Sermon 9  

Keep Easter a Close Second

Luke 24:7

April 8, 2007


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

            Today is a great and glorious day. For on this day we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead and his victory over death. This day, many say, is the greatest day of the Church year. For in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, something else is given. With it our hope for a life of unending joy after we die is also secured.

So this is a great day to worship the Lord God Almighty. And I hope you agree with me. For death matters to us all. And the solution to the problem of death is what makes Easter so great. Hebrews 9:27, you might remember, says “it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” So none of us gets out of this life alive. We all must die. This matter of death, then, is deeply relevant to us all – even if we tend not to want to think about it much. But that reluctance doesn’t solve the problem of death. We’re going to have to think about it sooner or later. And so we need to prepare for its grim eventuality. This is especially so if 1 Corinthians 15:26 is right and death is our worst and “last enemy.” Easter thinks it is. And Easter knows how to deal with it. So join in the celebration. What Easter brings is important – an importance of monumental grandeur.


The Easter Necessities

But please note before we begin that I have no opinions on this matter. Neither do I have any new interpretation or theory on death and resurrection. I don’t trade in New Age spirituality. Instead what I have is the old, Biblical message, and that only. And what that message says is what had to happen. So today I’ll bring you the essentials of Easter – or what simply had to happen – the Easter necessity, if you will. That’s all that I have for you today.

            Now that necessity is summarized neatly in Luke 24:7, which says that “the Son of man must be handed over to sinners, be crucified and on the third day rise.” That word “must,” in Greek δει, can also be translated as necessary or needful, as it is in Luke 10:42. So in this verse there are three essentials stated. It says that three things had to happen regarding Jesus. The first two regard his awful death and the last his resurrection. So death and resurrection are the Easter necessities. In effect, then, Luke 24:7 says that it was necessary for Jesus to be crucified and that it was also necessary for him to be raised from the dead. We have this same linkage in Romans 4:25. There it says that Jesus “was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”


The Cause of Our Salvation

Now regarding the first of these two necessities, Hebrews 2:14 says it was “through death” that Jesus “destroyed death.” That’s why Jesus had to die. There was no other way to destroy death. Luther elaborates this powerfully compact idea, saying that it is by God’s wonderful wisdom that he “compels the devil to work through death…. for the work of God and against his own work with his own deed.” And this, he goes on to say, “the world does not grasp as Habakkuk 1:5 says: ‘Behold, I am doing a work… which no man will believe’” (Luther’s Works 28:135-136).

            In Luther’s explanation the prepositions pile up: through death… for God… against death… with death. What an unheard of cascading of ideas! No wonder the worldly find it preposterous. How can death, after all, do itself in like this, by its own hand? Wouldn’t dying, in this case, simply reinforce the power of death? How can we say of Jesus that “his pain is my comfort; his wounds, my healing; his punishment, my redemption; his death, my life” [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 1:474]?


The Sting of Death

The answer hinges on what the “sting of death” is (1 Corinthians 15:56). Now we’re told it’s sin. One might have thought it would have been pain, loneliness and sadness. But no, the sting is sin. Genesis 2:17 explains how this is so. It says that if Adam and Eve were to eat of the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, they then would die. So if they had obeyed, they “would never had died; for death came through sin” (LW 1:110). Death is sin’s punishment!

So “the death of human beings is a genuine disaster…. The reason is that man is a being created… to live forever in obedience to the Word and to be like God. He was not created for death…. The death of a human being is, therefore, not like the death of animals. These die because of the law of nature. Nor is man’s death an event which occurs accidentally…. On the contrary, man’s death… is caused by an incensed and estranged God…. Originally death was not a part of [human] nature. He dies because he provoked God’s wrath. Death is, in his case, the… deserved consequence of his sin [Romans 5:12, 6:23]” (LW 13:94). What a grand account of the sting of death! Take it to heart, my friends, even though today most hate it – wishing instead to die like dogs do.


Destroying Death

Now because of this sting of death the only way to be saved from death is to be saved from sin. That is because sin caused death. So if sin is removed, then death will no longer be there to punish us. Death then is eradicated. So then by taking away sin and death, Jesus’ death “brought back… eternal life” (LHP, 2:28).

            This happens, we are told in 1 Corinthians 15:3, when Jesus dies “for our sin.” Only he could do this because only he was “without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:19). This purity or perfection of his included immortality or having “life in himself” (John 5:26). This capacity gave Jesus the power to lay down his life and take it up again (John 10:18). Indeed, without this divine power Christ “could not erase sin, reconcile God, remove His anger, overcome and destroy death and hell, and bestow eternal life” (LW 24:108).

            But how does this power work? How does Jesus’ death end death? His death could do this because it was like no other death. It was unique (LW 51:234). It was filled with more pain and shame than anyone could imagine. On the cross, all the sins of the world were inflicted in his body (1 John 2:2; 1 Peter 2:24). And so he screamed from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). All these sins made him foul in the sight of God. He became “a curse” when they were inflicted on him (Galatians 3:13). And so God rejected him. He attacked Jesus as a rank, despicable sinner. “He was stricken, smitten by God and afflicted” for our sins (Isaiah 53:4-5). For God “hates” sinners and must punish them (Leviticus 26:30; Job 16:9; Psalms 5:5, 11:5, 31:6, 95:10; Proverbs 6:15-19; Jeremiah 12:8; Hosea 9:15).

