April 6, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the day.
Today is the day that Jesus went and got Himself killed. It had been building up for a while, sure, and it would be a few months before His enemies started to formulate and hatch their scheme. But today’s Gospel is the day that Jesus went and got Himself killed.
Today Jesus is teaching in the temple—in the temple’s treasury to be precise. It’s the fall of the year, just as the Feast of Tabernacles is winding down. He snuck in unannounced and began preaching about living water and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees were looking for a way to arrest Him, to shut His mouth, but were unsuccessful because Jesus’ hour was not yet come.
But what does Jesus do in the face of this threat? He ups the ante. He doesn’t soften His preaching; He sharpens it. Like a dart in the hearts of His opponents. Jesus blatantly and unashamedly preaches the resurrection of the dead. Until this time, Jesus had preached the kingdom of God, He’s preached forgiveness, love, even the Law (though not to the Pharisees’ liking). These were things they didn’t like, but could tolerate. But the resurrection of the dead, that really grated them. “Amen, amen, I am saying to you, if anyone keeps My Word, he will certainly not see death for eternity” (v 51).
But what really got Him killed was His preaching of the incarnation, that He identified Himself as the eternal God. “Amen, amen, I am saying to you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM” (v 58). This statement is the one that turns His opponents’ resentment and anger to actual violence. Then they took up stones in order to throw on Him (v 59a).
To our ears, these things sound like such good news; why did it rile up the Pharisees so? Jesus tells is precisely why: Which one of you is convicting me concerning sin? If I am speaking truth, for what reason are you not trusting Me? The one who is of God listens to the words of God; for this reason you are not listening, because you are not of God (vv 46-47). The Pharisees are riled up because they are not listening to the words of God—they refuse to believe that this man Jesus can speak for God. The reason why is because they are not of God.
It is the flesh that is not of God. Not that God isn’t the Creator of eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and all the members of the body. The body is of God, created by God, but its use is not. Its use has been hijacked by an unclean spirit, the spirit of sin and rebellion. The spirit of the devil. This is what Scripture means most often when it refers to the flesh. The flesh is not of God, and therefore doesn’t listen to the words of God.
Because the words of God come into a violent clash with the flesh’s dreams of becoming something greater than what God created it to be. The kernel of all sin was Adam’s desire to know what God knows, to be like God, to be greater than the creature God made him. The flesh is limiting. It’s weak. So the preaching of the resurrection of the flesh is an affront to the flesh. In fact, it’s the raising of Jesus’ friend Lazarus that is the occasion for the beginning of the plot against His life.
This disregard for the flesh isn’t so much about how you view the flesh; instead it has everything to do with how you view God. The flesh sees God’s power, His omnipotence, His omniscience, His eternity, His immutability, and considers these to be the stuff of God. So when God comes in weakness and humility, when He limits Himself to the same finite flesh that we inhabit, and it messes with all of your preconceptions about who you think God is. And so either your preconceptions must go, or God must go.
You see, we count equality with God as something to be grasped, as something to be sought after, as a goal for our progress. But not Christ. The Son of God did not count equality with God as something to be grasped. He counted equality with man as something to be grasped. So He humbled Himself, and took the form of a servant even though He knew it would mean His death.
Jesus in the flesh shows us what it means to be “of God.” Because He is the One who is of God from the beginning—the eternal Son of God: God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. Begotten, not made. Consubstantial with the Father. He is the One who was before Abraham. “Amen, amen, I am saying to you, before Abraham came into existence, I AM” (v 58). With this word, Jesus identifies Himself with the divine Name. When God reveals His name to Moses, He tells him that His name is “I AM.” A peculiar name. Jesus uses a peculiar turn of phrase when He is speaking to the Jews. “Before Abraham, I AM,” Jesus says. Before Father Abraham, before the root of the Jewish family tree had even been planted, Jesus was God.
And the One who is of the same substance as the Father has taken on the substance of human flesh. Conceived, born, grew, learned, changed. He descended into the entire human experience, so that He could restore those who had set themselves against God to be of God once again.
Jesus is of God, and thus His words are of God. His words are performative words—they do what they say, they create their own reality. The Spirit is the One who makes alive, Jesus says, the flesh does not aid in any way; the words that I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are Life (Jn 6:63).
If you keep these words, you will certainly not see death for eternity. This is a ludicrous statement. Abraham died. The Prophets died. The Apostles died. The fathers died. Martin Luther died. C.F.W. Walther died. You great-grandparents, you grandparents, your parents, they died. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that keeping the words of Christ does not, in fact prevent you from the bitter taste of death.
That’s how the Jews respond, but that’s not the promise that Christ gives. He doesn’t promise that you will not taste death. Jesus doesn’t preach that you life will not end in the flesh. He preaches resurrection. The same Word that creates is also a word that recreates. And there is no resurrection without first tasting death.
The eternal Son of God was conceived, born, grew. He also suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. The eternal Son of God became flesh even though all flesh was on a collision course to the grave.
He does not promise that you will not taste death. But here’s what He does promise. For those who keep His Words, the death you taste will be His death. And He drank up all of death’s bitterness for you.
At the end of his life, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote what I consider to be one of his most beautiful pieces of music for a text by an anonymous author called, Come Sweet Death. When you have the words of Jesus, the words that are spirit and life, death loses its sting. And the death of a Christian is a sweet death, a blessed rest, a gentle peace.
But death is just a taste. It’s only the first step to the fulfillment of the preaching of the resurrection. Just as there is no Easter without first going through Good Friday, so also for the Christian, there is no vision of eternal life without first going through the narrow chamber of death, unless Christ should come again. The preaching of the resurrection is completed when Jesus gives you a share of His resurrection.
And you have already rehearsed this. You were baptized into a death like Christ’s, and a resurrection like His. You have your share in His resurrection right now; you walk in newness of life. You taste His death and His resurrection with every bite of sacred bread and every sip of the blessed cup.
The Eternal Son of God Came to Raise the Dead to Eternal Life
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard