Holy Week 2017 Sermons

Note: Holy Week, from Passion Sunday through Easter Vigil, is a linked set of days. This is especially true for the Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil. The sermons for the Three Days are inseparable and should be read together, and are so here presented chronologically.

The readings for the Three Days, April 13-15, were:

Maundy Thursday: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

Good Friday: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42.

Easter Vigil: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Psalm 136:1-9,  23-26; Genesis 22:1-18; Psalm 16; Exodus 14:10-31, 15:20-21; Exodus 15:1b-13, 17-18; Isaiah 55:1-11; Isaiah 12:2-6; Jonah 1:1-2:1; Jonah 2:2-9; Daniel 3:1-29; Song of the Three 35-65; Romans 6:3-11; John 20:1-18.

Maundy Thursday 2017:  How God Loves

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Tonight we echo an ancient practice of hospitality and service in the Church by washing each others’ feet before we gather around the table to receive our Lord and Master’s body and blood. Tonight, the first part of the Three Days, we hear again of the words and actions of Jesus, who became human to embody the character of God for us. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. Jesus came to show us how God loves.

One value of footwashing is that it is among the few common rites of the Church that retains its scandalous and upsetting connotations. The preacher may proclaim the coming invasion of God’s holiness into our world of sin and death, and see little resistance. The baptizing of infants, something which led to wars and martyrdoms in former days, is now considered a lovely ritual for the child, hardly the drowning of a sinner and the raising of a saint which baptism really is. The eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a celebration which has led many to call Christians cannibals, seems to elicit no more shock or discomfort among us than the taste of the wine and bread themselves might. But the footwashing retains a capacity to scandalize us.

What I find interesting is that the greatest resistance does not seem to orient around actually doing this service; most people seem to understand doing something like this for another. What shocks and scandalizes is not that we are to love, but that we are to be loved. We are surprised like Peter to learn that we are to be washed, to be served, and there we say with Peter: “You will never wash my feet.” I don’t want someone else to see my feet. To touch my feet. To serve at my feet. There are many reasons behind this defensiveness, but I suspect it comes down in some sense to a determination that we will be the servants rather than the served. Note well that in the text, no one washes the feet of Jesus – that was done by Mary, Lazarus’ sister, in chapter 12. The one who is served is then able to serve; the one who is loved is able to love. This is how God loves, by loving us, who are unlovable.

“For this is the nature of love that it serves. … Before I teach a mother what she should do for her child she already has done it. Her heart knows more than all books can write and preach. Such is a mother’s love. Therefore Christ wants us to serve one another.” Jesus wants us to love one another, not generally, not in whatever way we choose, but in the way that he loves us. “Do you want to carry out Christ’s example? Then wash the feet of a poor beggar who comes to you, give him food and a bed, and attend to him! Yes, this is our responsibility! Therefore Satan always produces hypocrisy and perverts Christ’s works. For this reason I would like us to wash the feet of strangers, and especially those who come from far away. But even if we do not do this, we should still serve others according to this example. … we would not know who are righteous and which are godless. We must have prior acquaintance with them in order to serve one another.”

In order to serve, we must be served. We must be in community with each other, and that is hard. How hard it is to be vulnerable, to be loved, and to love! “Christ saw clearly that if one should preach the Gospel then it will require that you put all your goods at risk, because the Gospel costs so much that Christians cannot be certain of their lives. Because it is difficult to be a Christian, Christ says: I will not leave you without consolation. I will not forsake you. For one house I will give you all houses of all Christians. I will also give just as many Christians to serve you. … [So] If I am a Christian, I am lord of all Christians and on the other hand a servant of those who will receive me. … But Christ wanted even Judas at his Last Supper so that people may know the horrible things that will happen to them. Such types are among our people, just as Judas was among the apostles.”

This is the love that makes and marks Christian life, the love of Jesus for us that changes how we are toward each other. We do not flee each other. We do not despise each other. We do not sever our community to preserve ourselves. We do not seek to be the actor, the provider, the servant, without ourselves being served. We do not forgive without ourselves seeking forgiveness. We do not feed others without being fed ourselves by the grace and mercy of God. We do not depart from community, not even in the face of denial and betrayal in the community. We pass the peace and enact reconciliation in the very worship where God is reconciled to us. We are washed in the same water, we are fed by the same bread and cup. We pray, sing, and live together. We love each other completely, we serve and we are served, and we remember and receive Jesus in every place where our vulnerability is met by a vulnerable God who teaches us to love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Good Friday 2017: How God Dies

In the name of Jesus, amen.

