Sermon 4 Easter, Yr C

4 Easter Yr C, 29/04/2007

Acts 9:36-43

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“The Raising of Tabitha-Dorcas”

 

Thomas Heafey, an undertaker, doesn’t know who was more surprised—himself or the young boy he caught.

Heafey, owner of Heafey and Heafey Mortuaries, returned from a hospital call to what should have been a darkened storage building behind the funeral home.

Deciding to find out why a light was coming from the building where racks of coffins are stored, he opened the front door and two boys bolted out the back. Heafey gave chase but the nimble boys cleared a brick wall and made their escape.

Heafey returned to the building and noticed a coffin sitting in the middle of the floor. Its lid was closed.

“All of a sudden the lid popped open and a kid popped out. I think I was more surprised than he was,” Heafey said. “I’d never had one open on me like that.”

He held the startled 12-year-old youth until police arrived. “He just said one of his friends said they could come in there,” Heafey said. “They must have been playing dead, just having a lot of fun.”1

In today’s passage from Acts nine, Tabitha also called Dorcas, was not playing dead, nor were those who knew and loved her having a lot of fun. Rather, Tabitha had become ill and then died. The widows of Joppa who knew and loved Tabitha were filled with grief. How would they go on? Who would take Tabitha’s place? Obviously Tabitha was a leader in the Christian community of Joppa. This is true for several reasons. First, she is described by Luke as “a disciple.” This is quite telling in the Greek text. According to biblical scholar Gail O’Day: She is the only woman explicitly identified as a disciple in Acts, and 9:36 is the only occurrence of the feminine form of “disciple” (mathetria) anywhere in the New Testament.2 For Luke to give Tabitha the title of “disciple” I don’t think is an accident or a mistake. Rather, Luke is underscoring her role as a respected leader in the Church at Joppa.

Second, Luke tells us that: “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” This description of Tabitha’s ministry indicates that she was a woman of means, a benefactor or philanthropist in the community, perhaps a businesswoman, making a living as an accomplished seamstress. Her “good works and acts of charity,” according to Luke involved the making of tunics and other clothing and distributing them to the widows of Joppa. The widows in society at that time were often poor, that is why elsewhere in the Bible people of faith are instructed to care for them. No wonder the widows were grief-stricken at Tabitha’s death, especially so if she had looked after some of their physical needs as well as being an inspiration to them spiritually. Tabitha’s “good works and acts of charity” have also been an inspiration to women of the Church down through the ages. Often it has been women who have found creative ways to minister to the poor widows of every age, including ours. Even right here in our congregation of Grace Lutheran, you who are widows have proven to be an inspiration to many people through your “good works and acts of charity,” and may our Lord continue to bless you for all you have done and continue to do, which I’m sure he has and does!

Third, the importance of Tabitha is emphasised by Luke as he describes how the Christian community in Joppa care for her dead body. We are told: “When they washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs.” This was in preparation for her burial and an act of love and respect on the part of the Christian community. Perhaps as Tabitha’s body was laid in state in that room upstairs, many of the community members observed a wake and shared stories of how she had touched their lives. In our society, one way we show love and respect for our dead loved ones is to have their bodies prepared in a dignified way and then have them laid in state.

Fourth, Tabitha was indeed an important person in the Christian community of Joppa because two men were sent from there to the nearby town of Lydda to request the apostle Peter to come with them back to Joppa “without delay.” This request to return with Peter “without delay” may indicate that the Christians at Joppa still had not given up hope that perhaps Tabitha could be raised back to life. Some of them may have been told of the special mission Jesus had given the apostles in Matthew 10:8, when he commanded them to: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” It seems that the twelve apostles were given this special gift to raise the dead, and word of this had spread to communities like Joppa. So it was perhaps with this in mind, along with the knowledge of other stories of Jesus raising the dead Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter that the Christians of Joppa still had a glimmer of hope that their beloved Tabitha could be raised from the dead.

