Things Neither Commanded Nor Forbidden

Last time I talked about some of the different practices associated with Communion and Baptism. I talked about where God’s promise lies and how that’s where we put our confidence and trust. God connects His promise to a physical element and presents it to us through it. This is the central point of the sacraments and without the grace that comes to us through that physical element, the primary purpose of the sacraments is lost.

If we assume the sacraments will be performed with God’s promise connected to the physical element, then there are a number of other questions we can turn our attention to. Surrounding the sacrament are all of the variations in practice that bear examination. For the most part, these fall into what Luther and others termed “adiaphora.” It’s a fancy word meaning “things God has not commanded nor forbidden.” It covers quite a lot of things. All of them are secondary to the sacraments but that does mean they are entirely unimportant. Neither does it mean they are entirely neutral.

The question last week arose because of a concern over intinction. Since someone communing through intinction is still receiving both bread and wine, we can’t say this method is forbidden. God certainly doesn’t command we commune this way either. The sacraments and liturgy are designed to strengthen our faith and help us grow as disciples and apostles. They help us learn how to be more Christ-like. God’s Word has many things to communicate to us, different themes of salvation and God’s work in the world. Many of these are connected to the sacraments. Distributing the sacraments without an awareness of all of the different ideas attached to them may be doing a disservice to those who receive it. When looking at intinction, for example, one of the ideas God expresses regarding Communion is that of unity. We are brought together and made one through God’s grace. We are made into the body of Christ through His body. We share one cup at His table. To that end, drinking from the common cup helps make this idea much more visible. The same can be said from sharing a common loaf of bread, rather than the use of wafer. (Some will argue that wafer are all cut from a common “loaf” when made, but the congregation does not see that happen. The visual is part of the teaching tool and without people being able to see that first hand the visible reinforcement is lost.)

I also talked last time about immersion versus sprinkling as a baptismal practice. The same holds true here. St. Paul and Luther equate Baptism with death. In Baptism your sin is drowned and dies. In this case, immersion visualizes this baptismal theme much better than sprinkling and might be preferred for that reason. On the other hand, another baptismal theme is that of washing and cleansing. If talked about in those terms, sprinkling or pouring may actually communicate those ideas better, particularly if more than a little bit of water and make an effort to do more than just pat the forehead.

Regarding these kinds of adiaphora, Luther makes a valuable point in his baptismal booklet. The sacraments can have all of these practices and all sorts of flourishes that are used to help emphasize different sacramental themes, such as candles or white robes for Baptism. However, only the sacrament is the sacrament. Everything else is extra. There is only one thing that actually carries the promise. Everything else is designed to reinforce and reveal what God is doing through that sacrament. All of those extras are adiaphora. If the adiaphora isn’t helping, then it isn’t serving the purpose and may actually be harmful. Some adiaphora may work better with a certain congregation than another. Some may not be possible at all, such as trying to do an immersion baptism in an emergency. We take comfort and strength in the promise and know that, in the absence of adiaphora, God is still at work. His promise is sure and certain.

How Much is Enough?

I was recently weighing in in a conversation about the practice of intinction. If you you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to dipping the Communion host into the chalice to get the wine rather than drinking directly from the cup. The question was, is this a valid practice?

The answer is a little more nuanced than you might expect because there are a couple of issues going on the same time. The first is: how much wine (or bread) do you need to constitute receiving the sacrament? The other is: is this in keeping with the Lord’s command regarding the sacrament?

Often, when theologians start digging into questions like these it is out of a desire to nail down all aspects of the sacraments and how they work. Sometimes questions like this come from a desire to find out just how little I can do and still be considered a worthy recipient of the sacrament, but not always. From a pastoral perspective, the question of whether a bed-ridden person who can only handle a tiny bit of food can receive the sacrament might be of vital importance. Seen from that perspective, it’s worth discussing how the Bible describes the sacraments.

Both of these questions are answered by answering a slightly different question: where is the grace of God found? Luther takes a similar view to St. Augustine and even quotes him by saying, “when the Word is added to the element or natural substance, it becomes a sacrament.” The physical element is a major part of the sacrament, whether you’re looking at the water for Baptism or the bread and wine for Communion, these are the things God has bound His grace to. This is why we call the sacraments the means of grace. So, when we try to answer this question the issue is really just, “did you receive the physical element and was God’s promise attached to it?” If you heard Christ’s promise that this is His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in connection to the bread and wine, and you received that bread and wine, then you have received the grace that comes with them. In that sense, intinction works just as well as receiving the wine from the chalice. The quantity I receive does not reflect the quality of God’s grace, for His full and complete grace is present in any amount I receive.

This issue also plays into our understanding of baptismal practices. Some church bodies will argue that the only proper form of Baptism is immersion. The Biblical depictions of Christ’s own Baptism are not even clear as to whether He was immersed, but leaving that aside, the same questions are relevant. What is His promise attached to? The water. Did you receive the water with the promise attached? If so, then you received the sacrament. In this case, the promise comes through the Triune name of God, marking you as His own. Whether you are immersed or whether you are sprinkled, the power of God’s grace comes through any amount of water and it is sufficient for all of our needs.

Next week I’ll explore a bit more of these different ways of conducting the sacraments.

Thy Strong Word

The sacraments took center stage in the discussion Luther had with the other reformers like John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. Calvin and Zwingli denied Christ’s presence in Communion in particular and disagreed about the value of the sacraments in general. For Luther, the sacraments were absolutely essential to Christian life and the center of all we do in this world.

The descendants of Calvin and Zwingli, such as the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth, will typically say the sacraments have some value. It’s just that they are not “means of grace” as the Lutheran reformers would say. They are not vehicles for transporting God’s forgiveness to us. Luther vehemently disagreed with the arguments presented by Calvin and Zwingli and, since the sacraments were so central to Luther’s theology, the church fractured further to create all of the Reformed church bodies we have today.

Despite how we Lutherans are sometimes portrayed, we very much like talking with our brothers and sisters from the Reformed traditions. Unfortunately, the sacraments are still one of the major points of disagreement and that isn’t likely to turn around anytime soon. I’ve talked before about how the other traditions’ views of the sacraments have some truth to them and how we Lutherans often have trouble acknowledging that. However, what Luther excelled at throughout his theological work is in going back to the beginning and seeing how everything unfolds and, for Luther, that always meant going back to God’s Word.

“What does God say?” would be at the forefront of his mind from very early on as his posting of the 95 Theses was coming into view. “What does God promise? I’ll stand firmly on that,” would be his constant assurance. Whatever participation we might have in the sacraments, it is the power and promise of God that ultimately makes them worth anything at all. It is God’s promise that drives the sacraments. It is God’s Word that drives everything in creation. Luther would always go back to this idea and look at what God is saying and examine what God is doing through what He says. God creates through His Word. He judges or forgives through His Word. Our relationship with God is both begun in and founded on His Word.

That then means the sacraments are also primarily about His Word and what God is doing through them. “What does God say?” God says, “This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” If we want to know what God is doing through the sacraments, we must first begin, as Luther did, by looking at what God Himself says about them. What does God actually promise? This is where we, too, must take our stand. The sacraments may have more going on, as our Reformed brothers and sisters often correctly state, but without God’s Word of promise there is no guarantee that God is using anything for our benefit.

For Luther, everything begins with God. That includes even the things we try and offer to Him. Anything that seeks its beginning somewhere else cannot stand.

Proof of Life

The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter in the three year series tells us all about our beloved doubter, Thomas.  Looking at the Resurrection from our future perspective, as we do, it’s easy to be critical of Thomas. Why didn’t he believe? Well, none of them did until Jesus showed up in their midst. We lose track of the fact that all of the disciples started in the same boat. Jesus found all of them (except Thomas) hiding in the upper room out of fear because they all thought Jesus was still dead.

While Jesus meant what He later said to Thomas, that those who need know physical proof are better off, it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus gave Thomas exactly that. Jesus gives Thomas the opportunity to touch His hands and side to see for himself that He was truly there and that all of His promises had come true.

