Sunday, April 18, 2021
Third Sunday of Easter (B)
April 18, 2021
Text: Luke 24:36-49
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
Then “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38; ESV).
Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Let that sink in. That means Jesus wins. Satan loses. Jesus died. The serpent crushed our Lord’s heel. But Jesus is risen. The serpent’s head is crushed. Jesus died. Death swallowed Him up. But Jesus is risen. He burst a hole through death’s belly. Jesus died. Such are the wages for our sin. But Jesus is risen. Our Lord paid sin’s wages in full.
Now, what trouble is there that doesn’t have its source in Satan, or isn’t a symptom of death, or isn’t a result of your sin, or some combination of all three? Do you get the point? Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! And you are baptized into that victory, and you eat and drink that very reality, and the fulness of all of this is preached into your ears. So what’s the matter with you?! Whatever troubles you, or causes you to doubt, has been done to death in Jesus’ crucifixion. And the antidote to all your troubles and doubts is risen from the dead in the flesh of Jesus. Rejoice.
But we are worried and troubled about many things, and we do still have our doubts, don’t we? Like the disciples in the Upper Room on Easter evening. We, too, have abandoned Jesus when following Him was too dangerous. We, too, have denied Him by our words and actions for the sake of staying safe. We have had hopes and dreams for Him that were never His plan; political ambitions, material prosperity, earthly freedom and sovereignty, glory and honor. And when our Lord did not deliver… when instead He delivered the holy cross… we were disappointed, and we lost hope. We have had in mind the things of men, rather than the things of God. We have had in mind, chiefly, ourselves and our own security, comfort, and promotion. So when we realize Jesus is standing among us, just like the disciples in our Holy Gospel, we, too, are startled and frightened, as though Jesus is a ghost, a phantom, a demon out to get us.
But what does Jesus say when He comes into the midst of our fears, troubles, and doubts? Shalom. “Peace to you!” (v. 36). This is St. Luke’s account of the occasion we heard about last week from St. John (John 20:19-31). Do you remember what the word Shalom means? Peace with God. Sins forgiven. Restoration. Wholeness, healing, prosperity, tranquility, and overall wellbeing. Which is to say, Life. Life, real and eternal, in Christ, who died for all of our fears and denials and sins, and who is risen from the dead. See my wounds, He says. Go ahead, touch them. I’m no ghost, and I’m not out to get you. Do you really think, after going through what I went through for you, that I’m here to kill you now? Come on, guys! Peace. Shalom. And He shows them His hands and His feet. Remember, this is all for your forgiveness. And, by the way, when He shows them His crucifixion wounds, don’t let it be lost in translation what He says to them. He says, not just “it is I myself” (v. 39; ESV), but “I AM… Myself” (Krenz translation). YHWH, your LORD, your gracious God incarnate, who has accomplished your salvation. Here I AM, flesh and bones, the very Body that was crucified, risen and living and… eating? Yes, “Have you anything here to eat?” (Luke 24:41; ESV). And they give Him a piece of broiled fish. And while this certainly shows them He is a real, live, fleshy human being… Ghost’s don’t eat!... let it not be lost on us that, once again, here is Jesus, feasting with a bunch of sinners. Remember how I used to do this with tax collectors and prostitutes, thus embodying the mercy of God for sinners and initiating Communion with them? Well, here I am doing it with you.
We’d love to be there. And we are! Because that is what Jesus is doing, here and now, from this Altar. Gathered together as we are, troubles, doubts, and fears, real sinners with real sins. And here is Jesus, standing among us, the very Body crucified for us, the very Blood poured out for our sins; the very Body risen and living for us, the very Blood that courses through His living veins. He announces Peace to us, Shalom, the Holy Absolution. And then He feasts with us, embodying the mercy of God for sinners and initiating Communion with them. He did it for tax collectors and prostitutes and doubting Apostles and disciples. Well, here He is doing it for us.
And in spite of all appearances to your fallen, earthly eyes, you see this reality with your ears. This is what I said! “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you” (v. 44). And this is just what all the Scriptures, on every page, say, “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms,” all these are fulfilled in Me, by My suffering, death, and resurrection! He opens our minds to understand these Scriptures. He must open our minds, otherwise we’ll never see it. He does it by sending the Promise of His Father upon us, the Holy Spirit, that we may know and believe. “Thus it is written” (v. 46). This has been His plan all along. His death is His victory, and the proof is His resurrection life.
