Sermon for Quasimodogeniti, the Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019 (John 20:19-31)

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon Audio, from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

First-year seminarians are often asked a lot of questions about what they believe in their beginning theology classes.  It makes sense. Professors want to know just how off-base some of the beliefs might be which their students hold so that they can deliver helpful correctives to false ideas or nip some would-be heretics in the bud before they take their own theories to a more dangerous conclusion.  The seminary is kind of like the army— a group of people show up from different backgrounds and life-experiences and are re-formed over four years into an effective preaching-and-teaching force who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, preach well, and faithfully shepherd God’s church, among other things.  So asking questions of first-years is a great way for the professors there to weed out would-be pastors’ misconceptions and pet heresies while focusing them on what they should know.

Don’t be a heretic!

So it generally comes as a shock to many seminarians when one of the first questions they are asked by their systematic theology professor is, “Who is your God?”  It’s a big question, and a scary one. Initially, you feel pretty sure of yourself and your beliefs. “I know who my God is!” But then, doubt sets in. That confident attitude you had suddenly starts giving way to unsurety; the sense of security you had five minutes ago starts to slip away.  “Who is my God?”  “Who do I really say God is?”  “Who do I really think God is?”  You think it’s the Triune God, but is that who you’re really worshipping?  Is this a trick question? Is there some hidden idol in my life I’ve been worshipping all along?  The faithful young seminarian is suddenly subject to an existential crisis.

You might say that this is a question that is tacitly posed to the disciples when Jesus died on the cross.  “Who is your God?” Is he this carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth with whom you have traveled for three years, or is it someone else?  John tells us in John 20:9 that on Easter morning, none of the disciples truly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection, and when they found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think of it.  Who was their God? Where had Jesus gone? Did the Romans steal him? Did they spend three years roaming Judaea with him for nothing?

But then, he appeared to them, and he showed him his wounds and let them touch him.  He was real! But John doesn’t tell us what they said when they saw him, merely that they were glad.  We don’t necessarily know what they were thinking when Jesus appeared in the room in their midst. But we do know what Thomas, that apostle called Didymus, “The Twin,” thought when he saw Jesus risen from the grave.  John recorded his confession. “My Lord and my God!”

“Doubting Thomas” (ca. 1620) by Giovanni Serodine (1594-1630). National Museum in Warsaw.

Thomas is, as a member of the apostles, kind of an odd duck because we remember him by calling him “Doubting Thomas.”  He’s the only member of the Twelve who’s given a negative epithet (apart from Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treachery).  We could just as easily call Peter “Denying Peter” because he denied his being one of Jesus’ followers, or we could call Mark “Streaking Mark” because he ran away naked from Gethsemane after his tunic was pulled off by an attacker.  But we don’t. Only Thomas is remembered for his apparent skepticism at hearing the report of Jesus’ resurrection.

I have to laugh because I saw this cartoon after I wrote this sermon, and it seems that many of us who have thought about this gospel have had the same issues with Thomas’ unfortunate moniker.

Except Thomas wasn’t the lone doubter.  All of the apostles doubted that Jesus had come back from the grave— they disbelieved the testimony of the women at the tomb; they thought the women were speaking nonsense—, and Jesus gave them the same proof that he gave Thomas.  Thomas just happened to not be there. But only Thomas is recorded by John to have stated, upon seeing these proofs that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord is a big and important thing.  It’s big and important because it means a number of things for the one who confesses it.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is radical.  It’s life changing. And it means that the person making such a confession believes certain things about Jesus.  It means that one believes that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is identified with the God of the Old Testament as well as the New.  It means that when we read the explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and we say “We should fear, love, and trust God that we may do X,” we’re talking about Jesus there just as much as we are talking about God the Father.  It also means that we really believe what we say about Jesus in the Creed, saying with Luther:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Concordia Triglotta—English: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, electronic ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 545.