At any rate, we are told by Luke that Peter was receptive to the two men from Joppa. Upon hearing their request, Peter responded immediately, he: “got up and went with them.” Such a response on Peter’s part bears witness to his faithfulness as a follower of Jesus, he obeys the command to “love one another.” Peter could have told these strangers to “get lost,” dismissing them as not important enough to warrant his attention. He could have been sceptical of their request, not taking it as a legitimate one. He could have doubted that he was able to help them in this situation. However, he does not. He received the strangers, listened attentively to their request, and then responded by believing them and agreeing to go with them to Joppa. In this respect, Peter is a model disciple for us all, to love one another by serving compassionately those in need.

As the story unfolds, Peter arrives at Joppa, meets with the grief-stricken widows who show him the lovely work of Tabitha, then he asks them to leave the room. Perhaps moved by the love of these widows for Tabitha, Peter “knelt down and prayed.” By giving us this detail of the story, Luke is emphasising that Peter turns to his risen Lord for help in this situation. It is not Peter who raised Tabitha from the dead. Rather, it is the risen Lord, working in and through Peter who raised her. Tabitha is raised from the dead, and, in response, Luke tells us: “This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

Today it is not likely that we can raise people to life from the dead. However, miracle stories like this encourage us in our faith and hope. Where situations seem hopeless, the risen Christ still comes to us, working in and through his people of faith by his word and sacrament, deeds of loving kindness, and prayer. Today as we participate in the healing service, Christ is present to give us new life, new hope, and healing whether it be mental, emotional, physical or spiritual, whether it be immediately and obvious or gradually and mysterious—for in him is resurrection and life. Amen.

 

 

1 Unfortunately I have lost the source of this story.

2 Gail O’Day, “Acts,” in Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe, Editors, The Women’s Bible Commentary (London & Louisville, KY: SPCK & Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p. 309.

 

 

Sermon 3 Easter, Yr C

3 Easter Yr C, 22/04/2007

Acts 9:15-16 & Jn 21:15-19

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Following Jesus in redemptive suffering”

 

In both our first lesson and gospel today, the risen Christ calls Paul and Peter to follow him by a ministry of redemptive suffering. These two stories of Christ’s leading apostles are really our stories too—Jesus calls each one of us into a ministry of redemptive suffering. His words to Ananias concerning Paul’s future were: “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” And to Peter, Christ says: “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” So too the crucified, risen Christ speaks to us, telling us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

The following modern-day story as told by Russian writer and Christian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminds us of how when we are called upon to suffer that our suffering can be redemptive not only for ourselves, but for others as well and can draw us closer to Christ.

Following an operation I (i.e. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn) am lying in the surgical ward of a camp hospital. I cannot move. I am hot and feverish, but nonetheless my thoughts do not dissolve into delirium—and I am grateful to Dr. Boris Nikolayevich Kornfeld, who is sitting beside my cot and talking to me all evening. The light has been turned out—so it will not hurt my eyes. He and I—and there is no one else in the ward.

Fervently he tells me the long story of his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This conversion was accomplished by an educated, cultivated person, one of his cellmates, some good-natured old fellow like Platon Karatayev. I am astonished at the conviction of the new convert, at the ardour of his words.

We know each other very slightly, and he was not the one responsible for my treatment, but there was simply no one here with whom he could share his feelings.

It is already late. All the hospital is asleep. Kornfeld is ending up his story thus: “And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”

These were the last words of Boris Kornfeld. Noiselessly he went out into the night-time corridor and into one of the nearby wards and there lay down to sleep. Everyone slept. And there was no one with whom he could speak even one word. And I went off to sleep myself.

And I was wakened in the morning by running about and tramping in the corridor; the orderlies were carrying Kornfeld’s body to the operating room. He had been dealt eight blows on the skull with a plasterer’s mallet while he still slept.

And so it happened that Kornfeld’s prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance.

The innocent are those who get punished most zealously of all. And what would one then have to say about our so evident torturers: Why does not fate punish them? Why do they prosper?

And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in the development of soul. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development…holds out hope.

When was it that I completely/Scattered the good seeds, one and all?/For after all I spent my boyhood/In the bright singing of Thy temples./Bookish subtleties sparkled brightly,/Piercing my arrogant brain,/The secrets of the world were…in my grasp,/Life’s destiny…as pliable as wax./Blood seethed—and every swirl/Gleamed iridescently before me,/Without a rumble the building of my faith/Quietly crumbled within my heart./But passing here between being and nothingness,/Stumbling and clutching at the edge,/I look behind me with a grateful tremor/Upon the life that I have lived./Not with good judgment nor with desire/Are its twists and turns illumined./But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning/Which became apparent to me only later on./And now with measuring cup returned to me,/Scooping up the living water,/God of the Universe!/I believe again!/Though I renounced You, You were with me!

