Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lenten Midweek Sermons III

Some have asked what we did for Lent.  This year we learned the text of an ancient prayer, called the Anima Christi, and talked about what we pray in the petitions of this prayer.  You are welcome to join us in these Lenten devotions.

Passion of Christ, strengthen me.  O Good Jesus, hear me.  Within Thy Wounds hide me.
    Rites of passage are common among us.  Even confirmation was kept in Lutheranism in part because it was a significant rite of passage that nothing else could quite replace – despite Luther’s theological skepticism about the nature of the quasi-sacrament.  In fact, a good case could be made that here on earth we have no abiding city, no destination, except perhaps the dust of the earth.  Every moment is a passage toward another, like people constantly moving from one address to another.  So we have rites of passage that accompany those significant moves from one stage to another.  For example, I have graduated five times from kindergarten through seminary.  Each of them represented a rite to accompany the passage to another stage.
    It is not entirely surprising then that we would assign the same thing to Jesus.  He is conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, grew into adulthood with its accompanying rites and stages, walked the earth revealing Himself as the Messiah whom the Father has sent, suffered for our sins, died our death on the cross, rose on the third day, and ascended into heaven to await the day of His glorious return.  It is hard in my mind to connect my kindergarten graduation to who I am now – just a stage.  So it is hard for us to connect the events of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.  They are just stages on His way to a final destination.
    So in the preaching of the Church, the preaching of the cross, the proclamation of Christ’s suffering and death, are for the Lenten stage.  When Good Friday is over, we move on to the next stage, to Easter, in which the scandal of the cross is replaced by the glorious victory over death and the grave.  But if that is what we think, we have it all wrong.  To preach Christ and Him crucified is not a Lenten message but the Gospel. 
    The Gospel is not about the end, about the destination, but about the means to that destination.  We have been saved but saved by the blood of Christ shed, by the agony of His suffering, by the pain of His death...  This is not a stage our Lord passed through to a goal but the very Gospel itself.  Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  St. Paul insists that this is God, the only God, the true God... the Gospel, the only Gospel, and the true Gospel.  To give up Christ crucified is to give up the Gospel.  We cannot move on from the cross.
    What is our comfort as Christians is the passion of our Lord.  What is our hope as Christians, is the saving death of Christ.  What is our refuge in which we are forgiven, and given new life, and set apart for the Lords – this is Christ’s wounds.  So there cannot be a sermon preached in which Christ and Him crucified is not the center and core of the proclamation.  There cannot be a worship service in which Christ and Him crucified is not the central mystery before us.  There cannot be a devotional life in which Christ and Him crucified is not the focus and message.
    We are a little uncertain about the crucifix.  Some think it is too Catholic.  Some insist that Christ is no longer on the cross so we need an empty cross to remind us of His resurrection.  Some think it is a downer to see the wounded body of Christ as the principal art of the sanctuary.  Some think it is a matter of taste, of personal preference.  We have compromised.  To salve the fears of those who want an empty cross, the figure of Christ is the Risen Lord but if you look you still see the marks of His death in His hands and feet.  But the point here is much bigger than the claim of one tradition or the like or dislike of the appearance.  We keep the crucifix because it is Christ and Him crucified that is the one and only true Gospel.  Whether we abandon this in art or in preaching, we lose the Gospel when the focus moves on to something else and when the cross is seen as merely a rite of passage Jesus endures to get someplace better.
    When we pray “Lord, have mercy” that mercy is the mercy of the cross where our Lord suffered and died for us and our salvation.  When we approach God, we do so in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the name placed on us in our baptism when, as St. Paul reminds, we were united with Christ on that cross, buried with Christ into His death, to rise with Him to new life.  When we pray we pray as those who know and who claim the merits of that saving death – for surely to pray “in the name of Jesus” is not merely to speak the name but to lay claim to what Jesus did for us when mounted the altar of the cross, there to sacrifice Himself on our behalf.
    So here in this little prayer we affirm that the Passion of Christ was not merely a stage, that the wounds of Christ continue to provide a refuge and healing for us sinners, and that we know Jesus as good primarily through the goodness of His sacrificial death.
In Lent it is highlighted but in all of Christian life, what we plead before the Lord, what gives us comfort and peace, wherein we find healing and grace are all the wounds of Christ, the fruits of His Passion and death, and that which marks Him the GOOD Shepherd.  As Jesus Himself reminds us, the Good Shepherd is the one who lays down His life for His sheep.  That is what makes Him good, that is why we call the Friday of His death good, and that is why, as grotesque as suffering and death are, the suffering and death of Christ for us are beautiful.
    No words speak of love as does that action of His sacrifice.  No demonstration of love is as deep as the love that dies for the unlovable.  No hope is as sure as the one sealed in suffering, in blood, and in the final groan of a life willingly offered for those unworthy of it.  St. Paul says you can hardly find someone who will give their lives for a good cause much less for worthless, ornery, rebellious people who have become enemies of God their Creator.  But that is what speaks from arms outstretched in suffering, from blood poured out from the cross, and from the hush of death and the cold of the grave that our Lord endured for you and for me.
    Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O Good Jesus, hear me. Within Thy Wounds hide me.
This is our prayer each Sunday whether Lent or Easter or Pentecost or Christmas.  This is the gift that is free to us but cost our Lord His all.  This is the Gospel that must be proclaimed to the very end of the earth.  This is the message through which any and all who will be saved shall be saved.  We come in Lent to put on this blanket of Christ’s suffering for us... to wear it as the comfortable clothing of God’s love for us... to make sure that the passion, wounds, and death of Christ remain the core and center of the Church’s proclamation, of our faith, and the devotional center of our lives.  Amen.
    Passion of Christ, strengthen me.  O Good Jesus, hear me.  Within Thy Wounds hide me.

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