Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sermon: Quasimodo Geniti (Easter 2)

15 April 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 20:19-31 (Ezek 37:1-14, 1 John 5:4-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Our risen Lord appears to the disciples for the first time after His death and burial. Of course, those destined to become the first pastors and bishops of the Church are confused and scared. They don’t know what to make of the testimony of the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection. The doors are shut, for fear that those who took the life of their Master might be coming for them.

In the midst of this confusion and doubt, our Blessed Lord suddenly appears in their midst. Immediately he blesses them: “Peace be with you.” He disperses their fear and banishes their angst. He commands them to be at ease in the presence of God. But this is not merely a visit to strengthen their resolve, or to make them happy (though certainly both happen). For our Lord Jesus Christ has unfinished business with His disciples. They have been His students for three years. They have borne witness to His miracles, His life, His passion, His death, and now His resurrection. They are to be sent out, which in the Greek is to be “apostled.” They are being commissioned to preach the good news and to administer the Holy Supper, to baptize, and to teach. But first, they must be ordained.

For our Lord keeps His Word. Six chapters before today’s text, the Lord promises that He will not leave the disciples orphans. He pledges a coming Helper, a Comforter, an Advocate who will dwell with and in the disciples. And, of course, in the Book of Acts, the Church will receive a manifestation of the Holy Spirit that will see the Gospel spread around the world through preaching in every language, with proclamation radiating out from Jerusalem unto the ends of the earth. But, as St. Paul would ask rhetorically many years later, how will people hear without a preacher? So even before the Holy Spirit is sent at Pentecost, our Lord gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to the men who will be doing the preaching.

For without the Holy Spirit, how can they preach the Holy Gospel? And without Holy Orders, by what authority do they preach? And so, our Lord appears to the disciples on this Sunday not merely to catch up on old times, or even to simply ease their guilt and grief – but rather to prepare them for their ministry, so that His saving work on earth will continue until He comes again.

Without a lot of pomp and ceremony, our Lord passes on the authority He received from His Father to the disciples. “As the father has sent Me, I also send you.” He breathes on them, which is to say, He gives them His Spirit, and says: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Thus the disciples are now apostles, ordained into the Holy Ministry, sent out with authority to preach, to forgive sins, to retain sins, to baptize, and to preside over the Lord’s Supper. As the Father placed the Spirit upon the Son, so the Son breathes this Spirit upon the apostles. And even as scoffers did not believe the Lord Jesus, a Man, could forgive sins, scoffers will (and do) claim that the apostles and their successors, mere men, cannot forgive sins. But the forgiveness of sins is precisely the authority our Lord gives as he ordains them: “if you forgive…” He says, “they are forgiven”! Just as mankind from the days of fallen Adam and Eve have needed to hear the Gospel, and even as the fallen multitudes listened as our Lord boldly forgave sins, so even today fallen people are dying to hear those blessed words of release, of absolution. Those words of the Gospel. The same is needed today, and so the successors of the apostles also have this authority by virtue of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The whole idea of the Holy Spirit imparting gifts is a controversial issue in the Church. Some claim the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to make people healthy and wealthy. Some claim the Holy Spirit’s work is to inject excitement into our lives and into the Church’s worship. Some claim the Holy Spirit is only present where miraculous tongues are spoken (though unlike the case of the apostles, these so-called tongues have nothing to do with the preaching of real words in real foreign languages to impart the real forgiveness of sins and real salvation).

Notice how our Lord links the gift of the Holy Spirit with the forgiveness of sins. Jesus doesn’t promise fame and excitement, explosive church growth, and tons of money in the bank. In fact, these first apostles actually found harassment, torture, martyrdom, and exile. “Take up your cross,” He had commissioned them before. No, the gift of the Holy Spirit isn’t about fun and ego-stroking, rather it is all about the Gospel – the blood and the water. The Holy Spirit defers to Jesus, who defers to His Father. By the Son’s sacrifice, we are reconciled to the Father. And by the Spirit, we are led to Jesus, we hear the Gospel, we receive His gifts: the blood and the water. And we are kept in the faith.

