Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
April 11, 2021
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed. Alleluia!
Last Easter Sunday, the following was posted on the Twitter account of the Georgia Senator and pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Raphael Warnock, “The meaning of Easter is more transcendent than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether you are a Christian or not, through a commitment to helping others we are able to save ourselves.” The post was later deleted and Warnock’s office stated that a staff member posted it without authorization. Warnock declined to state whether he agreed with the statement or not. However, many did defend it. And as a matter of fact, it expresses the belief of a growing religious and political cult, which is present in many religious denominations, a cult which denies the truth of the Bible, ignores Christ’s work of salvation, and devotes itself to earthly pursuits, such as environmentalism, social justice, and other social, economic, and political activism.
Now, to any orthodox Christian, the statement above is absurd and obviously heretical. How can the meaning of Easter transcend the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Scripture says, “[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)
So, to say that anything transcends the resurrection of Christ is contrary to Scripture. By his resurrection, Jesus was exalted above all things. His Ascension, which we will be celebrating in a few weeks, is simply delayed while Jesus gives final instruction to his disciples. But it is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that Christ is victorious over death and hell and gives us this victory. The only way a person could claim that the meaning of Easter transcends the resurrection of Jesus Christ is if he denied that Jesus bodily rose from the dead and that Jesus is truly God.
And that is exactly what this religious and political cult, which I mentioned earlier, does. You’ve heard of higher criticism, which claims that the events in the Bible did not actually happen and judges all supernatural events in Scripture against observed science. Higher critics deny the miracles of the Bible. They frequently deny the virgin birth of Christ, Jesus’ divinity, the doctrine of the Trinity, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Yet, these same higher critics preach sermons in churches! Well, what do they preach if they do not believe in the Trinity or that Jesus rose from the dead? They preach a religion of works. This is why that Twitter post said that both Christians and non-Christians could save themselves through the commitment to helping others. According to this cult, faith in Christ does not save, but rather, your own works save you.
Now, this is not simply beating up on some silly tweet. Jesus teaches us to mark and avoid false teachers, who come to us in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. In churches throughout our country, there are ministers who will preach about the resurrection of Christ and about salvation when they don’t actually believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead or that he won salvation for us by his death and resurrection. How can they do this? Equivocation. Equivocation is when the same word is used with different meanings. When they say, “Jesus’ resurrection,” they do not mean that Jesus’ dead body came back to life, but a spiritual resurrection or even a metaphorical resurrection, that is, a pretend resurrection. When they say, “salvation,” they do not mean that you ascend into heaven to live with Christ or that your body is risen from the dead, renewed after the image of Christ. They mean a very earthly and temporal salvation that you experience here and now, a temporary and superficial liberation of sorts.
This liberal religious cult is more palatable to modern people, because it does not ask you to believe in miracles or other difficult to accept teachings in the Bible, like the Trinity and the divinity of Christ and Jesus’ resurrection. What’s more, it doesn’t condemn many popular sins of the flesh like fornication, homosexuality, or abortion. Yet, the acceptance of these sins does not mean there is no law. This religion has a salvation based on works, yet not the works of God. Yet, in this religion there is no real forgiveness nor any real salvation. Rather, you must obey their rules obediently with the false promise of salvation here and now.
Of course, the Bible makes clear that we cannot save ourselves by our own works. No human being will be justified before God by works of the law, for through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20). All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:24). For by grace you have been saved through faith and this is not your own doing, it is a gift from God, not of works. (Ephesians 2:8-9). Yet, if Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and if Jesus is not true God, then our faith in salvation through Jesus apart from works is a sham. We are of all people most to be pitied.
Yet, our Gospel lesson makes clear that Jesus both rose from the dead bodily and that he truly is our God and Lord. Thomas declared that he would not believe that Jesus rose from the dead unless he saw the nail prints in his hands and placed his hands in the mark of the nails in his hands and in the mark of the spear in his side. Why did Thomas say this? Because he saw Jesus nailed to the cross. He saw the spear driven in his side and blood and water pour out of it. The disciples watched from a distance when Jesus was taken down from the cross and Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped his body in linen clothes and nard and laid him in the tomb. Thomas knew for a fact that Jesus was dead. And it is an indisputable historical fact today that Jesus was crucified and killed and laid in a tomb.
