On July 21 the nation will we celebrating a significant event in its history, and in the history of humanity. Fifty years ago (wow, has it really been that long?) the United States landed men on the moon for the first time. We heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” President Richard Nixon declared that event to be “the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation.” While certainly that week and that event was a high-water mark in the history of purely human accomplishment, we Christians know what the most important event really and truly is, since we have just celebrated it—the act of redemption of the world in Jesus Christ, where we were brought from death to eternal life.
If God has given us the gift of eternal life and total reconciliation with Himself, what does this mean for us now? If, as St. Paul tells us, because Christ has been raised from the dead, we are to set our minds on things above, how is our life to be shaped? How is our life transformed? How does this transformation take place? With the resurrection of Christ our life in this world is not over. In the words of the old Broadway song, “I’ve got a lot of living to do.” But what is the shape of that life?
Jesus’ first words to His disciples when He appeared to them was “Peace be with you.” We can live our lives in Christ because Christ has given His people peace, true peace which comes because we have been reconciled to God. This promise of peace was given to the disciples in the upper room on the night when he was delivered up. In case that had slipped their minds, He gives that peace to them once again as their risen Lord. In God’s charge to Israel at Mount Sinai, the high priest Aaron and his descendants blessed the people assembled, with the words, “The Lord give you peace.” This word of peace is now spoken to them directly by the Lord Himself. That word is passed on then to us through the apostles, and comes to us in Divine Worship, in the conveying of peace in the communion liturgy immediately before we receive Christ’s gifts to us, then again as we are dismissed from the table. It is a peace we acknowledge when we sing the Song of Simeon, “Now let us depart in peace,” and finally it is the last word spoken to us as we are dismissed from the service. This was the first word Christ spoke to them that evening because it was the first word they needed to hear. It was the first word spoken the next Sunday as well, a word that Thomas heard this time also, a word which he needed to hear as much as the others had needed it the Sunday before, and the church continues to need to hear every week. Christ’s death was not the end of everything, it did not bring their lives to a dead end. Rather, it opened the pathway to new life. For the apostles it was a life in which they served Christ by being sent out into the world, and that sending continues today.
When He sent the apostles, we are told that He breathed on them, bestowing on them the Holy Spirit, the gift of new life. Back in Genesis 2 we are told that when Adam was created from the dust of the ground that God breathed into Adam the “breath” or “Spirit” of life. The Spirit of life in communion with God was lost at the Fall, and death resulted. Now the breath of the Son breathes new life into the apostles, as He sends them out with the message of reconciliation and the authority to forgive sins. At Pentecost, still 42 days away, that Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The apostles who received the authority from the mouth of Christ by His Spirit, having been sent, will bring that message to the world. That same Spirit, poured out on the entire church, is present and among us, and will be so until the day of Christ’s return.
The coming of the Spirit through the apostolic word means that our names our written in the book of life. Jesus Christ, as we read in Revelation, is the first and last, the one who was, is, and is to come. His appearance to John takes place in a manner that shows that he is the One who is from ancient days. He is the one who has the keys of death and Hades, the one who descended into the lower regions and preached victory. He marched through hell as a general marches through conquered territory, dragging his defeated enemies behind Him, bringing Satan and his minions to shame. St. Paul describes it in this way, in Colossians 2:13-15: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with [Christ], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
This victory which Christ has won does not mean that there are not struggles for God’s people ahead. There are, and those struggles will continue as long as this age lasts. As we look at the readings in both Acts and Revelation, we see that the proclamation of the Gospel does invite opposition. The apostles preach the Gospel and are arrested and beaten by the religious authorities. By the time John was exiled to the isle of Patmos, probably around AD 95, most of the churches in Asia Minor were undergoing challenges, either by persecution or infiltration by false teachers, or even simply apathy. By that time all of the other apostles had been martyred, only John surviving to old age. From earthly perspective, not much success or glory, yet the Good News was still being proclaimed, and Christ remained and will remain with His church until this age comes to an end.