I’d like to say we’re different, being able to read the Gospel accounts after the fact and already know how they’re all going to turn out, yet somehow we still manage to have doubts about it all. Of course, that’s part of the reason we come to church and why the Scripture readings for Sunday are so central to what we do. We hear God’s promises again. All of the same promises the disciples heard are given to us as well. You’d think we could do better, knowing how the story goes. But the same doubts continue to assail us. He said, “I forgive you,” but does He really? He said, “I love you,” but it doesn’t always feel like it. He said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” but how do I really know?

For as much as we like to think we’re spiritually more mature than the disciples, we aren’t actually all that different at all. We face the same doubts, the same temptations, the same struggles. Were we numbered among the Eleven, we too would be huddling in the upper room for fear of the Jews.

It strikes me how interesting the message the disciples share with Thomas when they see him. They don’t say, “Jesus has risen and death is undone,” or even “God’s promise has come true.” They say, very simply, “We have seen the Lord!” They don’t give doctrinal treatises on what the resurrection means or how eternal life is ours or any of those sorts of things. Instead, they declare what they have seen with their own eyes and how the presence of Christ confirms everything God has said.

God knows how our faith ebbs and flows. We should be able to stand on His promises and trust Him on that alone. But we are frail our flesh is weak. It would be nice to not need it, but we do. This becomes one of the very unique and special features of Communion. Jesus tells the disciples, “This is my body,” not as a metaphor, but actual fact. Jesus knows what we need and He gives it to us. Jesus is truly present, giving us the proof we too often need that He is not only risen, but continues to be with us until the end of the age and beyond.

When Luther talks about the value of the sacraments in caring for distressed consciences, we typically think in terms of forgiveness. But the problem is sometimes even worse than that. Early that Easter morning, the disciples weren’t worried about forgiveness. They thought Jesus was dead and they had been abandoned by God.

Communion reminds us that this is not the case. We are forgiven and loved by God and we are invited to share a personal and intimate meal with Him, just as we would with family. He wants you to see that He is here and, more specifically, that He is here for you.

Restoring our Alleluias

Easter Sunday is already a celebration for all Christians. At our church, we began a new liturgical tradition. Just before Lent, the kids in the congregation got to carry several banners with gold Alleluias written on them up to the chancel where they were safely stored in a box through the season of Lent. Easter morning the kids got to come up during the processional to take the banners out of the box and hang them up around the church. It’s a way of giving a visual to the widely known practice of bringing alleluia back into use at Easter.

The number of liturgical traditions is as numerous as there congregations that follow the liturgy. Processionals, incense, chanting, chasubles and the like are often considered “high church” because of the feel they have, the close association with the historic roots of the liturgy. However, they are by no means the only traditions you might have. Taking food collections during the service, choirs, imposition of ashes, candles, and all sorts of other practices are found in churches around the world.

These traditions and practices serve an important function. Liturgically savvy pastors and congregations look at what the liturgy is doing and look for new ways to drive the point home. I’ll say again, the liturgy is the best teaching tool the church has short of the Bible itself. Every Sunday, we gather together in worship and every Sunday God is giving us a new lesson in how to be His people. Many make the mistake of thinking the liturgy is just something we say when we are there for the service. Unfortunately, a liturgy that is merely said is a liturgy that is missing the mark and that usually isn’t the fault of the liturgy. The liturgy isn’t just said, it is done.

Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s not that saying the words of the liturgy is worthless, far from it. What I mean is that we need to see that the very words we speak are actually doing something. We confess the Creed and we make a public declaration of who the true God is. We need mercy, and so God gives us the words to speak to focus our attention on humbling ourselves before our Creator. We need encouragement and direction in our prayer life, so God gives us the opportunity to pray and a structure to guide us as we do it. We, as creatures, are created to praise our Creator, and so God gives us words such as alleluia that are reserved specifically for praising Him.

We learn a great deal if we think of the liturgy as a learning experience and not just as something that we need to mark off on our weekly checklist. Practices such as processionals, choirs, or alleluia banners are not meant to replace the various parts of the liturgy, because they all fill important functions right where they are. These practices are meant to give us new ways to consider what the liturgy is doing and, more importantly, that the liturgy is not just something we do for God, but that God is using the liturgy to do something to us.