Looking back, (says Solzhenitsyn) I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off (her) his feet and keep tossing (her) him back onto the shore, so also I was painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.1

That path for Solzhenitsyn, as for Paul and Peter, was one of redemptive suffering. As we now know, Solzhenitsyn would go on to become a Nobel prize winning author and most likely has inspired thousands of people by writing about his own redemptive suffering as well as that of his people under the tyrannical Russian communist regime.

Coming back now to our passages from today’s first lesson and gospel, it is certainly true that the sufferings of Paul for the sake of Christ’s name were redemptive sufferings. Paul’s redemptive suffering, as he engaged in his missionary work, resulted in the founding of many Gentile churches. Peter, according to one tradition, ended up being martyred by Nero at Rome sometime around A.D. 64-68.

I know from personal experience too that the words of Jesus spoken to Peter in our gospel are true concerning going to places that we do not wish to go. In the past, I have been guilty of coveting certain calls, thinking that I’d be happy in such and such a place serving in such and such a church. However, I did not receive such calls to those places. Rather, I was called to places that I never really thought of going, nor were they my first choice of places where I’d like to be. Yet, that is where I ended up, and sometimes even though the circumstances were difficult and involved some suffering; I’ve come to realise later looking back on those calls, that through them the suffering there has been redemptive for me because I’ve learned important things from this that I’d never have learned otherwise. I also hope and pray that Christ has been able to somehow work through that suffering of those churches to bring redemption for them too.

Suffering is redemptive. Malcolm Muggeridge, reflecting on his life, also speaks in a similar way of how suffering is redemptive: Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.2 In other words, suffering is often our greatest teacher.

As we consider our calls and ministry, and realise how Christ is able to work redemption and new life in and through us and our sufferings, may the following prayer, found at Ravensbruck concentration camp on a piece of torn wrapping paper written by an unknown prisoner there be a source of inspiration to us: “O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of illwill. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us; remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to this suffering—our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this, and when they come to judgment, let all the fruits which we have borne be their forgiveness.” Amen!

1 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago Two 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation III-IV (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 612-615.

2 Malcolm Muggeridge, in Homemade, July, 1990.

 

Sermon 2 Easter, Yr C

2 Easter Yr C, 15/04/2007

Jn 20: 19-23

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Forgiving and retaining sins”

 

Today’s gospel highlights one of the, if not “the” most important roles of Christians—namely, the forgiveness of sins. On that first Easter evening, the resurrected Jesus comes to his disciples. Notice the mood of this night—the disciples were behind locked doors and filled with fear. Jesus comes among them suddenly, offering them his peace, then he shows them his marks of the crucifixion, his hands and side, as a visible reminder perhaps to prepare them for what he is about to do next. Notice that John tells us the response of the disciples, upon seeing Jesus’ hands and side they change from being afraid to rejoicing in the presence of their risen Saviour. Their mood has changed completely from sorrow, doubt and fear to joy, faith and celebration. Then, Jesus offers them his peace again and gives them their commission—as his apostles, they are sent out with his authority and with the power and help of the Holy Spirit to forgive and retain sins.

The sequence of events that John provides us with here is very important. I believe that John is highlighting for us the connection of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection with the ministry of forgiveness. Just as Jesus’ hands and side were a reminder that he died to forgive the sins of the world; and just as he showed his disciples that those sins did not keep him dead in the grave, but that God’s resurrection power defeated the powers of sin, death and evil; so now Jesus sends his disciples out into the world as his messengers of forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness puts to death our fears, our locked doors which paralyze us from living in the freedom of Christ’s love. Forgiveness brings with it new, resurrection life for us all, new beginnings; new opportunities to live the abundant life Jesus created and called us to live.

