Monday, April 18, 2022

Celebrating Easter for What It Is

[Below you'll find live stream videos of the traditional and modern Easter worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centercille, Ohio, along with the text of the message for the day. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!]

Luke 24:1-12
It seems that much of the world celebrates Easter. Every year, stores ply their Easter food, Easter candies, Easter eggs, Easter cards, and even Easter wardrobes. None of this has much to do with Easter itself, of course.

In the meantime, in churches around the world, pastors and worship leaders tell their congregations, “Christ is risen!” and congregations respond, “He is risen, indeed!” But I wonder if even we Christians have a clear handle on what it means to celebrate Easter for what it is. Easter, along with Good Friday which precedes it, is, as I’ve said before, the most important event in history. Do we celebrate it as though that were true?

In a sermon preached thirty-two years ago, the late Lutheran pastor and novelist, Bo Giertz, talked about three things that make a happy Easter, that is, an Easter in which we truly celebrate the day for the eternity-changing event it is. I want to point to those three things as we consider today’s Gospel lesson in which Luke the evangelist tells us what happened on the first Easter, the day when Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, rose from the dead.

The first element of celebrating Easter for what it truly is, Giertz says, is remembering again that Jesus rising from death was “unexpected and unbelievable.” You and I may know–you and I may even be–people who have, medically speaking, been brought back from the dead. We’ve all thrilled at accounts of people’s NDEs, near-death experiences. But none of us know–and none of us are–people who, like Jesus, were dead and buried on a Friday, laid lifeless in a tomb on a Saturday, and raised to life again on a Sunday. It’s not within our normal experience.

When the women–Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others–went to Jesus’ tomb early on Easter Sunday morning, they had no expectation of learning that Jesus had risen from the dead. Jesus had said many times during His ministry that, as the Old Testament prophesied of God’s Messiah, He was going to die and then rise again. But it was hard for the first disciples to believe that such a thing could happen. It’s harder still to believe that a person who dies and rises, sinless Himself, would do it not for Himself, but for others, you and me, and for every other sinful human being. As the women gazed into the empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday, two men–angels, messengers of God–say, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified, and on the third day be raised again.’ ” (Luke 24:5-7) It’s now, when the Word of God the Son, Jesus, is preached to them, that they remember and begin to have faith. (Luke 24:8) That’s the power of God’s Word. It can create faith where there has been unbelief.

We shouldn’t be hard on the women for not “getting it” at first, for needing to be reminded of Jesus’ promises. We have the same problem. We confess our faith in Jesus during worship on Sunday mornings and as soon as the service is ended, we’re accosted by our own sinful impulses, by temptation and adversity, and, worst of all by unbelief. Martin Luther spoke for us all when he wrote, “We need to hear the Gospel every day because we forget it every day.”

And if it’s hard for believers like Mary Magdalene and you and me to remember that Jesus has risen from the dead for the whole cosmos, we should have compassion and patience for all the unbelievers in the world who find it hard to believe in Jesus conquering sin, death, and futility through His resurrection.

The Church Council is currently reading a book, The Reason I Believe. It’s a book of Christian apologetics. Christian apologetics seeks to explain the empirical bases for believing in God and the crucified and risen Jesus, God the Son. When I was an atheist, it was partly from reading or hearing Christian apologetics, as in Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis and Who Moved the Stone by Frank Morison, that my mind was opened to the possibility of faith in Christ. Christians need to know how to lovingly and respectfully respond to the skepticism and unbelief many feel about faith in Christ. But apologetics will not cause people to believe in Jesus. A man I know used to say, “I accept the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Why do I need to follow Him?” It’s only the Word of God, shared with compassion, respect, and patience by many Christians, that will create faith in the risen Jesus Christ. That’s how I came to believe in Jesus and in Easter. The Bible tells us that “faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ…” (Romans 10:17) It’s the Word about Jesus, and the Word alone, that creates faith in Christ and the outrageous good news that, “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!” Christians need to learn to speak it to all the world.

The second element in celebrating Easter for what it is, Giertz says, is to remember that “the Resurrection is a fact, a unique fact.”  

As to its facticity, we have more documentation of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, closer to the events themselves, than we do for many of the most prominent figures of ancient history.

And it isn't just ancient documentation that underscores the truth of Jesus' resurrection. Israeli theologian and historian Pinchas Lapide, an orthodox Jew, did not become a Christian and claimed that Jesus was only the Messiah for Gentiles, concluded, "I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event." Based on the facts and Jesus' track record, Lapide also concluded that Jesus would return to this world at the end of history.

