4th Sunday of Easter – C LSB #’s 857, 851, 848
Text – Acts 20:35
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak & remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He Himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
IN THIS WAY
Upon entering a little country store a stranger noticed a sign, posted on the glass door. It read, “DANGER! BEWARE OF DOG!” Inside, he noticed a harmless old hound dog sound asleep on the floor near the cash register. So he asked the store’s owner, “Is that the dog folks are supposed to ‘beware’ of?” The proprietor answered, “Yep, that’s him.”
The stranger couldn’t help being amused. “That does not look to me like a dangerous dog,” he chuckled. “Why in the world did you decide to post that sign?” The owner replied, “Because, before I posted the sign, people kept tripping over him.” It seems that even a useless old guard dog will from time to time slow people down if they happen to trip over him.
Would people say that’s the kind of Christian you are? Do you want people to trip over you & only then discover that you are a watchdog for the Lord? Or, would you rather be alert & ready to point people to the true life that exists in Jesus Christ alone? How would you describe the life you lead as a follower of Jesus? Are you a sleepy old hound dog?
Those can be difficult words to consider. They challenge us & can easily be taken as offensive. Yet, the words of St. Paul also challenge you & me to be something more than a lazy old hound dog when it comes to following the Savior of the world. Long before the apostle Paul, the prophet Isaiah had some very challenging words for the kings & prophets of Israel:
“For the leaders of my people – the Lord’s watchmen, His shepherds – are blind & ignorant. They are like silent watchdogs that give no warning when danger comes. They love to lie around, sleeping & dreaming.” (Isaiah 56:10 NLT) That’s rather harsh, isn’t it? Then, Isaiah goes into more detail: “…They are ignorant shepherds, all following their own path & intent on personal gain. ‘Come,’ they say, ‘let’s get some wine & have a party. Let’s all get drunk. Then tomorrow we’ll do it again & have an even bigger party!’” (Isaiah 56:11-12 NLT)
It’s clear why God took the Promised Land away from the people of Israel. He’d blessed them beyond measure & they forgot how much they needed Him. Continued blessings would only have driven them further away. Discipline was now required if they were ever to return to their Lord. Sadly, that return never happened, in spite of many tears from the Apostle Paul.
God sent His only begotten Son, the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, to take the place of the failed son – Israel. The prophet Isaiah wrote that Yahweh also sent His prophets to act as guards who would do more than sleep like lazy hound dogs. They should warn the people, & they should pray without ceasing for them such that God would get no rest:
“On your walls, Jerusalem, I will set watchmen who will never be silent all day & all night. You who remind Yahweh, don’t take any rest. Don’t let Him have any rest until He establishes Jerusalem & makes it a city that is praised in the world.” (Isaiah 62:6-7 AAT)
Don’t let God rest until heaven is established – that is the message of Isaiah the prophet. St. Paul picked up on that OT theme with his words in the book of Acts: “In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak & remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
Jesus wasn’t simply talking about giving money. He was including blood, sweat & tears. Money is easy; you write out a check or get out your phone & pay with an app. Being a child of God is not all fun & games! Satan is attacking us from the outside through the culture & the media. He is attacking from the inside, through the church & through your own heart.
Not all of us are called to the office of pastor, but each of us is called to love our
neighbors as ourselves. Have you noticed – that is extremely difficult to do? If you haven’t noticed, you have not been trying! Our sinful nature is supremely selfish & always, naturally, looks out for number one! Once it realizes that eternal life is gift that cannot be earned, then it determines to keep all of our heavenly Father’s gifts to itself.
We don’t love our neighbor in order to earn our way to heaven. We love them because we already have heaven. Today we celebrate Mother’s Day because it is very difficult to raise children even without teaching them anything about Jesus. Once you start trying to lead them to a relationship with the Son of God, then the devil really gets busy.
St. Paul describes the work he’s urging us to as being similar to running a race. The course I trained on at seminary ended with our dormitory at the top of a hill. If I was not nauseous by the time I got to that “finish line” I knew I had not pushed myself as much as I could have. Can you see how that relates to what St. Paul is urging us to do?
