We Believe in the God Who Sanctifies What Can't Be
St. Augustine said that the Christian faith differs from the faith of the devils in the last article of the Creed that deals with sanctification (in Chemnitz, Locci, II, 500), yet this article is the least understood by us. We're more comfortable in the First Article dealing with Creation and the Second Article dealing with Redemption than we are in this Article dealing with Sanctification. Since this service happens to fall on the Feast of the Annunciation which is the celebration of Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would bear the Christ, I am hoping by means of the Annunciation to understand better sanctification.
This Article deals with things that are unsanctificable to us, but before we deal with that we first must come to terms with the word sanctification. It not a word we use in everyday life. To this day, I can't separate this word from sanitize. When I was young my family moved between California and Michigan. This was the days of family run motels. When you first went into the bathroom, you saw a paper banner across the opening of the toilet emblazoned with the word SANITIZED.
That's really not a bad connection to sanctification. A toilet bowl is something we can't imagine being really clean; it's always dirty' even when sparkling. Seinfeld has an episode where he drops his girlfriend's toothbrush in the toilet and he cleans and scrubs and bleaches it but doesn't tell her what happened. Every time the girl is shown using the toothbrush the audience goes "ewh."
Unless you see that this is how defiled, how fallen, how sinful we are, you will remain a devil having no concern to understand let alone appreciate the Third Article and Sanctification. Unless you see that you are Pilate who can't wash the blood of Jesus off your hands by rubbing them in water, unless you see that the blood of Jesus really does stain your head, you'll care more if a motel bathroom is sanitized than if you are sanctified.
Pilate didn't condemn Jesus to a brutal, inhumane death on a cross, you did. Jesus is on trail before Pilate because you are guilty. Jesus is answering for every sin you won't admit to, defend, excuse, or pretend isn't really that bad. Rub your hands raw, use lye soap and all the Lysol you want, and the blood of Jesus still stains you. By your sinfulness, even if it be just a little unbelief, misbelief, worry, pride, or greed, you're calling out to God, "Let His blood be upon me." You're calling for divine judgment upon yourself.
Hebrews 10 says that horrible punishment awaits those who sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth because they have spurned the Son of God and profaned the blood of the covenant. Hebrews 6 says "they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding Him in open contempt." Sanctify that! Cleanse that!
You know those scenes where a killer is spattered with their victim's blood? That's you and the blood of God's only Son. And you know how sometimes the brutal killer comes to his senses and starts sobbing, "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to." How do you feel toward that miserable wretch who just brutally murdered his loved one? Usually it's not pity; you think, "Yeah, we'll see how sorry you are when you're being executed." That's the rage and fury God comes after sinners polluted by the blood of His Son. No wonder they cry to mountains, "Fall on us!" and to the hills, "Cover us!"
We have to get the blood of Jesus off our hands and head, but who can clean that? I'll give you two other things that are impossible for us to clean. The human womb and the human tomb. Both of these defiled, made sinners out of people, who came into contact with them in the Old Testament. And don't think this is because of some biological, physiological reason. A human womb or tomb is not intrinsically diseased, sick, or polluted by germs. The Law God gave to Moses relative to the womb and tomb is what made people guilty who came in contact with them. They defiled, made people unclean because God said so, not because science can find germs or bacteria in them.
But why? Why did events connected with a woman's or a man's reproductive cycle defile, make guilty men and women? Why did a dead body? Because both womb and tomb were connected to death and where there is death there is sin. With the grave it's easy to see death there, but the reproductive cycle? "In sin did my mother conceive me," says David. A woman goes through the throes of death in order to bring life into the world because that life is dying because of sin. The reproductive organs are where sinful life springs from and therefore are a fount of guilt before God.
And we really don't know - and sometimes I truly fear we don't care just how guilty we are. The Old Testament can help us. There bodily emissions which a man or woman could have no control over made them guilty before God. Also if you walked over a grave unknowingly, and this could happen because people buried often on the spot of death and didn't always mark the grave, you were guilty before God. Guilty, sinful, fallen your own body made you and who knows how often you were defiled by death? As often as you were defiled by sin and that's the point of Moses' Laws: to show you how thoroughly polluted by sin you are. Cleanse this! Sanctify this!
