Saturday, April 18, 2009

Life After Easter - Only in the Word Crucified.

In the Name of our Crucified and Risen Lord Christ. Amen

Dear fellow Christians redeemed through the blood of Jesus:

In the old days, the Church pulled out all the stops for services on Easter Dawn and Easter Morning — and Easter Evening and Easter Monday and Easter Tuesday. Forty days of Lent followed by fifty days of Easter Light, Easter Joy, Easter Alleluias. Fifty full days of responding in faith — with our mouths and hearts — to the announcement of the angels, "You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. See the place where they laid him."
But these days we are all wiped out after Easter Morning. Our energies are spent, our batteries dead and our service to the Lord and his Church worn out. No wonder why, more often than not, in Christian Churches around the country, this Sunday, the Sunday after Easter, suffers from the worst attendance of any Sunday of the Church Year. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Is there life after Easter? And if so, what kind of life is there for the Church, for us as Christians, for all who are true children of God and his salvation given through Christ's Word and Spirit?
Life for the believer in the light of Easter is to be understood in light of seven verses in the third chapter of the book of Genesis:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (Genesis 3:1-7 ESV)

The temptation to follow our fallen eyes instead of our redeemed ears is as much a reality for us as it was for Eve in the Garden under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The world, in it's unbelief, knows everything about seeing, but very little about listening. Our old nature will always prefer what is glorious to the eyes over the truth and hidden glory of the Word. As Satan whispered, "Look at it. Touch it. Feel it. Take it." to our great-great-grandmother, so he whispered to the disciples and to Thomas: "Seeing is believing. Follow your eyes and finger and hand. Don't trust mere words. Don't put your faith in what comes out of some man's mouth. Demand evidence that you can grab and hold on to."
The women had — despite their great fear and the great possibility that the disciples would write them off as silly — faithfully reported what the angel at the tomb had announced. As the first Easter dawn witnesses of their Lord's resurrection, the women had not only reported what they had seen, but, bottom line, what they had heard from heaven's messenger:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, [just] as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” (Matthew 28:1-6 ESV)

There are too many congregations that believe the center of the saving Gospel in light of the Lord's Resurrection is: "Jesus isn't dead anymore. He lives on." But Easter is as much a celebration of Jesus not being dead anymore as Good Friday is a funeral service.
This is the dirty little secret that the devil, the world and our old sinful nature loves to perpetuate. This is the Gospel that isn't really the Gospel at all. And this is the reason why we feel so burned out and lifeless after all the busyness and hoopla of Easter activities.
The festival of the Resurrection of our Lord can't be an event "for our eyes only." It must be a fifty day "Amen!" to what we have heard from heaven, a fifty day "Alleluia!" to the words of the angels, a life-long response in faith to the Word of God — the Word of God in, with and under the prophets and apostles; the Word of God in, with and under water; the Word of God in, with and under bread and wine; the Word of God in, with, and under human flesh and blood.
When Saint John began his inspired narrative of salvation fulfilled in Christ, he focused not on Jesus' good looks and charismatic personality that made teenage girls scream and faint. Saint John follows the revealed history of creation when he presents the history of creation restored by centering not only the first chapter but the entire Gospel account on the Word — the Word with a capital W. The Word that creates and redeems and restores a fallen creation and a sin-enslaved humanity.
Thomas doubted the reports of the women and the other disciples because he let his unbelieving old nature lead. "I need proof — proof that my eyes can see, my finger touch, my hand confirm. Without evidence that I can grab on to — I will never believe!"
That's why churches have thrown out the hymnal and the pipe organ and the piano and the choir and replaced it with sub-woofers, liturgical dancers and a drum set. "I don't want to hear the worship service, I want to feel it." they say.
But feeling that Jesus is alive again does us no good at all. Sometimes, when it comes to the true Christian faith, seeing isn't believing.
That was exactly the problem with the Jewish religious leaders. They demanded signs because they didn't want the Word of God given in grace and received in faith. They hungered for a religious circus. The religious leaders at the foot of the cross became the mouthpiece of Satan himself as they tempted Jesus with the words, "Come down from the cross, that we may see and believe!"
They followed evil King Herod himself in demanding that Jesus perform for them. "Show me." Herod demanded. "Do a little performance for me, and maybe I won't do to you what I did to your friend, John the Baptist."
But, as Jesus had told the Pharisees, no performance would be given. No song and dance for those who refused to hear the Word of the Lord — for those who refused to open their ears and hearts to the Word of God made flesh and blood. No miraculous sightings in bleeding marble statues. No miraculous appearances in patterns of granite cut for a church altar. No miraculous images on bagels or tortillas or Cheetos or frozen fish stick. Nothing we can see today save the words handed down from the pen of the prophets and apostles; the words of the Divine Service, the words of the Creed; the words of the hymnal and Small Catechism; the words from the font and altar.
So when Jesus shows up before the disciples in the upper room that first Easter Sunday evening, the first thing our Lord does is not give out hugs or pull a rabbit out of his tunic. He speaks as the Word of God — the Word of God crucified, dead and buried, raised on the third day.
He speaks as the great Good Shepherd — the great Good Shepherd who bears in his wrists and feet and side the marks of laying his life down — for the eternal salvation of sheep that loved to wander.
This is the only thing that could bring the shaking-in-their-boots disciples peace, and it is the only thing that can give any of us the peace that surpasses all human understanding. Jesus is giving witness to all that he had been sent to accomplish as he shows the marks of his sacrificial death in his hands and feet and side — marks of the crucifixion that will bear witness to God's grace and Christ's love for the world — even in eternity.
Only with Christ the crucified can we hear the Word of eternal peace graciously given for doubting, grumbling, unbelieving, rebel children of Adam and Eve who would rather see a floor show than close their mouths and listen to the Word of God with the ears and heart of faith.
"Peace be unto you." our risen-from-the-dead Lord announces on that first Easter evening. "I given you my peace — the fruit of my birth, for you; the fruit of my perfect life, for you; the fruit of my agony in the garden, for you; the fruit of my passion, for you; the fruit of my bitter suffering and death, for you; the fruit of my three day rest in the tomb, for you; the fruit of my resurrection and ascension into heaven — all for you and for the world."

When Jesus appeared to his disciples it was in the same upper room in which he instituted his Holy Supper: the culmination and fulfillment of everything the Passover and Exodus pointed to. The same room in which he announced how this particular peace would be won. "Take, drink. This is the cup of the new testament [my last will and testament] poured out for many for the forgiveness of sin."
This is how central the forgiveness of sins is for the Church and for each of us as Christians — because it was everything that Christ came to fulfill for us all. Eternal, life-giving peace between God and neighbor through the forgiveness of sins. That is what was on Jesus' mind during the Last Supper, the walk to the Garden of Gesthemane, the agonizing prayer a stone's throw away from sleeping disciples, the scourging, the mockery and temptation from the foot of the cross, the unimaginable forsakenness upon the Cross. "This will win peace for the world. This will secure forgiveness for all my Father's children."

There is life after Easter — only if there is life given and received and kept safe in our Lord Christ. Even after the Easter lilies have faded and the family get-togethers forgotten and the Easter left-overs consumed, there is life in Christ wherever he is present to announce: "Stop being faithless and believe that I have secured the forgiveness of sins through my sacrificial death and resurrection. Freely I give to you my saving Word. Hold tight to it as I declare unto all who will receive my Word in faith: Peace be with you — always."
May we, with Thomas, hear the Word of God with redeemed ears, that we might respond with a mouth and heart of faith, "Alleluia. He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity — for me."

In the Name of our Crucified and Risen Lord Christ. Amen