            But in this attack on Jesus, God’s wrath is appeased. He is finally satisfied that sin has been properly punished [Isaiah 53:11; Ephesians 5:2; Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker (1907, 1988) 7:190]. Jesus’ death therefore cancels the legal bond that stood against us (Colossians 2:13-14). Now, we who were unrighteous, have become righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21, 8:9; 1 Corinthians 1:30). And all of this is given to those who repent and believe in Christ (1 John 1:9-10; Romans 3:25, LW 12:333, 32:67).

Now this exchange of sin-for-salvation, saves us from “sin, death, God’s wrath, the devil, hell, and eternal damnation” [LW 23:404 and Edgar M. Carlson, The Reinterpretation of Luther (1948) pp. 67-77 on the necessity of including divine wrath in this list of evils]. All of this has happened because Jesus’ horrible death moved God the Father to have mercy on us (LW 51:277 and my “Moving the Father to Mercy,” dialog, Fall 1996).

            Now we must be careful here. Note that this method of salvation – by Jesus’ gruesome sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26) – does not mean God is a butcher (see my “Preaching Against the Cross,” Lutheran Partners, September/October 2003). No, to the contrary, it’s actually a sterling testimony that he loves us (1 John 4:10).


The Proof of Our Salvation

So if Jesus’ death is so full of salvation for us ungodly sinners, why is he raised from the dead “for our justification” (Romans 4:25)? How does Jesus’ resurrection help us? Isn’t salvation all taken care of on the cross? What still needs to be done?

            The problem here is our continued dying. The fact that we still die, even though Jesus has destroyed death, seems to undercut our salvation. Death still looks like it’s running the show. For Jesus’ death hasn’t destroyed death at all. Hebrews 2:14 then looks false, which says his death destroyed death. Indeed, it is “difficult to believe because… the eyes see that the body has been covered with dirt. And there is no more filthy and smelly carcass than that of a dead person. Thus I have to say: There one is burned, the other is torn to pieces; here one leaves an arm, there a bone…. There is nothing to the resurrection of the dead” [The 1529 Holy Week and Easter Sermons of D. Martin Luther (1999) p. 171].

            Against such nonconvertible evidence stands Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The fact of his resurrection is indispensable for Christianity, even though it’s highly contested [Matthew 27:64 and Michael Martin, The Case Against Christianity (1991) pp. 73-104]. For he is the “first fruits” of those who have died – the first to be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20; Revelation 1:5). This fact is central for “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain…. and we… are misrepresenting God… who raised Christ” from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:14-15).

The preaching that the denial of Easter jeopardizes or makes vain is that of Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). For if his death destroys death, then to have death still reign supreme, invalidates that preaching. So the two cannot co-exist. One must be cancelled out. So a fact is needed to prove the truth of this preaching. And that is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. It proves that Jesus’ death destroys death even though all the rest of us keep on dying. So his resurrection is the “sign… of our righteousness,” a righteousness established by the “most sufficient satisfaction” won by his ghastly death on the cross (LW 25:284).

Easter therefore proves the truth of Good Friday. It does not erase it. Easter needs the crucifixion of Christ to authorize and facilitate his resurrection. For “Jesus Christ took [our sins] upon himself, so that he might tread under foot sin, death and hell, and become their master. But if he be not risen, then he has not overcome sin, but has been overcome by sin. Also, if he has been overcome by sin, then he is not risen: if he be not risen, then he has not redeemed you; then you are yet in your sins” (SML 3:199).

On Good Friday the curse of death is lifted. That curse, which has been plaguing us since we were first punished for our sin in the Garden of Eden, has now been ended at the moment of Jesus’ death on the cross. When he cries out from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), at that very instant, the curse goes down the drain (see my “Comsummatum Est,” Logia, Reformation 2002). Easter, then, goes on to prove that this victory really took place and that Good Friday wasn’t some grand hoax. Easter shows Good Friday flexing its muscle – making good on its victory by making it factual. Now the victory of Good Friday is as factual as the death. This makes Easter’s glory derived from the truth of Good Friday. So when we hear “He is risen” (Matthew 28:6), we now know for sure that “It is finished” is true. And we need that verification because when Jesus died on the cross it was not apparent that death had been destroyed – the simultaneously opening graves in Matthew 27:50-52 notwithstanding. Death still looked like the victor. But Easter puts the lie to that hasty conclusion.

And as the resurrected Lord, Jesus must also keep redemption ongoing. This he does as our eternal intercessor (Hebrews 7:25; Ephesians 1:20-23; 1 John 2:1). If he had not been raised from the dead, we would have been robbed of our advocate with God the Father in heaven. This his crucifixion requires of him (Hebrews 9:14; Ephesians 5:2), and this his resurrection delivers. So for Christ to be our “priest forever,” his resurrection was needed to keep him from “remaining in… the grave” (SML, 7:216).


Full Graves

But isn’t more needed still? For all of that, aren’t we still left in the lurch? For if Jesus has been raised from the dead, shouldn’t we also escape death? We want to know why we’re still under the “dominion” of death (Romans 6:9). Isn’t Easter supposed to end that dominion? But it doesn’t seem to have happened! And furthermore, doesn’t our dying make Jesus’ resurrection look like some stunt rather than the Gospel truth it’s supposed to be?

            In response to these concerns, we must first lower our expectations. At Easter there’s no promise that we will never die. All 2 Corinthians 4:14 says, for instance, is that we, like Jesus, will be raised – but only after we die. But for that miracle to happen we must first, like him, die. Period. So Easter does not wipe away death altogether. All it does is truncate it. The dead do not remain dead forever. That’s the extent of the Easter message.

            This, however, leads to a second problem. Jesus was dead for a much shorter time than we will be. He was raised only three days after being dead (Matthew 12:40, 16:21, 17:23, 20:19, 27:63-64). But we have to wait until the last trumpet sounds, at the end of the world, before we’re resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:52). Until then we stay dead and our bodies rot and disintegrate into dust. Our souls rise immediately into heaven when we die, but not our bodies (Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:8). For this we can rejoice that we’re “more than halfway out of the grave” (LW 28:133)! But even this provides no physical evidence for the truth of Easter.

            But that doesn’t stop us. We still believe our victory over death is true, even without any indisputable physical evidence to support it (1 Peter 1:6-8). We keep celebrating Easter year after year. And this creates problems and tensions. For it makes us look deluded and foolish to many (1 Corinthians 4:10). So why must we be so embarrassed? Wouldn’t it be better to have some good, hard, physical evidence to prove the truth of Easter? Why is it missing?

            The answer hinges on the nature of faith. Faith in Christ’s death and resurrection is what saves us. But faith isn’t built on physical evidence (Hebrews 11:1). It’s built on the words of the Bible (Romans 10:14-17). So we lack physical evidence by design. For “if the body were raised from the dead as soon as it is buried, you then would not need any faith, and God would not need any interval for demonstrating his wisdom… over our wisdom” (LHP, 1:487). Even so, such faith is inherently unstable because the words upon which it is based are not obviously true. So faith is more like a dare than a secure maneuver. When we believe in Christ, then, we’re taking a big risk (Luke 9:23).


Believing in Christ

Faith, then, is a stumbling forward. “Fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) are essential to it because of the unknowns within it (Mark 9:24). For in faith we “venture out,” breaking “with all temporality and finiteness, with everything a human being ordinarily lives for and in.” And we do this “in the dark night of suffering,” when “sagacity cannot see a handbreadth ahead of it,” for “then faith can see God, since faith sees best in the dark” (Kierkegaard’s Writings, 23:215; 15:238).

            So do not give up at Easter. Hold on to your faith in Christ (John 14:1). It doesn’t matter that the worldly wise think the resurrection is foolishness. No, believe anyway. Trust in the word of God. “Though it was not I, but the grace of God,…. so we proclaim and so you have come to believe” (1 Corinthians 15:10-11).

            Believe in the Christ, “our paschal lamb,” who was sacrificed for sins, so that we who believe may one day “put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 5:7, 15:53). Believe in Christ Jesus, who shields us from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9) and gives us eternal life.


Declare the Works of God

Then leave this holy house on Easter day with Psalm 118:17 in your hearts and on your lips. “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.”

            God has two works to be declared – and they’re both necessary for our salvation. The first is Jesus’ death – the cause of our salvation. It is first in time (chronologically), in thought (logically) and in importance (doctrinally). When he’s punished for our sins on the cross he frees us from the power of death. His crucifixion is therefore tops. We know this inchoately since his resurrection does not erase his wounds (John 20:20; Revelation 5:6; Galatians 6:17). They are what save us, after all – being the tokens of our salvation.

But we must also declare Christ’s resurrection – for it proves that our salvation is true. Easter shows us that Jesus’ death truly saves us from sin and death and the punishments of God. Without it the crucifixion is canceled. It has no power. So stand firm on the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:58). Say it really happened. Do not buckle under the weight of the words hurled at you by the critics. Trust in the Word of God which testifies to the truth of Jesus’ resurrection (Ephesians 1:13). And hold onto the hope that you too will be raised from the dead and live with God forever. And don’t forget the cross in the process. Keep it foremost and Easter a close second. They are the one-two-punch of our salvation – and in that exact order. For it is necessary that Good Friday be first and Easter second, if our faith in Jesus is to save us.

So hold on to the surpassing worth of Christ Jesus our Lord. Suffer the criticisms of those who reject him that you may live with him, not by your own righteousness, but by your faith in him. And in your faith, become like him in his death, denying yourself and taking up God’s way, so that, if possible, you may attain the resurrection from the dead (Philippians 3:8-11). Amen.


(printed as preached but with some changes)