There’s always the concern that some practice or other may not really work with a particular congregation. Not everyone responds to everything the same way. But, we must be careful not drop things just because they don’t make sense right away. God does many things in history that are clear and obvious. He also does many things that can only be understood with a concerted effort to delve into them. Both are beneficial, but they work in different ways. Some are for new Christians who, like toddlers, are just learning the basics of how to walk the Christian walk. Others are for those who already have the fundamentals but need something with a little more meat to help them continue to grow. The liturgy and the various practices associated with it are no different. Some will resonate with where you are at in your life of discipleship, some may not. Some will be meaningful one day, while others may connect better the next. They are all opportunities given to grow as God’s people as we learn from Him who we are and how we are to live in this world. For Lent, we put away our alleluias to help direct our attention on why our Savior came to die. Now that He has triumphed, we turn to our need to praise Him for all that He has done for us and we reflect on how it is only through His death and resurrection that we have life.

What sort of liturgical practices does your congregation have? What do you think they are trying to do?

Eight Days a Week

We have arrived at the season of Easter. With the resurrection of our Lord from the tomb everything has changed. We live in a new world, a world where life exists that is no longer subject to death. For the first time since Genesis 1 and 2, we find someone who is free from both sin and death. The echoes of God’s original, perfect creation are heard as the stone rolls back and the angels announce, “He is risen!”

There is a thought that comes to us from very early in the church regarding creation. God creates the world in seven days. At some point after the work of creation was completed, Adam and Eve succumb to the temptations of Satan and sin and death enter the world. From that point forward, mankind has been stuck in an endless cycle. We live each week under the yoke of sin. As we come up on the end of the week, we hope and pray the next week will bring something new, that it will bring freedom. But it never does. Each week follows the last as the endless progression of sin’s domination leaves us in chains. We go to Saturday, God’s declared day of rest, and the week starts all over again and we have a new week of sin and death to look forward to.

When Jesus rises from the tomb, something is different. Jesus is like Adam was before the Fall, sinless and perfect. Yet, Jesus is better in one very important way. Where sin and death were always a possibility for Adam, they are no longer possible for Jesus. He has conquered both. He has triumphed over both. Jesus brings something into the world which creation has never seen before: a life beyond the power and reach of death.

For the first time, the world sees what God’s promise truly means, a life where death is no longer possible, an eternal life. Jesus has been talking about throughout His ministry but now it is finally here. Jesus ushers in the very beginnings of the new creation. Until now, we’ve been trapped in the endless cycle of days, days that roll into weeks, and weeks that continue on and on until we die. When Jesus rises again, He does so on what would normally be the first day of the week, the first day of creation. But, Jesus’ life is no longer trapped in that cycle. He lives not in the old creation but the new. Like a bulldozer, Jesus breaks through the barrier that stands on the seventh day, waiting to send us back around. In the language of creation, He rises not on the first day, but the eighth.

Life in Jesus is not bound to the cycle of sin and death but stretches out into an endless eternity. The Eighth Day then represents the new creation and looks to our life in Christ. This Eighth Day is foreshadowed in various places in Scripture, with circumcision being the most obvious. God required the sons of Abraham to be circumcised on their eighth day of life. This is when God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was explicitly bound to them. This is when they became God’s people.

The theme of adoption comes to us in the New Testament age through baptism. We are made God’s people and children of the promise through water and the Word. But, we are also bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rises on the Eighth Day and so that new creation life is ours too through baptism.

The power of Christ’s resurrection in history is hard to overstate. Looking at the life of the early church, God’s Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Jews worshiped on Saturday. They have always worshiped on Saturday, for that was the Law. Now, in the very beginnings of the church people are worshipping instead on Sunday and they do so almost immediately and without any major debate. The power of what Christ has brought into the world cannot be denied. We are people of the new creation and we worship a God who is bringing a new heavens and a new earth. We may not know what that new earth looks like exactly, but we know what our life within that earth will look like. We see it every time we look at our risen Lord.

The First and the Last

I find the works of Christian artist, Sadao Watanabe, interesting. As a Christian born and raised in Japan, his view of Christ and the Gospel message come from a different perspective. Like the four Gospels themselves, different perspectives don’t necessarily change the message, so much as give us new ways to think about how to apply it to life. Whether he intended it or not, his depictions of Jesus with His disciples always look to me as if the disciples are pestering Jesus, much like a litter of baby kittens are always climbing on mom and demanding attention.