Now, give this some thought. Examine your own life, your mind, and your heart. What is it that troubles you and leads you to doubt? What it is that startles you and causes you to fear, even and especially in the presence of Jesus? Is it some besetting sin, a habit you just can’t break, or a bad situation you just can’t seem to make right? Is it guilt from the past, the accusations of the devil and your own conscience, that keep you up at night? Perhaps you are worried about your job, your security, your future. Maybe your marriage is troubled, or you are worried about your children, or your grandchildren, and the path they’ve taken away from our Lord, and away from His Church. Perhaps a loved one is seriously ill, or has died, and you grieve, or maybe it is your own health. We are all anxious about the state of our nation and our world these days, politics, pandemic, wars and rumors of wars, cultural deterioration, cancellation, and societal decay. And we all know that it isn’t safe these days to be a Christian, and it will be increasingly dangerous as time marches on. These troubles and doubts are real, and the brokenness and pain they cause should never be trivialized. But so also the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for you is very real, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ for you is very real, to be the end of all these things that hinder your Communion with God, and to be the great setting right of all that is wrong. All of these troubles are caused by Satan, sin, and death. And these are precisely the enemies our Lord has conquered by His cross and resurrection.
So in all your troubles, doubts, and fears, come here to the Lord’s House, and to Lord’s Table. Because here your risen Lord Jesus stands among you and speaks His Shalom, and gives you to touch and taste His wounds, the beautiful scars of His risen and glorified Body, the trophies of His victory. And here He breathes His Spirit into you, and puts His resurrection life into your mouth, into your body, to strengthen you to confront these very issues in your life, in repentance, in faith, with His Word, knowing that all your sins and failures are forgiven, and you have eternal life. And so, in every circumstance, to confess Him with joy, and without fear, and to be His mouth and hands in the world, bringing His redemption and restoration (His Shalom) to every place and relationship in which you find yourself. For your Lord Jesus is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). And He has swallowed up death forever (Is. 25:8).
Which reminds me, what is going on with that piece of broiled fish? To be sure, it is proof that He is risen from the dead, bodily, and not a ghost, for He eats food, as only a body can do. But also consider this: The great sign of our Lord’s death and resurrection is the sign of the Prophet Jonah. Jonah is swallowed by a big fish, a type of Jesus’ death and burial. But here the risen Lord swallows the fish! Do you get the point? And in the Supper, you swallow Jesus. Jesus swallowed death. You swallow Life! And do you know what that means? As He is risen, so He will raise you. Bodily. Eternally. To eat and drink with Him in the wholeness of His Shalom.
So “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” Jesus wins. Satan loses. Your sins are forgiven, hell is defeated, and death has no more claim over you. Thus it is written, and the Apostles are witnesses of these things. Repent, therefore, and believe the good news. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! Shalom! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sunday, April 11, 2021
Second Sunday of Easter (B)
April 11, 2021
Text: John 20:19-31
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
When the risen Lord Jesus Christ appeared in the midst of His disciples that Easter evening, (not, incidentally, sneaking in through a back door or a window, but revealing Himself as He stood among them, which is where He always is… in the midst of His disciples)… When He appeared in their midst, He immediately preached, in one word, the earthshaking, cosmos-altering, eternal result of His resurrection from the dead: “Peace.” Εἰρήνη in Greek, but we really should do it in Hebrew, as Jesus almost undoubtedly spoke the liturgical word to His beloved friends, to His Church, as they were huddled together in fear behind locked doors: שָׁלוֹם. Shalom… “Peace be with you” (John 20:19; ESV). And then, that they may see the flesh and blood reality of this Shalom, He showed them His hands and His side, as though to say, “See, it really is me. Here is the evidence of your peace. I was crucified. Here are my mortal wounds. But now I am risen. I live, and I stand among you now, with my risen and living Body.” And then as they rejoice upon seeing the Lord, He says it again, Shalom, peace… “Peace be with you” (v. 21).
Shalom is a Hebrew word with which the Jews regularly greet one another, hello or goodbye. It means “peace,” to be sure, but the meaning is so much broader than that, and in no sense superficial. Nor is it only sentimental, a wish that you feel peace in your heart. It is rather the objective conferral of peace, and a declaration of blessing from God; in particular, the concrete reality of the Aaronic benediction (Numb. 6:24-26). The LORD’s blessing and keeping you, His making His face (which is to say, Jesus) shine on you and be gracious to you, His lifting up His countenance upon you, His placing His three-fold Name on you (the LORD, the LORD, the LORD), results in the giving of His Peace, His Shalom, to you. And this is the cross shaped reality that you now have peace (Shalom) with God, and therefore peace (Shalom) with one another. And, as a result, God enacts Shalom within you concretely, body and soul. That is, He grants you wholeness, health, prosperity, tranquility, and overall general welfare, all of which are aspects of that one word, Shalom.