This is how we relate to Jesus if we say that “Jesus is Lord.”  When you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are saying that you believe what he says and what he has done, and that you are with him in all things.  Dr. Joel Okamoto at Concordia Seminary says this about the act of confessing one’s faith:

“When one confesses, one declares a commitment. The act of confession is like “stepping forward” or “standing up and being counted.” You step forward for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to the person. If he goes down, you go down. You stand up for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to that person. If she goes on, you go on. Similarly, you confess your faith in someone, and by that act you commit yourself to believing in him. If he comes through, you come through. It is striking that simply by the act of confession—by saying certain words—you do something. Those who utter the sentence: “I confess that Jesus is Lord” have confessed.  Those people have by their confession committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Confessors commit themselves to Jesus Christ, putting themselves under his disposal, and positioning themselves in a certain way against everybody else.”

Okamoto, Joel P., “Making Sense of Confessionalism Today,” Concordia Journal Winter, 2015: 40

We live in a world that does not confess Jesus as Lord, nor do we live in a world that really has a single understanding of who God is.  In our modern world, especially here in the west, the word “God” has become a placeholder. It can mean whatever we want it to mean. Think about the Pledge of Allegiance, for example.  Ignoring the fact that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War years to indicate that we, unlike the Soviets, acknowledged a deity, who is the “God” meant in “under God”? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  The God Jesus called God? We don’t know— the pledge is vague. Maybe it’s Ba’al or Ishtar or Woden or Zeus. It could be Allah, or Krishna. It could be a bunch of them all together, seeing as some see all deities as reflections or manifestations of a single, divine reality.  My point being that in the modern world, “God” can be anything. “God” could be your smartphone. I know I pay obeisance to mine far too often. That owl on Duolingo is really demanding.

No, Duo, please don’t look at me that way! I hit my daily quota for German, Norwegian, and Esperanto revision! Stop! No! Why are you crying?

But in this day and age, when the normal operating procedure for most people is to live as nihilists, “God” can even be yourself.  Why not, if the idea of God has been made devoid of all meaning and we operate as if God doesn’t really affect our lives? And when “God” becomes a placeholder, it really means that you are placing yourself in the place of God.  It means that you become the one who chooses what or whom is worthy to be called God. It makes God subject to your will and your understanding. But when you do that, you break the first of all the commandments of God by making yourself God, and in that, you stand condemned.  For when you break that first commandment, you break them all.

And this is a universal problem for us.  According to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, a god is anything we put our trust in for our safety and salvation.  We’re sinful human beings, and the first sin our first parents, Adam and Eve, ever committed was, indeed, to place themselves above God by trusting their own judgment over his and making God subject to their own reason.  We make our own gods every day. We put our trust in governments to care for us and do what we think is best for us. We tie the fate of our nation and indeed our own lives to various politicians’ campaigns. Or we make a god of science and technology— “this new energy technology will save the planet and save all of our lives!”  Sometimes we make gods of our possessions— our vehicles, our weapons, our food, our money. Think of all the time we spend counting our money, tallying our expenses. But all these things ultimately will fail us. They won’t deliver us from our sins. They won’t save us from death and hell. There is no constancy in them.

This is why Thomas’ confession is so important for us to hear.  When Thomas calls Jesus his Lord and his God, he is siding with Jesus, making his identity with him, and trusting in him above all others.  Thomas subordinates himself to Christ— his will, his desires, his hopes— they are all subject to Christ and what he has done. And Thomas trusts that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead; that he has died for the sins of all mankind and risen again to demonstrate to his disciples and all people that he has been victorious over the powers of death and hell and had freed all people from bondage to these terrible entities.  Thomas and all the disciples received proof of this, in the flesh. They saw Jesus, risen from the dead, standing physically among them, and they believed. Jesus had done just what he said he would do, and they could put their faith in him. All of their misconceptions about Jesus were now disproven. Like Thomas, they could see Jesus and say with Thomas that he truly was not just their lord and master, but their God. They could see that he is the one who gives them real peace, who gives them the Holy Spirit to be their guide and helper, who forgives their sins, and who chooses them to be his ambassadors to the world.  And so, Thomas’ confession becomes the first great confession of the church. Jesus is Lord and God. He is not subject to the world. The world is subject to him.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600-1641) by Adam van Noort (1562-1641). Saltram House, Plymouth.

And Thomas’ statement of faith in Christ as his Lord and God is a testimony for us.  Thomas tells us who Jesus is. We can make Thomas’ confession our own because Jesus’ promises for us are trustworthy and true.  His death and resurrection are for us just as much as they are for his first disciples. But how do we who live so many centuries removed from this know that Jesus is Lord?  Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen him in the flesh and who yet believe are blessed and happy. John then writes to us directly–“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  We are those who Jesus calls blessed–we are those for whom John has written his Gospel. We haven’t seen Jesus bodily like Thomas and the other apostles had, but we do have their testimony, and we have Jesus’ promises to us recorded in God’s word.  Not only that, but we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus sent to us, and we have the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in which we encounter and receive Christ in his body and blood. And when we trust in these things, that Jesus died for us on Calvary and rose again for us on the third day, we can say with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God,” and receive his peace, his forgiveness, and his sending.  When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can trust confidently that he has saved us from the power of death and sin. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can confidently tell others about what he has done and share the good news of our salvation in him with them. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can have peace with God, and live as his redeemed and beloved children. When we believe that Jesus is Lord and God, we can “be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

And if you are struggling in your sins, or find yourself looking to inconstant, earthly things for your salvation, Christ’s forgivness and peace is for you, too.  Though Jesus did many things after his resurrection, the testimony you have heard this morning is for you so that you might come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is your Savior and God.  He desires that you have his peace, dwell with the Holy Spirit, be his ambassador to an unbelieving world, and live a life of forgiveness in him. So have faith in him— he will bless and forgive you, “that you have life in his name.”  This is most certainly true. Amen.

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019 (1 Corinthians 15:12-20) – “A Futile Faith? By No Means!”

“The Resurrection” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

If you have spent as much time in the bowels of religious internet discussion pages as I have (a fact about which I am not proud), you will have often come across members of the New Atheist set— those disciples of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others— who claim that Jesus Christ never existed.  They’ll often parrot the former president of the American Atheists, Jon Murray, in saying things like, “There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing, sentient human by that name. Ever.”  Or they’ll say that the New Testament writers made Jesus up out of whole cloth and hoodwinked the whole world for 2000 years.  

Others of them claim that Christ is an amalgam of old pagan gods who supposedly died and rose again, like Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Horus, but the stories that apply a dying and rising quality to these gods often postdate Christ (in the case of Horus, they were totally made up by an archaeologist).  At least one New Atheist claim (coming from a software engineer in Britain) makes Jesus out as a hoax perpetrated by, of all people, the Romans in order to keep the Jews compliant. (I have not yet seen anyone put forward the claim by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John Allegro, that Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom— I am not making this up; it ruined his career.)  Furthermore, these people who think that Christ is a myth argue that the Bible cannot be a viable source of truth about who Jesus is because it talks about him as the Son of God. Surely, they say, such a thing is impossible. And so they try to cast doubt on the claims of Christians about Jesus, even though very few serious scholars of the New Testament, regardless of whether or not they are believers, actually take these claims that Jesus never existed seriously.

“If you’re not a god named Horus, you’re super, super, super bore-us….”

But the New Atheists aren’t the first to question the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The last two centuries saw a concerted hunt for the “historical” Jesus, which continues to this day. Prominent theologians and historians, including the famous theologian, physician, and organist, Albert Schweitzer, sought to uncover the “real” Jesus divorced from the shackles of Scripture and theological frameworks.  All came to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus put forward in Scripture couldn’t possibly describe the real man, that for whatever reason Jesus could not possibly have done what the Gospel writers and apostles say he did. They argued that Jesus must have been a prophet or a mystic or a rabbi or a rabble-rouser (or all four at once!), but that he couldn’t have possibly been the Son of God.  In the case of Schweitzer, he came to believe that Jesus was mistaken about himself, and that he died a failed prophet. But those hunting for the historical Jesus, whatever that means, discounted what Scripture says about him in order to create a portrait of a man who, to them, seems “likely” to have been real. The “historical” Jesus, they argue, didn’t rise from the dead. To them, such a thing is not historically possible or probable.  The “real” Jesus, they say, was just a man who died on a cross. End of story.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians in our epistle reading this morning, would have recognized these arguments against Christ.  It seems that similar arguments were already current in Corinth and were threatening the faith of the congregation there. Corinth, a port city, was home to numerous Greek cults and philosophies that were antithetical to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel— that Christ had died and risen from the dead as the first of a general resurrection.  The Greek and Roman pagans, by and large, did not believe in any such resurrection. For them, you died and went to the underworld, and maybe if you were really good, you got to live in the upscale part of it. People didn’t just “come back,” and if they did, it was only in the myths and under exceptional circumstances, usually when Hercules hauled you out of the underworld to complete a quest.  And the Epicureans, one of the philosophical groups present in the city, taught that death was nothingness and that life’s chief aim was to achieve freedom from pain. These groups denied the reality of the resurrection, and it seems that their teachings had made their way into the congregation at Corinth and some folks believed them. Paul had to impress upon the Corinthian flock the implications of not believing that Christ’s resurrection had occurred and that the resurrection of all people was coming.  Denial of this central tenet of the Gospel had very real consequences. We heard Paul lay out the argument earlier:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[a] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 1:12-19)

Paul precedes all this with a catalogue of witnesses who saw the risen Christ and who attest to the truth of “the gospel…which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2), namely that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (verses 3-4).  These include Simon Peter, the whole host of the apostles, nearly 500 other disciples, James the Greater (Jesus’ half-brother who headed the church in Jerusalem), and finally, Paul himself.  Yet even with all these corroborating witnesses, some members of the church at Corinth denied that the resurrection had happened, or could even happen. Was it merely a denial that God could raise the dead if he wanted to?  A rejection of miracles? Perhaps they had come to hold a belief that was current just across the sea in Ephesus at the time: that the resurrection was merely spiritual and that there would be no physical one.

Either way, the implications of a rejecting of the resurrection are clear.  Paul says that if the dead cannot be raised— if it is not part of God’s plan as some of these people in Corinth asserted— then Christ cannot have been raised from the dead.  And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Paul, the apostles, and all those who preach that Christ has been raised from the dead are liars, making God out to be a liar, too.  And if that is the case, then one’s faith in Christ is futile because Christ didn’t die and rise to save all people from their sins. If there is no resurrection, then death is still death, this life is all there is, and Christians are a sad and sorry lot who have been living a certain way based on a falsehood.  They have been denying themselves and struggling with the world’s enticements when they could have been eating and drinking and being merry with abandon because “tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). And, regardless of the reality of the resurrection, for Paul, acting as if the resurrection is nothing becomes, for the individual, tantamount to making it untrue for oneself.  If you reject the resurrection and believe that Christ had died in vain, then his death is in vain— for you.

Friedrich Nietzsche, doodled while
I was in college reading
On the Genealogy of Morals

If you deny Christ’s resurrection and live as if it has not happened, then for you, this life really becomes all there is, and if you live as if this is it, then the meaning of Christian life is lost.  You become a nihilist.  And when you become a nihilist, you find, as Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power, “that the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] “why?” finds no answer.” For if God did not send his Son to die for you so that you might be reconciled unto him and saved from your sins, then what is the point?  For you, there is no escape from sin and death, no salvation. For the nihilist, God becomes essentially unimportant— “dead,” if you will— because he no longer gives meaning to your existence, and you are faced with the task of becoming your own savior and your own god.  You must, following Nietzsche, impose your own meaning and will on the universe in order to give it sense. But this is a terrible burden, because how can the human intellect make total sense of what goes on in this fallen, sinful world? David Foster Wallace, the author of the cult classic, Infinite Jest, held that, in a world ruled by nihilism where God is essentially treated as dead, one had to find positive value even in the most evil circumstances and actions.  But there is a limit to all human understanding, and eventually, the burden of trying to ascribe positive meaning to the horrors and terrors of sin and death becomes too great, and you are left to fall into despair.

Nihilists. And cowards.