Though Watanabe was a prolific artist, it’s somewhat telling how many different depictions he did of the Last Supper. Though I haven’t found a complete listing of all of his works, a quick search turns up at least seven or eight different instances of the Last Supper. There are many similarities between them. They often depict fish on the table, alongside bottles of sake. Judas is also usually shown holding the money bag behind his back, while the disciple on Jesus’ left hand is usually prodding Him and looking distressed.

Reflecting on the various depictions Watanabe has done made me consider the very nature of what we call, “The Last Supper.” One of the things I was chewing on was the fact that nowhere does the Bible actually call this scene the “Last Supper.” We see from the perspective of the Gospel writers that it is the last supper Jesus celebrates with His disciples before His crucifixion. We also have Jesus’ words that He will not share the fruit of the vine again with them until He drinks new with them in His Father’s kingdom. So, there are reasons why “last” is an appropriate adjective, but it is still something we’ve come to associate with the events of Maundy Thursday. That means calling it the “Last Supper” may not be wrong, but it does mean we should be careful about how we think about it. Calling it the last certainly implies there won’t be any more.

As a pastor, I’m neck deep in the work of Holy Week. From a liturgical perspective, the services of Holy Week are quite unique in the calendar. Every congregation has its own traditions and liturgical elements it is used to, but all of that makes the services at the end of Holy Week distinct. A Good Friday service, regardless of whether you have Communion or whether you have some variety of tenebrae service or something else entirely, probably doesn’t look like any normal Sunday service. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. An Easter Vigil service is very different from other services, with its emphasis on quiet reflection and meditation on the work of our Lord. Maundy Thursday probably follows more or less a standard divine service format, but the feel of the service is still different from what you would be doing on Sunday. Lent has been building up to this moment, but now the moment has arrived and the mix of urgency and somberness we see in Jesus as He celebrates the Passover with His disciples flows over us as well. Easter morning is, of course, what this is all about. The highest of the high feast days. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for and the voices of Christians everywhere shake the rafters as they join together joyfully singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”

Still, for all of that unusualness, there is another liturgical layer that is often overlooked and, in many cases, omitted entirely. The church has long considered the services from Maundy Thursday through Easter to be not 4 separate services, but one extended service. The ancient form of this is called the Triduum or “three days.” In this case the days are not thought of as calendar days but as 24 hour periods from the end of Maundy Thursday service to Easter evening. If your church follows this pattern, you’ll notice there is no benediction at the end of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil. The benediction is given when God is sending you out to carry out your work in the world and declaring that He will be with you. Here we only find the benediction at the end of Easter services. It’s as if all of these services are meant to be one continuous story and it is only when you have heard the conclusion of the story that God sends you out.

The culmination of all of Christ’s work is in His death and resurrection. Not just His death, but His death and resurrection. Going back into the world without hearing Christ has been raised puts in the same position as the disciples huddling in the upper room. We end up being the very people St. Paul preaches about in 1 Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But if everything is about Christ’s death and resurrection, then it seems odd that the Last Supper is included in this story. Jesus doesn’t die on Thursday, nor does He rise from the dead. Why is this service made a part of the whole?

The answer comes in what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is already telling the disciples that this is the last time this will happen…”until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” This may be the last time for the moment, but it will happen again. That means it isn’t really the last at all. It’s at this point I recall Jesus’ words, “So the last will be first and the first last.” Granted, Jesus is addressing a different issue there, however, the idea that God upends our notions of what is first and what is last is very much valid. Of course, we have Jesus’ words in Revelation to go with it, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Jesus encompasses the first and the last and everything in between and commands that those things that have been seen be written. Words just as appropriate for John and the other Gospel writers as they were for John at that moment.

If we think about the story told by the Triduum about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the main events are certainly His death and resurrection. But, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already alluding to the future, to a “Next Supper.” The Last Supper becomes the introduction that helps us to understand what the rest of the story is all about. Jesus will die, but He won’t stay dead. He’ll rise again, but He won’t just rise for His own gain. In His life, we find our own life. Jesus will share this supper with us again.