Christ has risen. So now what? The church moves forward day by day, year by year, even millennium by millennium. We must, then, look at things not just from our own individual perspectives but from our place as members of the body of Christ. We are not meant to go it alone. So often were hear people say that they are spiritual people but that they do not believe in organized religion. But the church is not an organization: it is an organism. It is a living, breathing body which has Christ as her head.
When the apostles wrote their letters, most of them were written to churches, not to individuals, and those that were written to individuals were written to them by virtue of their membership in the church, their place in the body of Christ. Those letters, though written to the churches of the first century, were written for our instruction as well. They tell us how to be church: how to be church among ourselves, and how to be church in our witness to the world. Here as some important points:
Be faithful. Indeed, the full promise as written to the church at Smyrna is, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Though an imperative, it serves not as a command to fulfill as a condition for eternal life. Rather, it holds out the promise of life to those who might become discouraged at all they see going on around them, assuring them that the Spirit has not let them down, but will sustain them to the end. Being faithful means holding fast to Christ, receiving the gifts He has to give us. It means confessing our sins in order that we might receive the forgiveness Christ has won for us, assured that when the called servants of Christ speak that word of forgiveness that we can understand it as being from the mouth of Christ Himself. And it means confessing Christ before the world, for the sake of those who do not yet know Him.
Keep the commandments, particularly the new commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. Again, obedience to the law does not save us, but keeping the commandments, which means treasuring them and holding fast to them, and carrying them out for the sake of the church and for the sake of our neighbor, is to be our way of life. What we do, we do in Christ’s name that others may see those works and glorify God. Jesus tells us that His commandments are not burdensome. Unlike the commands of the Pharisees, which got so involved with minutiae that the really important things got left by the wayside, the command of love simply means living in a way that has our neighbor’s best interests at heart.
Looked at another way, look at the commandments as Luther explained them from the standpoint of your own vocation. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Call on God’s name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks. Hold God’s word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. Give honor to, serve, and obey those in authority over you. Help and protect your neighbor in every bodily need. Live a chaste and decent life in word and deed, loving and honoring your spouse. Help your neighbor improve and protect their property and business. Defend your neighbor, speak well of them, and always explain their actions in the kindest way. Don’t seek to entice away your neighbor’s spouse or employees, but instead urge them to stay and do their duty. Then after a day of doing these things, repent at the times you have failed, ask God for forgiveness, and then fall asleep with a good conscience.
How do you carry this out in your own daily lives? Actually, I can’t tell you. In Christ you have been called to freedom, which means that you are free to decide how this will transpire in your own lives. God has provided the parameters in which you are to live, but you are free to make your own decisions within those parameters. To find opportunities, just look around you. Today we here at Hope are celebrating our volunteers. Look at the opportunities that are around you, both here and in the community. The freedom to choose how to serve as you see fit shows the glory of having been made alive in Christ!
The challenges presented to the church as she lives in the world are ever present. Just in the last couple of weeks we have seen the world at work reminding us that we may not have an easy time of it. We see the fire at Notre Dame, apparently an unfortunate accident. And then on Easter Sunday we heard about the horrific killing of Christians at worship, and we are reminded that martyrdom is not just a first century thing; people still die for the faith, witnessing with their lives that Christ is Lord. But through all of this the church has faith and the church has hope, because we know that we have a risen and living Lord.
As the spire at Notre Dame fell, the words of the hymn Built on the Rock flooded into my mind. “Built on the Rock, the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling. Tumbled have spires in every land, bells still are chiming and calling. Calling the young and old to rest, but above all the souls distressed, longing for rest everlasting.” We have that promise; we have that hope. God grant us His Spirit as He has promised, that the Church will stand, and Christ will be proclaimed.
“Apostles, prophets in the past gave witness to the living Lord. The servants that He sends today proclaim the same lifegiving word. In every age He sends in word of peace into a world in pain. He builds His church and grants it hope until at last He comes again.” Amen.