Forgiveness is a serious business! We cannot have heaven without it. “But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” (Mark 11:26) God will not answer our prayers unless we a ready to forgive. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)

We cannot even bring a pleasing gift to God without forgiveness. “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)

Beside all this, medical doctors and psychiatrists inform us that we can’t even live in optimum health here upon earth if we are not forgiving. “According to case histories,” says a New York doctor, “seventy percent of my patients show some resentment in their lives. Ill will and grudges help to make those people sick. Forgiveness will do more toward getting them well than any medication.” Leslie D. Weatherhead echoes this same truth when he says, “The forgiveness of God, in my opinion, is the most therapeutic idea in the world.” (Psychology, Religion and Healing, 1952) 1

One of the most troublesome aspects of forgiveness is the retaining of sins. However, I don’t think that it is up to us to retain sins against anyone. Rather, I believe that people themselves choose to retain their sins. We are all sinners, to refuse to forgive someone their sins, is sheer hypocrisy, because there are always sins that we are guilty of committing every day. Rather, our message is to announce, to be messengers sent out by the risen Christ, to speak the words of forgiveness in his name. It is Christ and only Christ who forgives sins; we are called, commissioned and sent out to proclaim this wonderful message of forgiveness. I think Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase of verse twenty-three in our gospel passage is quite helpful for us here: “If you forgive someone’s sin, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?” It is true, as Peterson emphasises, that once our sins are forgiven they are gone for good. It is also true that the question remains what are we going to do with sins if we do not forgive them? Let me tell you a story of someone who chose to retain their sins.

In Love and War is based on the World War I experiences of author Ernest Hemingway. The eighteen-year-old Hemingway (played by Christ O’Donnell) is a Red Cross volunteer in Italy just before the end of the war. While stationed there, he meets, falls in love with, and proposes to Red Cross nurse Agnes von Kurowsky (played by Sandra Bullock). But Agnes, unbeknownst to Hemingway, accepts a marriage proposal from an Italian doctor after Hemingway returns to America. When Hemingway finds out, he is brokenhearted. Agnes later cancels the wedding, realizing she really loves Hemingway.

Agnes travels to Hemingway’s lakeside cottage to declare her love for him. As they stand on the veranda, Hemingway, bitter over Agnes’s previous rejection of him, turns his back on her. He says nothing. Agnes slides up next to him and declares, “I’ll love you as long as I live.” But Hemingway does not reciprocate. Instead, he walks into the cottage, bangs his hand on the table in frustration, and covers his eyes in anguish. Agnes sadly walks away.

Agnes narrates the film’s conclusion: “I never saw Ernie again after Walloon Lake. I often wonder what might have happened if he had taken me in his arms. But I guess his pride meant he wasn’t able to forgive me. Some say he lived with the pain of it all his life. The hurt boy became the angry man—a brilliant, tough adventurer who was the most famous writer of his generation. And the kid who had been, eager, idealistic, and tender, lived on only in my heart.”

Ernest Hemingway married four times and took his life in 1961. 2

Today the resurrected Christ reminds us that the Greatest News of all is that our sins are forgiven, wiped out, gone for good. In our worship services that message is communicated clearly as we begin with the confession and forgiveness and as we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Jesus died on the cross and was raised from the dead on the third day in order that you and I, and all of humankind might receive and live under the power of his forgiveness of our sins. That is what we celebrate today, this season, and every season, through his ministry of Word and Sacrament. Your sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God! Amen! Hallelujah!

 

1 Citation from Dennis Kastens, “Power to Forgive,” at <www.esermons.com>.

2 Craig Brian Larson & Lori Quicke, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), pp. 148-149.

 

Sermon Easter Day, Yr C

Easter Day Yr C, 8/04/2007

Isa 65:17-25

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Perfect Peace”

 

A few years back a west coast bishop returned home from a meeting of his denomination’s bishops. He reported on the meeting to his staff. He worked up the most energy in talking about the three major speakers. “One of the speakers,” he told his staff, “teaches Bible at one of our seminaries. She did an excellent job of tracing all the currents of biblical research that have brought us to the present. She gave an excellent review of the recent and not so recent past in biblical studies.”

“A second speaker,” the bishop continued, “was a theologian. He did much the same thing as the biblical teacher. He reminded us of our heritage. He talked about the giants of theology in the early 20th century. He outlined the major streams of theology that have brought us to our present state.”