Jesus' resurrection is also a unique fact. We may be inspired by the words and actions of human beings in history or by the beauty of the universe God created, but only Jesus, risen and living, can forgive our sins, cover us with His grace, make us new, and give us life with God to be enjoyed even now in this imperfect world and one day to be enjoyed in the perfect peace of eternity when we live in His direct presence. Only Jesus can say, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

The third thing that lets us truly celebrate Easter is that “Jesus’ resurrection has decisive consequences for us all.”  Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the transformation God is going to bring to all who belong to Him. Jesus’ Easter victory over sin and death–our sin and death–shows us that when He returns to this creation at the end of its life, the old heavens and the old earth will pass away and the new heavens and new earth will come into being. It will be a new creation: free of sin, death, and futility.

The risen Jesus Himself shows us what this new creation will be like for those who believe in Him. For the most part, on that first Easter, Jesus’ disciples failed to recognize Him in His risen form. He seemed like just another man. But He was different. Jesus was like Himself, but different, new. He still bore the scars of His crucifixion and, like any other human being when hungry, asked for something to eat. But He also walked past walls into locked rooms. He was unbound by space or time. When Jesus raises believers in Him from the dead, we will no longer be bound by the constraints of this universe, nor by sin, death, or unbelief. The Bible says that believers in Jesus already are children of God and that while “what we will be has not yet been made known…[we do] know that when Christ appears [that is, when He returns], we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2) This is the greatest and most amazing consequence of Easter: Because Jesus died and rose for us, all who believe in Him, we will one day be like the risen Jesus. Today, Jesus is with us through His Word, the Sacraments, and the Church. On the day when He returns to this world, He will call us from death and raise us to live in God’s presence in, as The Small Catechism puts it, “in righteousness and purity forever.”

Friends, we can celebrate Easter with joy because, on Easter, God did something unexpected and, from a human perspective, unbelievable, the Resurrection of Jesus, in which we can only believe by the power of God’s Word.

We can also celebrate Easter with joy because Jesus’ resurrection is an accomplished fact, attested to by more than five hundred practical, hard-headed, less than perfect, self-centered people, Jesus’ first followers who, despite their imperfections, risked and, often, without anything to be gained in this world and much to be lost. gave their lives to pass on the good news that they had seen and witnessed, that Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, actually died and actually rose from the dead to give forgiveness and eternity to all who believe in Him.

We can also celebrate Easter with joy because Easter has consequences for all who believe, consequences that will last for all eternity. Even as He faced the cross, Jesus could exalt over the eternal consequences of His crucifixion and resurrection for all who believe. As He told God the Father in prayer, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:28)

We have good reason to truly celebrate Easter, folks. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen

Life for the Journey

[Below you'll find the live stream video of this past week's Maundy Thursday service with the people ad friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, and the text of the message.]

Luke 22:7-20
On Maundy Thursday, we remember two things about the meal Jesus shared with the twelve apostles on the Thursday before His crucifixion.

First, we remember the new commandment, or, as in the Latin from which the word Maundy comes, a new mandatum, a new mandate, that Jesus gives to His Church on Thursday of the first Holy Week. Jesus commands, mandates us to love each other with the same self-sacrifice with which He has loved us. If that commandment doesn’t alarm us and drive us to repent for our sin, asking God to love others through us, we’re living in a state of denial. That’s because none of us can fulfill this commandment in our own power or goodness. We need Jesus, remembering that He tells us the total truth when He says, “apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

The second thing we remember on Maundy Thursday, the topic that will occupy us this evening, is Jesus’ institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Holy Baptism, of course, is the sacrament by which Jesus gives us new life, Holy Communion is the sacrament by which Jesus sustains us in our life with Him. After Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, He was led by the Spirit to face temptations in the wilderness. After you and I are baptized, until we die and are called from the dead by Jesus to live with Him in a sinless eternity, we still live in this world, wrestling with the temptations and tests thrown at us by the devil, the world, and our own sinful selves. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that after Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, God sent angels to minister to, to take care of, Jesus. (Matthew 4:11) In Holy Communion, Jesus ministers to you and me directly and personally. He gives us His own sinless, eternally triumphant self. “This is my body given for you…,” He says. And, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Our Gospel lesson for tonight begins with Jesus sending two of His disciples–Peter and John–into Jerusalem to make preparations so that He could celebrate the Passover Seder with His disciples. In sending Peter and John, we see that Jesus is bringing both the fulfillment of the old covenant and instituting the new covenant. Under the old covenant, the one between God and His people, the Jews, it was customary for two men from a family to go to the outer courts of the temple in Jerusalem so that the Passover lamb their families would eat during the Seder dinner could be slaughtered. They would then take the slaughtered lamb back to the homes or inns in which the meal would take place. But, in a break from tradition, Peter and John weren’t sent to do this on behalf of their biological families. Jesus would have this meal with His new family, the family of God called together by His Gospel Word, the Church. You’ll remember Jesus once said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:21) Here are Peter and John putting Jesus’ Word into practice, preparing to celebrate a meal that encompasses not just one’s relatives, but all people who believe in Jesus.