“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak & remember the words of the Lord Jesus, …‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” In the verses leading up to this, Paul gives a general description of the sufferings he endured in order to help the weak:
“…with tears & with trials… testifying both to Jews & to Greeks of repentance toward God… the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment & afflictions await me. …after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.”
In the reading from Revelation, one of the elders described the results of the spiritual battle on earth by saying to the apostle John:
“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes & made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God… & He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, & He will guide them to springs of living water, & God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (7:14b-17 ESV)
Becoming a mature follower of Jesus is a process the Holy Spirit works in us. It’s a process that, because of the effects of sin, involves difficult & time consuming work – not work to become saved, but work that the saved do because God’s Spirit has made us new in Christ Jesus. Paul used to persecute Christians. Then, he suffered in order to save them.
If you are a child of God, you are no longer simply 100% pure lazy old hound dog. You are now, also, at the same time, watchmen who will never be silent all day & all night. There was a man named Joseph Campbell who studied & compared mythologies from many cultures. His most well-known work is his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
His studies led him to believe that heroes undergo a personal transformation during their journey. In every hero story, the hero starts out missing an important quality, usually humility, self-confidence, or a sense of his or her true purpose in life. To succeed, the hero must recover, or discover, this quality. Every hero story tells of a journey toward vast personal transformation.
A Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr has noted that hero stories inspire transformation in us all because they call us to transformation. That describes well what St. Paul is calling us to in the 20th chapter of the Book of Acts. He is calling us to continue the transformation begun in us, which will be completed in us, by the Holy Spirit.
The following is an old story, yet, it illustrates well the results of God’s work in us. “Ann Shindell, a victim of a series of paralyzing strokes in 1971, did not allow her condition to prevent her from doing what she could to rescue a drowning 81-year-old man.
Sergeant Sam Howe took the report where she stated that she heard the man gurgling & then saw him sink to the bottom of the pool. So she jumped in & pulled Mr. Winter up, & kept his head above water until she could call for help. Mrs. Shindell, a resident of Phoenix, can talk some & walk only a little bit, but she didn’t let that stop her. One of the board members, at the community where she lived, said that Mrs. Shindell is a tremendous person with a matching personality who is working hard to overcome her paralysis. He stated:
“Most people would have given up, but she really works at her therapy, her exercises & her swimming.” She couldn’t yell the word “help,” but she could yell. She couldn’t be expected to rescue the drowning man, yet she did, because the courage of compassion had compelled her to act. And she did not shy away.”
She was more than just a sleepy old hound dog. When the Holy Spirit offered to work His transformation in her, she did not say, “No.” Instead, by the Lord’s power working through her, she served her neighbor.
As you are one of God’s sheep, you too will hear His voice & follow Jesus. Yes, you are still going to sin. You are still going to fail. There will be times when you say, “No.” However, the child of God does not celebrate those times, but grieves over them. The good news is that, even when you fail, Jesus promises, “No one will snatch you out of His hand.” Amen.
Grant us hearts, dear Lord, to give You gladly, freely of Your own. With the sunshine of Your goodness melt our thankless hearts of stone till our cold & selfish natures, warmed by You, at length believe that more happy & more blessed ’Tis to give than to receive. Lord of glory, You have bought us with Your lifeblood as the price, never grudging for the lost ones that tremendous sacrifice. Give us faith to trust You boldly, hope, to stay our souls on You; but, oh, best of all Your graces, with Your love our love renew. Amen. LSB 851:2, 4.
3rd Sunday of Easter – C LSB #’s 490, 861, 689
Text – John 21:3
“I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, & they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out & got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
THEY CAUGHT NOTHING
Since the temperature is very slowly warming up this spring, I thought I’d start this sermon with a story about ice fishing. Maybe that’ll improve your outlook on our lack of global warming. When I was about ten years old I had two cousins, brothers, that were a year older & a year younger than me, & we were good friends.
One cold winter day, their dad took us out ice fishing. Now, he was the type that really enjoyed fishing that way so he didn’t have a shanty to stay inside of & keep warm. The day we went along, each of us were sitting on top of an overturned plastic bucket, totally exposed to the wind & the cold.