But what all too quickly became a pious wish for mere temporal peace and welfare in that Old Testament time of type and shadow of the good things to come, the risen Jesus here unpacks for us in all its Easter fulness. For this Shalom is not simply the hope that you are well, and that all goes well for you in the coming days. It is a Shalom that is fulfilled and complete in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead; a Shalom in which we already partake as those baptized into Christ, forgiven of our sins, and who feast on God’s Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world; and a Shalom we will know in all its fulness when Christ comes again and raises us from the dead, whole, healthy, prosperous, tranquil, and in every sense of the word, well.
Shalom is Jesus, crucified, risen, and present in the midst of His disciples. Shalom is what Jesus sends out on the lips of His Apostles and Christian preachers, and in the confession of every Christian baptized into Christ. Shalom is the breath of New Creation as Jesus breathes His Holy Spirit into you (and you know the double-entendre there, spirit, wind, and breath all being the same word in Greek [πνεῦμα], and the same word in Hebrew [רוּחַ]). Shalom, in its most elementary form, is simply this: The forgiveness of sins. The Holy Absolution. Jesus bestows Shalom on His disciples by appearing in their midst and announcing that He is at peace with them, that He does not hold their sins against them, including their sins of deserting Him, of Peter denying Him, of their failure to believe His Promise that these things must happen, that He would be rejected by the Chief Priests and elders and scribes, suffer and die, and on the Third Day rise again. In other words, He forgives their sins. He casts out their fear, that great anti- Shalom, because in Him there is now no condemnation. And that means the end of death, and the very tyranny of the devil.
Thus this Shalom, as it breaks into this fallen creation in the flesh of Jesus, has very real consequences for the health and welfare of humanity, body and soul. Jesus demonstrates this throughout His earthly ministry. He grants wholeness and health. He opens the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He loosens the tongues of the mute and makes the lame to walk. He heals withered hands and cleanses lepers and raises the dead to life. And He prospers His people, which is not to say that He showers them with riches, but He provides for them. Manna in the wilderness. Our daily bread. Feeding thousands on a few loaves and fish. Everyone satisfied. The Lord will take care of His people. And He grants them tranquility. He casts out demons and preaches the Good News to the poor. Objective peace: “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 8:2). You have peace with God, who no longer holds your sins against you; and therefore, as a result, you have peace with your brothers and sisters in God’s Kingdom, and you can be a peacemaker in the world. And subjective peace: Knowing that this is the case, let not your heart be troubled. What do you have to worry about? God is for you, and not against you. All this will turn out well in the End.
That’s right, these things are a glimpse of the reality of Shalom in all its fulness on the Last Day, when the risen Christ comes again in glory, and raises us from the dead. For all those Jesus healed and raised in His earthly ministry had to get sick and die again. Their temporal relief was just that: temporal. But on that Day, it will be Shalom everlasting. And until that Day, it is the continuous partaking of Shalom in Absolution and the preaching of the Gospel, in the continual return to our Baptism into Christ, in Jesus’ bodily presence in our midst, hidden under bread and wine. For finally, the risen Lord Jesus is our Shalom Incarnate. To be with Him is to have Shalom. Jesus is our flesh and blood Peace. So maybe this is a pretty good word with which to greet one another. To speak the Shalom of God upon another is to declare that you are at peace with them for Christ’s sake, because God is at peace with us for Christ’s sake, and eternal life awaits all of us who believe in Him for Christ’s sake. To greet another with God’s Shalom, is to greet them with Christ.
Now, like Thomas, we may think that only seeing the risen Jesus for ourselves can bring us true peace. Thomas did not believe the testimony of the Apostles, which is a grievous sin. But the Lord had mercy upon him, as He does upon us in all our doubts and sins. And once again, the ever-present Lord Jesus visibly stood among His disciples and announced His Shalom, “Peace be with you” (John 20:26). “I forgive you your doubt, Thomas. Now, go ahead. Poke around in my wounds. Take a good, long look, and be no longer disbelieving, but believing. Because you are my Apostle, my eyewitness, you receive a gift that most people will not receive. You get to see me with your own eyes before my glorious return. But blessed are those who do not see, and yet they believe. Because they hear your testimony. They hear the apostolic preaching and the Holy Absolution. They receive the Scriptures, which are written that they may believe that I am the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing, they may have life and Shalom in my Name.”
