Can Two out of Three People be Wrong?
Five years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet appeared most of us thought the members of the Heaven's Gate cult were just plain stupid for believing that a UFO trailed the comet and was going to take them home. The majority of people, however, believe what they did. O not the part about a UFO trailing the comet but the part about going home by leaving this earthly body. Most people believe the teaching the Heaven's Gate cult was founded on: The body is a flesh and blood shell; it's meant to be put off. Salvation is the putting off of this earthly body. This is what Eastern religions teach. There are 2 eternal principles or gods in the world, one of matter and one of spirit. Human beings are from the spirit god, but somehow, either by design or by fall, they've become trapped in material bodies. The goal of life is to be freed. The path to this goal is suffering or mind over matter. You may not know many Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, or Shintoist, but they make up roughly 2/3 of the world, so what makes you so sure 2 out of 3 people are wrong?
The Eastern view of things, that the physical body is bad and is to be overcome so the spirit can be set free, flooded the West through rock music - think of John Lennon's "Imagine;" through meditation techniques - think of TM, and through self-defense training - think of marital arts emphasis on concentrating or centering to release your spiritual energy to overcome a physical object. Since the 50s the Eastern religious doctrine of shedding the body to free the soul has been packaged in scientific language. The Church of Scientology was the first to teach that we are descended from spirit gods who gave up their powers in order to experience bodily living and ended up trapped inside them doomed to endless reincarnations. The Church of Scientology frees people from the cage of the body by means of special counseling sessions.
The Heaven's Gate cult members that killed themselves to follow the comet are not a minority they are the majority. Many people have been sucked into the lie that flesh and blood are bad and it's the spirit that counts. Even Christians have been deceived into thinking that the God they can't see would not stoop to using things they can see to save them. Listen to the Pentecostals and you will hear cries of "spirit, spirit." Listen to the Baptists and you will hear cries of "faith, faith." Neither of these groups see God at work in Words, Water, Bread and Wine. No, "God works in my heart through His Spirit not through the plain waters of Baptism. I get close to God through prayer, through singing songs that lift my spirit, through good feelings not through physical bread and wine. I don't need to hear my sins being forgiven by another human being; the Spirit assures my heart I am."
Be honest; you can understand where they're coming from. You kind of wish church would be more of a "spiritual" experience, that you could sense faith tingling in you. You want to feel your problems lift off of you. Excitement in your heart would mean more than water in a Baptismal bowl. Communion would be more dramatic if the focus wasn't on plain looking bread and wine. And wouldn't we feel more forgiven if we clapped and swayed instead of just heard the absolution and sang a simple amen?
The tendency in matters of religion to shy away from physical things in favor of spiritual feelings and experiences is all around us. So, the teaching that being saved means to be freed from a physical body forever is not crazy; it's reasonable. How many times have you thought; "It's not my mind that's the problem; it's my body. I'm a 20 year old person trapped in a 50 year old body." There are no diseases of the spirit or soul. Our bodies get heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and emphysema. If we could just put them off, we would be healthy.
Therefore, it's not surprising that most people believe the body is a shell, and it's meant to be put off.
What is surprising is that God sent Christ to redeem this flesh and blood that most people think is to be discarded. God intended to redeem our flesh and blood since the Fall. An early church writer describes Adam's soul going to heaven and God personally burying his body. God stands over the grave and says, "Adam, Adam." And the body answers out of the ground saying: "Here am I Lord." And the Lord replies, "I promise thee the resurrection."
That God would not leave these bodies in the dust has always been the faith of God's people. Enoch and Elijah are considered special because God took them bodily to heaven. He redeemed their flesh and blood before the Resurrection on the Last Day. Ancient Job's faith in a resurrected body is so powerful that not only is it referred to at every funeral but it's a favorite Easter hymn. 2,000 years before Christ, Job said, "I know that my Redeemer lives, and...even after my skin has been stripped off my body, I will see God in my own flesh. I will see Him with my own eyes, not with someone else's."
God's goal all along has been to redeem flesh and blood; that's startling enough. But what's even more startling is how God did it. He used the very flesh and blood that pagan religions have always sought to be free of, always looked down on. Hebrews 10 tells us, "For this reason when Christ came into the world, He said, "You (Father) did not want sacrifices and offerings, but You prepared a body for Me."
A body? Every soldier knows his body is the weak part in warfare. Flesh and blood give way to wood, rock, iron, and metal. So warriors from ancient times have put on some sort of armor to protect flesh and blood. But to do battle God puts on flesh and blood. God descends into our dust to fight with the most perilous enemy ever, Satan himself - the one who easily destroyed flesh and blood in the Garden.