As I recall, we spent about two hours out there & didn’t get so much as a nibble on any of our lines. At that point, frozen through & through, my cousins & I called it quits & hiked back to the car. Ever since I’ve suspected my Uncle Elmer of being just a bit unbalanced, & I have never gone ice fishing again.
We caught nothing, & my cousins & I weren’t the least bit happy. In the Gospel lesson from John, the disciples went out fishing one night & they also caught nothing. As they’re pulling in to shore, a man on the beach calls out to them, “Children, do you have any fish?”
It sounds as if he’s rubbing it in, because the man’s very question brings out the fact of their failure. All of us know, very personally, from our own experience, that failure is painful. We would just as soon not have anyone remind us of it & certainly do not appreciate it when someone advertises our failing. That’s our sinful nature. Failure is discouraging. It may cause us to lose hope or feel as if we’re no good. I remember the overwhelming sense of failure that struck one morning after a night of fighting a house fire. That sense of failure hit after we’d put out the fire & entered the house. It was then that two of our men found the bodies – a woman & her grandson. They were lying next to the window, so close to safety.
That discovery was a factor in the resignation of one of our firemen just a few months later. Death is the ultimate failure in this life, & that’s brought out very strongly in people who’ve had a dear friend commit suicide. They can’t help but feel somehow responsible for that person’s death – for that ultimate in failure.
Thoughts of, “If only…” haunt us when we’ve failed. Afterwards, it’s also common to lose confidence in one’s abilities. And then, the “Why bothers?” set in. Why bother looking for work anymore, no one will hire me. Why bother making friends anymore, they’re just going to leave. Why bother going to church if it’s going to die anyway.
Why bother with confirmation classes? You never see the children in church again once they’re confirmed. Statements of “Why bother?” are symptomatic of the lack of faith & hope in our hearts. And if adults believe there’s no reason to bother, what should anyone expect of a newly confirmed 14 year old?
Years ago I preached a sermon titled, “Because I Am A Sinner.” Peter spoke those words to Jesus once he realized what a great miracle God’s Son had just performed. In Peter’s mind, the miracle simply highlighted what a great hypocrite he was. That ties in with today’s sermon & you’ll see it in these words from St. Luke:
Peter answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night & haven’t caught anything. But because You say so, I will let down the nets.” (5:5 NIV) Do you hear the similarity? Peter had been fishing all night & caught nothing. Today’s Gospel reading is very similar where the disciples again caught nothing. Why bother? Our work as Christians so often brings the same question. Why bother? It’s bad enough failing at something, & trying to deal with the discouragement & frustration that follow, but then you just know that someone else is going to point out your mistakes. Can any of you explain why we should bother?
For one thing, Peter wrote the following words years after his failed fishing expeditions, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord, always being prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter 3:15) Maybe you have no hope to explain because in your own heart, you have not set Christ apart as Lord.
Maybe you have no hope, maybe you don’t bother, because you are afraid of failure. Is your pride so valuable you cannot endure the least bit of embarrassment for the Man who died upon a cross for your failures? Or don’t you believe in miracles, at least not in God’s ability to use a someone like you?
Twice, Holy Scripture records how Peter tried fishing & caught nothing. In each case, when Jesus merely speaks, the fish almost sink the boat & the net becomes too heavy to pull in. The Son of God was able to perform miracles using Peter & the other disciples. And that’s one reason, as Christians, that we do bother to trust in God & to serve Him.
We bother, because our Lord & Savior performs miracles, & He does so using ordinary failures like you & me. We have a God who has risen from the dead. Have you already forgotten what we celebrated just two Sunday’s ago?
Memory work & sermon notes might seem like a waste of time & energy. The effort spent on them may appear to have caught nothing. Attending church & confirmation classes often seem like a dead end because we seldom get immediate results. Three Sundays ago, Logan confirmed the vows made at his baptism. Last Sunday, Julian & Holden did the same, & one of our traditions is to ask the confirmands if they intend to be faithful, even unto death. That’s a huge promise to make, & I can guarantee that everyone who’s ever made that promise has failed! Just like the disciples failed to catch any fish. Just as our fire department failed to rescue that woman & her grandson.
