrection Christ has ‘opened to us the gate of Everlasting Life’ so that all who wish to may enter in to his heavenly kingdom. So far from promising, as the worldly powers do, a ‘paradise on earth’, which our death would presumably prevent us from enjoying anyway, Jesus Christ guides us to the Real Thing, the Life Everlasting, over which Death has no dominion.
Wesley develops further in Verses Three and Four:
Lives again our glorious King:
Where, O Death, is now thy sting?
Dying once, he all doth save:
Where thy victory, O grave?
Soar we now where Christ has led,
Following our exalted Head;
Made like him, like him we rise;
Ours the cross, the grave the skies.
This reminds us of St Paul’s words to the Romans: ‘Christ, as we know, having been raised from the dead will never die again. Death has no power over him any more. When he died, he died, once for all, to sin, so his life now is life with God; and in that way, you too must consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus’.
In our Baptism each one of us was made a ‘member’ of Christ – that is to say we have become part of Christ’s Body, the Church. ‘Membership’ here doesn’t mean the sort of membership one gets by joining a club and paying a subscription, or joining a College and agreeing to keep the rules. The term ‘member’ here has much more the force of a surgical operation like a transplant. We have, through faith, by grace been grafted into Christ, which enables us to ‘live in Him’.
This implantation or graft carries with it certain obligations or duties, which St Paul outlines, again in his letter to the Colossians, when he says ‘Since you have been brought back to true life with Christ, you must look for the things that are in heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on the things that are on the earth, because you have died, and now the life you have is hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ is revealed – and he is our life – you too will be revealed in all your glory with him’.
Our final consummation and destiny, then, are in the future, when Heaven and Earth have passed away and we are finally knit together with all the Saints in one communion and fellowship in God’s heavenly Kingdom. Meanwhile on earth we can join with angels and archangels, with our Lady and all the Saints, in their unending hymn of praise as we greet our Risen Lord passing triumphantly on his way to his Heavenly Throne to sit down at the right hand of the Father:
So now let’s accept his invitation to sit down with him at this Eucharist, which is only a foretaste, a ‘first course’ if you like, of that heavenly banquet of which we shall finally partake with him in his Heavenly Kingdom.
As the final verse says:
Hail the Lord of earth and heaven!
Praise to thee by both be given:
Thee we greet triumphant now;
Hail, the Resurrection thou!
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