Follow St. Philip
May 10, 2009
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
During these great days of Easter, it is
right for us to remember the Apostle Philip’s conversation with the man
Loving the Lamb
What transpires between Philip and the Ethiopian is indeed both peculiar and weighty (Acts 8:26-40). Often we rush to the end where Philip is miraculously and strangely whisked away to Azotus by the Spirit of God or at the point where the Ethiopian is baptized by Philip along that desert road – both of them jumping into the water together. But the heart of the matter is actually closer to the beginning of the incident when Philip interprets Isaiah 53 for this foreigner (Acts 8:35). These words from Isaiah are those classic ones about the one whom God afflicts for our salvation – who is punished in our place so that “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). The Ethiopian asks who this is and Philip tells him it is Jesus who was crucified for us and then raised from the dead. It has been argued that the whole book of Acts is an elaboration of Philip’s response to the Ethiopian’s inquiry [Jaroslav Pelikan, Acts (2005) p. 65]. And that makes this incident weighty indeed.
At the heart of his answer is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29; Acts 8:32). Here we learn that it is only Jesus who can save us from our sins by being punished for them in our place. For he alone was “stricken by God and afflicted,” Isaiah says. Indeed, “Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.... and by his wounds we are healed” (1 Peter 2:24). This is why God loves his Son – because he lays down his life for us – and we are to love him as well (John 10:17, 14:21). Loving Jesus for any other reason would be nice – but it won’t save us. So love the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Love him because he was punished for our sins so that we may go free. Love him because he is our substitute who suffers our punishments for us, as Luther said (Luther’s Works 22:167)!
Therefore do not approach God apart from Christ. All that brings
is wrath, punishment and condemnation. Instead bring Christ with you and
“pay God with him” (LW
30:12), as Luther put it – Gott
mit Christum bezahlen. For we cannot approach God on our own –
without a mediator or an advocate (1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 2:1). That is
because his holiness would clash with our sinfulness – bringing only
wrack and ruin upon our defenseless souls. This calamity can only be
averted through the mediation and advocacy of Christ Jesus our Lord. For
he is our Paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us (1 Corinthians 5:7). By
so doing he bought us back (1 Corinthians 6:20), freeing us from our
imprisonment to sin (John 8:34) and the curse of the law (Galatians
3:13). Just as the blood from the first Paschal lamb protected the
The Fifth Gospel
Because of this resolute and resounding testimony to our salvation through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, Isaiah has been called the fifth gospel (J. F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity, 1986). Nowhere in the New Testament do we have as clear a reason for the sacrifice of Christ as we find in Isaiah 53 – for there we learn that Christ was “stricken... by God” and “wounded for our sins,” that “with his stripes we are healed” for “the Lord... laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and that “the Lord... shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:4-6, 10-11). Even so this effort to see Christ in Isaiah has known “long periods of deep disagreement and bitter strife” [Brevard S. Childs, The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (2004) p. 322]. But still we hold that in Isaiah 53
the suffering servant retains its theological significance within the Christian canon because it is inextricably linked in substance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is and always has been the ground of God’s salvation [B. Childs, Isaiah (2001) p. 423].
Without this conviction Jesus wouldn’t be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, for he wouldn’t be that spotless lamb (1 Peter 1:19) who was so by virtue of being the Word who was “with God and... was God,” from the beginning (John 1:1-3).
But soon after Philip faithfully witnessed to the Ethiopian that Isaiah 53 was about Jesus, storm clouds came rolling in. False teachers sprang up in the Church against this good news – denying “the Master who bought them” (2 Peter 2:1). Just think of it! This message wasn’t attacked by atheists, humanists and the like – but by Christians. And this is the way it goes. The heresies that have plagued the church over the years have come almost exclusively from Christian leaders (see Quash & Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 2008). And it continues so to this very day.
Since the late 1980s Christians have been railing against the Lamb who was slain with new and concerted efforts – famously calling this message one of “divine child abuse.” For God to send his only Son to die an awful death after having been beaten up and spit upon and all the rest, is simply unconscionable. It’s divine child abuse, they lament. And these critics are many. The pile of books in my study, arguing for this revision of Christianity, grows by the month. They amount to a full-scale, broadside attack on the Christian faith. Here is my growing list of revisionists:
Parker & Brown, Christianity, Patriarchy & Abuse (1989).
R. G. Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence (1992).
M. T. Thangaraj, The Crucified Guru (1994).
D. K. Ray, Deceiving the Devil (1998).
L. S. Bond, Trouble With Jesus (1999).
Green & Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross (2000).
