Thursday, March 12, 2015
When I preach about Moses lifting up the bronze serpent for the healing of God's rebellious and sinful people (Numbers 21.4-9), I recall how, when Cheryl and I first visited Redeemer Lutheran Church in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, we were both struck by the dramatic sight of a nearly life-sized crucifix hanging high over the altar. It was then that we joined the ranks of the many who have likewise found the crucifix at this church to be surely one of its most striking features.
Some, who visit the church, unfamiliar with such a sight, ask us why we don’t have a simple “empty” cross up there. “Why a crucifix?” they ask. And there is a very good answer to that question. What answer do you think was given to visitors to the Temple in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago, who witnessed the gory animal sacrifices that took place there, as in the Tabernacle before it? They would be told that God commanded such sacrificial spectacles so that people could see a sight that symbolized the penalty for sin and the cost in blood required to atone for sin and guilt. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” as the Bible says (Hebrews 9:22).
Our Redeemer, Jesus Christ Himself teaches us, that, "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life" (John 3:14-15). Although, with those words, Jesus is not commanding the use of crucifixes in His Church, we do have the same God today who commanded those Old Testament spectacles to be seen in His temple long ago, even though such sacrifices, could not provide the ultimate atonement for sin. In the New Testament, the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, DOES pay for our sins.
Should believers not now gaze upon the image of the crucified Christ? I would suggest that since, long ago, the eyes of the faithful were to look upon sacrifices that only symbolized the coming atonement of Christ, much more, now that the death of God's Son, on a cross, actually achieved the redemption of the human race once and for all, should we have before our eyes this image of Jesus! To his churches in Galatia who were in danger of losing the true Gospel, St. Paul wrote, 'O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified' (3.1). Publicly displaying a crucifix is a way of pointing to the true Gospel!
I like to draw people’s attention to the fact that many sports trophies include a statue, at the top of the trophy, of a player winning their victory. The gleaming figure on a softball trophy will be carrying a bat. A golfing trophy may feature a man swinging a driver. On a crucifix we see the figure of a man winning a victory over sin, death and the devil that He graciously shares with all of us. “Go spread your trophies at His feet and crown Him Lord of all”!
An empty cross makes a great logo, in so far as it goes. Yet, “We preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:22). In his liturgical notes, Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary Professor Tom Winger writes, “… the cross itself is a powerful symbol of the faith, but its real meaning lies in the One who was crucified upon it. It is Christ’s suffering and death upon that gruesome instrument of torture, which paid for the sins of the whole world. Even more, by showing the body of Christ, we confess that Christ continues to be present with us bodily to bring to us the forgiveness He has won, especially as He gives us His Body to eat in His Supper”.
This is why we, in the Lutheran Church are pleased to “lift high the cross, the Son of God proclaim…” as we do, with a crucifix.
Monday, March 09, 2015
‘…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God’
Is the Church a hospital or a gymnasium? Do you support science or faith in God? Is he an intellectual or athletic? Is she a Packers fan or a Pittsburgher? Are you ‘Confessional’ or ‘Missional’? Is church music traditional or contemporary? Does your church teach discipleship or evangelism? Are you a ‘sinner’ or a ‘saint’? Is God just or loving? Is He the Lord of the living or of the dead? Can you ‘have your cake and eat it, too’?
Must we always choose between ‘opposites’, or can some things be ‘both/and’? Life is full of things that are truly opposites - true ‘antitheses’. But we hear a lot of false antitheses too. We hear one thing pitted against another, not always for good reasons, causing, in some cases, unnecessary conflict.
In rhetoric, a false antithesis is an example of a logical fallacy. Although that may sound rather academic, as it impacts everything from communication to cooperation between people, false antitheses are a serious matter, especially when they become the conventional view of a society.
Perhaps you feel that false antitheses are be more common in youth than in old age, but that, too, could be a false antithesis. Older people can be as polarized by a false antithesis as people of any other age. In my case, early in my career, I remember being challenged to choose sides in a debate about whether the Church was a hospital or a gymnasium.
Now, this many years later, I’m like ‘seriously’? Surely the church has aspects of both a hospital and a gymnasium as does any health facility that includes both clinical therapy and physiotherapy. What both a hospital and a gymnasium have in common is that they both provide a safe supportive place for healing and exercise. Both of them exist for the benefit of those who use them.
We come to church as people with souls ailing from sin and guilt. We go to Divine Services, not as the “righteous who need no repentance”(Luke 15.7), but as the sick, requiring divine healing through the forgiveness of sins delivered in the Church by means of God’s word and sacraments. As Jesus said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5.31-32) At the same time, we also come to church, as God’s forgiven people – sanctified as well as justified - to exercise those qualities as God’s holy people, that we will need to have if we are to engage others in the wider world effectively. Again, as Jesus said, “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13.34-35).
So do we belong to the Lord while we are alive, or only when we die? Beware of a false antithesis. For, “…whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s”.