Liturgically this is the fist Sunday after the festival half of the year. Every preacher tends to have their pet peeves or things that frustrate them. One of mine is this Sunday which just drops us into the middle of the gospel’s account in a way that you lose all context. One of my home grown crackpot theories is that a big problem with Christians today is that none of them know the story. And I mean that in a small way and a large way. The small way is the Jesus story – what the gospels tell us. Every Christian should know the Jesus story well enough such that when any given text is referenced they know the context. In the larger way I mean the biblical story: Patriarchs, Exodus, Judges, Saul & David, Kings & Prophets, Exile, Return and waiting; John the Baptist, Jesus, Apostles, waiting. Doctrine is great, and I tried to offer a defense of it last week on Trinity Sunday, but sermons that are doctrinal first tend to be static to me. It is the story, the good news, that comes first. So consistently missing the Galilean ministry as the current lectionary does, bugs me.
So, this sermon spends a little longer than I might normally catching us up. It is important for the lesson in that we understand the statement being made in this appearance of the centurion. What is being made is a statement of just what this Kingdom is about? Neither nationality, nor works. Not pedigree, or merit. It is based on Jesus. Worthiness has nothing to do with anything other than Jesus. This sermon explores that and our reaction to that fact.
This was Trinity Sunday. Traditionally it is the Sunday we bring out the Athanasian Creed. The creeds in general but that creed in particular are statements of doctrine. Also, Trinity or Triune is not a word found in the scriptures, but a church word, a doctrinal word. For that reason, Trinity Sunday is a day to talk a bit about doctrine. We live in a time where the most successful churches, judged by the criteria of numbers, tend to eschew doctrine if not run fleeing from the word. “Deeds, not creeds” is a phrase for a purpose. But historically, and by historically I mean for 1,950 years, the church was a doctrinal body. Doctrine united. It produced creeds and confessions. It argued and debated and sometimes went further over doctrine. You can’t read Paul’s letters or even the Sermon on the Mount and not understand the deeds of Christ and the apostles driven by their creeds.
What this sermon attempts to do is correct the false understanding of doctrine that I think drives much of it becoming a pejorative word. When you picture doctrine and the voice of Mother church, as the voice of Lady Wisdom calling, you get a better idea. It is not a club to end seeking. Doctrine is an invitation to faith. It is an invitation to seek understanding. Armed with that understanding, the wise son when Mom says “because I said so” responds not with sullen anger but “what am I missing?” The person who loves you most is asking “walk with me, even if you don’t quite understand.” The wise son walks with and seeks that understanding.
Pentecost, especially in the readings this year, is a day about language. For all we depend upon it, language is something that we don’t really think much about. We let writers and preachers do that. But if we don’t have the language for something there is a question how long it can actually exist, or if we can truly experience it. That is one of the spurs for stealing words from other languages – to experience and describe experience more precisely. One of the deep lessons of Babel is that when language breaks down, that is God’s punishment. Babel is God’s Punishment, Pentecost is God’s salvation.
The Jewish Pentecost was the receiving of the law at Sinai. That is the start of our salvation. It starts to make things clear, but the law itself has no power. That is this later Pentecost, when the Spirit is poured out.
The title comes from the diagnosis of a Babel and a call to a new Pentecost.
Our concluding Hymn is my favorite Pentecost one. LSB 500, Creator Spirit, by Whose Aid. The text is an ancient chant from the 8th century that comes to us through John Dryden the English poet. It displays both a sacramental view of the world and worship. At the end of verse two: Your sacred healing message bring, to sanctify us as we sing. But the jewel of it for me is verse three in how it describes the work of the Spirit abiding in us.
Your sevenfold gifts to us supply
Help us eternal truths receive
And practice all that we believe
Give us yourself that we might see
The glory of the Trinity.
Through the working of the Spirit, through His sanctification, we receive the eternal truth which is Jesus Christ. Receiving Christ and repenting, we then seek to follow him, to put into practice the love we have been give. And we do this because of our hope in the resurrection, that we might see the Trinity face to face. Just a beautiful hymn that maintains a bit of its chant origin.
We observed Ascension Day yesterday. The core teaching of Ascension day is right in the creed. He sits at the right hand of god. Christ reigns. Simple teaching, plenty of proofs throughout history. But there are two standing complaints, both express right away by the disciples. THis sermon looks at both of those complaints. It suggest a reasoning, part of it is where the title comes from. God does not desire courtiers, but Knights of Faith. It ends with a comparison of everything that we might find “more real” than an ascended king with a challenge to compare their realities. When you do that, you’ve answered the second complaint.
The final hymn in our worship I think captures the message of Ascension Day perfectly. LSB 830 Spread the Reign of GOd the Lord. It is also paired with a pretty tuned that I’ve been humming for the last day.
Biblical Text: John 16:23-33, Acts 16:9-15 draft 1.0
I was trying for something a little different here. In my simple reading of the text I found two themes: 1) Prayer and 2) Jesus overcomes the world. It is the juxtapostion of those two things that was interesting to me because prayer seems to be the weakest thing in the world. From a purely materialist standpoint, and we are all de facto materialists, it does nothing. Yet this is what enables us to overcome the world.
What I latched onto was a comparison to the letter. I attempted to mine an old emotional connection and reflect on changes and what has been lost. How losing personal letters makes prayer that much more difficult to understand. The core of the comparison has two points. Every letter (at least good ones) was an act of love and an invitation into that persons life. Every letter was also a plea or a promise to come, we will not always be separated. We will see each other in the flesh. Prayer is the same. It is God’s Spirit present with us, and it is the promise that we will not always be so separated.