R. L. Floyd, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (2000).
R. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (2001).
J. D. Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement (2001).
Brock & Parker, Proverbs of Ashes (2001).
J. Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jesus Against Christianity (2001).
A. W. Bartlett, Cross Purposes (2001).
S. J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion (2004).
S. Finlan, Problems With the Atonement (2005).
J. Sanders, Atonement & Violence (2006).
Borg & Crossans, The Last Week (2006).
S. M. Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (2006).
Beilby & Eddy, The Nature of the Atonement (2006).
Jersak & Hardin, Stricken by God? (2007).
S. A. Brown, Cross Talk (2008).
Against this theological barrage I have argued that Jesus couldn’t have been abused on the cross by his Father because (“Preaching Against the Cross,” Lutheran Partners, September/October 2003):
He was not forced to die, but freely chose to do so.
He knew his death was good, in that it saved sinners.
He knew he would quickly be raised from the dead.
He knew his Father shared in his pain – being equal to him.
He told his followers to suffer too, for it’s strengthening.
He knew that all suffering wasn’t justified by his death.
But this rejoinder isn’t a slam-dunk. It settles nothing. That’s because their assaults on our faith gain steam every year. And that’s because heretical teachings are tenacious. So they have to be fought against continually and diligently. And no Lutheran should be surprised by this. For we have been warned in our Confessions that [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 169]
the church [is threatened] with ruin. [For] there is an infinite number of ungodly within the church who oppress it.
These words have been around for hundreds of years and yet we still haven’t taken them to heart. We continue to give the benefit of the doubt to our lay leaders, pastors, bishops, college and seminary professors. But that is a terrible mistake. No, everyone should be tested against the Word and our doctrinal heritage to see whether or not what is being said is right or not. We have to be ever diligent – otherwise the light of Christ will grow dim in us (Luke 11:35). So “contend” with all of your might (Jude 1:3) for the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!
Follow St. Philip
That means you’ll have to follow in St. Philip’s steps and proclaim the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world – Alleluia! You’ll have to be as courageous as he was – daring to declare the name of the Lord – even to foreigners. That’s because this message about the Lamb of God is so integral to our Easter proclamation that it cannot be compromised in anyway whatsoever.
Therefore do not cave in to the critics who complain about a metaphysical conundrum regarding God’s identity – that he has to send his only Son to die who is identical with him, but has to stand against him, in order to save us from him – and his furious wrath. Don’t cave in to this supposed incoherence. See instead in this sacrifice of Christ, the Father and the Son working together for our salvation. Follow instead in the footsteps of St. Philip and offer up the same testimony that he gave to that Ethiopian long ago. Declare that Christ Jesus is the one stricken by God for our salvation. Say this is so even though in Isaiah the name of Jesus isn’t mentioned. Say this is so because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16) and then sing – Alleluia!
And don’t cave in to their second ploy either, when they bemoan the psychological trauma caused by the fright of the crucifixion itself. On this score they complain that the burden of the cross is too great for sinners to bear. It’s too much for us to know that Jesus had to suffer and die because of our disobedience and rebellion. Jesus, who was so loving and so good, had to suffer because of us – as we sing on Good Friday, “I it was denied thee; I crucified thee” [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) Hymn 123]! But that, they say, is far too damning for us to bear! And so they side-step the Lamb of God who died to take away our sins. Against that psychological dodge, let us once again follow St. Philip. Let us rejoice in the Lamb who was slain and has begun his reign – Alleluia! Follow St. Philip knowing full well that this trauma is not inflicted upon us to stymie us, but to drive us instead to Christ – agitatur ad Christum (LW 16:232).
Cleansed by Christ
But even with all of this clarification and explanation, we still find ourselves not doing the good we would do (Romans 7:19). Alas, this is so, for the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). So we must look to another. We cannot find salvation in ourselves (Psalm 49:7-9). And we are told in the New Testament, that the one we’re looking for is none other than Jesus himself, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). For he is the one who cleanses us through his word (John 15:3).
He cleanses us from our sin by forgiving us for his sake and because of his sacrifice on the cross (Hebrews 9:26). And even though we are made clean by Jesus, he still prunes us that we may flourish and blossom all the more (John 15:2). So we must not despair when we find ourselves under his pruning knife. In those times of trauma, we must instead cling to his cleansing Word and the promise of greater discipleship by his grace. Then we will be able to tough-out the trauma and grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18). Then we can settle into the truth that we are both clean and unclean at the same time. Luther’s formulation of this is classic:
This is peculiar cleansing.... Man is first declared clean by God’s Word for Christ’s sake, in whom he believes. For by such faith in the Word he is grafted into the Vine that is Christ and is clothed in purity.... This is the Christian doctrine of true purity, which is so incomprehensible to any non-Christian,... who is unable to reconcile the two facts that a Christian is clean and unclean at the same time. They are ignorant of the power of Christ,... of how we are declared wholly clean for His sake through the Word, as clean as He Himself is, although in ourselves we are still, and always will be, impure because of our sinful nature (LW 24:210, 212-213).
