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Extravagance

4/26/09

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Extravagance means over the top, excessive, more than enough. In these supposedly leaner, meaner times the Christian faith is still characterized by extravagance.

Christianity makes extravagant claims. In the first reading Peter proclaims, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Salvation is in no other name than Christ; that's what Christianity claims, and that's extravagant. That claim excludes roughly 83% of humanity. There is no salvation in Allah's name; Buddha's name, Vishnu's name. There's no salvation in the name of science, medicine, technology, or doing one's best. No Jesus, no salvation.

The exclusivity of Christianity is not our only extravagance. The Epistle makes this extravagant claim, "Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world." An atoning sacrifice is one that removes wrath, and God has reason to be angry. Think how angry you get at injustice. Think how your blood boils when wrong is labeled right. Think how infuriated you get when someone beneath you will not take your word on something. Then think of how justified the holy God is in having wrath against a world of unjust, wrong, unbelieving sinners.

He was mad enough to nail every single one of us to a cross; mad enough to send every single one of us to the unquenchable fires of hell; mad enough to torture us to death; so mad that nothing we said, did, or suffered could appease His wrath. Instead, God nailed, damned, and tortured His perfect Son, Jesus, in our place, and not only in our place but in place of every last sinner in the world. God spent the innocent life and holy precious blood of His only Son to purchase grace for a world that deserved only wrath. That's extravagance, is it not?

But there's still more as there always is when something is truly extravagant. We find it in the Gospel reading. Jesus makes the extravagant claim that the repentance and forgiveness of sinners is as sure as His suffering and rising. And there's the rub for you. Historically, apart from the Bible, we can establish the suffering of Jesus as the creed says "under Pontius Pilate." But the rising part we have only in the New Testament. Our repentance and forgiveness and therefore our own resurrection and salvation are tied to Jesus rising. No risen Jesus; none of these either. No certainty of Jesus having risen, total uncertainty in these too.

We have to face these facts head on. Christianity makes extravagant claims, and extravagant claims demand extravagant proof. Jesus Himself faced this in His ministry. When He did the extravagant thing of clearing the temple of the business being conducted there, the Jews demanded, "'What miraculous sign can You show us to prove Your authority to do all this?'" And how did Jesus answer them? With His resurrection. "' Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

Everything rides on the reality of Easter, and this strains us. We're not alone. Notice in the Gospel that the disciples thought the risen Jesus was a ghost and that doubts rose in their minds. Even after seeing and touching His nail pierced hands and feet unbelief fought with joy. The disciples who were physically present in the same room as Jesus on Easter evening had to wrestle with fears and doubts, so it's not strange that we do.

The disciples fought with fears and doubts connected to Easter with their hands and eyes. Their hands touched and their eyes feasted on Jesus' physical body. We can't do either, but that's not the only proof Jesus gave them to calm their troubled minds. He gave them the same Scriptures we have. Jesus proves the reality of what they are seeing and touching by a full, formal, citation of the Old Testament. He didn't just say that His physical resurrection was a fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which would have still been a citation of the entire Old Testament Scriptures. No, Jesus says His standing before them alive is what was written about "in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms." Jesus cites the 3 divisions of the Hebrew Old Testament for emphasis, and then Jesus does something really miraculous.

Jesus "opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." He didn't open my mind or yours. He didn't open the mind of any Father of the Church or pope in Rome. He didn't open the mind of Martin Luther or the writers of our Lutheran Confessions. He only opened the minds of these apostles so they could understand the Old Testament Scriptures. They in turn passed their understanding down to us in the New Testament Scriptures.

Again we're at a sticking point. I can read you this statement from Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, "[I]t was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation in the public councils" (1). Though Gibbon writes 1,810 years after the fact, no one thinks him a fool for believing Augustus introduced moderation into the Roman state. No one expects you, let alone encourages you, to think Gibbon is a fool for believing what he does about something that happened some 1,800 years before he lived. Why not? Because Gibbon studied first person sources; Gibbon researched writings and inscriptions from that time. He based his "faith" 1,800 years later on those who where there when it happened.

All knowledge is passed on through history by words. The world considers people who quote Cicero and Pliny as factual to be learned while those who quote Luke and John that way to be naive even though there is more and better objective evidence for the Scriptures than anything Gibbon had. Edward Gibbon can make thousands of statements of fact in his 6 volume work based on the writings of people he has never met, writings that have passed through hundreds of human hands, and he is not naive for believing them. No only the Christian is naive for believing the eyewitnesses who saw, touched, and handled a living Jesus three days after He was dead and buried. John and Luke and other New Testament writers claim they write facts not stories. They don't write what some people believed, but what people actually saw no less than Cicero or Pliny did.

Let's back up. Christianity makes extravagant claims. Extravagant claims rightly demand extravagant proof. Well, the God who extravagantly gave His Body and Blood to save sinners gives that proof both to the disciples in the text and to you in this church.

This is how church fathers Bede and Augustine apply this text to their listeners hundreds of years after the events recorded by Luke. The text says "Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them." In Matthew 18 Jesus promises the Church of all ages, "Where 2 or 3 are gathered together in My name there am I in the midst of them." The Greek words "in the midst of them" are identical in Luke and Matthew. The disciples experienced Jesus in their midst in that room on Easter evening; we experience Jesus in our midst in church.

To the apostles Jesus proves He, the Head of the Church, is really present. He says, "Touch, handle, see, watch Me eat so you might have no doubt that I the Head of the Church am actually present." But Jesus doesn't just ask them to see something; He also asks them to believe something. There are 10 disciples in the room. The church that had been gathered around Jesus had disappeared on Good Friday. Jesus asks them to believe that the Church is out there among the nations and their preaching of repentance and forgiveness will reveal Her. The disciples see the Head of the Church, but they are asked to believe in the Body of the Church that they can't see.

It is the opposite for us latter day Christians. To us Jesus proves His Body, the Church, is here and asks us to believe that where His Body is His Head must certainly be. There was no Church for the apostles huddled in the room on Easter evening to see. There were no massive cathedrals. There weren't millions of churches spread out across the land. In fact, the word church to them referred to any gathering of people, whereas to us it only refers to a gatherings in the name of Christ. Neither Jews, Muslims, Hindus, nor Buddhists have churches only those who claim Christ do.

This church has come into being literally all over the world by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness. From this church which we can see with our own eyes, feel, and handle, we are to believe in the presence of the Head we can't see. When we gather in His name hearing the call to repent of our sins, to renounce them, to denounce them, to turn away from them, and we hear the Good News that for Jesus' sake our sins have been carried away, sent away, forgiven, we know that Jesus is in our midst.

Which do you think is harder to believe: that in absolute pagan nations the Body of Christ would be found or that the Head of that Body can be found where His Body is? Can you see that like the first disciples we are asked to believe in the reality of the risen Jesus based not only on what the Scriptures say but on what we see? They believed Jesus stood in their midst because they saw His Head. We believe He stands in our midst because we see His Body.

Now for the cherry on top of this Easter Sunday extravagance. The final proof Jesus gave the disciples to show the reality of His presence was what? His body eating food. The final proof Jesus gives us is our eating His Body for food. In both cases, Jesus is in the midst extravagantly. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

The Third Sunday of Easter (20090426); Luke 24: 36-49