There are many situations in life that bring us pain & suffering. When we encounter them, our spirits grow weak & we’d rather quit than endure. It’s our sinful human nature to do so. If the romantic love for our spouse grows cold, we’d rather quit than endure. If our faith is challenged by others, we’d rather go along with the crowd than endure its ridicule.
If our efforts to pass on the faith to the next generation are not met with resounding success, we’d rather take the easy way out & not bother to teach them at all. Or we trade the substance of the faith for glitz & glamour. We turn to entertainment & babysitting rather than discipline & instruction. When we catch nothing, we believe that even God cannot use us.
I was at a track meet one time, standing by the end of each runner’s leg of the relay. I watched as they gutted it out for the final 100 meters of their race. The pain & agony in their faces was visible as they struggled, not just to keep going, but to actually run as fast as they possibly could. None of them quit, & it was inspiring to see the effort they put forth.
Still, not one of them achieved that endurance without a lot of previous pain & doubt. It takes many hours, even years, to train one’s body for running a race. And the higher the level of competition – the greater the sacrifices necessary to finish.
Our spiritual lives are no different. Our faith doesn’t grow strong without testing. We can’t pass on that endurance in ten easy lessons. Teaching your children to love the Lord & to know Him personally, takes suffering on your part. It means sacrificing your own personal comfort & leisure for the good of your children. It often means taking two steps forward but one backward. It means enduring the humiliation of failure & acknowledging your own sins before God. When Jesus calls out to His disciples, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answer, “No.” They acknowledge their failure, & then Jesus performs a miracle.
He said to them, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat & you will find some.” They could have answered, “Why bother?” But they kept running the race, & found so many fish it was impossible for them to pull in the net. And it’s then, that they recognize Jesus. It’s then, that God reveals Himself.
He didn’t make it easy. He did not make it fun. If they had given up; if they had not thrown out the net, they would not have received God’s blessings. And when God blesses them, Peter is so excited that he runs ashore to greet his Savior, as grateful hearts are always eager to meet their Lord.
But their lesson isn’t over… As the boat arrives, Jesus tells them to bring some of the fish they’ve caught. He does so in order that they might sheepishly realize that the fish they bring aren’t even necessary. Jesus is emphasizing the point that He has already provided. There are already fish & bread cooking over the coals of His fire.
Likewise, even when we do catch something, when our efforts meet with success, God has already provided. If we understand that correctly, it means we have no reason to fear our failures. We can endure whatever problems come our way, because whether we succeed or whether we fail, our Lord has provided for us. He has prepared the way in advance.
The final outcome is already determined. Christ’s resurrection proved it, & we now have the joy of serving Him in complete freedom from fear or failure. The reason we then bother – looking for a job, making friends, attending church or even getting confirmed, is that those things please our Lord, & bring His blessings to us & to our neighbors. Like Peter, once we recognize Jesus as our Savior, we gladly go out of our way, we gratefully leave our comfort zone, in order to greet Him. We long to strengthen our relationship with Him.
For all of you who have confirmed the vows of your baptism, your confirmation was but one step along the way in that lifelong process. It’s a progression that’s been complicated by the sinful nature of everyone involved, so it will not always be neat, clean or pretty. The growth of your faith doesn’t come without time, effort & failure.
There’ll be many occasions in your spiritual walk with Jesus that it seems as if you’ve worked all night & caught nothing. Yet, be assured of this, your Lord & Savior performs miracles. He never fails, & will always provide everything you need for your spiritual life, even in those moments when everything seems hopeless & pointless.
Our heavenly Father is able to overcome any & all of our failures. With the eyes of faith you’ll recognize Jesus & see that He blesses you so greatly you can’t even pull in the net. Amen.
Christ be my Teacher in age as in youth, drifting or doubting, for He is the truth. Grant me to trust Him; though shifting as sand, doubt cannot daunt me; in Jesus I stand. Christ be my Savior in calm as in strife; death cannot hold me, for He is the life. Nor darkness nor doubting nor sin & its stain can touch my salvation: with Jesus I reign. Amen. LSB 861:2-3.
2nd Sunday of Easter – C LSB #’s 384, 525, 469
Text – Revelation 1:8
“I am the Alpha & the Omega,” says Yahweh, the only God, the one who is & who was & who is coming, the Almighty.
THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA
There were bombings at Christian churches on Easter morning, over in Sri Lanka. Our congregation supports a missionary family in that country. Yesterday, a woman was killed & three other people injured in a shooting at a Synagogue in CA. Eight days ago was the 20th anniversary of the killings at Columbine High School.
Areas of Nebraska & Iowa sustained huge amounts of damage from flooding this spring. Looking to the international arena, Russia, China, Venezuela, North Korea & Iran each have our worst interests at heart. If you’re looking for it, there’s certainly enough bad news to go around, & bad news gets people stirred up, anxious & afraid.
In that condition, human beings start to look for help, & normally they look in the wrong places. Like King Saul, some look to psychics for answers. They hope to find what the future holds, believing it’ll help to calm their fears. It won’t be long & marijuana use will be legal in every state. Some form of gambling is legal in 48 of our states.
Then, you have the religious groups that say anything goes. Don’t worry. Be happy, but they can’t take the anxiety of sin away. Finally, to really add anxiety to people’s lives, much of the religious world does anything but comfort us. There’re many false teachers & preachers with nothing but a message of fire & brimstone. Creating even more fear is their stock in trade.
One of the chief books used for the creation of that fear is the Bible, especially the book of Revelation. Images of the black horse of death, dragons with 7 heads & 10 horns, along with stories of the Tribulation & Armageddon, are perfect material for scaring people back to God. The flaw with that theory, however, is that when the book of Revelation was written, there was no need to create additional fear. The Roman Emperors were already doing a great job, & they needed no help. Christians were being slaughtered as common policy in the Empire, & those who held on to their faith did so out of the certainty of Christ’s love for them in any situation.
Revelation was written for the comfort of God’s people in bloody circumstances when the world seemed to be coming to an end. For them, there was nowhere to run & nowhere to hide. The only way they could remain faithful to Christ under those conditions was through the patient endurance given as a gift by the Holy Spirit.
The book of Revelation was one means by which the Spirit bestowed His gifts. It’s one of the most intriguing & also misunderstood books of the Bible. Personally, I’ve found “the Alpha & the Omega” to be one of the more interesting phrases. There’s just something about “the Alpha & the Omega” that, for me, puts into words the essence of God.
Yahweh is the beginning, the end, & everything in between. Nothing in this universe exists apart from God. He has always been & will always be, yet He’s not beyond us. Our minds cannot grasp Him & still, through Christ, God lives within His children to comfort them. He is our everything. If that’s not the Alpha & the Omega, then nothing is.
The phrase sometimes refers to God the Father; at other times to God the Son. In Revelation 1:8, our Heavenly Father is speaking as He verifies the status of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord & Judge of all history, the human race & the world. The Son’s exalted position is now to be unfolded in the prophetic message of the mysterious book of Revelation.
The Apostle John turns around to see the voice that was speaking to him. He finds seven golden lamp stands & among them is someone like a Son of Man. The lamp stands are the church as they reveal the light of heaven to a world in darkness. The one like a Son of Man is Jesus walking among the church as He dwells within it even today. The Son is dressed in a robe reaching to His feet, draped by a golden sash. These indicate that He is our great High Priest, interceding before the Heavenly Father on our behalf, & also that Christ is our heavenly King.
The whiteness of His head & hair indicate authority & the honor & respect that we owe Him for rescuing us from eternal death. His eyes blazing like fire symbolize His authority to destroy evil & purify His people. His feet, like glowing bronze, represent strength that conquers every enemy, even death & the grave.
The voice, like the sound of rushing waters, suggests the mighty voice of God. The seven stars in His right hand represent all the human messengers of Christ’s Word to His church. The sharp double-edged sword coming from His mouth indicates that Jesus will execute the judgment of God according to His Word.
Finally, His face shining like the sun shows that the exalted Christ is the person through whom the glory & the life-giving light of God are now present. They bring light into our world of darkness. All of that, John perceived in an instant. Then, seeing the exalted Christ in all His glory, he’s completely overwhelmed & unwillingly forced down as when death strikes the body.
John could no more stand before the heavenly Christ than he could approach the sun & touch it. However, placing His right hand upon John, Jesus tells him, “Stop being afraid.” The Son of God is the eternal One, the Alpha & the Omega who has entered time & human history, in order to bring that same message to each of you, “Stop being afraid.”