Yet, when Jesus appeared to his disciples, he showed them his hands and his side. He did the same thing to Thomas, even bidding him to stretch out his hand and touch him! Jesus is not a ghost. This is not a metaphorical resurrection. The man who was dead is now alive!
When Thomas saw that Jesus was raised from the dead, he confessed Jesus to be his Lord and his God. He did not only confess this because Jesus rose from the dead. Thomas witnessed Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, but he didn’t think Lazarus was his Lord and God. But Jesus taught Thomas that he was his Lord and God. Jesus confessed, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) Jesus taught his disciples that he was one with God the Father (John 10:30). Jesus taught his disciples that he came from the Father and was going back to the Father. That Jesus, whom Thomas saw dead, is now alive, proves that all his teaching is true. It proves that Jesus is indeed Thomas’s Lord and God.
Both that first Easter Sunday and the Sunday after when Thomas was present, the doors were locked and Jesus suddenly appeared to his disciples. Jesus did not come as a ghost, but in flesh and bone, as we just heard. Yet, he defied the laws of physics and appeared in a closed room. How did he do this? Because Jesus is God. Since Jesus’ human body is united to the same person as Jesus’ divine nature, Jesus’ body is God’s body. This means Jesus’ body can do whatever God can do. This is also why he was able to exit the tomb before the angel rolled the stone away. And this is why Jesus is able to be present on many altars in his flesh and blood while simultaneously being present at the Father’s right hand in heaven. Jesus is able to do far more than we can either ask or think. All things are possible with Jesus. Jesus is God.
So, why does it matter that Jesus both bodily rose from the dead and that he is truly God? It matters, because this is how he saves us. Before Jesus told his disciples that whosever sins they forgive are forgiven, he showed them his pierced hands and side. He does the same thing today. Before we can have forgiveness of sins, we must see Jesus’ pierced hands and side, that is, we must hear the Gospel of how he won for us forgiveness of sins. Those marks on his hand and side declare to us that he suffered and died for our sins. By his wounds we are healed of sin and death.
This is why the Church has the authority to forgive sins, because the Church preaches the Gospel that Jesus died for sinners and rose again from the dead. The reason why this modern social and political cult does not forgive sins, is because it does not proclaim Christ’s atonement for sin. Only the Christian Church, which preaches that Jesus, true God and true man, died on the cross for our sins and bodily rose from the dead, can forgive sins. And Christ has given his Church the authority to forgive all sins.
By proving himself to be God, Jesus proved that he had the power to forgive our sins. He was able to bear our guilt. He is able to declare peace from God to us. He is able to breathe on us the Holy Spirit and give us his victory over sin, death, and hell. This all proves, that we are saved apart from our works, but rather through faith in Him, who conquered sin and death for us.
Jesus showed his disciples his pierced hands. It was as if he said, “Not by your works, but by mine are you saved. I have labored for your salvation. You can only receive it as a gift from my hands.” Our hands cannot earn our salvation. Neither can our feet or tongues or brains. We can only receive salvation as a gift from him who won it, Christ Jesus who was crucified, who was raised bodily, and who is exalted to the Father’s right hand, who is our Lord and God.
When we doubt the biblical account that Jesus is both God and man, that he truly suffered and died for our sins and rose bodily from the dead, then we doubt our salvation. We must guard against such doubt and against such teaching that would say that the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection does not matter. Thomas doubted. He wasn’t the only one. Yet, when he saw his risen Lord, he confessed him as such. Jesus says blessed are those, who have not seen, yet have believed. But Jesus doesn’t leave us without a witness. St. John writes, “These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” These things that are written are not fables or cleverly devised myths. They are the historical, eye-witness accounts that carry the power and authority of the Holy Spirit himself. These truths give us confidence in our salvation, because Christ Jesus has won it for us. Amen.