That means, while it is perfectly reasonable to refer to the meal Jesus shares with His disciples as the Last Supper, we might very well call it the “First Supper.” For every time we come to the Lord’s table, we share it with Him as we celebrate with the bread and the wine in His presence. This is not a mere commemoration, but continuation of what Christ began as He share the Lord’s Supper with His disciples for the first time. Everything that happened over those three days carries on-going, eternal significance. We share the meal with Christ and in sharing His table we are brought into that story too. His death is ours and so is His life.

Question – Does seeing Maundy Thursday as a beginning instead of an end change how you view Good Friday and Easter?

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Palm Sunday comes soon, and with it the beginning of Holy Week. I’m not a big fan of reading big chunks of the Passion narrative on this day, even though it is a tradition that goes back quite a ways in the church. I understand why people do it, but I like giving Palm Sunday its due. It has more than enough to sink our teeth into all by itself.

Palm Sunday is an episode of Jesus’ life that is well-known to us. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” the people shout as they wave their palm branches. Waving palm branches is often a tradition of churches these days on Palm Sunday, often going along with a procession of some sort as well. The interconnection of Jesus’ actions with the prophecies of old is rather profound. Zechariah 9:9 foretells the King riding in on a donkey (as Solomon did long ago). Psalm 118 is what Jesus cites as He tells the Jews in Matthew 23, “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” The connection to Palm Sunday is immediately apparent. Here is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to claim the throne of His father, David, just as His predecessor had done. The people cheer, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” just as Jesus had foretold. Everything is going according to plan.

We hear the passage so often that significance of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew eludes us. Jesus foretells the peoples’ reception of Him in Matthew 23, but His entry into Jerusalem takes place in Matthew 21. Palm Sunday has already taken place. (It is worth noting that Luke places Jesus’ statement a little prior to His arrival in Jerusalem.) In Matthew’s estimation (by the guiding of the Spirit) we aren’t really talking about Palm Sunday. Jesus is directing the people to look further ahead.

As with many things Jesus says about the Kingdom of God, the future is always in sight. Jesus gives us a glimpse of life within His Kingdom when it is fully and finally established in this world forever. We must never lose sight of that End Times connection, but we must also remember that if we are always swinging for the fences we miss the solid hits that are a bit closer to home.

Again we hear the words so often the significance eludes us. Around the world, congregations gather to celebrate the work of Christ. Around the world, churches lift up their voices and sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Around the world, the Son of David, the King of Kings comes into our presence just as He foretold. Jesus was not just looking at the Last Day. The King is here with us and His Kingdom with Him. Jesus was looking at His presence in the life of His people now.

There is the perception among some that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God. This is usually thought because we all draw on the same (more or less) history as given in the Old Testament. However, for both Jews and Muslims, one of the most central aspects of the god they worship is his ineffableness, his unreachableness, his existence beyond all true knowing or understanding. We don’t deny God has all of these characteristics. He truly is bigger than any knowledge or understanding we will ever have. Yet, at the very same time, He is very much knowable. He is a God who exists far off in the unreachable heights of heaven and yet He is right here with us where we can see Him, hear Him, touch Him, and yes, even smell and taste Him. We Christians, alone of all others in the world, when asked where God is, can point to the altar where the bread and wine sit and say, “He’s waiting for us right there.”

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” is our song just before our celebration. Deep down, the church has always understood the significance of the Sanctus and what it says about Communion. The King is here. The church acknowledges every Sunday to ultimately be a celebration of Easter and the resurrection. We can also say every Sunday, as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are celebrating Palm Sunday. We gather together, waiting in eager expectation for our invitation to His Table. We sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” and we hear God’s response, “Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Suffering With Christ

St. Paul talks about suffering periodically in his letters, particularly in Romans and 2 Corinthians.  The way he talks about suffering is rather unique in the world today. 

Not that St. Paul is the only person to talk about suffering, for people talk about it all the time.  A daily scan of the news shows suffering of all kinds all over the world.  War, disease, hatred, greed, and all of the other sins you can name are inflicted on one person by another all the time.  We are no strangers to suffering in all it’s forms.  We have never really accepted suffering as a part of life, which is why suffering continues to be one of the most hotly debated topics among philosophers.