In weak flesh and blood Christ defeated the most powerful created being in the universe. He removed the heavy stone tablets of the Law that Satan kept tied to mankind's back by fulfilling the Law completely in His body. And He took the sword of judgement out of Satan's hands by being slain for our sins in His flesh and blood. What caused flesh and blood to decay and die in the first place was not old age, not disease, not accidents, but sin. No more sins, no more decay or death. Our flesh and blood have been redeemed by Christ's holy precious blood and by the innocent suffering and death of His flesh for our sins.
Friends, this is what Easter celebrates, but I'm afraid you may be missing this because the world has subtly changed Easter into a celebration of new life rather than a celebration of redeemed, resurrected life. But Easter doesn't set us free from this body to start over in a new body or without one. No as we say in the 3 creeds, we believe in the "resurrection of the body," the "resurrection of the dead," and that "all men shall rise again with their bodies." The Good News of Easter is that Christ resurrected the very same body He died with, proving our bodies were redeemed and will be resurrected. That's why there's all this fuss in the Easter accounts about sticking fingers into nail holes and hands into sides. That's why Jesus asks for something to eat on Easter evening. That's why Acts reports "Jesus showed the apostles a lot of convincing evidence that He was alive." That's why John records in his first epistle that they actually handled the flesh and blood of Christ.
But how does this redemption become the property of your body - through the spiritual event of having your sins forgiven. Yes, your physical body is redeemed by having your sins spiritually forgiven. Be clear on this. The goal of forgiving your sins is not that you might feel good about yourself, be happy, sense God's presence, or feel God's love. The goal of God forgiving yours sins which you can't see is to redeem for eternity the body you can see.
It's surprising that God redeems your visible body by forgiving your invisible sins. However, it's even more surprising how He does it. God forgives your sins which you can't see by means of physical things you can see. God conveys His life-giving, eternal Spirit to your flesh and blood body by means of earthy, physical things that pass away. Just as God used a body made of dust to redeem bodies of dust, so He gives this redemption to you by means of physical things that can touch your physical body.
Look what our Lord did in the text. He put His forgiveness of sins into the mouths of physical human beings. By doing this Christ showed that forgiveness of sins isn't in an invisible voice from heaven telling us we're forgiven and forgiveness isn't inside our hearts in the belief we're forgiven. No our forgiveness is in the physical mouths of physical human beings. You can cry "spirit, spirit" or "I believe, I believe" all you want; still you will not find the forgiveness of your sins in spirit or faith. Luther said, "If it is not sought from the mouth of the apostles, the pastor, or if need be another Christian, you will not obtain forgiveness of sins."
God wills to redeem that flesh and blood body of yours; the very one in that pew. He doesn't want you to cast it off, mistreat it, hate it, or long to be free of it. He wills that you long to have it resurrected. He does this great physical resurrection by spiritually forgiving your sins. But He places that forgiveness in things your physical body can touch, hold, look at. Consider this: the last thing Jesus did before dying was institute a meal that your body can eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. The first thing He did after being raised from the dead was place the forgiveness of sins in the mouths of men. The last thing He left us before going bodily into heaven was a bodily washing of water by which the Triune God forgives sins.
Here in these physical, earthly things: Water, Words, Bread and Wine is where you are to root your forgiveness. Don't locate it in the realm of the spirit. There are many false and downright evil spirits in the world. You can find all sorts of things other than forgiveness in the realm of the spirit. And don't locate your forgiveness in your believing heart. The heart, says Jeremiah, is "more deceitful than all else." Proverbs says, "He that trusts in his own heart is a fool. You can find all sorts of things other than faith in forgiveness in your heart.
God wants you to locate your forgiveness outside of you where it's safe from the doubts, the depression, the deceit that plague the fallen heart. God wants you to locate your forgiveness outside of you in physical things where it is safe from the tricks, the temptations, the tantalizations of evil spirits who can appear even as angels of light. God wants you to locate your forgiveness in Words, Water, Wine and Bread. He wants you to say to yourself: "As sure as I hear those words of Absolution with my ears, so sure am I forgiven of my sins. As sure as those Baptismal waters have been sprinkled on my head, so sure has the Triune God taken me into His fellowship of forgiveness. As sure as I eat Christ's Body and drink His Blood in the Lord's Supper so sure do I have the forgiveness He won with them."
God locates forgiveness outside of you in physical things so it is safe from your doubting heart and troubling spirits. And He puts forgiveness in physical things that touch your body to let you know He hasn't and you shouldn't give up on your body. He wouldn't put forgiveness in your ears through Absolution, on your body in Baptism, or in your mouth by Communion if He didn't have eternal plans for your ears, mouth, and body. Your soul isn't trapped in your body as two out of three people believe. No, both your body and soul are trapped by sin: Forgiveness frees both for eternal life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter II (4-7-02), John 20:19-31