Passover was the central festival of the Jewish calendar. It memorialized that moment when God’s people, then enslaved in Egypt, were set free and sent off to the land God promised them. Before the first Passover, God instructed His people to prepare for the tenth and final plague God brought on Egypt. The angel of death would take the life of the firstborn in every home and barnyard in Egypt unless the blood of a sacrificed lamb was smeared on the doorposts of those places. Blood is the means by which oxygen, the breath of God, gives life to every human being and every vertebrate animal. Blood is the means by which carbon dioxide, the toxic gas produced by respiration, is taken out of the tissues of the body. Blood then is life. When Cain killed his brother Abel in the Old Testament book of Genesis, his blood–his taken life–cried out to God. At the first Passover, the blood of the lambs, whose death was for the people who trusted in God, barred death access to the lives of the firstborn.

Another festival of the Jewish year was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day, a perfectly unblemished lamb was sacrificed at the temple. The lamb bore the sins of God’s people from the previous year. After it was sacrificed, the priest would sprinkle the people with the blood of this perfect lamb. By this means, the people were covered with life from God and the toxic impurity of their sin was removed from them. The problem was that under the old covenant, the effects of the sacrifice lasted, at the most, only a year. And so year after year, God’s guilt-plagued people were called to offer yet another lamb, to be covered once again by its blood. Even at that, people would often offer sin sacrifices throughout the year.

Friends, we too, would be plagued by sin and uncertainty about our standing with God were it not for one thing: Jesus has instituted a new covenant in which we can rest. John the Baptist talked about this new covenant when, pointing to Jesus, He said, ““Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) The sin of the world, of the whole world, of every time and every place, including our sin, yours and mine.

Under the old covenant, priests daily, made sacrifices of lambs, doves, and grain to first, purify themselves of their own sin before they then offered sacrifices of people who came to the temple laden with guilt. Nothing but these constant sacrifices could assure people their sins were forgiven or carry them from death to life. But, referring to Jesus as our great high priest, the book of Hebrews tells us, “Unlike the other high priests, [Jesus] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. [Sinless Himself] He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:27)

In Holy Communion, we don’t sacrifice Jesus on the cross again. That’s bad theology, intimating that what Jesus did on the cross wasn’t good enough. Controlling the timetable and circumstances ordained by God, Jesus offered the sacrifice of His innocent body and blood on the cross once and for all. This is why when biblically heedless people ask you when you were saved, you can confidently answer, “On a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago.” Jesus has already done everything necessary for your sins to be forgiven by God and for you to have life with God. As I’ve said before: When Jesus said before dying on the cross, “It is finished,” He meant it! The apostle Paul wasn’t lying when He said, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9) We become Christians not because we’ve made a decision for God, but because God made a decision for us. He decided to die for us! “While we were still sinners,” the Bible says, “Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) So, friends, in Jesus Christ, our sins are already forgiven. The only question is, do we believe in Him?

This is where Holy Communion comes in. While our salvation has already been accomplished and God’s decision for us is unchangeable, even when the Holy Spirit’s Word has convinced us to believe in Jesus, we can get wobbly in our walk with God. The devil, the world, and our sinful selves constantly press us toward unbelief. They lie to us, telling us we’re not good enough, that Jesus didn’t really die and rise, that we’re too bad and the world is too bad for the good news of new and everlasting life with God through faith in Jesus to be true. On top of that, life can batter us with setbacks, tragedies, and difficulties. “Pastor, I believe in Jesus,” someone told me recently, “but my life is so hard right now.” Holy Communion happens when the word of Jesus, along with Jesus’ promises to us, meets the bread and the wine and Jesus tells us, “This is My body and This is My blood. What I accomplished at the cross and tomb was for you. Your sins are forgiven. My good news is for you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5) Though your sins are like scarlet, I make your life as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). As far as the east is from the west, so far have I removed your sin from you. (Psalm 103:12) I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Matthew 28:20) All who believe in Me will not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)”

Friends, life in this world is hard. But we are blessed that during our journey through this life, Jesus gives us Himself, body and blood, in, with, and under the bread and the wine, and fills those who receive Him in faith with life that never ends. Amen