Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. Act 7:58
Acts was written by Luke, who says (Lk. 1:1-4) that he carefully set out to write a history of Jesus and the early Church. And Luke was there with St. Paul at the very end of St. Paul’s life (II Tim. 4:11). Much of the information we have about St. Paul comes from Luke. So why does Luke seemingly go out of his way to condemn Paul (Saul) with this little aside about who was watching the coats at the stoning of Stephen? You’d think Luke would want to downplay, or at least not want to highlight such an embarrassing detail. But keep reading.
What Luke could have been teaching us it not to judge God’s ways, or lose heart prematurely. St. Stephen was beloved by the Church. His being unjustly stoned to death would have made many people wonder why God would allow such a thing. It made no sense. It was a huge loss to the Church. But we know that most of Acts ends up being about that very same Saul. He becomes a great Apostle. His story prior to his conversion laid the groundwork for his conversion and subsequent history. You just have to keep reading when it seems like everything has gone wrong.
When we encounter things that make no sense to us, such as when innocent people suffer, when death seemingly picks people at random, when government are unjust, when the Church suffers setbacks, we can begin to question God. We should know from our own Scriptures and from the name of our congregation that the story isn’t over. God is always going somewhere with this, no matter what “this” is or how terrible it may be. History isn’t over; we need to keep reading.
Since we know that time after time God had brought good out of evil, we should simply keep our eyes open for what the benefits of this strange, ongoing situation might be. Maybe it was necessary to shake you out of a spiritual lethargy. Maybe this will help our society re-prioritize. Maybe people are getting the training they need to fight some other virus in the future. Maybe all of those things and countless other good things are going on.
What is certain is that this Easter season we need never fear any kind of endings. Whether that ending is death, or of a career, or stage of family life, or anything dear to us, we look forward. We keep reading. The Christ who came out of the tomb is with us. The disease, injustice, or ravages of time that bring the things we love to an end do not have the final word, and are likely just the seeds of amore glorious, unforeseeable future. St. Paul has been on both side of a martyrdom—first helping to kill St. Stephen, then being unjustly executed himself for his faith. But the story of Christ and His Church goes on. St. Paul’s, Munster is a part of it. You are a part of it. It is full of endings that erupt into new chapters. Don’t be afraid, and don’t be surprised when it turns out God has been going somewhere with this. Keep reading.
He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed. Is. 53:5
September, 2001. A hospital up the street from my church in Green Bay called to say they had a patient who had asked for an LCMS pastor to bring him Communion before he died. He was far from home, had made poor health choices, had ruined most of his relationships, and had only recently tried to reconnect with the church of his youth. But that church did not currently have a pastor, and at any rate was several hours away. He had come to Green Bay for treatment and had not received good news. Faced with the strong chance that he would be dying soon and never see anyone he knew again, nor ever be able to correct any of his mistakes in life, he asked the chaplain to call the nearest LCMS church on his behalf. So we talked, and I gave him communion.
He died soon thereafter. Because it was such a crazy time, I’m not sure if died on 9/11 or the day after. I found out after the fact. Some distant relative had come to take the body back to his hometown. I’m not sure who did the funeral, or who would have shown up to it anyway.
I always think of this man when I think of those who died on 9/11. There are many ways to be alone. To be cut off by bitterness and regret from family and friends is isolating indeed. To be in physical isolation is difficult enough, but knowing one has the love and support of people can only take the edge off being physically alone by so much. The victims of 9/11 died tragic deaths, to be sure, but their lives and stories were mourned by the whole nation along with their loved ones. Those who mourn a loved one resent the world for going on like nothing happened. There is an old tradition, based on a valid instinct of grief, which people stop all the clocks or drape something over them for a while in a house where someone has died. Time has no right to go on without this person, we seem to want to say because we feel it in our hearts.
Those who die in national tragedies—soldiers in battle, civilians and first responders on 9/11, poor residents of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, or today in isolation as part of the pandemic, still die, and still must meet their Maker. But their names will always be associated with a recognizable event. Their community and country will always know and honor them merely by remembering the tragedy of the event. For mourners, the world cooperates a little bit, and everyone stops to acknowledge the loss. Cold comfort, but not no comfort at all. We take whatever connections we can get in death. Death, however it happens, is the supremely isolating event. You can hold people’s hands right up to the threshold, but then you have to let go. They take that last step alone.
People in hospitals today face a monumental challenge of isolation. Funerals are a challenge. Remembering and acknowledging lives lived is a challenge. It is frustrating. I have no idea what the man in my opening story would have done had he died during a pandemic. Certainly nobody would have visited him, heard his last confession, spoken the Gospel to him and given him communion. But we know death never has the final word. God has His ways, and they seem foolish to us. We know that especially today, because today we commemorate the death that gives life. By the foolishness of the cross, we know Christians don’t take that last step alone.
The man in the hospital in Green Bay who died on 9/11 was a prodigal son who came to himself too late to make it back from the far country of his foolish wandering. No doubt his life could have been better lived. But perhaps you will meet him someday without even knowing it, in the resurrection, a brother in Christ, covered in Christ’s righteousness and aglow with the glory of God’s grace. And maybe you and I will have learned something from his story. Maybe he can teach us the truth of the closing verse of the Good Friday hymn O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. Whether we die in pain or comfort, slowly or suddenly, surrounded by loved ones or in isolation, after a life well lived or foolishly squandered, today we prepare ourselves by singing to Jesus--
Be Thou my consolation,
My shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee.
Who dieth thus dies well.
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Ps. 90:12
Even in a normal year, Holy Week tends to be a time of increased reflection on death, for the obvious reason that the events of the week center on the crucifixion of Christ. In this pandemic year, we’re reminded of death even more. Every little thing we do—put on gloves, disinfect a doorknob, wear a mask, stand six feet apart—reminds us of death. People are dying. We might be spreading deadly disease. We can’t escape the topic. It dominates the news worldwide.
But that is a good thing! Did you know that many great devotional writers and pastors have said daily reminders of our own mortality can benefit our spiritual lives tremendously? For example, perhaps the most famous devotional writer in the history of Lutheran churches, Johann Gerhard, wrote a reflection called “The Daily Consideration of Death.” In it, he addresses his own soul and tells how beneficial it is for us to remember that we are pilgrims and temporary sojourners in this world. We make wiser decisions, we keep our priorities in better order, we get less discouraged by worldly setbacks and experience more peace and joy when we remember that every day might be our last.
“We deceive ourselves sadly if we think of death as only taking place with the last breath of life here; on the contrary, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment, we are dying.” Those words by Gerhard simply state a fact. We are born with a finite number of heartbeats. Every beat reduces that number by one, like a countdown. He says there is huge spiritual value in waking up every day with the knowledge that this might be your last day, and going to bed at night as a sort of “practice death” knowing you might never wake up.
But isn’t that morbid? Not at all. It is simply true, and no threat at all to those who know Christ and the victory over sin, death, and hell. “….If I should die before I wake, I pray, Thee, Lord my soul to take.” That little “Now I lay me…” prayer is one way children learn to number their days and gain a heart of wisdom. It is when we forget that we are mortal, when we disregard the reality of death or ignore, that we make foolish decisions, put our faith in nonsense, and stop relying on our Creator and Redeemer for every good thing.
As you cannot celebrate Holy Week in the normal ways this year, I urge you today to be aware of every reminder of death you see—every death toll on the news, every rubber glove or mask, every mention of the stay-at-home order. Keep track. Let it help you examine your life, put your days and years in the context of eternity. And let the events we commemorate in Holy Week make that context a source of comfort and hope.
Disorienting. That’s what today feels like to me. It is hard to get your bearings when the landmarks aren’t there. By landmarks, of course, I don’t refer to the things that mark the physical landscape. I mean the things that give shape to time, the habits and rituals by which we all live.
God invented time along with everything else in Genesis 1, and He gave shape to it, a seven day pattern that has continued unbroken since the beginning of the world. Even we Christians, who are not bound by Old Testament Sabbath laws, still typically worship once every seven days, the day after Jesus’ Sabbath rest in the tomb. Church doesn’t have to take place on Sunday, but it always has. It is disorienting (especially but by no means exclusively for pastors) to get up on Sunday morning and think, “So…. What should I do today?” I read the following in an online article last night:
JERUSALEM - Adeeb Joudeh, standing in front of the now-locked Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, had a pretty specific answer when asked when the church last closed to the public like this: "It was the year 1349, at the time of the Black Plague," he said, holding the key that had shut things down a day earlier and back in the 14th century as well.
A little over a year ago I was there at that church with some of others of our St. Paul’s family. Its huge, ancient dome encloses the traditional locations of the cross and the empty tomb. It seemed like if there were any constants in the world, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was one. It has closed for brief periods a few times in history for this or that reason, but the last time is was ordered closed for an indefinite period was 671 years ago. Wow. One comforting thing, one silver lining in that fact, is that I feel better about suspending worship at St. Paul’s, something I never thought I’d do and about which I still have mixed feelings. But hey, if they’ve closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I guess we can be closed, too. But it is still disorienting.
But anything that is disorienting demands a reorienting. You have to get your bearings. In the Milwaukee airport there is a great sign that read “Recombobulation Area.” I love that word, recombobulation, referring to what comes after the discombobulation of going through the arcane process of airport security. When you get lost, confused, or thrown off your game, you reorient.
The Gospel disoriented its first hearers. Jews and Gentiles mixing? Righteousness not by works? God becoming a man, and that man dying? And then rising? How could that be? All the old ways seemed to be collapsing. All the old assumptions, all the patterns, all the givens were thrown out the window. And yet to those with ears to hear, it was Good News. It was Good News because the massive Reorientation was based on Christ, the true, immovable cornerstone by Whom all of time gets its bearings. The wholesale disorientation caused by God making all thing new didn’t end there; it began a great reorientation on that cornerstone.
Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. The Third Commandment, insofar as it talks about a day, refers to Saturday. But that was the Old Covenant. It pointed to Christ and was fulfilled in Christ. That’s why Christians are not bound to worship on any particular day, and typically do not, like Jews do even today, worship on the Sabbath, that is, Saturday. Instead, we mark time as reoriented around the stone which the builders the rejected, the death and resurrection of Christ—Sunday, the first day of the New Creation, the day Christ rose, the eighth day of creation, when God makes all creation new.
Luther’s catechism, as usual, captures this reorientation on Christ perfectly. What does it mean to remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy? We should fear and love so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it. Amazingly, the explanation doesn’t even mention a day. That was the old landmark, the Law, the thing that pointed ahead to Christ. We have the fulfillment, the proclaimed Gospel of Christ crucified and risen. We keep this commandment whenever and wherever we attend to the proclamation of the Gospel with all seriousness, reverence, and earnestness.
Reorienting. That’s what this bizarre quarantine can be for you. It gives all of us a chance to get our bearings and examine our habits, schedules, and priorities to see whether and how they are oriented on Christ. Perhaps they already were before all this. Perhaps not. But no forced change in schedule can disorient those whose lives are oriented on the immovable rock that is Christ, the cornerstone.
I hope you all partake of Matins today via the website. Matins is old. But the last closing of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is much older, predating the English language itself. Chaucer wasn’t even writing yet the last time this happened. There are no permanent things except the one thing upon which everything depends—the Word of God become Flesh and reigning forever. When you worship via the website, I hope your focus is not on the archaic words, whether you love them or don’t like them at all. Your focus should be on the words of Scripture, Pastor Stock’s Christ-centered sermon, praise of the eternal God, and the timeless Gospel that gives you life today and every day, in any circumstance, until we join in the heavenly worship of God forever.
In Christ, Pastor Speckhard.
When we celebrate the resurrection, we’re declaring victory in a great struggle. Not only does Life defeat Death, but do so in an amazing, come from behind, against all odds triumph. In the words of a thousand-year-old hymn in our hymnal (#459-460) called Victimae Paschali:
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
The Lamb the sheep has ransomed:
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciling sinners to the Father.
Death and Life have contended
In that combat stupendous:
The Prince of Life, who died,
The idea is that not only does Life defeat Death forever, but He does so by dying. It is precisely when Death thinks it has won that it loses because of the miracle of the Resurrection. More importantly, the hymn makes clear that Jesus’ victory is our victory. We are sinners, He is sinless, but because He shared in our humanity, like a Shepherd who is also a Lamb, we receive the forgiveness that reconciles us to God the Father. This means that the life we live and the news we bring to the dying world is good, one might even say impossibly good, except that it is true.
We in the Church celebrate what has been called a “culture of life.” We see all people as having an inherent dignity, we protect all people, care for all people, even as we utterly reject the sin, death, and hell that Christ defeated. We never think of death as simply a natural part of life but as an enemy that has been defeated in Christ. Same with sin, what the Bible calls the “work of darkness” or the “fruit of the sinful nature.” We don’t tolerate sin, celebrate it, or other-wise treat it as okay, but instead treat it as a defeated enemy in Christ wherever we find it, whether in ourselves or others. We know it is destroyed by the word of victory/forgiveness we bear.
Our hope is not in this world, in finding a fountain of youth somewhere to defeat death or a political program to defeat the human condition, or a therapy to do away with sin. Our hope is in the promise of forgiveness and eternal life precisely when it most seems like sin and death have the upper hand. So let the Gospel this Easter season comfort you, encourage you, and empower you to live out your faith without fear. Death and Life have contended. The war is over.
Rev. Peter Speckhard, Senior Pastor at St. Paul's Ev. Lutheran Church, Munster, Indiana