Things unsanctifiable to us are sanctified by Jesus. The Collect for Annunciation ties Jesus, the womb, and the tomb together saying that "as we have known the Incarnation by the message of an angel so by Jesus' cross and Passion may we be brought to His resurrection."
Jesus cleansed the womb from the real stain of sinfulness by entering it as we should holy and righteous. God the Son placed His holy body in our fallen womb to redeem it and us there. Paul says, "He was born of a woman, born under the Law to redeem those under the law." Though conceived and born in the sinful womb of a virgin, Jesus was without sin and proceeded to live His life that way. He always did, said, and thought the right thing. Never did He doubt, worry, lust, or curse. All that was guilty and fallen in connection with reproduction Jesus cleansed by His holy precious life and blood.
Jesus also cleansed the tomb from the stain of sin by entering it as you should: laden with guilt and the shame of a death between criminals. He entered flogged, mocked, ridiculed, beaten. Now surely, the One who entered the tomb that way for you, in your place, doesn't want you to go that way too? Can you see what a shame, what a sorrow, what a waste for Jesus to have suffered so in our text so you don't have to, and yet you do anyway? If you go to your grave stained, blamed, and ladened with your sins, you are saying Jesus didn't do that for you.
I've gotten ahead of myself, but you really can't blame me. This is the Gospel; this is why we come to Church even during the middle of the week. Not for training, not for motivating, not to show God our faith, but to be forgiven, cleansed, sanctified. Jesus sanctified what can't be sanctified so that we might be sanctified from womb to tomb.
The water Pilate used couldn't cleanse his hands of Jesus' blood anymore than your watery excuses, reasons, promises to do better can. But the water that came from Jesus' dead, wounded side can and does. That water didn't fall to the ground to drain away; it was caught by the baptismal font. Jesus promises that when we use water in the name of the Triune God, there is no sin that is not washed away. No matter how badly you are spattered, no matter how long it has dried on you, even the very blood of Jesus Christ is washed off the hands and heads of guilty men, women, and children by Holy Baptism. How come? Because Baptism applies to you what Jesus did in the womb and suffered on the way to the tomb for you. All that Jesus did you are credited with doing. So in the waters of Holy Baptism, the only way you could go to hell is if Jesus Himself could.
But stained by Jesus' blood is a powerful image especially when you know that you have returned to your sins, you have crucified Jesus anew, you have trampled His blood by going back to where you never should have been in the first place. The picture of water cleansing blood is nice, but I have been cut, bled, and stained too many things to know that real blood is seldom cleansed by water. But there are these new cleaners that use enzymes or something to break down stains. That's what you need, and that's what you have in the blood of Jesus.
On the cover of my Lenten devotions you see a Medieval woodcut of Jesus on the cross and angels holding Communion chalices under each nailed hand, by His pierced side, and at His nailed feet. They're catching every drop of blood that Jesus sheds. This Blood gives remission of sins promises Jesus; this Blood cleanses all sins John assures us. And this is the Blood in your Communion cup. This is the Blood that Jesus gave on the cross to pay for your forgiveness and gives you in Holy Communion to forgive your sins; this is the Blood that sanctifies, makes holy what can't be.
Hear how we confess in the Third Article that we are sanctified: We are sanctified by being kept in the one true faith; we are sanctified along with the whole Christian church on earth by being kept with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. Billions of people have been baptized by the water from Jesus' side, millions commune with the blood He shed on the cross at the altar, but they have no faith in either. They don't believe Baptismal Water washes anything, that Communion Blood cleanses anyone. And so Baptism and Communion are of no more use, benefit, or help to them than they are to devils. Along with the devils they neither believe in one baptism for the remission of sins or in a communion of saints, i.e. holy people.
But you do; you have been kept in this one true faith; you do believe that what can't be sanctified by you has been by Jesus taking your place from womb to tomb. You got sanctified when Jesus got you. You get more sanctification by focusing on what Jesus already did. St. Gregory of Sinai described it this way: "Become what you already are, / Find Him who is already yours, / Listen to Him who never ceases speaking to you. / Own Him who already owns you." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek V (20090325); Third Article; Passion Reading V