Monday, April 2, 2012

The journey to the cross and the empty tomb - a Lutheran translation

I always appreciate the invitations to “journey to the cross this Holy Week,” or to have a “blessed journey to the empty tomb.” Those invitations come from every corner of the Christian world. But when Lutherans say such things, they mean something different, something more than what the sects mean. At least, one hopes.

How is one to “journey to the cross” or “to the empty tomb”? Obviously pilgrimages to the Holy Land are not going to cut it.

How, then?

For the non-sacramental sects, one makes such a journey mentally and emotionally (they would mistakenly say “spiritually”) by reviewing the Holy Week events, like relearning a valuable lesson, like reminiscing about an old friend who isn’t around anymore, like rereading a good book, like watching a rerun of a favorite show or a classic sporting event on TV. To make it really special, they may jazz it up a bit with dramatic readings or reenactments – whatever it takes to make watching a rerun less boring and more emotionally stirring, more “meaningful.”

For the non-sacramental sects, Holy Week is a time to remember Jesus, and by remembering Him, to have a sort of “spiritual” communion with Him up in heaven. They may even have a snack of crackers and grape juice to celebrate Maundy Thursday, the empty shell of a Supper in which Jesus is merely remembered, with an empty seat at the table in honor of an absent Guest.

That’s what a lot of Christians understand when they hear about a journey to the cross and the empty tomb.

Lutherans mean something better.

For means of grace Lutherans, the journey to the cross and the empty tomb is not a journey we make by thinking really hard about Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s not a journey we make by trying to muster up the right feelings of horror or of guilt or of joy. In fact, it’s not really a journey we make at all. It’s a journey that the Holy Spirit takes us on through the means of grace, the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Instead of a rerun, the Holy Week Gospel is a live feed, back through time to the actual events in history that purchased our redemption.

But it gets even better than that.

For means of grace Lutherans, the satisfaction that Christ made for sins on the cross actually comes through the live feed and is applied to penitent sinners here and now. The goodness and mercy of Christ, the righteousness of our Substitute, the love of a Father, are communicated to us here and now, forgiving sins in the present tense. The Spirit of Christ comes through the words to us, whisking us away through baptismal waters, back before the court, onto the cross, into the grave and out again. The means of grace brings the risen Savior to us and stirs up faith to cling to Him in a way that even faithful Mary was not allowed to do on that very first day of the week.

But it gets even better than that.

Means of grace Lutherans have something better than a peek inside an empty tomb on Easter Sunday. We are given a glance at the One who once occupied the tomb, whose glorified body and blood now grace the Altar, to be handed out to the faithful for the forgiveness of sins. This brief moment of reclining at table with the risen Savior is far more than a remembrance of the living Lord Jesus. It’s a reception of Jesus Himself, a communion in the life of the Living One, and therefore, a life-giving medicine.

I once heard it suggested that, in our Christian freedom to not offer Holy Communion on any given Sunday, maybe Easter Sunday is the best time to exercise that freedom for the sake of our Easter visitors. Such a practice would fit right in with the non-sacramental sects and their “spiritual” journey to the empty tomb, but it would seem quite unnatural for means of grace Lutherans who believe that, in the Holy Supper, we truly “proclaim Christ’s death until He comes,” for means of grace Lutherans who know that this “remembrance of Him” is, in reality, the personal appearance of the Risen One in our midst.

So pastors, if, for some reason, you decided that Easter Sunday was the perfect time not to offer the body and blood of the risen Savior to your people, the ideal time not to offend potential believers in Jesus with the real presence of Jesus, there’s still time to rethink it. So what if bulletins have already been printed and musicians already lined up? Your organist already knows at least one setting for the Service of the Sacrament. Your people will understand, too, if you explain to them that there’s one way and one way only by which a means of grace Lutheran actually makes the blessed journey to the cross and to the empty tomb – through an abundance of the means of grace.

As Lutherans, we sometimes need to remember how many shorthand phrases we use, both for our own sake as well as for the sake of others. Even “means of grace” means very little to those on the outside. Holy Week is a fine time to invite your friends and neighbors to accompany you on a blessed journey to the cross and empty tomb. Just be sure they know the Lutheran translation.


Anonymous said...

I once heard it suggested that, in our Christian freedom to not offer Holy Communion on any given Sunday, maybe Easter Sunday is the best time to exercise that freedom for the sake of our Easter visitors.

I assume these Easter visitors are unchurched or nonmember visitors. It is a faulty philosophy of ministry that leads to the practice of not offering the Sacrament on the most Christ-centered festivals of the church year because of the visitor.

First of all, the Divine Service is primarily for the believer members, not the unchurched, otherchurched, or unbelieving visitors. what better time to proclaim and offer the "living Christ" * than in Holy Communion on Easter Sunday!

Secondly, Close Communion is not something to be afraid or ashamed of. My experience has been that most visitors understand it. And if a visitor should come forward to receive the Sacrament, which I have to assume is in faith, then I remember that the Sacrament is not a boiling cauldron of witch's brew that will burn the non-member visitor from the inside out. Holy Communion is gospel, pure gospel, and evangelism to the visitor who hears and sees the Sacrament, but does not receive it.

* "And we speak of the presence of the living Christ [living body]; for we know that death hath no more dominion over Him, Rom. 6:9." - Apology X:57.

- Rev. James Schulz

Daniel Baker said...

I am eagerly looking forward to celebrating the Holy Supper at my home parish this coming Easter. I think it is the first time that the Blessed Sacrament has been celebrated on the Feast of the Resurrection since I have been a member; perhaps one of the first times in congregational history! The Lord is merciful.

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