5 Great Sermons from Church History – #2 John Chrysostom’s Easter Sermon

This is the second installment of a five-part series called, “5 Great Sermons from Church History.” See the first here. This is not meant to indicate that these are the greatest or the best sermons, or even the five most important in the history of the church. However, these sermons were selected based on historical significance, content, accessibility (both good translations and comprehensibility), and each as exemplary of the particular era in which it occurred. Given the scope, the five sermons stretch over the entirety of church history. Extreme redaction is unavoidable with such a project. Each of the entries will take a similar approach, namely: Brief background on speaker and sermon, redacted block quote to capture the heart of sermon, and brief commentary on the whole sermon.

JOHN CHRYSOSTOM’S PASCHAL HOMILY (ca. AD 400)

Brief Biography[1]

John Chrysostom (AD 349–407) was a monk at heart and a powerful preacher in practice. He was raised by a widowed Christian mother, and attained a respected secular education in rhetoric and literature in preparation for a vocation in civic government. However, his conversion to Christianity and calling to preach led him to serve the Lord in a pastoral role instead. Following the call of the anchorite, Johnspent two years in isolation in a cave, with only the Scriptures as his companion. He was marked by this season of life in a profound way. When he subsequently began his pastoral and preaching ministry, his sermons were marked with deeply embedded Scripture, and his powerful oratory led to his nickname Chrysostom, literally “Golden Mouth.”At the end of his life, Chrysostom was banished from his church and ministry (AD 403–7), led by accusations of sedition by Theophilus of Alexandria, that Chrysostom had likened the emperor’s wife to Jezebel, the harlot queen of the OT.

There are some 600 sermons of Chrysostom that have survived, many of which could have been chosen as paradigmatic of the powerful preacher. This particular sermon, however, has proven to be especially influential. Every year, thousands of churches around the world in the Eastern Church tradition read this text in its entirety on Easter Sunday. The homily has been part of the liturgy since at least the ninth century,[2] and continues to this day. The sermon was most likely given after Chrysostom was installed as Archbishop at Constantinople in AD 397, and before his banishment in AD 403. Given the influence of this sermon spreading over 1600 years and vast populations, it has proven its place among a short list of Christianity’s great sermons.

Excerpt (Primary Source)[3]

If any be pious and a lover of God,
let him partake of this fair and radiant festival.
If any be a faithful servant,
let him come in rejoicing in the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have laboured from the first hour,
let him today receive his rightful due.
If any have come at the third,
let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have arrived at the sixth,
let him in no wise be in doubt, for in nothing shall he suffer loss.
If any be as late as the ninth,
let him draw near, let him in no wise hesitate.
If any arrive only at the eleventh,
let him not be fearful on account of his slowness.

For the Master is bountiful and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him of the eleventh hour even as to him who has laboured from the first. He is merciful to the last, and provides for the first. To one he gives, and to another he shows kindness. He receives the works, and accepts the intention. He honours the act, and commends the purpose.

Enter all, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and let the first and those who come after partake of the reward.
Rich and poor, dance one with another.
You who fast and you who fast not, rejoice today.
The table is full-laden; feast you all sumptuously.
The calf is ample: let none go forth hungry.

Let all partake of the banquet of faith. Let all partake of the riches of goodness. Let none lament his poverty; for the Kingdom is manifested for all. Let none bewail his transgressions; for pardon has dawned from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Saviour has set us free.

He has quenched death who was subdued by it.
He has despoiled hades who has descended into hades.
Hades was embittered when it tasted of His flesh, and Isaiah, anticipating this, cried out saying:
Hades was embittered when it met Thee face to face below.
It was embittered, for it was rendered void.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was despoiled.

It was embittered, for it was fettered.

It received a body, and it encountered God. It received earth, and came face to face with heaven. It received that which it saw, and fell whence it saw not.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen thou art cast down!
Christ is risenand the demons have fallen.
Christ is risen and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen and life is made free
Christ is risen and there is none dead in the tomb.

For Christ is raised from the dead, and became the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be Glory and dominion from all ages to all ages.

Amen.