Good Friday is not about suffering with Jesus. Good Friday is not about punishment for us. Good Friday is about our deliverance from sin, death, and the devil, through the suffering and death of Jesus. Good Friday is called good because it is about Christ’s death, a death Christ died for our sake and for our benefit. Now, on this day many of you will have heard much about punishment and suffering, and about human sin and human repentance. We talk about the cross as though it were a model for us to emulate, as though Christ’s death was to demonstrate how we are to live rather than to show us how God died for us. For all the preaching about Christ’s suffering we hear, most of it actually serves, us by lifting up our suffering as though it were like the suffering of Christ. Dear friends, let this go! “Our works should remain on earth. We become righteous by faith alone. … If punishment and suffering could make one righteous, the devil and the most wicked evil-doer would long since have been righteous!”

The cross has two effects: to reveal our helplessness and our help. The cross of Jesus, and the Scriptures, pull all our good works, all our right conduct and suffering, straight down to earth. The obedience we learn, the works we do, the suffering we undergo, does not eliminate sin but leads to lives and a world which honor and support the common life of God’s creation and people. These things are useless in the face of sin, which can twist them all into death. All of our work, all of our suffering, is not enough to pay the penalty for a single sin. Because the cross is necessary, we cannot turn to ourselves but only to Christ, even as John the Baptist said in the beginning: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” 

So here is the Lamb of God, here on the cross! Here on the cross are the sins of the world, your sin and mine, your death and mine, your failure and mine. Look to the wounds of Jesus, and see that they are your sins which lie on him! Why worry about your own suffering? It is nothing! Those who hate our need of the cross will say that Christ did his part, and we must do ours to be saved. All this does is despise and reject Christ’s suffering on the cross, so that our own struggle and suffering may be powerful rather than humble. No, our suffering and service are for the love of the world, that we might improve and aid the lives of our neighbors. God does not die on the cross simply to fix the tax code or help the sick; God dies to save us all from sin, death, and the devil. This cross is for you, for your sin; cling to Christ’s work, not yours! Lay your sins here, on the cross, on Jesus who is able to bear your burden and free you from captivity.

“Christ’s suffering takes away sin. Christ’s suffering alone truly swallows up sin and death. You must give the honor to him. Faith does not cling to our suffering. If it did, it would be idolatry. You must grasp Christ’s suffering by faith alone. … In the entire year Christ is not so tortured as at this season, when he is shamefully spit upon and blasphemed—just as he was on the cross. This teaching cannot be drummed in enough. For it pains Satan grievously, and the flesh always wants us to erect trust in our suffering. Let this be said as a warning. This text from John and the one in Isaiah let you be certain: [‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases… he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.’] ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ … Peter wants to die with him; another wants to be arrested with him. That is, we would like to let what we do amount to something. But this is the greatest article of faith, to believe that no one should nor can take away our sins but Christ alone.”

How does God die? For us. God comes down in Jesus Christ for us. God becomes a baby, an infant, a refugee, a little boy, a homeless preacher, a rejected and oppressed peasant, for us. God bears our death so that we may live. God bears our sin so that we are free from sin. Our sins are on the neck of Christ. God becomes weak so that we do not despair in our weakness or despise those who are weak. Our failure, sin, and death, belong to Christ; he claims them here on this cross. His wounds are our sins, and written everywhere on his nails and bonds are the words: mine. Mine. Mine. My sins! All we are and do is powerless before our sin, but the suffering, patience, and humility of this Christ are what work the forgiveness of our sins.

So this is a Good Friday. It is good not because our murder of God is good to do, but because what God does is good. Today, God dies so that we might not fear death. Today, Jesus takes on our sins, our failures, our weaknesses. Jesus takes all that we are that we might hope not in our suffering but in his. Christ has suffered and died for us and our salvation. This is the triumph of the cross over sin, death, and devil. This is the victory God wins, not with magic or might but with the willing death of Jesus. This one died to save his enemies. This one died rather than be separated from us. This one died to wash us from our own dirt and decisions. This one died so that we might live. On this cross rest our hope, our comfort, and our redemption. Cling to this Good Friday, which is for you.

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

The Vigil of Easter 2017: How God Lives

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

In the name of Jesus, amen.