You do not see. You hear. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). But then, by hearing, the eyes of faith are opened to what your fleshly eyes cannot see. For example, do you really think it is by accident that we enjoy better health, greater prosperity, unprecedented overall wellness and human freedom, since the resurrection of Christ, than anyone could have dreamed of before? Can you imagine these things happening before the advent of our Lord, His ministry, His death, His resurrection? Or apart from His Body, the Church? These things are all embodied in Christ, who heals what is broken, fills what is empty, and looses from all that binds. These are signs of the Shalom to come, and the Shalom we already have in the risen Christ Jesus. They are signs, just as the miracles were signs. Now, these signs may be taken away from us at any time, and if they are, we well deserve it. For we have mistaken the signs for the real thing, and instead of thanking God for the gift of these signs, and trusting Him for His true Shalom, we believe that we are making a true heaven on earth by our own effort, our own ingenuity, and our own brilliance. It would serve us right if God destroyed all of that in a moment, because it has become our idol. But let it not be so with you. See the signs for what they are. Gifts of God’s grace. To be received with thanksgiving and enjoyed. To be looked beyond in faith for the full reality to be revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ.
And that is why the true medicine you need is right here. Here you are, gathered together, with all your sins and fears. And here Jesus reveals His presence in your midst under bread and wine on the Altar. And what does He say to you when He thus reveals Himself? “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” “Shalom. Your sins are forgiven. You are healed from all that ails you. I am making you whole. I am giving you life.” And so He does. And so you confess: My Lord, and my God. For He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! And He is present, here and now, for you. Shalom. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Monday, April 5, 2021
The Resurrection of Our Lord
“Return to the LORD: Return and See”
April 4, 2021
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
What the women saw in the wee hours of that first day of the week, when the sun had only just risen… scared them! They had already come with great anxiety. Who will roll away the stone for us? For the stone is very large. The tomb is insurmountable. But when they arrived, they saw that the stone had already been rolled back. Strange for a tomb sealed only the day before yesterday. And upon entering the tomb, expecting, as we all would, to see a corpse, they see instead a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe. In other words, they see an angel. And now they are really scared. Alarmed, Mark says, as humans always are when they see angels. What the women see is a world turned upside down: A burst-open tomb, a living being where there should be a dead one, and the Body of their loved One, whom they’d come to anoint properly for burial, missing from the grave.
But the women do not have eyes to see… until the young man preaches to them. Do not be alarmed! Always angels have to say something along these lines when they appear to people. Don’t be afraid, Mary. Do not fear, Joseph. Fear not, shepherds, for I’ve come to bring you good news of great joy. I’ve come to preach the Gospel to you! A Savior has been born, Christ, the Lord. And so now to the women, do not be alarmed, for something has happened that will cast out fear forever. You are seeking a Jesus who was crucified, dead, and buried. But the Creed will never again end there. “He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6; ESV). The young man in the white robe preaches the death and resurrection of Jesus to the women! And hearing the preaching, they are given eyes to see!
And then they are given a message. Go and tell his disciples and Peter… Tell them what? He is going before you to Galilee. You will see Him, just as He told you. Wait, what? One can only imagine how the minds of these dear women must have struggled to catch up to the Gospel truth proclaimed into their ears and set before their eyes. If He is not here in the grave… If He is going ahead into Galilee, to meet His disciples… If we will see Him… Then it must be true, what the young man said. It must be true, what Jesus has been preaching all along. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! But they run away from the tomb, seized with trembling and astonishment, and afraid to say anything to anyone, because, well… You can understand, can’t you? Can we really believe our eyes and our ears? And if this is true… and, it’s true!... the whole world has been turned upside down.
This is why it is so important, what St. Paul writes in our Epistle (1 Cor. 15:1-11). Paul preaches a Christ who has died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and has been raised on the Third Day in accordance with the Scriptures. And this is not a pious myth, like the ancient Greek stories of old. Nor is it a figment of the women’s, or the disciples’, imagination, as though in their grief, they are unable to cope with reality. Nor is it that Jesus lived on in their hearts, like we so often say of Grandma, or another loved one who has died… which is really just to say, they are dead, and we miss them. Nor is it some sort of spiritual resurrection like the Gnostics, and liberal American pseudo-Christians, would claim, whereby Jesus overcame the bondage of His physical body, to arise spiritually in His true form. When Paul preaches (and when we preach) that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that means bodily. And it is an overwhelmingly well-attested fact. People saw Him. Touched Him. Ate with Him. He ate. He showed His crucifixion wounds. People poked around in them. And the point is, they saw. There were eyewitnesses. They had seen Him dead. Now they saw Him alive! Cephas (Peter). The Twelve. More than five hundred brothers at one time, and Paul is very careful to make the point that, though a few of them have fallen asleep (in other words, they died… but they, too, will rise), most of them are still alive and well at the time of this writing, so you can go ask them about it. They’ll tell you. Then to James, the Lord’s brother. Then to all the Apostles. And finally, on the Damascus road, to Paul himself, turning this zealous persecutor of the Church into the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Most of these people died gruesome deaths simply for believing and confessing the truth: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. And all of them suffered for it. For they knew what they had seen. They'd been given eyes to see. And they were sustained by the preaching. They’d been given ears to hear.