Deep down, you may be feeling very alone. You may be asking, “Where is God anyway? Why doesn’t He solve my problems? Doesn’t He care?” You may feel struck down as though you are dead. But today, on the Lord’s day, the Alpha & the Omega is reaching out to touch you & bless you with words of love & peace. He is the First & the Last. Jesus is our Savior & we should no longer be afraid of what the world may do to us. Christ is the Living One. He is God who delivers His people even from the grave. For He was dead & behold, now He lives forever & ever! That One, that Son of Man, is the author & perfecter of our faith, & it is He who holds the keys of death & the grave.
From Genesis through Revelation, the message is the same. It’s God’s powerful search for you! He has come, is coming, & will come again. Our security is not determined by the stars nor the angels nor the rulers of this world, not even by ourselves. God, who has begun a good work in us will perform it until the Day of Jesus Christ.
The theme of Revelation is the constant & abiding presence of Christ in His church. A message that seems to come through in today’s lesson is this, “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”
While many frightening images & events are spoken of in Revelation, Jesus comforts His church with the promise that, regardless of what happens, He will always protect & defend her, & keep her for Himself. The climax of Revelation is the glorious return of Christ when He will gather up His followers from all of time.
Then, He will make right all that has been wrong. Whenever life’s troubles, what we see & hear & feel, discourage us, the message of Revelation is there to remind us that life in not always what it seems. Evil may now appear to triumph, however, the Revelation to St. John shows that Christ, our Lord, will overcome & make all things new.
Then, we shall be in Paradise, with the Alpha & the Omega, for all of eternity. Amen.
Crown Him the Lord of life, Who triumphed o’er the grave & rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save. His glories now we sing, Who died & rose on high, Who died eternal life to bring, & lives that death may die. Amen. LSB 525:4.
Easter Morning – 2019 LSB #457
Text – 1 Corinthians 15:20 (NET)
But now Christ was raised from the dead, the 1st in the harvest of those who have fallen asleep.
GOD’S WILL FOR THE NEW CREATION
Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) As we celebrate the physical resurrection of the corpse of Jesus, the apostle Paul points us to the End of the resurrection story, to the fulfillment of God’s ultimate will & purpose for His creation:
“…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) So along with our traditional Easter greeting, we add another acclamation of the Church: Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!)
That’s how the resurrection story ends; that’s my future & your future. It is what’s in store for all who belong to Jesus. Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) But we’re not there yet.
Oh, Jesus has won the victory; the ultimate sting of death & the power of the law have been removed. The grave no longer holds terror for those baptized into the death of Jesus, & therefore also united to the physical resurrection of Jesus. And yet, the final, ultimate victory has not happened – at least not fully.
People who belong to Jesus still struggle with sin. People who belong to Jesus still get into arguments. People who belong to Jesus still get sick & eventually die. And if there is one thing Paul wants to make perfectly clear to the Church, it is this: as long as even a single human body is still in a grave, Jesus is not done bringing the New Creation.
Only when every gravestone is obsolete & every Christian corpse stands redeemed & restored, joined again with a redeemed & restored soul – soul & body, the way God intended it to be – only then will we see Yahweh’s ultimate will for His creation. Only then will the resurrection story of Jesus reach its crowning chapter. Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) But we’re not there yet, so while we’re waiting, Paul wants to clear up a couple of misunderstandings about coming back from the dead.
Paul was writing to the church in the Greek city of Corinth. In their mythology, everyone knew that once you die, only your soul made the trip across the River Styx into the underworld. No bodies were allowed. They dragged down & hindered the soul. So it’s likely the culture of Corinth would have been very skeptical of the idea of bodily resurrection from the dead.
One famous Greek playwright wrote: “When the dust hath drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection.” (Aeschylus, Eumenides, 647-48; ca. 458 B.C.) Dead is dead. Period. End of story. Even if some thought the soul lived on in a kind of vague afterlife, no one but no one thought something as vulgar as a corpse had a promising future.