“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Jesus says tonight to Mary Magdalene in the garden where he was betrayed, where he died, where he was buried, and where he is risen. Dear friends, we have heard about how God loves in Jesus Christ, and how God dies in Jesus Christ. Now we hear how God lives in Jesus Christ: as our brother. As a member of our family. As a permanent relation. This is the culmination of all of history, the story God has been trying to tell us from the very beginning, the revelation at the bedrock of all the Scriptures. This is how God lives.

God lives as the speaker and word and wind which spun the world at creation.

God lives as the tester and giver, who demands all from Abraham and gives all to Abraham.

God lives as the pillar of fire and cloud which block all of Pharaoh’s military might, allowing the Hebrew rabble through the sea on dry ground but throwing horse and rider into the sea.

God lives as the great provider, the host at the infinite banquet, who gives real life, real water, real food, real wisdom, and the real word that will never fail as a free gift to those who are in need.

God lives as the living voice which calls and enlightens, showing us the path to life and service, denying us our ways of death and destruction and swallowing us up in mercy even amid the storm of our rebellion.

God lives as the great deliverer, the one who is able to save and the one whose saving acts testify to God’s goodness even in the kingdom of evil and idolatry, the one who can preserve us from the hottest fire and the worst enemies.

God lives as the one who calls us brothers and sisters, Jesus Christ. Jesus calls those who have witnessed him, followed him, failed him, mourned him, as his brothers and sisters, his family. Jesus sends Mary Magdalene, the first preacher of the resurrection, the first human being to declare the Gospel, to his own family. He calls you and me his brothers and sisters, his family. And if you doubt it, who is he ascending to? “To my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus removes all doubt – his God is ours, his Father is ours. We may pray “Our Father in heaven” with confidence, for Jesus promises that God is in fact our Father, our Father with Jesus, because Jesus is our brother!
What does it mean that God lives as our Father and in Jesus our brother? It means that we are not God, but are now members of God’s family. The God who made the world, who raised Israel from Egypt, who returned Israel from Babylon, who raised Jesus from the dead, has decided to be your God, to adopt you as a child by making you the sibling of Jesus Christ. God has claimed us, dear friends, claimed us in this remarkable little sermon Jesus preaches to Mary Magdalene in the garden of his death and resurrection.

This is how God lives, and all that belongs to God belongs to us. Our death, swallowed up by God’s life. Our aimlessness, cut through by the pillar of God’s fire. Our nothingness, filled in a flash by God’s creating Word which called light and life into being. Our danger, from which God’s presence and mercy save us and give us comfort. Our hunger and thirst, for which God spreads a table to satisfy us. Our Father in heaven looks down at our despair and our certain death, and calls off the knife, satisfies God’s own demand, and gives us instead the promise that we shall be a blessing to the world. God alone commands, and God alone fulfills, and that is how our God lives!

Jesus says he is going to his Father and ours, his God and our God. “When he says that he goes to his Father and to the Father of his brothers and sisters, then they must all be together in the heavenly kingdom, for they are siblings. Whoever can believe this is a Christian. If only we could believe that it is true, that we are Christ’s brothers and sisters! Only that we do not hold on to him—for he says: ‘I do not want your things, but you, take my thing! You do not make me your brother, but I make you my brothers and sisters. You will not give me something, but the other way around.”

This is the resurrection—Jesus gives himself to us: his love, his death, his life! Jesus gives us his holiness, his righteousness, his obedience, his community, his family, his Father, his God. Jesus becomes our eldest brother, our high priest, who guides us on our journey and supplies our destination. And all of this Jesus gives us in our baptism, not with mere water, but with this Word which gives us faith: that he calls us his brothers and sisters! That is the font of living water, the promise of Jesus Christ that we are his family, that where he is we shall be, and that he will guide us down the path which he walked and the path which he is.

Now, the green blade rises from the buried grain.

Now, the love we murdered comes again.

Now, in the dark of night, light shines forth from the tomb.

Now, the barren one bares thousands of millions.

Now, the Spirit moves over the waters.

Now, the people cross on dry ground to the safe side of the sea.

Now, from the belly of the fish, is heard the song of rejoicing.

Now, the Three sing with a Fourth and praise God from the flames.

Now, the voice from heaven spares and provides.

Now, the table is set, the wine is poured, the water of life is given to the thirsty.

Now, we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Now, raised from the dead, the living Lord is seen.

Now, go to our brothers and sisters, and tell them:

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.