We wish we could see it, what they saw. Lord Jesus, just let me see You. Just a little glimpse of Your resurrection Body, and the scars of my redemption. That would be enough. But then I’m reminded of our Lord’s reaction to poor Philip, who said something very similar: Lord, show us the Father. That will be enough for us… “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9). It is true, we don’t get to meet up with Jesus in Galilee, to see Him with these still-fallen eyes. Or behind closed doors in the Upper Room, to poke around in His wounds with Thomas. Or by the Sea of Tiberius, to breakfast on His smoked fish recipe with Him. Let’s be honest… He doesn’t even knock us on our… backsides… with a blazing appearance on the roadside. And we’re probably actually thankful that one hasn’t happened, though He does have a penchant for knocking us down when we’re on the wrong road, thank God. He calls us to repentance.
But what do we see? A man (not very young, anymore, but a man) sent by God, clothed in white, proclaiming good news of great joy. Do not be alarmed. All fear is cast out. Because this Jesus, who was crucified for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, is no longer in the grave. The impregnable tomb has burst open. The stone is rolled away. Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Bodily. Just as He said. Go and tell everybody. He is going before you into heaven. And He is the firstfruits of the Resurrection. There you will see Him. Finally. These fallen, dead eyes, healed. What your ears have heard, these eyes will see… what is already the reality. It will be as Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-26). Christ is risen from the dead, bodily. And on that Day He will raise us, bodily. To live, bodily, with Him forever.
We live for that Day. And what a Day it will be. We don’t yet know, entirely, what it will be like. But as St. John writes, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). But of all people, the Prophet Isaiah gives us a pretty good picture of that Day (25:6-9), and he, writing in the Old Testament, several hundred years before Jesus was born. It will be a Feast. And not just for the Jews. Not just for the nation of Israel. But for all peoples. Even for Gentiles, like those to whom Paul preached, and like most, if not all of us, gathered together in this place. And it will be rich food, and well-aged wine; meat full of marrow, prime marbled cuts, with wine well-refined. And we know from the wedding in Cana, it will be the very best, and it will not run out. And all that now casts a pall over us, this veil that blocks our sight, He will swallow up. And that includes death forever. And He will clear our eyes. He will wipe away all our tears, taking away all sadness and sorrow and pain. And the reproach we’ve suffered here, the guilt of our sins, the world’s mockery, the devil’s accusations… that will be at an end. All will know the truth. They will see it for themselves, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that He lives, and he reigns. And what I find, perhaps, most moving, is what we will say on that Day: This is our God. We knew it! We’ve waited for Him to come and save us. And now, look. This is YHWH (and we’ll be pointing to the flesh and blood Man on the throne of His Father). This is the LORD. We have waited for Him. And here He is, our dear Savior. Let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.
That Day is coming. It is coming soon. We can be certain of it, because the young man preached, and the women saw, the eyewitnesses testified, even unto death, and these things are written that you may believe. In the meantime, here is a foretaste of the Feast to come. Here you can poke around in the risen Lord’s wounds. Eat them. Drink them. It is all true. Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! And here He is. Come and see. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).
Friday, April 2, 2021
Good Friday: “Return to the LORD: Return to Truth”
April 2, 2021
Text: John 19
“What is truth?” Pilate cynically asks (John 18:38; ESV). And the answer would, in a very short time, be hanging on the cross.
The truth is, this man is the King of the Jews, and Pilate finds no guilt in Him. But the pressure is great, and the threat of riot is very real. Pilate wishes to release Him, but the Jews demand Barabbas instead. As the Church sings, “A murderer they save, The Prince of Life they slay” (LSB 430:5).
The truth is, Pilate has an innocent man flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails, hoping to gain the sympathies of the crowd for Jesus. The truth is, the soldiers sadistically punish Him, weaving together a crown of thorns and pressing it into His brow, clothing Him in royal purple and striking Him as they offer mock obeisance.
“Behold the man!” Pilate declares (John 19:5), as he brings the pitiful spectacle before the crowd. But the truth is, this crowd has no pity. “‘Crucify!’ Is all their breath, And for His death They thirst and cry” (LSB 430:3). “We have a law,” they exclaim, “and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).