Their narrow hope for a vague kind of life after death did not include a body. And some Greek philosophers suggested there was no hope for your soul, either: when you died, there was no resurrection, no afterworld, no existence, nothing at all. Their skepticism led to a nagging doubt that this life is all there is. There ain’t no more.
No wonder the church in Corinth had drifted a bit from Paul’s original message. The Corinthians combined narrow hope & nagging doubt with the message of Jesus. They were bringing the basic presuppositions of their culture, their theater, their philosophy & entertainment with them in to the Church. Do you see anything like that in our culture?
The result? It sounds like some Corinthian Christians were suggesting we should be content with the life we have in the here & now, rather than imagining some mythological life beyond death. Others seem to have looked forward to a happy future for their souls without regard for their rather embarrassingly physical bodies. St. Paul said that kind of thinking is just not compatible with faith in Jesus. What at least some of the Corinthian Christians believed isn’t the Gospel anymore. It’s fake news, fake news about our body, fake news about our soul, fake news about our future, fake news about the Good News.
It might make sense in the story our culture tells, but that kind of thinking does not make sense in light of the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. To help them see the light, almost like a programmer cranking out code, Paul takes us through a string of IF-THEN statements:
IF physical corpses are not raised THEN Christ is not raised. IF Jesus is not raised THEN your faith in Him is worthless. IF your faith is worthless THEN you are stuck with your sins, & the dead people you love are just dead. IF you’re stuck with your sins, & dead people are just dead THEN this religion is a lie, & Christians are pitiful, delusional suckers.
If you don’t have the actual resurrection of the body, Paul says, then you don’t have a Savior from sin. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead! That is Paul’s basic message in 1 Corinthians 15! Your faith is NOT worthless; you are NOT stuck in sin; the people you love, even if they are dead, are MORE than just a corpse; YOU have a strong & powerful HOPE.
Because Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) And more than that, Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) In fact, you have a concrete, tangible sign of that truth. You have the resurrected body of Jesus, what Paul calls the “firstfruit” of those who have fallen asleep.
Firstfruits are the 1st evidence of more to come, like the blossoms of spring. We’ve begun to see them, but they’re far from finished. In fits & starts the air has been getting warmer, but we still awoke to snow last Monday morning. Firstfruits are only part of the whole that is still coming. Like a SOLO that begins a symphony, the firstfruits come at the beginning, yet they also belong to the rest that is coming after. Think of Rhapsody in Blue, the piece by George Gershwin. It starts out with a haunting clarinet solo. Then the piano comes in, & then the whole orchestra. The theme you hear 1st in the clarinet gets picked up by other instruments, expanded & explored. The solo comes 1st, but it’s part of the whole that is still coming after.
To experience the firstfruits is to already experience what the entire harvest will be like. Maybe you like to plant tomatoes, & you long for that very 1st red one on the vine. The smell, the feel, the taste, the experience of that 1st ripe tomato tells you what the rest of the harvest is going to be like.
In the OT, firstfruits are part of the prescribed offering to God. To set them aside as holy to the LORD acknowledges the God from whom the harvest came. Yet, it is also a statement of trust: hail or lighting or locusts or war could destroy the harvest at any moment. To offer the firstfruits is to express your dependence on God for the rest of the harvest.
The image of firstfruits brings all those thoughts together, & Paul says Jesus is like that – He’s the 1st evidence of more to come. His corpse is the 1st permanent, physical, New Creation resurrection in history, & it is not going to be the last! He is the 1st blossom, the opening solo, of the New Creation: His resurrected body is part of the New Creation ahead of all the others.
If you want to know what the New Creation is like, look to Jesus & His living body that eats & walks & talks & loves & shares with those He loves. He is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, God’s people, depend on Him for the rest of the harvest that is still to come. Christ’s resurrection is the 1st installment of our inheritance:
“…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) It’s clear what Paul wants us to believe, to believe firmly, without a doubt. And it’s clear that believing firmly, without a doubt is no easier for us than for the Corinthians. Like them, we bring the presuppositions of our own culture, our theater, our philosophy & our entertainment with us into the Church. In our culture & in our church, we have a narrow hope.
We tend to imagine our souls after death as the life force of Obi-Wan Kenobi & Yoda after they died, a kind of glowing version of our physical selves. Remember how neither Yoda nor Obi-Wan left behind an embarrassing corpse after they died?
