Good Friday Sermon

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

We preach Christ crucified.  This is the Church’s sermon.  Her only sermon.  Like the Lord’s Prayer is the chief prayer from which all others flow, so this sermon – Christ crucified – is the chief sermon from which all others flow.  Far be it from us to boast except in the cross of Christ.

He is risen. He lives.  But we preach Christ crucified.  Not in opposition to the resurrection, not in denial of the resurrection as you’ll hear tomorrow at the vigil and on the glorious Easter morning.  But we preach Christ crucified because by His death we die to sin. By His stripes we are healed of disease. His wounds were meant for us.  But He bore the load.  He paid the price.  He bought you back from sin and death by pouring out His blood and suffering death on the cross.

We preach Christ crucified because this is how you, O man, are reconciled to God.  There is no other way.  There is no other name by which you are saved, redeemed, rescued, and snatched out of the jaws of death and hell.

We were on a death march, headed for Hades.  Eternal death.  We were headed for annihilation, for utter destruction; the wages of our sin.  But we were saved.  Rescued.  We were purchased.  Our wage paid.  Jesus paid it with His precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.  We are His because He bought us.  We preach Christ crucified.

The crucifix worn around the necks of saints and that adorns the sacred, hallowed walls and altars of the churches of God is a beautiful thing; a glorious thing.  It is a picture of your Master’s greatest gift to you: His life.  It is the symbol of your redemption, O sinner.  The crucifix preaches Christ crucified, the greatest sermon ever preached.  He was crushed for our iniquity, we are raised up by His innocence.

It is good to contemplate the death of Jesus, the death of God’s own Son.  It is good to consider the nails and spear that pierced Him through, the cross He bore for me for you, this Man, this Son of Mary.  Befitting the kingdom of heaven that always turns everything upside down and calls things that are not as though they were, that forgives sins and proclaims life in the midst of death, befitting the kingdom is that here on this darkest of nights in all time and space when the world would think we Christians are most to be pitied, for our God died, the refrain that sings the loudest is the refrain sung by heralding angels in the skies of Bethlehem: “Hail, the heaven born Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”  Behold, O man, your King!

We preach Christ crucified.  On the cross He bore upon His frame the weight of all sin and shame.  You and I are free from shame, free from guilt, free from death because this one Man, God’s own Son, died.  Died to sin once for all.  And as many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. You have been buried with Him into death, the death to sin.  The life you live you live in Christ crucified.  The blood poured out for you, for me, was poured into the font where water mixed with Word brings the power of the blood of God, washing you clean from crimson sin.  Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of Christ.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Necessity of Ritual

Last night was Maundy Thursday.  We celebrated the true Passover.  We chanted the twenty-second psalm.  We stripped the altar.  My little girl cried.

She’s three and a half years old.  She doesn’t know the 22nd psalm or it’s significance. She doesn’t listen to her dad’s sermons.  She plays in the pew; sometimes quietly, sometimes with vigor.  But last night she cried.  She watched in confusion and distrust as the altar was stripped, the paraments removed, the cross gone.  “Mommy, why are they doing that?  Where are they taking it?”  “They’re stripping the altar because tomorrow is Good Friday, the day Jesus died.”  “I don’t want Jesus to die!”  My little girl cried at the death of Jesus.

There was no band, no emotional music.  The lights weren’t dimmed.  No heart-felt pleas from a breathy minister pleading with the congregation to emotionally connect to Jesus or the cross.  There were no “mourners” to set the mood. No in-the-background gimmicks to move the heart.  Nothing but a congregation laboriously chanting a psalm and two men stripping the altar.

The worse thing I could do would be to correct her and tell that Jesus isn’t dying today.  Of course He’s not.  But if I always explain the parable then the hearer never engages the word.   Worse, though, are those who never let their sons and daughters hear or see the parable.  Let her think Jesus is dying today.  She’ll ask why.  I’ll tell her.  She’ll be sad.  I’ll let her.  It is sad.  But not for Jesus.  He says, “Do not weep for me.”  She’ll live like Mary, sad at the tomb.  Then she’ll live like Mary, joyful at the resurrection.

We shouldn’t forget that Jesus is raised from the dead so that we can relive holy week and Easter in some play-like remembrance.  Preachers shouldn’t preach during holy week as if Jesus were dead.  He is risen, that’s the good news.  We shouldn’t employ ritual simply to tell a story; that’s a play, not ritual.   The point of ritual is not to tell the story as if we’re putting on a play.  The point of ritual is to confess.  Ritual confesses.  The ritual of stripping the altar confesses that Jesus died.  When ritual confesses then it does its job.  When ritual confesses then we confess with it and learn by its confession.  That’s what happened with my little girl.  She heard the confession.  When she is older the ritual may or may not invoke the same emotional response.  But it will confess the same confession.  The ritual will speak, guided under the words of Scripture, the ritual will preach.  Ritual is louder than our attempts to impress upon others what we think they should be feeling.  Ritual is clearer than our muddled ideas about when this emotion should be at the fore and when it should be subdued for another to take it’s place.  Ritual affects emotion as a side effect, not as the purpose.

Don’t replace ritual with plays, they’re fake and fading.  Don’t reduce ritual to pragmatic ideas based on telling the story.  Confess, in word and deed confess.  That’s ritual.  Bring your sons and daughters to participate in the ritual, not like characters in a play, but as hearers and doers of the Word.  Let their emotions be affected, but don’t work for an emotional effect.  Then emotions become the target instead of the will, which is the heart.

My little girl will most likely grow out of this bare emotion at Jesus’ death.  Or at least she’ll learn that He died nearly 2,000 years ago and not on every Good Friday.  But she will never grow out of the confession that He did in fact die, and that He is indeed raised from the dead.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  Ritual, indeed.

Pilate: The Quintessential Christian

What is truth?  How do you know?  What makes you so sure?  Do you know what I can do to you?  I wash my hands.  I am innocent.

Pilate is the quintessential Christian.  He wants to know the truth but will not listen to the Truth, which both condemns and absolves him.  He wants to do right by all, but his ambitions and fears make him do wrong by all.  He lets sinners get away with sin even as he proclaims his innocence.  He tries to stand up for the innocent but ends up condemning the innocent and pardoning the guilty so that he won’t suffer.  Sound familiar? It does to me.  It did to Paul: the good I would do I do not do and the evil I don’t want to do, that I do.

We often use this saying of the Apostle in daily life, recognizing that we sin against God by what we have done and left undone.  We readily acknowledge that there are things we should and should not do and that we often do the opposite, even though most of the time – if not always – we speak in the abstract in order not to be too condemnatory of ourselves.  But Pilate wasn’t deciding whether to raise taxes or whether to invite his wife to dinner or whether to give charitable givings.  Pilate was dealing with the Christ of God.  The good he would do – be innocent of this Man’s blood – he did not do; and the bad he did not want to do – condemn an innocent man – he did.

Our chief good vs. evil is not in the things  of daily life, but before Jesus.

Why?  Because we think it’s about us.  Pilate thought this trial, this riot, this problem was about him.  He thought all eyes were on him.  He thought Rome was watching him to see how he’d handle the riot; he thought the Jews were watching him to see if he was on their side; he thought Jesus was depending on him to be just and fair; he thought he was the one that released Barabbas; he thought he was innocent of the blood of Jesus.  Pilate was wrong.  None of this was about him.  Finally Pilate gets it right.  When?  When he takes all eyes, including his own, off himself and directs them to Jesus, “Behold the man!”

We always think it’s about us.  What will people say of us? What will they do to us?  What will we gain by doing this or that?  We are wrong.  It’s not about us, not at all.  It’s about Jesus.

Tradition vs. Ritual

In last evening’s Adult Forum the topic of tradition as a medium of divine revelation and instruction came up.  My Lutherans rightly pointed out that tradition does not decide doctrine, but all doctrine is decided by Scripture alone.  But during the discussion I discovered that while they rightly confessed that all doctrine is defined, decided, and given by Scripture, they were confused about what tradition meant. They wanted to say that tradition is unnecessary and even harmful, but were caught by the fact that the apostles speak of maintaining the traditions.  It occurred to me that the confusion happened because they had no working distinction between tradition and ritual, a distinction that is as important as that between Law and Gospel.

The apostle Paul writes to the church in Corinth (ch. 11) that he commends the Corinthians because they maintain the traditions he gave them.  He writes to the Thessalonians (ch. 2) that they should “stand firm and hold to the traditions” that they were taught by him and the other apostles.  The Apostle commands the same church “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (3:6)  It seems that tradition is apostolic and not to be made void.

On the other hand, the Apostle says to the saints in Colossae, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (2:8)  Tradition, then, is either apostolic or it is not. If it not apostolic then it is not to be followed as if it came from the apostles.  So what are the apostolic traditions?  (No, this is not a plug for St. Hyppolytus, though one could do far worse.) In a nutshell the apostolic traditions are the sacraments.  By these traditions we participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  By participating in the traditions we participate in the life of Jesus. So Baptism brings life and salvation; absolution brings life and salvation; the Holy Supper brings life and salvation; preaching brings life and salvation.  No, not in the same way or even along the same lines, but in the end, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.  That is participating in the life of Jesus who is the Life of the world and her Savior.  I know I’m painting with broad strokes, but my point is not to argue the nuances of the sacraments but to say that they are the mysteries of which the apostles (and so the apostolic office) were made stewards (1 Cor 4:1).  These mysteries invite us to participate in the greatest mystery, God in flesh made manifest.  By the mysteries of God we remain united to Christ and so to God, waiting for the consummation of the age when the dead are raised.

And unless we maintain these traditions we will not be those built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  We will not be among the saints of God.

But ritual is not apostolic tradition.  Ritual surrounds the traditions, but they are not the traditions.  You can’t have the traditions without ritual, but the two are to be distinguished.  So it is true that we must participate in the Eucharist, but we don’t have to kneel or use a common cup or break a single loaf of bread.  Neither must we sing the Agnus Dei or chant the Verba.  On the other hand, there is no Lord’s Supper if it is not done with the Verba, in the congregation, and with the confession of faith (1 Cor. 11).

Ritual can be decided by two chief factors amidst some minor ones.  The first thing to consider is what ritual will best convey what is happening, why it is happening, and what the significance of it is.  This is not a two minute explanation in front of the assembly, but the ritual doing what it does: teaching and supporting the tradition.  What is best practice according to the faith and apostolic instruction?  The second thing to consider is the history of the saints from whom we received both our ritual and the tradition it carries.  This will keep us from going it alone or become innovative.  We should not easily or inadvisedly ignore the Church’s ritual just because we don’t like it or it doesn’t make sense to us.  Rather we should let the ritual teach us.  These two chief factors breed reverence.   Irreverence is mockery and God will not be mocked. Reverence is not optional and it is the job of ritual to make sure we are at least outwardly reverent.

So what is bad tradition?  Bad ritual is ritual that allows or even promotes irreverence.  Bad tradition is anything that is said to bring us to and in Christ in the working of the Spirit that raised Him from the dead but does not have the witness of the apostles to go with it.  In short, bad or wicked traditions are those things that promise to deliver the mercy, grace, and favor of God, as the sacraments do, but do not have the Scriptural foundation of the sacraments.  These traditions are the teachings of demons because they mislead a person into false belief.

On the other hand, a congregation can have bad ritual but maintain the traditions of the apostles.  That’s not ideal and we should not settle for bad ritual, but it can happen and does more often that we are aware of.  But good ritual does not sanctify bad tradition.  So the distinction between ritual and tradition is important, even vital; especially in our day when so many are divided on the issue.  Perhaps we can add a thesis to Walther’s theses on the proper distinction between Law and Gospel.  Something like this: “A preacher has not properly distinguished the Law and the Gospel when he preaches or teaches in such a way that the hearer thinks that he can be saved without the apostolic traditions or when he thinks that tradition is nothing more than ritual.”

A re-post from Gottesdienst

For those of you who don’t read Gottesdienst blog, this is worth reading.

Thanks, Fr. Petersen.