22 April 2012

Not a Ghost of a Christ

Having come in the flesh to save you; having given Himself for you; having fulfilled the Law of Moses, the Scriptures of the Prophets, and the Psalms, by His Cross and Resurrection; having atoned for the sins of the world by His sacrificial death, and having reconciled the world to God in His rising from the dead, the Lord Jesus comes and takes His stand in the midst of His disciples. Where two or three are gathered together in His Name — that is to say, where His disciples are gathered by and for the preaching of His Word, to and from the font of Holy Baptism — there He is also. That is what the Divine Service is: the coming of Jesus Himself to His disciples, to be with them, to serve them, to forgive them, to give them life, to bestow His sweet Peace upon them.

He is here to speak His “Peace” to you, as you hear repeatedly in the Liturgy: You pray for His peace in the Kyrie, the Gloria, and the Agnus Dei, and He is with you, to answer that prayer, to give you that Peace, in the Salutation and in the Benediction, and, of course, in the Pax Domini, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always,” at the heart of the Sacrament. So does He let you, His servant, go in Peace, as you sing in the Nunc Dimittis; for His Word is here fulfilled in you.

Why, then, does He seem like such a ghost, like a disembodied spirit, a fantasy or specter? As though He and His Word were nothing but a mirage; a dream that vanishes as soon as you would trust it or try to hang onto it, like chasing after the wind, or so much hot air. Like too much talk, and not enough action. How solid does He feel?

His Words to His disciples then, once upon a time, now sound almost like a taunt, a tease: “See My hands, My feet, My side. Touch Me and see. Stretch out your hand and take hold.” But, what? What do you see? What do you touch and taste and handle? What do you feel and experience?

He does not yet appear as He actually is; neither do you. He and His Church, and you, are yet hidden under the Cross, in the frailties of fallen flesh, which withers, and fades, and dies, and doesn’t come back. Why should you expect anything other than a ghost?

You cannot recline upon His breast at the Supper, as St. John the beloved disciple once did. You cannot investigate the wounds of His Passion, as St. Thomas and the other Apostles could. You cannot share your fish and chips with Him, nor your waffles and pancakes. Nor does He tuck you in at night, or give you a hug when you’re afraid.

Sometimes the comfort of the Gospel and the promises of Jesus sound pretty hollow and empty, just like a ghost: friendly, sure, but sort of pointless. The Spirit may be willing, but what has become of the flesh, which, even in weakness, would still have a hand to hold onto? Everyone needs a hand to hold onto.

You hear His Word — you hear Him speaking, “Peace,” and preaching forgiveness of sins — and, sure enough, you see your pastor standing before you, a man of flesh and blood like yours, with hands and feet like yours. You hear and see him preaching; you see him baptize and administer the Sacrament in Jesus’ Name. But to all appearances, it is as if your pastor were doing all these things by his own power or piety, and, really, what would that accomplish? He’s certainly not performing the sort of miracles that are undeniably evident to all. Besides, pastors come and go; they die, like any other man. So what good is that going to do you?

Where is Jesus? And where is the Peace of which He speaks? Some days you feel it. Many days you don’t. And rarely does there seem to be any direct or tangible connection between the Liturgy and whatever peace you do manage to find. Maybe the Divine Service makes you feel good, or maybe it leaves you cold, but, either way, you leave this place and find yourself up to your neck in the stew, and smack up against a brick wall of sights and sounds and smells and stuff you can touch and handle, whether you want to or not. In contrast to all of that solid experience, what evidence is there that Jesus and His Word are even real?

It is a matter of faith, and not by sight. To trust and cling to the Peace and promises of Christ Jesus is nothing you can muster up or manage on your own. Not because the Gospel is unreal or a fantasy, and not as though it were a ghost story, but by the nature of the case: Because Christ Jesus is the Savior of sinners, like you, who are subject to death and the grave. He has not come simply to mend or modify this fallen world, but to make all things new; to bring all of creation out from under the curse, through death into life, into reconciliation with God and the Peace that surpasses all human understanding. You’ll not find, nor ever have, that new creation — the new heavens and the new earth, the home where righteousness dwells — not by way of scientific examination or experiment. It is only by way of the Cross, which contradicts everything you thought you knew about God, about life, about the universe and everything, and which crucifies you with Christ.

