April 21, 2019
On Monday of this Holy Week the world watched in horror and sorrow as the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France burned. People gasped as its spire, which towered 300 feet above the ground toppled over in flames. For much of the day the firefighters feared that nothing of the Cathedral would be saved. Finally, after over 12 hours of fighting the fire, the main structure of the church was saved. However, the roof was nearly completely destroyed along with much of the inside.
It was tragic to see such a gigantic and ancient building engulfed in flames. The first stones of that church were laid in the twelfth century. It took over a century for it to be built to its full glory, yet 19 years into construction its high altar was consecrated in 1182, which means that by the time Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg 500 years ago, Christians had been worshipping within the walls of Notre Dame for over 300 years. That’s older than the United States of America today!
What was most tragic about the sight of those flames ravaging one of the oldest and most beautiful churches in the world was what it symbolized. The burning of Notre Dame came after the Christian Church in Europe has shrunk dramatically in recent decades. Around the time of my birth around 80% of France identified as Christian. Now it is around 50%! Of course, that’s just those who identify as Christians to pollsters. The number who actually attend Christian worship is significantly less than that. Yes, the burning of Notre Dame was a timely and tragic image of the Christian Church in the West. The Church is burning down.
The world mourned the destruction of this building, even many self-proclaimed non-Christians grieved its loss. It was a loss of history and art. For many Notre Dame was not much more than a museum, which showcased French pride and some neat historical religious stuff. Many pledged millions of dollars to rebuild. The French president, who is publicly agnostic, said that they will rebuild the church. Why? Why do those, who do not believe in Christ want to rebuild this structure? Well, for history, art, and architecture. This is much more than a religious building, we’re told.
But the fact of the matter is, the only true purpose for a church building is for Christ’s sheep to gather to hear the words of Christ. This is not to say that we shouldn’t make our church buildings beautiful and it is by no means a sin to make beautiful churches with stunning architecture and art to show to the world that this is God’s house. But such extravagance does not make it a church. The Church is not built of stone and mortar, but of people; human beings, who hear and believe the words of Christ.
If Trinity Lutheran Church here on this hill were to go up in flames it would sadden many you, who have worshipped here, been baptized, confirmed, and married here. It would be a sight to see and would probably make the news in Des Moines, but most likely not national news and certainly not international news. Yet, what would be much more tragic than these beams lighting up and these brick walls crumbling down would be if the pure words of Jesus stopped being preached and if people stopped gathering to hear them. What would cause the angels in heaven to mourn would be for you to stop hearing the words of your Shepherd.
Martin Luther writes, “Thank God, today a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” Luther gets this definition from Jesus himself, who says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) And “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” (John 8:31)
On Easter we usually have more people gathered in church than other Sunday mornings. However, there is little reason why our Easter attendance couldn’t be our average attendance. The Church didn’t start celebrating Easter as an annual celebration until the second century, decades after Jesus rose from the dead. But that doesn’t mean that the Church didn’t celebrate the resurrection of Christ until then. Rather, the yearly Easter celebration came about from the weekly Easter celebration. Ever since the very first Easter Christians have gathered on the first day of the week to worship Jesus and celebrate his resurrection. Every seven days since Jesus first appeared to his disciples displaying his pierced hands and side as they were hiding behind closed doors, Christians have gathered to hear God’s Word, to pray, and to celebrate the Sacrament.
Why? Why have Christians gathered together on the first day of the week every week for nearly two thousand years? We do this to remember and indeed to receive the benefits of Christ’s resurrection. Before Jesus died on the cross, he made clear that he joined himself to his Church. First, he joined himself to the entire human race by becoming a man. Jesus, while remaining forever God, is truly a human being like each of us except without sin. Yet, while Jesus resisted every temptation and kept himself pure, he willingly took upon himself the sins of the whole world and was punished in our place. Jesus’ death on the cross went far beyond physical suffering. He endured God’s wrath for all sins and satisfied it. In this way, Jesus has joined himself to every human being. He has taken our flesh and he has taken our sins.
What this means is that we are saved apart from our works. Our works are contaminated with sin, but Jesus has taken away our sins. This means we are saved by faith in Christ. We receive such faith by hearing Jesus’ word. Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Again, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” And “Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Through faith we are united to Christ in a special relationship that surpasses even our physical connection of sharing the same flesh and blood. Through faith we are joined to Jesus’ death on the cross. Our sinful old man dies with Jesus. And we rise again with Jesus. This is why we celebrate Easter week after week. Jesus teaches us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
After Jesus’ resurrection he continued to teach his disciples. He taught them how to be the Church. The Church is the Church by hearing and believing the words of Christ. Through Baptism and continued use of the means of grace Jesus’ body grows and lives. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19). The Church is the body of Christ. The Church does not exist without Jesus. And Jesus teaches us that we abide with him through his word. Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers...” (John 14:5-6)
The Church is not just some institution that teaches good morals. Being a Christian is not just knowing a set of rules to make you a good person. Being a Christian goes beyond this life; this is what Jesus’ resurrection teaches us. If Christianity only pertained to this life, then we would have a sorry religion. St. Paul teaches us “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Corinthians 15:19-20) Because Jesus is raised from the dead, you too who abide in Christ through faith will also rise.
This also means that the Church is durable and will last forever. We sing,
“Built on the Rock the Church shall stand
Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbling 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.” (LSB 645)
The Church is permanent. It cannot be destroyed. As long as there are Christians who hear and believe Christ’s word, which the Holy Spirit will make sure to supply, then Jesus’ Church will remain on earth even if all the great cathedrals in the world crumble down.
Jesus said while in the temple in Jerusalem, one of the great wonders of the world, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19) Of course, Jesus did not mean the temple, which took 46 years to build, but his body. Yet, what is easier, to rebuild a fallen temple or to raise a dead man from the dead? Which is easier, to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame or to raise from the dead those 207 killed in Sri Lanka this morning? Yet, this is what Christ’s resurrection accomplishes. We are the body of Christ. Though we be torn down and buried, Christ will raise us up.
The Church gathers to hear Jesus’ words on the day of his resurrection, because Jesus’ words give eternal life. Jesus lives. He is risen from the dead. He will never die again. And he tells us that his words give eternal life. We hear his words, so that we might join him in his resurrection.
A great hymn of comfort says,
“Jesus, my Redeemer, lives;
Likewise I to life shall waken.
He will bring me where He is;
Shall my courage then be shaken?
Shall I fear, or could the Head
Rise and leave his members dead?” (LSB 741)
The head cannot rise without its body. Jesus is our head and we are his body, if we abide in his words.
Jesus’ resurrection draws the Christian out of the temporal and into the eternal. If I am a member of Christ’s body, then I will live forever. Money, food, drink, work, friends, all the cares and pleasures of this life are temporary. But my life in Christ is eternal. Possessions and reputation do not define me, but Christ does. In him I have forgiveness and life that will last forever.
I think I would like to go to France someday. I think it would be quite neat to place my hand upon the stones of Notre Dame and think about how those stones were laid in those walls over 800 years ago. Yet, what Jesus’ resurrection teaches me is that long before those stones were placed in those walls, indeed before those stones were formed in the earth, God knew me in Christ. And long after all these stones fall and everything made by man is a forgotten memory, I will still be alive, living with Christ my risen Savior.
The Church will never die, because Jesus will never die. And as long as I am a member of Christ’s Church, that is, as long as I am a lamb who hears and believes the words of Jesus, I know that I will never die. Jesus, my head, has taken death away from me. He gives me eternal life. Brothers and sisters in Christ, as long as we abide in Jesus’ word, we have eternal life.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!