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.
Lenten greetings to the St. Paul’s family,
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. John 1:14
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We should thank God for the technology that allows us to stay connected somewhat during a time a separation. As we temporarily try to worship together without being together “in the flesh”, so to speak, we rejoice at the gift of electronic communication. But I want to highlight the importance of the physical and some of the pitfalls of online worship, so that we all get the most out of the opportunity to worship remotely without falling into any spiritual snare.
Most obviously, watching worship is not the same thing as worshiping. Please don’t tune in to our services the same way you would to a tv show. This will be harder than it seems. Speak the words of the creed, don’t just listen to them. Pray, don’t just listen to the prayers. Sing the hymns and liturgical parts aloud, don’t just have them in the background like a radio. (Again, make sure you have a hymnal in your home—you can check one out from church.) It will seem strange doing this out loud in your house, especially with other people sitting on the couch or across the room. But so be it. Unlike watching a movie, in worship, you are a participant, not an observer. In fact, making a point of this will help us all even when we can be back in church, because we all have a tendency to lapse back into the role of observer even when we’re sitting in the pews.
More importantly, doing things remotely can give us the mistaken impression that the Church is an abstraction, a mere idea, rather than a concrete reality. If we mistakenly believe that worshiping remotely is the same thing, basically, as worshiping in person, then we’re missing out on one of the great mysteries and gifts of Christianity. In the Church, you, that is, your flesh and blood, are being incorporated (note the root of that word!) into the Body of Christ and therefore God.
Consider God for a moment. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We confess, “I believe that God has made me…” How? Did he just imagine an idea of you? No. He made you a flesh and blood thing, and used physical means. Spoiler alert for any young children who may be reading this, but there was icky, physical contact and biology involved in God’s work. Babies are not abstractions, nor are they begotten in the abstract. Yet we confess that the making of every human being is/was a holy act of the Creator with eternal, spiritual ramifications.
And consider Jesus. He came in the flesh. That is of crucial (literally) importance for the faith. There is no Jesus apart from flesh and blood. God became a Man. We don’t put our trust in the abstract idea of God being nice and loving and merciful. We put our faith in the concrete, fleshly manifestation of the Truth. Countless ancient heretics have tried to get around the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God, but to no avail. There is no Christianity or Church without it.
So far so good. But now consider the Holy Spirit. How does He work to create faith and give us new life? In purely spiritual ways unconnected to the flesh? No! He works through means. One of those means, the spoken or written Word, can be communicated remotely via electronic media to flesh and blood eyes and ears. But that is not the extent of the Spirit’s activity. C.S. Lewis, in his famous book Mere Christianity expressed the gist of the idea this way:
“And let me be clear that when Christians say the Christ-life is in them, they do not mean something simply mental or moral. When they speak of being “in Christ” or of Christ being “in them,” this is not simply a way of saying that they are thinking about Christ or copying Him. They mean that Christ is actually operating through them; that the whole mass of Christians are the physical organism through which Christ acts—that we are His fingers and muscles, the cells of His body. And perhaps this explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like Baptism and Holy Communion. It is not merely the spreading of an idea; it is more like evolution* [*meaning gradual transformation, not the theory of origins]—a biological or super-biological fact. There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not. He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.” C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
This is why we treat our bodies as Temples of the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul says any individual Christian’s sexual immorality is a sin against the whole Body of believers. This is why we put so much emphasis in funerals on the resurrection of the body, not just souls going to heaven. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Life Together book we went through last fall, said Christians in isolation quite rightly long for the physical presence of other Christians, who bring with them in their person the presence of Christ.
This is one reason the writer to the Hebrews instructed Christians not to stop meeting together. This is a big part of the problem with Christians trying to be “spiritual but not religious.” This is the main reason we bring communion to the homebound even though they can worship regularly via some electronic format. Christians have long struggled to understand how Christ can offer us His body and blood in the Sacrament, but it has always been obvious that the real presence of our own body and blood is a prerequisite for receiving that spiritual gift.
So, again, we give thanks for the opportunity to be fed with a Service of the Word via electronic media. It is a huge blessing, especially on a temporary basis in a time of necessity. But it can never be the ideal, or even an adequate solution in the long term. Our efforts will remain a work in progress. Every way of doing this – Facebook, Youtube, Zoom, etc.—has its pros and cons. There are copyright issues, sound quality issues, access issues (e.g. not everyone uses Facebook), etc. So please be patient as we find our way, and please help one another participate. And really participate, don’t just watch.
We look forward to the day when we can gather as God’s family in this place and receive all the gifts He has for us. Until then, let us receive the Word gratefully and resolve to be Christ to our neighbor however God enables us.
Some of your best memories of church services have probably been services that weren’t the normal Sunday morning service. Singing on Christmas Eve (even at the midnight services), getting up while it was still dark for the “sunrise services” in the wee hours of Easter morning, hearing the words “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” as the ashes are applied on Ash Wednesday, listening in the darkness as the psalm is chanted and the altar stripped at the end of Maundy Thursday services—these tend to be very memorable services that aren’t at the normal time of weekly worship.
It gets harder and harder for these special services to compete with our convenience-dominated culture. People don’t want to stay up late, get up early, go out of their way, or otherwise change their schedule, much less do so with sleepy children. So in most (not all) churches, the late night Christmas Eve service is lightly attended if even still offered. Same with Christmas Day. At Easter the “sunrise service” has been moved to a more reasonable hour and is not packed like the later services. And special services for high feast days like Epiphany, Ascension, Reformation and All Saints very often just get moved to the closest Sunday so they can be celebrated without inconveniencing anyone.
So it might come as a surprise to us that for many centuries the most important church service of the year was the Easter Vigil, which, as the name implies, lasted hours and hours through the night and ended with the Easter proclamation and communion at dawn. This was (and is in many places) the service in which all the adult catechumens (converts to Christianity who had been taught the faith over the course of the year) were baptized, received into membership, and took their first communion.
Most places do not really keep vigil through the night but celebrate the service either Saturday night or Easter Sunday very early. This year were are going to have an Easter Vigil service here at St. Paul’s at 8:00 p.m. on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday. I encourage you to attend because it is one of those special services that make an impression. No, it won’t go all night. In fact, it will only be the first half of the service, and the 7:00 a.m. Easter service will complete it.
The service begins outside with the lighting of a paschal candle (“Paschal” is from the old word for Passover and in church usage just means “Easter-related” because at Easter we celebrate that we have passed over from death to life) from a small bonfire, which in our case will be in the courtyard. The worshippers light their own candles from the paschal candle and go into the darkened sanctuary, with their candlelight symbolizing faith in God’s promises in a fallen world. Various Old Testament readings and musical responses recount God’s faithfulness through all of human history. We then remember our own baptism and crossing over from dark to light, from death to life in the victory of Jesus Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Normally the service goes straight into the Easter proclamation and communion service, but we are going to leave the church in silence and resume Easter morning with the great celebration. Please consider changing up your Easter weekend routine to join us for this very solemn and meaningful service. Most people who do it once find that it quickly becomes one of their favorite services of the year.
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