In entertainment for young & old, we Americans seem to be content with the soul living on without a body (if it’s a family movie), or souls living on in dead bodies (if it’s a zombie movie). We just don’t imagine something as vulgar as a corpse having much of a future. That narrow hope for a vague kind of life-after-death-without-your-body has affected the Church.
There’s a children’s book written by good, Christian people, intended to be read by good, Christian parents to their good, Christian children, that is all about going to heaven when you die. You get wings like angels, you get to run & play, all is perfect & peaceful, & there’s absolutely no hint, no hope, no need for a bodily resurrection from the dead.
The soul’s spiritual existence apart from the body is good enough for a children’s book. And the soul’s spiritual existence apart from the body is good enough for much of our American Christian experience. If the narrow hope typical of our culture has infiltrated the Church, then so has a nagging doubt that this life is all there is – there ain’t no more.
That doubt arises from the skepticism seeming to characterize our age like no other. A basic tenet of Post-Modernism, the philosophy permeating our culture, is that all our understanding of truth is shaped by our human culture, our human language, & the way our human brains work in our human bodies. And you know Post-Moderns are right, up to a point.
I can’t think of the world apart from the way my human brain works. I can use only the
tools I have, whether it’s reason or emotion, faith or imagination, I have no direct, disembodied access to objective truth. That fundamental principle – that I’m undeniably shaped by my human culture, human language, & human body – can lead to the nagging doubt that all religious claims about absolute spiritual truth are the product of a human brain, just doing what human brains do.
So if I have no objective, disembodied access to ultimate Truth, how can I be sure any such truth exists? That’s why the physical resurrection of the corpse is important. Paul doesn’t ask skeptics to trust in some abstract, objective truth. You aren’t supposed to agree to a disembodied access to ultimate reality. Quite the contrary!
God is aware that you & I have no unmediated access to ultimate truth, so the Ultimate Truth enters into human culture, where He can be seen & heard & touched; where He can be mocked & tortured & crucified; where He can be raised from death & held onto; where you can put your finger in His nail marks, & your hand in His side.
Jesus speaks God’s eternal Word in human language, with all the beauty & difficulty that entails. You aren’t supposed to have disembodied access to ultimate truth: the only way you’re going to find truth is through the flesh & blood presence of Jesus, who is the Truth.
The foundation of the faith Paul wants you to cling to is not an abstract principle, but a human body: the human body of Jesus, that once was a corpse, but now is alive forever more. So take your narrow hope & your nagging doubts to Christ. He is the 1st evidence of more to come. His resurrected corpse is the 1st installment, the opening solo of the New Creation symphony!
Your resurrection life is the more to come foreshadowed by the resurrected Jesus. He is the firstfruits offering, set aside as holy to God even as we, His people, depend on Him for the rest of the harvest that is still to come. Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!) is not just a slogan. It is the objective truth which changed world & eternal history. There is more to come: “…In Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own turn: Christ, the Firstfruit; then, when He comes, those who belong to Christ. Then the End will come…” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 NET) That ultimate End is Jesus, the battlefield champion, placing His resurrected foot on the neck of the final enemy, Death, declaring total victory forever & ever.
That, Paul says, is the End of the resurrection story. That is Yahweh’s ultimate will for His creation. But we’re not there yet. People who belong to Jesus still struggle with sin. People who belong to Jesus still get into arguments. People who belong to Jesus still get sick & eventually die.
As long as death holds captive even one physical body belonging to Jesus, He isn’t finished with His victory work. Only when every gravestone is obsolete & every Christian corpse stands full grown into a New Creation, only then will we see God’s ultimate will for His creation. Only then will the resurrection event of Jesus reach its crowning chapter.
Christ has died; Christ is risen; (Christ will come again! Alleluia!) Amen.
Jesus Christ is risen today, Alleluia! Our triumphant holy day, Alleluia! Who did once upon the cross, Alleluia! Suffer to redeem our loss. Alleluia! Hymns of praise then let us sing, Alleluia! Unto Christ our heavenly King, Alleluia! Who endured the cross & grave, Alleluia! Sinners to redeem & save. Alleluia! Amen. LSB 457:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet