Occasion: Membership of Barb McCulley
In the name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Thus writes St Paul in the Epistle lesson for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent.
An oasis. That's what the 4th Sunday in Lent has traditionally been. Some churches are adorned with rose-colored paraments today, signifying and anticipating what lies just weeks away now: Easter.
The theme for today is light. Jesus Himself says what we already know, but it's good to hear Him say it: that He is the light of the world!
And don't be confused, he is not saying He is the light from the world. For what light is there here? As St Paul explains, we, who are from the world, we are sleepers. The world is sleeping, it is dead. Christ, who is the Life of all the Living, He comes to awaken us. He speaks: “Arise, O sleeper,” and so you arise. His Word does this! When He speaks, He awakens us completely, and He lifts us out of the slumber of spiritual, eternal death. That's Baptism. When our senses are awakened and we see, hear, taste, touch, and even smell the holy, divine things.
There is a big difference between the modern evangelicals (like the Pentecostals, Baptists, and Methodists); there's a big difference between them and us, Lutherans. It's an important difference and it matters. They believe falsely, and to believe falsely is to be in the dark. But Christ, the Savior is in the light, He is the light, He is the truth, so we who are in the light are arisen from the dark sleep of spiritual death and our eyes are opened to the Truth.
In one word, the difference is that we are Sacramental. We believe in the Sacramental presence of Jesus. Our eyes have been opened so we see that in Baptism, for example, it is not just a name, not just a cross, and not just a symbolic washing. The robe is symbolic, the candle is symbolic. The baptizing is not, it is real, and it really gives eternal life and salvation. Likewise, the Body and Blood of Christ in the blessed Sacrament are not symbolic. The coming forward to the altar is symbolic, the chalice (common cup) is symbolic, the receiving the Body directly into your mouth, is symbolic. But the forgiveness is real.
Now, please hear me rightly. It's not as if symbolism doesn't have a purpose. In fact symbolism has great purpose. Hear what our Lutheran Confessions teach about symbolism:
AC XXIV Concerning the Mass
“Our people [the first Lutherans] have been unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass. But it is obvious, without boasting, that the Mass is celebrated among us with greater devotion and earnestness than among our opponents [Roman Catholics, Calvinists, and the fanatics, as Luther often called them]. The people are instructed more regularly and with the greatest diligence concerning the holy sacrament, to what purpose it was instituted, and how it is to be used, namely, as a comfort to terrified consciences. In this way, the people are drawn to Communion and to the Mass...Moreover, no noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. For after all, all ceremonies [symbolism] should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ.”
So, for example, I elevate the chalice with Jesus' Blood in it and the host, which is Jesus' Body. I don't elevate them before the consecration, but after. This is not a new practice of mine (perhaps new in this congregation), but Luther did it and so did our Lutheran fathers. In this simple way, this simple ceremony, the Church has passed down to us a practice that teaches us “what we need to know about Christ,” as the Confessions say, namely, that in that chalice is the Blood of Jesus and He alone is lifted up to be worshiped. And so we worship Him; not in the way that we decide to worship Him, but rather how He has told us to worship Him in the Sacrament. And that is: take and eat, take and drink.
And the rest of our ceremony is like this, too; there is great meaning and purpose behind all of it. So if you can't figure out why we do this thing or that, please ask, because it is pointless for us to have a practice/ceremony if you don't know what it means. This is why it is important for children to brought up in the church, to see the ceremony and be taught by it.
And, as a matter of fact, a new ceremony/symbolism that I am going to be introducing in the next few weeks will be the use of Communion vestments that pastor's wear. There is a rich meaning behind these robes, or as the Catechesis class likes to call them “man dresses.” Well, there are more “man dresses” on the way, and each has it's own teaching about Christ and His Office of pastor, so stay tuned for that.
So there is a point in all of the ceremony and symbolism, especially surrounding the Sacraments. After all, the making of disciples includes both the baptizing and the teaching. And the symbolism teaches.
The point in making the distinction, then, between the symbolic things and non-symbolic things, is that we must also come to understand the main thing. The main thing in Baptism is the Words of Jesus combined with the water which, as St Peter says so clearly, “now saves you.” The white robe and the candle and the shell all serve to give us a deeper, richer understanding of that salvation. Likewise, the main thing in the Sacrament of the Altar is the eating and drinking of the true Body and Blood of Jesus which, as Jesus Himself states, is for the “forgiveness of sins.” The elevating, the use of the common chalice, the coming up to the altar, these serve to give us a deeper, richer understanding of that main thing, the forgiveness of sins.
So we are Sacramental, that is, the Sacraments are our main thing as Lutherans; and it is a shame, no, more than that, it is heresy, to reject the Sacraments, in both teaching and practice (as the fanatics do, perhaps today more than ever). On the other hand, today in the Missouri Synod, and in Lutheran Churches throughout the world, more and more congregations are focusing in on the Sacramental things, just like our Lutheran forefathers, and especially in the celebration of the Lord's Supper.
In Luther's day, the Reformers often commented how inconceivable it was for Christians to meet together and not receive the Lord's Supper. It was just unheard of. They understood the main things. They were truly Sacramental, through and through. God grant this among us, in our day, also!
May God continue to awaken us, the sleepers, awaken our minds from the death of our sinful pride and arrogance. May Christ use His Word to come and shine in us, among us; to be a light to lighten us, the Gentiles. May the Spirit never cease to guide us in this light while it is still day.
And these aren't just wishes, these are blessings. As your pastor, in the stead of Christ, I am called here to bless you. I am the water boy, the messenger, your servant. My tools are the Words of Christ, the Bible. If I ever speak to you words other than the Words of the Good Shepherd; please, call me to repentance. But if I am speaking and administering Christ's Words, please, receive them with thanksgiving and eagerness; receive the blessing, for you are Christ's Bride, the Church, and the Church lives and is guided and guarded and cared for by Her Bridegroom, Jesus, when she receives Him in the ways He has given Himself to Her: The Word and the Sacraments. Let's not sell ourselves short on this. Jesus has spoken to you and opened your eyes, and He will continue to do so.
You know the benefits of the Lord's Supper and that it is your life-source. The more you commune on Jesus' Body and Blood, the more your sins will be forgiven, the stronger your connection to Jesus, the more comfort you will have, the more and more confident you will be in your eternal life. It's worth it, isn't it!? It is.
So on this oasis Sunday, let us be reminded of the main thing: the Sacramental Jesus. Even now, during the Lenten preparation, we know that He has already risen from the dead. He is seated at the right hand of the Father already, so we are free and forgiven in Him, already. We are blessed by Him, in His Word, in His Sacraments.
So, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
And know, that Christ, who is the light of the Gospel is shining now on us; we are awakened from the sleep of death, living in the radiance in His eternal life, even now. Come, receive Him again, as He gives Himself to you in His own testament, His sacrifice to you and for you. Come, He loves you.
In +Jesus' precious name. Amen.
[Artwork by Ed Riojas]