The bishop started warming to his subject now. “The third speaker,” he reported with a gleam in his eye, “was an incredibly gifted lay woman who works in the field of applied science. She is a member of our denomination and a product of one of our church colleges. The things she told us about the nature of science today were mindboggling. It’s a field that is changing with incredible speed. The average length of time of a job in her

field is three years. The average length of time of a company in the field is seven years. On the one hand, she said, that is scary. On the other hand, however, this is probably the most exciting time to be alive that humankind has ever known. Things are changing. There are grand new opportunities. We can change our future!”

After he had finished reviewing the speakers the bishop grew more serious. “I found it interesting,” he went on, “that our church’s teachers talked to us mostly about the past

while she talked to us mostly of the future. And that’s not all. She not only talked about the future but she made it clear that science has moved far beyond the point of thinking that God is to be factored out of any intelligent equation. As we move to a new future, she said that the spiritual issues were of absolutely vital concern. And you have the answers here, she said to us. We look to you. We need you. Help us provide the spiritual

sustenance the world needs as we move toward a new tomorrow.”

The bishop was clearly fond of this woman scientist. He had a chance to visit with her at the end of the five days they were together. He reported to his staff on that conversation as well. “She told me,” the bishop began, “that she had been very carefully observing our group over our five days together. And she was impressed. ‘These are wonderful leaders,’ she told me. ‘As a group you are incredibly bright and talented. I’ve never heard any group that is so knowledgeable of the kind of issues you discuss with each other. I’ve been listening in on your conversations and I am thankful that my church has such dedicated leaders. But,’ she said, ‘everything you talk about is in the past. It’s the past that you are so expert in discussing. It’s the church’s past that you are so knowledgeable of. But I don’t think I’ve heard anyone discuss the future. Where is your church going in this exciting time? What kind of new future are you going to create? Surely in the church you have language to talk about the future. Surely you have language in the Bible which can hold out a vision of hope for a new world.’ “1

In today’s first lesson from Isaiah, the prophet gives us a beautiful vision of the future. It is a message full-to-overflowing with joy, and hope and peace. Our future, says the prophet is not something to be dreaded or feared—rather, it is something to get excited about. The prophet sees a beautiful future which is not our doing, but God’s doing. God, says the prophet, is going to act in a wonderful and surprising way. God is going to create a new heavens and a new earth and a new Jerusalem. God is going to take great joy in this new creation, and the people too are going to be full of joy and celebrate God’s new creation.

The prophet then describes something of what such a new creation is going to look like: there will be no more weeping and crying, no more tragic deaths of infants, no more premature deaths of adults, people shall enjoy building and living in their houses—no more homeless people, people shall eat the fruit from the vineyards that they planted, enjoying the work of their hands—no more hungry people. God shall bless the people of all ages, and prayers shall be answered even before people pray them. This is a picture of a society where perfect equality, freedom, justice and peace prevail. Even the whole created order of nature shall be changed as enemies shall become friends—wolves and lambs, lions and oxen, even serpents shall live in perfect harmony and peace.

Martin Luther, commenting on this passage, had this to say: Through his Gospel God can make the supreme tyrants of the world subject to a simple man and preacher, even though these tyrants were lions and wolves. God can turn enemies into friends. They shall feed together … The kingdom of peace follows. They shall not hurt. The sum of everything: There must be a reign of peace among themselves. There will be peace without sword or force or tyranny, because there will be love, they will have the same inheritance, and everything will be the common possession of friends.2

Indeed, what a beautiful vision of a future bursting with perfect peace. This vision of the future is what the New Testament writers describe too, as they point to the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross and God’s mighty act of raising him from the dead three days later. The resurrection of Christ, which we joyfully celebrate today, is God’s sign to us that such of future of perfect peace is possible. One day, we too shall share in a resurrection like Christ’s and live with him in perfect peace.

Until then, we are blessed with small glimpses of that future whenever Christ’s love and peace shine in us and through us. In Jesus, our Prince of Peace, we look forward to that future time; that day of our resurrection; when all violence, hatred, sin, death and evil shall end; when, as the prophet so beautiful describes it: “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.” Amen! Hallelujah, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

1 I am greatly indebted to Richard A. Jensen, “A Vision for the Future,” at <www.esermons.com> for this wonderful story. 2 Martin Luther, Lectures on Isaiah (1529), in Luther’s Works, Vol. 17, pp. 393-394.

