A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2023
The Rev. Mark Nabors, Vicar
Readings: John 3:1-17
Molly and I are quirky in a lot of ways, I suppose, but here’s one example: At one point, we had named all of our plants. There’s a little fir tree in a planter outside our front door; its name is Douglass. We had Iggy the Azalea. Rick and Judy Hampton once gifted us an aloe vera plant; its name is John Wayne. But the strangest one of all is our apple tree. It’s in our front yard, at one corner of our house. It’s old for an apple tree; you can tell just by looking at it. It’s twisted and its bark has been formed by all kinds of weather conditions. Its name: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.
The name comes from an 18th century poem, which says:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green;
The trees of nature fruitless be,
Compared with Christ the Apple Tree.
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all but now I see
'Tis found in Christ the Appletree.
This is typically considered a Christmas carol, but it has resonances that fit well with Lent if we consider what we are saying: Christ is the true tree with true fruit that leads to true life. Last week, we read from Genesis, from that story of another tree that led to sin and death. But Christ reverses that curse from his own tree: the cross. And it is from that cross that we find the fruit we have always sought: life everlasting and a restored relationship with God.
Today, we are considering the cross as recapitulation, which has everything to do with these two ancient trees. As I said last week, so I will say again: Something is wrong and must be made right. We cannot do it, but Christ can and does on our behalf. Christ saves us from the power and tyranny of sin and death by his cross.
Recapitulation, in short, refers to Christ taking our place. We read last week that sin and death came into the world through Adam, through the fruit of that first tree in the Garden of Eden. Recapitulation is all about how Christ rewrites that story. Instead of the story ending in a curse, because of Christ, it ends in the blessing of life. Christ becomes the new Adam, and thereby gives us a new humanity, through his cross.
This is what Jesus means in the gospel today when he says, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Christ is lifted up in our wilderness of sin to rewrite our story and to bring healing and wholeness. Christ is lifted up on the cross to destroy the power of sin and death and to give us a new ending, a new narrative, a new hope.
We join this new story through our belief in him. Belief, however, must be more than just an intellectual belief. It has to do with where we put our ultimate trust, and then living that way. Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to this kind of trust. It only happens when we are reborn to new life, reborn into this new story, reborn into this new hope, reborn out of the curse of sin and death and into the blessing of redemption and life eternal. That happens for us at baptism, when the righteousness of Christ, which is the righteousness of God, is given to us as grace, as pure gift. That gift allows us to live a different way because we now belong to a different story. Christ has become the new Adam for us so that we might share in his new story, liberated from sin and death.
There’s an ancient question: Where was the Garden of Eden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. An old tradition says the cross stood where that tree was once planted, thereby replacing it. Christ and his cross, the Appletree, are found in the exact place where Adam came under the Power of Sin and Death because of the first tree. That’s what recapitulation is all about. John Donne, a 16th century English poet, beautifully takes up this theme:
We think that Paradise and Calvarie,
Christ’s Crosse and Adam’s tree, stood in one place.
Looke, Lord, and finde both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
Not only do the cross and the tree of Eden meet at Calvary, but they also meet in every human heart, groaning for rebirth. They meet in our own souls, yearning for redemption as children of God. They meet in our very bodies, in our outstretched hands at a Communion rail, as we wait to receive the fruit of that new tree, the fruit of the cross, the life-giving Body and Blood of our Lord.
The old story we have been given, the story from Adam and the tree, the story of sin and death–this old story need not hold sway in our lives. For that old tree has been uprooted and overturned. It has been replaced by Christ and his cross, that new Appletree. Here’s the end of that poem I began with:
With great delight I'll make my stay,
There's none shall fright my soul away;
Among the sons of men I see
There's none like Christ the Appletree.
I'll sit and eat this fruit divine,
It cheers my heart like spirit'al wine;
And now this fruit is sweet to me,
That grows on Christ the Appletree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the Appletree.
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