Historical investigation can help you to some extent. Because all of these things concerning Jesus of Nazareth really happened: at particular times, and in particular places. The Scriptures and the Creeds both make that clear, situating the story of the Gospel solidly within human history. You can place it on a map, on a calendar. Nazareth, Bethlehem, Egypt, Galilee, Jerusalem. Conceived and born in the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and Herod was king of Judea; crucified under Pontius Pilate. St. Matthew and St. Luke provide genealogies of Jesus; both Jewish and secular historians of the 1st and 2nd centuries verify His life and death.

That He is the Son of God was manifest only to faith, but that He is true Man, of flesh and blood, skin and bones, was evident and verifiable. His conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary also testify to that fact, as do His Cross and Passion, His death and burial. And as to His bodily Resurrection from the dead — that He is not a ghost, but fully risen from the grave in His own Body; still bearing the marks of His Cross, though now glorified and immortal, never to die again — to all of this, His Apostles and hundreds of others were eyewitnesses.

And those twelve men, the Apostles, whom He chose beforehand, and called and ordained, with whom He ate and drank, they have testified to what they saw and heard and touched and handled.

Now, then, by that Apostolic Word, He shows you, not His face, but His wounded hands and feet. How so? Not in the same way He showed them, but, nevertheless, in the hands and feet of His disciples, in those whom He sends to serve you in His Name. It is by their feet that He comes to you and takes His stand here with you. Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel.” And by their hands, He stretches out His hand to feed you, to absolve you, and to bless you. Here is a hand to hold onto you: the hand of the Lord who loves you.

These hands and feet of His are wounded, marked and scarred by the Cross — as He was, and as you are. So did St. Paul, in particular, bear a thorn in his flesh and the sufferings of Christ in his body. But that is so for all who are baptized into Christ the Crucified, who have received the sign of His Cross upon their forehead and heart, and no less so in their hands and feet and side.

He has suffered the wounds of the Cross for your Atonement and Redemption. His disciples receive and bear those wounds unto repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins, and in love for one another, in His Name.

His power is made perfect in such weakness, and from these wounds He pours out His Life and His salvation for you. It is precisely by His wounded hands and feet, as by His riven side, that He is recognized and received. Not His face but His scars distinguish Him. The marks of His Cross do not call into question but verify who He is, and what He has done; not only in His crucified and risen body, but in His Church, in His Apostles, in His ministers; in all of His Christians, even you.

In the gathering of His disciples in His Name, from His wounded hands, He shares a Meal now with you, in your presence; and you, for your part, eat and drink this Meal of His in His presence. This eating and drinking is inherently a matter of the body: His Body for your body, as both His Cross and His Resurrection are bodily accomplished for the salvation of your body and your soul.

What is more, as He took the fish and ate it before the Apostles, so do you eat and drink this Meal that He sets before you in the company of His congregation, in the communion of His Church. Preaching, Baptism, and Absolution all require at least a giver and a receiver, a minister who is called and sent, and a person to whom he is sent. But the more so is the Lord’s Supper a holy communion, a fellowship. It may be given to you by your pastor, one on one, in your home or hospital room, but the norm is the assembly of the Church: So is the Bread broken, divided and distributed, and the Cup is poured out for you and for the many, to “drink of it, all of you.”

That is why St. Paul teaches that you, being many, are all one Body in Christ, because you all eat of the one Bread, which is His Body, and drink of the one Cup, which is the New Testament in His Blood. This bodily eating and drinking of His Body and Blood, in the communion of His Body, the Church — side by side, shoulder to shoulder with other disciples — is the demonstration that He is no ghost, no disembodied spirit, but the Man, Christ Jesus, crucified and risen in the flesh.

With this Food and Drink, He gives to you the Peace of which He speaks — not only in your heart and mind, but in your body, too. He forgives you all your sins, just as He says: “Poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.” And that does mean life and salvation, likewise for both soul and body. It is refreshment for your spirit, and also for your flesh and blood.

And yet, His Word and promises concerning this Sacrament seem too good to be true, too amazing and too wonderful; especially when what you see and experience still seems so contrary.

Your body of flesh and blood, even after eating and drinking the holy Body and precious Blood of Christ Jesus, is still subject to suffering, sin and death. Your flesh is still frail and fading and falling apart. You still do and say things that you should not. And not only your body, but your thoughts and feelings, too, are still haunted and beleaguered by doubts and fears, by pride and greed, by all kinds of wickedness, weariness, and worry, and by many other weaknesses.

But this is why the very things that contradict and deny your hopes and expectations, are, in fact, the way and means by which the Lord Jesus saves you. The vicious circle of suffering, sin and death is precisely the arena into which He has come, in which He has fulfilled the Holy Scriptures for the salvation of the whole world: for you, and for all the sinful, mortal children of Adam.

He has borne and suffered everything for you — in His own Body on the Cross, but also in His truly human heart and mind, soul and spirit. He has endured the wounding of His flesh, even unto death, in order that your wounded flesh might be healed and made whole in His Resurrection.

For with the wounding of His heel, He crushed the serpent’s head under His foot, removing the assaults and accusations of the devil, the temptations and the guilt. Not as though you would no longer feel and experience these attacks, but that you would be delivered from them and win the final victory in Christ Jesus. As He has risen, so shall you rise. But the fact that He still bears the wounds of His Cross — the wounds of your sin and death! — even now in His risen body, shows that He has not left you alone, but He is with you: not only when you are strong and confident, but especially when you are confused and afraid, struggling to make it, and barely hanging on.

What you have brought upon yourself by your arrogance and ignorance, by your self-idolatry and selfishness, your unbelief and lack of love, He took upon Himself and resolved by trusting the promise of His Father and handing Himself over to the Cross in love for His Father and for you.

His Cross and Resurrection are your salvation from sin, death, the devil and hell. So are His Cross and Resurrection also your repentance, that is to say, your dying to sin and your rising with Christ, as these are now worked in you by His Word and Holy Spirit.

Your repentance and salvation are not something that you could ever accomplish or achieve for yourself, by your own perception or willpower; no more so than you, or even the holy Apostles, could recognize or receive the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus, except by His gracious revealing. So, because He loves you and desires your salvation, He sends His “hands and feet” to preach repentance to you for the forgiveness of all your sins in His Name. And by this preaching, He opens the Scriptures to you, and He opens your heart and mind to Himself, and He brings you into faith and life — through His Cross, into His Resurrection — into His Peace.

This “Peace” that He speaks to you throughout the Liturgy, which He gives to you by His Word, is unlike anything the world knows or understands or attempts to give. It is the comfort and safety of God’s acceptance of you, of His good pleasure with you, and of your permanent place with Him. It is not the fluctuating whimsy of your emotions, but the certainty of the Holy Spirit, whom He has poured out upon you generously through Jesus Christ, His Son. It is the righteousness of the same Lord, Jesus Christ, with which He has clothed you. It is the love of the Father for you, whom He has named with His Name and called His own dear child. It is, therefore, the Peace of being able to go home; of knowing that, according to His promise, He will receive you gladly.

Wherever and however you have withdrawn from His presence, and turned away from Him, and closed your ears, your mind, or your heart to Him, repent, and return to the Lord your God. That is not to say that you must now travel far and wide, nor seek Him in the heights or in the depths. But return to Him here, where He is with you. Return to Him by remembering your Baptism, by giving attention to the Word that He speaks to you, by receiving the fruits of His Cross.

Do not be troubled or afraid, but lay hold of Him who lays hold of you. I know that you can’t see Him, but He has come to be with you; He is near to you. He is in your ears, because it is the Lord who speaks to you in Peace. Beloved, He sees you in mercy, and He lays Himself upon your heart and soul, upon your body, mind and spirit, by His Word of forgiveness: by wiping your sins away.

Here is refreshment and rest for your weariness in the presence of the Lord; perfect healing for your wounds of body and soul in His Holy Supper. For returning to the Lord, who already loves you, does not require running to and for, nor traveling of any kind, nor searching or striving, but receiving what His wounded feet have brought you, and what His wounded hands here give you. In these gifts, His Body and Blood, is the surety and guarantee of the resurrection of your body.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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