There we have equal reasons to be both joyous and sober at the same time. How grand! In this way we can have all the benefits from on high without degenerating, as a result of those blessings, into irresponsible and pompous spiritual slobs. We know we are pure as Christ in God’s eyes, while still being plagued with our most loathsome sinful nature. With that balanced account of ourselves, we can face the difficulties of life and our weak flesh and still find comfort in Christ our Lord. Luther gave this balanced account his famous line – simul iustus et peccator (LW 26:232).
Every bit of this cleansing hinges on Christ’s victory on the cross – where he defeated sin for us poor weak creatures (BC, p. 414). So let us not hanker after some watered-down explanation of the cross. Let us instead hold fast to the ancient traditions of the church (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And let us find abiding solace in Luther’s searching rhetorical question which maintains that great tradition in the face of similar opposition from his own time:
Why else did [Christ] die, except to pay for our sins and to purchase grace for us so that we might despair of ourselves and our works, placing no trust in them, so that we might, with courageous defiance, look only to Christ, and firmly believe that he is the man who God beholds in our stead and for the sake of his sole merits forgives us our sins, deigns to look upon us with favor, and grants us eternal life. This is the Christian faith (LW 52:253).
Any divergence whatsoever from this teaching, then, will drain the Christian faith of its lifeblood. Therefore we must be adamant about keeping matters straight. Luther again helps us:
Only... Christ frees us from our burden. One has sinned, another bears the punishment.... This, then, is the Christian religion: One has sinned, Another has made satisfaction. The sinner does not make satisfaction; the Satisfier does not sin. This is an astounding doctrine (LW 17:99).
Luther risks sounding mechanical here in order to be clear about the good news that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord. What Christ does for us can be found nowhere else. What Christ does for us bears upon his Father in heaven. What Christ does for us cleanses us by moving God to mercy (LW 51:277). What Christ does for us moves God to mercy by satisfying his divine requirements for the punishment of sin, rebellion and disobedience (Leviticus 26:16).
So rejoice in the Lamb who was slain and has begun his reign – Alleluia! And come to the Altar of the Lord and receive this risen Lord in, with, and under the bread and the wine of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (BC, p. 575) that your faith in the forgiveness of sins may grow and your love for one another abound.
Our Clarion Call
But all of these wonders are still not enough. The Apostle Paul also admonishes us to “look carefully” how we walk that we might “make the most of the time” (Ephesians 5:15-16). What better way would there be for us to do that during this time of Easter than to “declare the greatness of the Lord” (Psalm 145:6)? And what is his greatness? Nehemiah 4:20 says that it is that “our God will fight for us” (אלהןו ילחם לנו, elohenu yeelakem lanu). Let us, then, get that word out – elohenu yeelakem lanu! Let that verse be our clarion call – to be repeated over and over again. Elohenu yeelakem lanu! Elohenu yeelakem lanu!
In large part this will mean not depending on ourselves (Proverbs 3:7; John 15:5). Depend instead on the Lord – for he is the one who will fight for you. He is the steady and sure one – the “rock” on whom you can rely (2 Samuel 22:3; Psalm 19:14; Isaiah 26:4; 1 Corinthians 10:4). We, however, are but a mist, blown around by every wind of the culture (James 4:14; Ephesians 4:14). We are not a rock as our Lord God is. And as our rock, God fights for us. How does he do that? Colossians 1:13 says that he has “delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved son.” By so doing he battles against the dominion of darkness on our behalf through his dear Son, our Savior Christ Jesus the Lord (1 John 3:8). He battles against darkness – which is, as Luther put it, “sin, death, God’s wrath, the devil, hell, and eternal damnation” (LW 23:404). How much better could it be than to have One like this on our side to battle against such mighty foes?
So get the word out – our God will fight for us! That’s a great word for this time of Easter. God fights against sin through the death and resurrection of his dear Son, Christ Jesus our Lord. This proclamation was at the heart of St. Philip’s testimony to that Ethiopian long ago. So let it be at the heart of ours as well. Elohenu yeelakem lanu! Elohenu yeelakem lanu! Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)