For the true manifestation of the Spirit is belief. And through that belief, Jesus gives life. For even as John testifies: the Gospel account in Scripture is “written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” There is a link between believing and life, just as life and breath are related. For breath is another way of saying Spirit. Without the breath of the Holy Spirit, there is no life in us. We are as dead as the dry bones Ezekiel saw in his vision.

For the bones could do nothing for themselves. And yet, the breath of the Triune God, manifested by His Word, proclaimed by a preacher acting under authority, under Holy Orders, could work the miracle of raising dead, dry bones to life. The proclaimed Word of God resurrected living flesh where the old had rotted away as a consequence of sin. The preaching of the Gospel linked bone with bone, sinew with sinew. And as the breath, the Spirit, entered them, the once-dead rose and stood anew. Ezekiel is commanded to preach to his sinful hearers the resurrection of the dead, the opening of their graves and the gift of the Spirit unto life. His listeners are to hear the preacher’s word knowing that, as the Triune God says: “I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it.”

For when the preacher speaks under the Lord’s authority, it is the Lord’s Word, the Lord’s promise, the Lord’s forgiveness, and the Lord’s gift of the breath of life.

This Sunday, the first after Easter, is known as Quasimodo geniti – which means: “As newborn babes.” For our Introit includes those words from the Epistle of one of those first bishops who received ordination, the gift of the Holy Spirit and authority to forgive sins from Jesus Himself – St. Peter. And with St. Peter we confess: “As newborn babes desire the pure milk of the Word,” that we have indeed, in the words of the Psalmist and of Peter, tasted that the Lord is good. For our Lord Himself told us salvation was not to be ours unless we became as little children, as those who suckle helplessly at their mother’s breasts.

For every baptized Christian - just like little born-again Matthew Enos - is given life by his Mother the Church, and nurses upon the Word and Sacraments. Quasi modo geniti. And even as babies continue to receive milk for nourishment, we Christians nurse again and again at the font. Quasi modo geniti. We remember our baptism, we drown the old Adam in daily repentance. Quasi modo geniti. And we will be resurrected from the dead to walk in the flesh anew never again to die. Quasi modo geniti.

Just as a baby doesn’t choose life, and even as nursing isn’t a matter of rational thought to a little one, we Christians who receive the Kingdom like children are the recipients of the life-giving milk of the Word of God. A Word that bears the Spirit, the Spirit that bears the forgiveness of sins. The same Spirit that took a valley of rotting skeletons and turned them into complete men of flesh and breath, of life and spirit.

And this, dear friends, is the mystery of life. We continue to celebrate Easter, in which by the breath of the Spirit, in fulfillment of the Word of God, the drying bones of our deceased Lord were raised. He is not merely Spirit, but also flesh and blood animated by the Spirit. For a ghostly apparition can be doubted. It took more than seeing to convince Thomas. It took touching the hands and side of a once-dead body to convince Him that the Lord Jesus lives. In His mercy, our Lord lays his scarred hands upon doubting St. Thomas, forgiving him his sins and ordaining him into the ministry of the Word. In response, Thomas confesses: “My Lord and my God!” He would not only confess it, but he would preach it. He would lay his hands on other Christians in absolution, and would lay his hands on other men in ordination. He would confess and preach until he was himself martyred as a witness of the living Christ and of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

For our Lord is no mere spirit. He is flesh, born of the Virgin, amid blood and water. The Spirit bears witness. He was circumcised and was baptized – more blood and water – and the Spirit bears witness. He was crucified and thrust with a spear – more blood and water – and the Spirit bears witness. And the Lord commissioned Thomas and the other disciples to baptize and to administer the Lord’s Supper – more blood and water - and the Spirit bears witness.

And the Spirit gives life, the Spirit points to Jesus, the Spirit empowers the Church to carry out her ministry. The Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies – and keeps us in the faith. It is indeed the Spirit who bears witness, because the Spirit is truth. And the truth, dear friends, is that Jesus has died for the forgiveness of all your sins. You are indeed like newborn babes, born again, drinking the pure milk of the Word. The Spirit bears witness. Quasi modo geniti. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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