Pilate is afraid at this assertion, and continues interrogating the Accused. He is looking for an out. It is an impossible dilemma. Execute this blameless man, a gross miscarriage of justice, or face the ire and potential violence of the mob.
But Jesus is no help. He gives no answer. “Don’t You know who I am? Don’t You know who You’re talking to, Jesus?! I have the authority to save You, or kill You” But the truth is, Pilate would have no authority at all, unless it were given him from above.
And the truth is, in spite of all appearances, Jesus is in absolute control of this situation. For His will is one with the Father’s, and it is the divine will that Jesus suffer and die for the sins of the world, and in so doing, win for Himself a Kingdom.
The next charge seals the deal. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (v. 12). To be a “Friend of Caesar” is a technical term and title of honor. It means you are considered a loyal supporter of the Emperor, and even his advisor. But to rule in favor of an imperial rival, well… that is treason. “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” Ergo, Jesus opposes Caesar, and if you, Pilate, let Jesus off the hook, then you oppose Caesar. And we’ll tell him so! But as for us, we faithful Jews… “We have no king but Caesar” (v. 15).
But it is a lie! They don’t mean that, and they know it. And Pilate knows it. The truth is, the Jews had never acknowledged Caesar as the rightful king. They were looking for a Davidic King to free them from Roman rule and restore the Kingdom to Israel. But when that King’s swollen and bloodshot eyes are staring them right in the face, offering them an even greater freedom, a freedom from the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, they perceive Him as a threat… a threat to their power and position, their autonomy, and their self-generated sanctity. So they turn to the earthly powers as though they’d been loyal sons of the Empire all along. And Pilate’s hand is forced. He delivers Jesus over to them to be crucified.
What happens next is the penultimate event in all of world history. Our Lord carries His own cross to The Place of a Skull, where the soldiers nail Him to the wood, and raise Him up between two criminals. It appears as though the Romans are carrying out “just another routine execution, of another common peasant mongrel, in another backwards region of Roman conquest, in the middle of nowhere.” The soldiers did it all the time. The hills surrounding Jerusalem were routinely littered with crosses and corpses. But the truth is, this is not just an execution. It is a coronation. Jesus is ascending His throne. He wears a crown, and Pilate has written the truth above His sacred, wounded head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (v. 19). Many of you wear this sign on your t-shirt, or post it on your bumper, the initials “INRI.” You’re quoting Pontius Pilate in Latin: “Ieusus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.”
The soldiers divide His garments, a part for each man. But His tunic is seamless, a valuable specimen, so they cast lots to preserve it in one piece, to fulfill their greed. But the truth is, this fulfills the Scripture, which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v. 24; Ps. 22:18). And this is an important point. What is happening here in the crucifixion of Jesus is not by accident. It is written. It was all prophesied long ago. This is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets. It is God’s eternal plan.
And the truth is, Jesus is really in the driver’s seat throughout. Not the Jews. Not the chief priests. Not Pilate, or the soldiers, and certainly not Caesar. See how King Jesus, in the throes of His agony, provides for His mother and His beloved disciple. A son to care for St. Mary. A mother for St. John. “God setteth the solitary in families” (Ps. 68:6; KJV). And by His suffering and death, He sets you in this Family, the Family of His Father, with brothers and sisters and a place at the Table, God’s own child, a Church to call home. The truth is, you’d be utterly alone in the outer darkness of hell, were it not for gracious King Jesus, who has taken you in, to be His very own.
Now, knowing that all was now finished, His suffering complete, Jesus said, to fulfill the Scriptures, “I thirst” (John 19:28; ESV). They try to relieve Him with a sponge of sour wine… “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink,” Jesus prays in the Psalm (Ps. 69:21)… but it isn’t just that His mouth is dry, though assuredly He is physically and spiritually parched. Jesus hungers and thirsts for your righteousness (Matt 5:6), and He will not be satisfied until He has poured out His own righteousness upon you, that you may be justified, that is, counted righteous for His sake. And the truth is, that even as they lift the sponge up on a hyssop branch, the blood of God’s Paschal Lamb is painted on the door posts and lintels of the cross, and on the hearts of all who believe in Him, thus shielding you from the angel of death.
And then the declaration: “‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). He declares that the goal has been reached, that God’s wrath has been exhausted, that He has made full atonement for the sin of the world. And He bows His head, and He gives up His spirit. He has the authority to lay down His life, and the truth is, He has authority to take it up again (10:18).
