Proclaiming the Death of the Living One

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Holy Thursday
April 06, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: The startling message that Jesus died and yet lives is proclaimed every time the Lord's Supper is celebrated. That's true even though it may be hard for people to see how that reality saves us, changing condemnation to salvation. Preaching must use the resources of scripture to expound the "how." And the fact that we share together in the Lord's Supper is a sign that we are not saved simply as individuals but as a community.

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till he comes."

How strange that sentence must sound to someone who doesn't know the Christian story! Certainly, there's nothing odd about remembering the deaths of people. We mourn the deaths of those we love, and we tell the stories of those who died heroic deaths doing great deeds. But "till he comes?" What does that mean if he already died?

Of course, Christians know the answer. On this coming Easter Sunday, we'll hear once again the news of Jesus' resurrection and appearance to his followers. The focus of Easter is celebration of the message that he is risen from the dead. But for some people that may just raise a different question. Why keep on "proclaim[ing] the Lord's death" if we really believe that he's risen from the dead and is alive. Why not just proclaim the good news that he's alive, and not keep dwelling on his death?

In fact, there are Christians who are in churches this evening and who will be there on Sunday morning, but who won't come to church tomorrow to recall the story of his condemnation and execution in a Good Friday service. It seems to them like holding a funeral for Jesus, and just depresses them.

But the story of Jesus' resurrection that we're going to hear on Easter Sunday won't make any sense to people if they don't know the story of his death. When the women come to Jesus' tomb on Sunday, an angel will say to them; "I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised."2 The story of Jesus crucified and risen is what the Christian message is about at this time of year.

In season and out

The strange countercultural truth though is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is an essential part of the Christian message throughout the year. On many Sundays, our scripture readings won't say anything about Jesus' passion or his resurrection. We may hear texts from the Hebrew scriptures about the teachings of Moses or the prophets of Israel, or stories from the Gospels with Jesus' parables and his works of healing. Parts of the writings of Paul and other apostles may be read. The events of Holy Week and Easter won't be the focus of every sermon.

The heart of the Christian message, which Paul sets out in Romans,3 is that although we have been estranged from God by our sins, we are reconciled to God through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ. That message can be proclaimed without any mention of the Lord's Supper. But the Lord's Supper can't be celebrated without conveying the heart of the Christian message! If we participate in a celebration of the Lord's Supper, Paul says that we are "proclaim[ing] the Lord's death till he comes."

The action itself, recalling "the night in which he was betrayed," tells the story. It is, as St. Augustine said about baptism, a "visible word."4 Though we may not fully understand the "how" of it (and who really can?), it is a visible, taste-able message. "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?" Paul asks earlier in this letter to the Corinthians. "The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?"5

It can be hard to get that basic Christian message across to people today. The first part, that our sins separate us from God, may not be too difficult. Most people, if they can be honest with themselves, know that they've lived far from perfect lives in the ways in which they deal with other people. We can put on a good outward show but fooling ourselves isn't so easy - we know the things we've thought and done! And at the most basic level, we don't always want to put God's will ahead of our own.

If people have any concept of God, or just of some moral order in the universe, the idea that God isn't pleased with the way they live their lives will make some sense to them. And while we might think that God could just write all our sins off as a bad debt, it wouldn't solve the problem. We would still be estranged from God, walking away from instead of toward the source of our lives.

Ways to tell the story

So what can God do to end that estrangement and bring reconciliation between himself and sinners - that is, between God and us? People in the world that Paul lived in, Jews as well as believers in other deities, were familiar with the idea of sacrifices to atone for sin.

In Romans, Paul uses the image of the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Israel's high priest entered the Holy of Holies in the Temple with blood of sacrificial animals to reconcile the people of Israel with God. We are justified, put right with God, Paul says, "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith."6 The Letter to the Hebrews uses that sacrificial image in a different way, seeing Jesus himself as the great high priest who offered himself as a "once and for all" sacrifice for sins. His resurrection from the dead then meant that his sacrifice had been accepted and was effective.

We sometimes use the language of sacrifice today, as when we say that parents make sacrifices for their children. But we're centuries away from a time when animal sacrifices were common, and the idea of killing them as sacrifices to God has come to seem strange and repellent. We can understand those biblical images intellectually, but it's hard to develop much feeling for them. Not surprisingly, Christian theologians over the centuries have developed other ways of thinking about the saving work of Christ.7

In the Middle Ages, a person who offended someone of higher position would have to pay a penalty, and perhaps die. That suggested a way to understand the work of Christ. Humans have offended God by their sins and must pay the penalty. Since the offense is against God, the penalty is infinite, and no ordinary human can pay it. So to save his creation, God takes on human nature, and is born as Jesus. He is human and can pay humanity's debt, and is God, so his life has infinite value and can satisfy divine justice. People are saved by putting their trust in him.

A different approach emphasizes the love of God rather than divine justice. The love of Christ for sinners, love shown in his willingness to be condemned and crucified for them, evokes love for him from sinners. The idea that the cross of Christ draws people to him has been called the "magnet model" of atonement, with reference to Jesus' words in John 12:32: "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."

And then there's an approach based on texts like Colossians 2:15, which says that on the cross Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities" - the powers that had controlled the world - "and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it." It isn't a logical explanation of how Christ saves us from death and damnation but a dramatic proclamation that he does so.

All of these are ways of speaking about the saving work of Christ, and there are others. Some are more useful in preaching, and some in instructional settings. The value of different "theories of the atonement," as they're called, can be debated. But when all is said and done, we aren't saved by theories. We are saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We're all in this together

There are many ways to preach the news of Christ's death and resurrection, so do we really need to "eat of this bread and drink of this cup" to "proclaim the Lord's death till he comes?" One way to answer that question is to note that while we can hear preaching as individuals, the proclamation that occurs in the Lord's Supper takes place for all of us together. There's a reason why that action is sometimes called Holy Communion. Through his life, death and resurrection, Christ has saved us not just as individuals but as a community.


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