 

Commentary

The sermon begins with the “If any…” refrain. In this, Chrysostom is calling all in attendance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not too unlike our own times, even in the third century Chrysostom himself recognized that many folks attended the weekly gatherings only on Christmas and Easter. He routinely urged his congregants to invite all to come consistently by reminding them of the struggles of the people of God throughout Scripture (i.e. Daniel, Paul, etc.) and, not to make excuses that, for example, it was too hot to attend church.[4] Whether one is “pious and a lover of God” as a faithful servant for a lifetime, or one has come “only at the eleventh [hour],” the call to each is the same—come and worship. Chrysostom alluded to the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) as he offered the full inheritance of Christ to all who would call on his name: “For the Master is bountiful and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him of the eleventh hour, even as to him who has laboured from the first.”

This theme continued into the next section, “Enter all, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and let the first and those who come after partake of the reward.” He used festal language to describe the joy of knowing Christ, and inferred that many who had been fasting would now join in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, this Eucharistic language does not by itself argue that the Lord’s Supper must be open to all people, or that in the Lord’s Supper itself one is justified. Rather, just before this Chrysostom explained, “He [Christ] receives the works, and accepts the intention. He honours the act, and commends the purpose.” That is to say, the Lord does not look merely at the outside, but knows the heart (i.e., 1 Samuel 16:7). This is a beautiful image of the Lord’s Supper as a celebration for Christians who, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus, now look forward to the ultimate feast in the age to come—the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19). At that “banquet of faith…The table is full-laden…The calf is ample” and for all who have trust in Christ Jesus will fully “partake of the riches of goodness.” Faith in Christ is the only grounds for entrance, where “Rich and poor, dance one with another.” This is the banquet of the great King, Christ Jesus, where neither poverty nor transgressions can any longer separate us from God because of the work of our Savior.

Even death itself has been subdued by the work of Christ. Chrysostom alludes to Isaiah 14:9, “Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come.” It is not abundantly clear what Chrysostom thinks of this text. It could be that he sees Jesus as the one spoken of who goes to Sheol. On the other hand, if Isaiah 14 depicts Sheol as bringing even the greatest kings of earth down to nothing, then it is embittered when Christ defeats death. Whatever the case, Chrysostom used another series of repetitive statements to describe what happened when death tried to swallow up Christ: “It was embittered for it was rendered void, mocked, slain, despoiled, fettered.”

Chrysostom’s sermon moves through this section as a crescendo, to this great line: “It received a body, and it encountered God.” By a juxtaposition of opposites, Chrysostom described the encounter of death with life, of earth with heaven, of created with creator, of is with is not. He quotes 1 Corinthians 15:55, and at that comes to the climax of the sermon with another series of repetition, “Christ is risen.” Christ is risen and death is cast down, demons have fallen, angels rejoice, life is made free, and there is none dead in the tomb. Again quoting from 1 Corinthians 15, “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.…But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (15:20, 23).

There is good reason that this sermon has such staying power. It is a display of Chrysostom’s rhetorical ability par excellence. The repetition of phrases combined with the concision of the homily displays a poetic element in his preaching. However, the use of these rhetorical devices did not rob from the message, but rather built up the celebratory nature of it. After all, this is a homily that is used at the Easter gathering of the church, and what better time to celebrate than at the Easter Sunday![5] Moreover, the sermon builds to the highest point of glorifying the risen Christ, through biblical language, inviting all to hear and respond. While this sermon is a wonderful example of the homiletical power of the “Golden Mouth” preacher, it would be a confusion of authorial purpose to give prominence to this sermon over the Bible itself. Chrysostom himself instructed, “We must take great care, therefore, that the word of Christ may dwell in us richly.”[6] By God’s grace, this sermon was used to proclaim Christ in Chrysostom’s own time, and for a millennium and a half thereafter. Let us all join in with the call of the Golden-Mouthed preacher to celebrate the risen Christ today!

“To Him be Glory and dominion from all ages to all ages.

Amen.”

[1]For a helpful and concise biography of John Chrysostom, see Bryan Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, second edition (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007).

[2]Panayiotis Papageorgiou, “The Paschal Catechetical Homily of St John Chrysostom: A Rhetorical and Contextual Study,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review43, no. 1–4 (1998): 93.

[3]This translation is from Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church(Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 247–9. The full Greek text is can be found in the appendix of Papageorgiou, “The Paschal Catechetical Homily.”

[4]See Steven A. McKinion, ed.,Life and Practice in the Early Church: A Documentary Reader(New York: New York University Press, 2001), especially chapter 2, “Assembling the Community: Worship in the Early Church.”

[5]Of course, it should not be lost on the reader that every Sunday is, in the more precise sense, resurrection Sunday whereby the church gathers to worship the risen Christ.

[6]St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neiville (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 116.

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