 

 

 

Sermon Good Friday, Yr C

Good Friday Yr C, 6/04/2007

Heb 10:16-25

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Jesus the New and Living Way”

 

On Good Friday, we focus on the suffering and death of Jesus. In today’s second lesson from Hebrews, we are given several images steeped in the Hebrew Bible. These images highlight the important consequences of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. The images describing this rely heavily on the Jerusalem temple and its sacrificial system. The writer begins in verses sixteen and seventeen by quoting from Jeremiah 31:33-34, which is a reference to the new covenant. The emphasis here is on the forgiveness of sin. There is a wonderful promise here: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”

It is wonderful news that God forgives our sin and remembers our sins no more. Why then do we spend so much time and energy remembering sins? I like the following story as told by Professor James Nestingen at a study conference at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon a couple years ago.

A pastor had a woman come to him with a heavy heart. She had been deeply troubled by the past sin of committing adultery. Now she had fallen in love with a man and she wanted to tell him about this past sin, but could not summon the courage to do so.

Then, they became engaged and she still was unable to tell her fiancé. When they set a date for their marriage, she meant to tell him, but still was unable to do so. On the day of their wedding, she tried again to confess to her husband, but was unsuccessful. After she was married she wanted to share her secret sin, but could not bring herself to confess it.

Finally, she went to her pastor and told him everything. He spoke the words of forgiveness and assured her that her sin was indeed forgiven. She shared with her pastor how relieved she felt.

Then she said to her pastor: “Well, now I’ll go to my husband and tell him the story.” The pastor kept a moment of thoughtful silence, and then replied: “What story?”

This story is a reminder to us that once sin is confessed, repented of, and forgiven, it is gone, wiped out, removed, remembered no more, there is no story to tell. That is the Good News on this Good Friday—Jesus suffered and died on the cross, and, as a consequence, our sins are wiped out, not remembered, completely forgiven.

The writer of Hebrews, goes on to say that Jesus has opened “the new and living way” for us to God. When all other ways had proven to be “dead ends,” God offered Jesus as the new and living way. In this reference, the author has at least two things in mind. First, he says that Jesus’ flesh is like the temple curtain, it has opened us to God, giving us access to God just as the high priest had access to God when he opened the temple curtain once a year on the Day of Atonement. Christ’s sacrifice is new because it is different than the old animal sacrifices offered at the temple. They were only temporary, limited, imperfect sacrifices and, once killed, dead forever. Now, thanks to Christ, there is no need for these kind of sacrifices.

Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, even though he died, was a once and for all people, for all time, perfect sacrifice to end all other sacrifices. Moreover, it is a living sacrifice, since Jesus did not remain dead, on the third day God raised him from the dead. Such an act of God is one of hope for us, since in our baptism we were baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection. Ultimately Christ defeated the powers of sin, death and evil. One day we too shall be raised from the dead because of Christ the new and living way.

There are several other images of Christ and the consequences of his death for us discussed in this passage. However, one of the most compelling images is the view of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross as an inspiration to us to, in the words of the writer in verse twenty-four: “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.” That word “provoke” seems to be a rather strong one, doesn’t it? We may think of it as having negative connotations. Provoke can mean to irritate, to annoy, to harass. However, the sense of it here is really more positive. It has the sense of encouraging and inspiring others. I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out.” It has been said that we can give without loving, but we cannot love without giving. Jesus loved and gave his all for all of humankind—including you and me. Such love hopefully provokes, inspires, encourages us, and is inventive enough to go and do likewise. In a world crying for love the opportunities are endless.

Today is Good Friday, a time to focus on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The word sacrifice in Hebrew means “to draw close.” That is exactly what Christ has done—he has drawn us closer to God. Hopefully, with the power of his love working in and through us, we can draw others closer too, especially those in greatest need of his love. Let us pray: Lord, hold not our sins up against us, but hold us up against our sins; so that the thought of you, when it wakens in us and every time it wakens, may remind us not of how much we have sinned, but of how much you have forgiven us; not how much we went astray, but how you saved us.1 In Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

1 A paraphrase of a prayer by Soren Kierkegaard, cited by Mark J. Molldrem, “Friday-The Good One,” at <www.esermons.com>.