If this life is all we have, then suffering is truly something to be avoided.  This life is all about maximizing whatever pleasure and happiness we can, for that is all we have.  Anything that causes suffering then must be evil, for it goes against the only thing in life that has any value.

Fortunately, or unfortunately if you aren’t Christian, this life is not all there is.  That actually makes suffering more difficult to understand.  Happiness and pleasure are not the most important things in this life.  Faith and trust in Christ are the only things that lead to eternal life.  Suffering does not prevent eternal life, nor does it prevent faith.  There are even instances where suffering drives people to faith.  Can that mean suffering might be considered good?  It doesn’t seem possible.

First, we acknowledge that the cause of suffering is sin.  That means suffering can never truly be a good thing and that it has no place in God’s perfect creation.  But, we also see how God can use what is evil and turn it to good, as He does in the suffering and death of Christ.  This is where St. Paul steps in.  He gives our suffering theological significance.  Though it is evil, it at least now has meaning.  We find in our suffering that we are further joined to Christ’s life.  We become more like Him.

This gives further context to Lent.  The age-old tradition of giving something up for Lent often turns into a Pharisaical practice, “Look how serious I am about Lent!  I’m giving up (fill in the blank).”  That’s not the purpose however. 

Christ intentionally put Himself in harm’s way.  Not that it was self-inflicted or that He actively sought martyrdom.  Rather, He did what was necessary because something was at stake that was more important than His life.  His suffering shows His willingness to set aside His wants and desires for the good of others. His suffering was still evil, but it was used by God for our good.

Lent is our time to reflect on what Jesus suffered, but it is also a time to reflect on what it means to follow Him. As Jesus tells us in Luke 9, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” To follow Christ necessarily means to suffer, to let yourself be brought to nothing in order to save others. We consider what Jesus did for us and how He has called us to follow Him as disciples. We pray throughout the season that God would give us the strength to stay the course, particularly in those times when our petition, “Deliver us from evil,” becomes less generalized and more immediate and specific. We pray that God continues to remind us that the season will come to an end and suffering along with it. Our Easter will come just as Christ’s did.

Trampling Down Death by Death

The Easter hymn known as the “Paschal troparion” is one of the central features of the Easter service in the Orthodox church. The short hymn says, “Christ is risen from the dead, by death trampling death, and to those in the tombs granting life!” This concept is echoed in other hymns as well, reflecting how Christ accomplished His victory.

Thinking on this reminds me again of the purpose for the season of Lent. Lent is considered to be 40 days when you take out Sundays. The connection to other events in the Bible is intentional and it is through our meditation on those events that one of the themes of Lent emerges.

The earliest “40” we have in the Bible is that of the 40 days and nights of rain God sent in the days of Noah. God sees the violence in the world and how everyone in the world had set their hearts to evil except for Noah and his family. God sends rain to wipe out the unrighteousness of the world and bring it back from darkness. God sends rain that destroys every living thing in the world except for those on the ark Noah built.

The other notable 40 day period we find is when Jesus is in the wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan. Jesus fasts 40 days and then Satan tempts Him to give up worshipping His Father in return for earthly glory. Jesus sends Satan scurrying by the power of His Word and heads off to call His first disciples.

There is a common theme in both of these cases. The world is full of unrighteousness and, after 40 days of rain, all that remains are some animals, Noah, and his family. Righteous, trusting, faithful Noah rides out the storm to see a bright new day, free from the unrighteousness of the faithless that filled the world around him. Jesus is weak, hungry, and beset by Satan after 40 days. Satan comes on strong and doesn’t hold back. He offers it all. But, his gambit doesn’t succeed. In the battle of words, Jesus is triumphant.

In both cases, despite everything arrayed against God, He still triumphs. God triumphs against a world full of sin in the days of Noah. God triumphs against Satan in the early days of Jesus’ ministry. Now, here in Lent, we look forward to God triumphing over death as well. This becomes one of the themes of Lent. No matter how bleak things look, or how powerful the evil is, God will triumph. God always triumphs. Lent encourages us to take this message and apply it to our own lives. Whether we are beset by sin, Satan, or death, God will triumph. Good Friday comes, but after that we find Easter morning, where everything that has come before is just a memory and we look forward, with Christ, to the everlasting light of day.

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