Most people in the western world today, it seems, are already functional nihilists.  We give lip service to the resurrection, but we act as if it is not part of our reality.  We live as if we will die tomorrow, and we seem to have convinced ourselves, on some level, that this life is all there is; that we can only live our “best life now;” that once death comes, that’s it.  And so we distract ourselves with material goods and pleasures, trying to mask or drown our fear with hedonism. We buy things to make ourselves feel better (I know I sometimes do). We seek happiness in creation rather than in the Creator, and we do this to our peril.  When we act as if Christ’s resurrection didn’t occur and that the resurrection of all flesh isn’t coming, we make idols of ourselves and our possessions and we ignore God, making him into a placeholder for whatever we want him to be. When we live this way, we may find ourselves indulging our sinful desires rather than fighting them, even calling sin a good thing.  We may even find ourselves rejecting Christ outright. And should we die thinking such, we will be dead in our sins. At that point, we will truly know despair.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Sanssouci Picture Gallery.

But Paul provides good news in the face the despair that comes from nihilistic hedonism.  The resurrection happened.  It is a historical fact.  Paul says, contrary to those who believe that “we have hope in this life only,” that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The Christian doesn’t place his or her trust in some myth that happened in a far-off dream-time, buried somewhere in a distant, primordial past beyond reckoning.  Christ came into the world, died, and rose again all within a real frame of time in a real place: in the city of Jerusalem in the province of Judaea during (depending on our modern dating) the 16th or 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, likely in the month of March.  And people saw him!  The Corinthian doubters who argued against the resurrection could go to any of the over 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ and hear from them, first-hand, about the One who saved them from their sins.  And since Christ was indeed raised from the dead, then the coming resurrection of all the dead is itself a fact. If the Corinthian doubters needed more validation for Christ’s work, they could see that the words of the prophets spoke to what Christ had done.  Christ did what God had promised he would do. It really happened. The apostles devoted their lives to it. Only one of them, John, died of old age— the rest were martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. They would not have given their lives had things been otherwise.  They knew that Jesus had defeated sin, death, and the devil. He saved the world from sin. He did not die in vain.

Resurrection of Christ (1555), from a book of sermons by Georg III, Fürst von Anhalt (1507-1553). Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive, Emory University.

Because Christ rose from the dead, the doubters in Corinth had no reason to think that this life was “it.”  They did not have to numb themselves to the pain of a sinful world by adopting lives of hedonism or attempting to make themselves the masters of a senseless and violent universe.  They could take hope in an objective reality that God took on human flesh and died and rose for them. Their faith was not in some unknowable event— Christ had really done it. Their faith in him was not futile.

Despite the claims of those who argue that our faith is futile— the New Atheists, those who argue against Jesus’ being the Christ, those who argue that the physical resurrection is not a reality— we can point to the fact that our faith is in the One who did indeed die and rise again, even though we ourselves were not physically there to witness it.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  We weren’t there, but we still have the testimony of those who did see and know him, and even if we did not have their testimony, it still would not change the objective fact that Jesus did what God said he would do.  Our faith is not in the testimony, but rather in the One who gives it validity. With the children we sing, “Jesus loves me, / This I know, / For the Bible / Tells me so.” And this is true. But just as the promise of the resurrection doesn’t mean much without the reality of Christ having died and risen, so it is with the testimony of Scripture.  Scripture is true because Jesus died and rose again. The Bible tells us of the love of Christ because he did indeed (and does) love us so much that he took our sins upon himself and buried them in his own death on the cross. Our faith is in the fact that he did it.

The dead waiting for the Resurrection. Apocalypse, Westminster c. 1250-1275 (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 180, fol. 40v). From Discarding Images.

So when you find yourself feeling like there is only hope in this life; when you are living only for today and are indulging your senses because you think it will make you happy or give your life some kind of meaning that is otherwise lacking; when you feel despair because you cannot make sense of things or because your sins seem to be the defining feature of your life and you cannot or will not be saved, do not give up hope!  Christ, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, died and rose again for you, so that you might live with him.  It really happened, and by virtue of your baptism, you have a share in the resurrection promise.  Trust in it! This life is not the only one. His death and resurrection give us a reason to live and to hope for tomorrow, because in him we have a tomorrow.  He has forgiven our sins and given us life. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, and because of him, we can gladly say with Hosea and St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).  Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).  Amen!