I wish I could have carried it off better. But…
THe hymn of the day left in the recording was LSB 779 Come My Soul with Every Care. I think the hymn in its verses recognizes this movement of prayer. At first it is a law – Jesus bids us pray. Then it is petitions of a King – just big stuff. But then there is a breakthrough, the big stuff is the sin and guilt that separate. This is the gospel recognition. The fourth verse moves prayer from this real to that personal love. “Lord, thy rest to me impart, take possesion of my heart.” Your kingdom has come, let it come to me also. The final two verses capture what it points toward. “While I am a pilgrim here, :et they love my spirit cheer.” Pilgrims eventually reunite at home. But verse six is the recognition that I as a pilgrim have a duty. “Show me what is mine to do.” The prayer has started simply as law and ends as pure gospel. Because of love, because of the beloved and His presence in prayer, I seek what I should do. Not out of compulsion, but love.
This is a tough passage to preach on. In part because Jesus just repeats himself. He knows he has things to say, but it is like the only language he has is modern English. Until Pentecost, or until after the little while, none of it will really make sense to Aramaic Peter. For me it forces a meditation on sorrow and joy and the appropriate time we can expect them. When Jesus uses ‘a little while’ the immediate meaning is clear to us – after the Supper until Easter Morning. But Jesus connects ‘a little while’ to the eschatological – the time between the advents. For a little while we lament, and that little while is now. But we also have the same joy that cannot be taken away as those disciples – He’s risen. What we do not yet have is our completion, our final sanctification.
So, now, we share in the cross, or we share in nothing. We also share in the resurrection, while we groan for our new birth as true humans.
Recording notes: 1. The recording chip fell out of my suit pocket, so this is a re-recording. 2. The hymn references in the sermon is LSB 756 Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me. I’m sorry I lost the recording because this is one of those deep hymns. Gerhardt does a better job of the sermon than I do. The tune it is paired with I find touching as well. Here is another recording of it.
Some days you have a text that has a powerful image. Like this one with the image of “my sheep”. That image isn’t unimportant, but especially when it is a beloved image, it can erase the rest of the text. It can obscure everything that might contain treasures that aren’t quite as bright. This text has launched many a sermonic broadside on the doctrine of election as well as many sugary sweet meditations on the love of the shepherd. Decent theology and preaching. But the conflict or question in the text isn’t over the things caught up in the image of sheep. The conflict is over the reaction to their statement. Even when it is stated plainly, some believe and some don’t. The question is not if Jesus is the Christ. He is. What we must come to understand is what Christ means. It does include power, but it is a power displayed in this world through weakness. It a power that is great enough to show itself on a cross. Jesus proclaims himself plainly in words, but more clearly in his deeds. And those deeds inspire believe in the sheep, and rejection in others. Revelation is always about faith. Is God – Father, Son and Spirit – as Jesus has revealed him? Does the cross inspire trust, or revolt.
On a practical level, when you pass over such an image for a different thread, you’ve created a problem in the worship service. You won’t get it on the recording, but the hymns of the day were largely given to that image. The hymns are always a second sermon. Most of the time you hope they reinforce what you are going to be saying. Occasionally you let them preach the well worn sermons while you try something different.
John includes a third resurrection appearance in his Gospel. He has the first Easter represented by The Magdalene, John and Peter’s trips to the tomb. He has the second represented by Thomas. And then the third is this fishing trip. There are two things that stand out about this third day to me. The first is the exact number – 153 fish. That has stood out to a bunch of other people as well, and this sermon looks at it a little. The second item is how meaningful it is to compare this fishing trip to a fishing trip at the start of the ministry of Jesus. Luke records it as the calling of the first disciples.
THe developed points in this sermon are the simple importance of the material, or the bodily resurrection. If you are asking me the 153 fish are just 153 fish. It is one of those rediculous details that stick out about great days. The point is not a meaning on deeper reflection but the readily apparent meaning that Christ is Lord over the material as well as the spiritual. It is all his. The second half of the sermon does develop a meditative meaning in contrast to the first fishing expedition. In that sense John’s resurrection account is a looking forward to our resurrection, to pulling all the fish to the shore.
Preaching on Easter is a unique experience. You do get the full joy. A full house. The best music and hymns. The core message. But you also get the full foolishness of the gospel. As if some loser 2000 years after the event could possibly have anything to say. At least the Orthodox just get in the pulpit and repeat Chrysostom. Likewise the proclamation is unique, sui generis, not replicable until well it is replicated. All examples and illustration and props are gone. All you can point at is Christ. He’s risen. Any eloquence you might have, any cunning or logic is stripped away. He’s Risen. This is how God fixes broken things. After the cross, resurrection. And there you have it. He’s either defeated death, and it will be given to you at the right time, or his hasn’t. I’m just the messenger telling you what I’ve been told and believe. He’s risen. Broken things will rise.
Recording note. I would love to have left some of the music on, but the gap between the live experience of Easter music and our poor recording of it is just too much. So, it is just the lessons and sermon. Come to church next week. We will still be singing the Easter hymns on the octave.
The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostles creed though states it “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the apostles, was clearer. That apostles creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring to the scriptural teaching. Not a loss but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.
Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on one thing here. What Peter says is Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite is the hymn verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it. I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What descent into hell means is the victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we got ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.