But then, the truth is, that should have been your cross and your death. For it was your sin for which He was condemned. You are Barabbas. Jesus takes your place. He suffers your hell. He sheds His blood for you. He dies for you. And He does all of this willingly. The truth is, this is God’s eternal will. “O wondrous Love, what have You done! The Father offers up His Son, Desiring our salvation” (LSB 438:3). The truth is, His death saves you. And by dying for you, He becomes your King. And your old master, the serpent? His skull has been ground to dust.
God put our Lord into the deep sleep of death, and from His side formed for Him a Bride. One of the soldiers pierced Him with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19:34). Baptized into this sacred Fountain, you are born anew. Drinking from this eternal Spring, your sins are forgiven, and new life flows through your veins.
“What is truth?” The truth is not a what, but a Who. The truth is Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And you will know this truth on the Third Day, when the penultimate event in all of world history gives way to the ultimate. And not only will you know the truth, the truth will set you free (8:32). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).
Here is a manuscript version of the sermon:
Maundy Thursday: “Return to the LORD: Return to the Table”
April 1, 2021
Text: Mark 14:12-26
In the Holy Communion, God creates a union that is cross-shaped. We can think of this Communion as both vertical Communion with God, and horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians. That is, it is as we pray so often in Luther’s post-Communion collect: With this salutary gift, God strengthens us “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another” (LSB 201). Now, it is critical to understand that in both directions, it is God who creates the Communion, not us. It is the Lord’s Supper, after all, not ours. Communion is not or our making. Communion is not our work.
We do not create Communion with God by our good work of attending the Sacrament, as though we’re doing Him a favor by merely gracing Him with our presence, or, as we commonly think, doing our Sunday morning duty and getting credit for putting in the time. That is the Roman idea of ex opera operato, of the work being worked, getting credit for the mere outward act, even apart from faith in Christ, or the gifts He imparts in this Sacrament. And we certainly must guard against the idea that we create this Communion by our Sacrifice of the Mass, by our repeatedly offering up to God the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to propitiate Him for our sins. That gets the direction of the giving precisely backwards. Instead of God giving us the gift, we’d be giving a gift to God. That would make the Lord’s Supper our work for God rather than His for us, and it would rob our Lord’s death on the cross of its proper honor as the once for all atoning sacrifice for our sins.
So also, God creates our horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians. We do not create that Communion, for example, by being open and affirming of any and every idea someone has, or lifestyle they want to live, or by sweeping doctrinal differences under the rug, or opening up the Altar to anyone and everyone, regardless of what they believe they are receiving, and why they are receiving it. The Communion of the Church is not one big group hug or feelings of affection toward one another. This would be to base the Communion of the Church, at best, on superficial social acceptance and sentimentality; at worst, on deliberate disregard of God’s Word and our neighbor’s welfare, and dismissive dishonesty about our differences.
The question is, what is God uniting us around? Bread and wine? A mere symbol? Or His true Body and Blood, hidden under bread and wine, because He says so in His Word? And why is it we receive what we receive? Is it simply to commemorate Him, and to call to mind His death and resurrection? Does it depend on our faith heroically stretching up to heaven to receive the Lord’s salvation somewhere up there? Or is it heaven come down to us poor sinners (who are incapable of stretching anywhere), Jesus handing over the goods, the Lord Himself present to impart all His saving benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation as He feeds us with His crucified and risen Body and Blood?
As it happens, we don’t have to wonder. Both Jesus and St. Paul answer the question. What is this bread? “(T)his is my body,” Jesus says (Mark 14:22; ESV). What is this wine? “This is my blood of the covenant,” Jesus says (v. 24). And St. Paul underscores the point that the cup of blessing that we bless, that is, the cup we consecrate with the Lord’s own Words in the Supper, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Blood of Christ. We share in it. We partake of it as we drink it. And the bread that we break, he says, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Body of Christ. We share in it. We partake of it as we eat it.
And it is not these things because of some indelible character stamped on the clergyman whereby he is given the mystical ability to confect the Sacrament. Nor is it these things because of your faith’s ability to reach up really high, where Jesus is, and claim it for yourself. It is these things because Jesus says so. The Word makes the thing what it is. The Body of Christ. The Blood of Christ. The Holy Communion.
And it is this Body and Blood that unite us to God, and to our fellow believers in Christ. Because this is the Body and Blood of God Himself, the eternal Son of the Father, who is incarnate, who has taken on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He is a flesh and blood God. It is this very Body given into death on the cross for our sins. It is this very Blood shed on the cross for our sins. It is the Body and the Blood now risen from the dead, and living, and reigning, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And He puts that Body and Blood into us. So that the Body and Blood crucified for our sins imparts the forgiveness He won for us. So that the Body and Blood now risen from the dead becomes one with us and gives us new life. Therefore, being forgiven of all our sins, we are able to forgive one another, break bread with one another, and live together in peace and unity, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
So the sin that separates us from God, and from one another, has been done to death by Jesus, who died for us on the cross. All those sins are forgiven. And the proof of it is the Sacrifice of Atonement that we are given to eat and drink in this Sacrament. And the new life and right spirit we need to live now in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another is likewise imparted in the eating and drinking of the risen Body and Blood of Jesus. In feeding us the fruits of His cross, He creates the cross shaped Communion we enjoy in the Church, Communion with God, Communion with one another.
But I can already hear one objection arising in your mind. If it is God who creates this Communion, both with Himself, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, why do we practice closed Communion. It feels like we are being exclusive, particularly of other Christians whom we confess to be believers in Christ and children of God. Actually, your concern is noble. If the purpose of closed Communion were to keep the Communion Table pure, so that we don’t soil ourselves with the unclean or the otherwise inadequate, we’d be no better than the Pharisees who couldn’t bear to see Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners. And if we were honest, we’d have to end up excluding ourselves. Because we are the tax collectors and sinners.
The Church is not a club, never mind an exclusive one. There is no one we don’t want in this Communion. The purpose of closed Communion is actually not to keep people out. It is to bring them in by the proper, God-given way. It is to protect them from the dire consequences of playing around with very powerful, Holy Things they don’t yet understand, or about which they maintain false beliefs. In other words, it is done in fervent love. It is to take seriously St. Paul’s warning that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” and that “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30). He doesn’t deny that they are Christians and that they will go to heaven when they die. He says that eating and drinking without discerning the body, without knowing and believing what it is that the Lord here gives us, is dangerous spiritually and physically.
So what is the solution to that? Instruction. We make this too complicated. Closed Communion is actually quite simple. We simply ask that before you commune, you take an instruction class with the pastor. And if you agree with what he teaches, you join the congregation and come to Communion. And if you don’t agree with what he teaches, why would you want to go to Communion here? Communion is, after all, a confession of unity with this Church, that you believe what this Church believes, teaches, and confesses. Where there are disagreements, by the way, between this and other Christian Church-bodies, we shouldn’t just say, “Oh well!” and jump into Altar and Pulpit Fellowship (that is, Communion) together. We should work toward agreement on the basis of God’s Word, and pray that God gives us unity, for He alone can. Communion is always the goal. Always. And if we don’t reach that goal in this world, we know it will be our reality in heaven. And in the meantime, we love one another, we pray for one another, we rejoice in the faith we do hold in common, even as we discuss our differences honestly, and we wait upon the Lord to deliver us from all division. For He alone creates the Communion of the Church.
And yes, it is also true that another facet of closed Communion is that those who refuse to repent of their sins are denied Communion until they repent. This is not because they are worse sinners than those who commune, or even than the pastor distributing the Communion. Not at all. It is rather because of their refusal to repent. It would be dangerous for them to come to Communion while refusing to acknowledge and confess their sins. It is the loving exercise of Church discipline, the exercise of the binding key the Lord has given His Church, as in “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). This is the Law. The unrepentant are bound in their sins, but always with this goal: That they come to repentance, that they come back to faith in Jesus, that they be loosed, absolved, forgiven, and restored to the Holy Communion. This is the Gospel. The Lord must do this. He must work in their hearts, by means of His Spirit, in His Word. But this is important, because it is a matter of eternal life and death.
The truth is, all who come to Communion (and that means you) are sinners. And if they come in repentance for their sins, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive His Body and His Blood for the forgiveness of their sins, this is the Lord’s doing, by His Spirit, in His Word. By His cross, the Lord Jesus creates the cross-shaped Holy Communion of faith toward God, and fervent love toward one another. Sins forgiven, what is broken is restored. It is not something we do. It is all Him. It is all His gift, to be received as He gives it. He gives it by His Word, which makes the thing what it is. Heaven comes down. Our Lord hands over the goods, the fruits of His cross, His true Body under the bread, His true Blood under the wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. When you eat and drink this Supper, you eat and drink Jesus Christ. By it, He forgives your sins, and gives you eternal life, in Communion with Him, and with the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus.
“May God bestow on us His grace and favor That we follow Christ our Savior And live together here in love and union Nor despise this blest Communion! O Lord, have mercy! Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us; Grant that heav’nly minded He make us; Give Thy Church, Lord, to see Days of peace and unity: O Lord, have mercy!” (LSB 617:3). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme for this sermon is from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).