At the Center

Audio here.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We often talk about getting our priorities straight, or making sure our priorities are in order. That encourages us to think about our priorities in a list: number one, God; number 2, family or friends; number three, country or community or hobbies or something. However you might put things in order, what does it actually mean to put something first. If you put God first, what would that actually mean? Reading the Bible and praying first thing every morning? What about the rest of the day? Does it mean who or what gets the most of our time? I doubt any one of us is even close to giving God 51% or more of our time, if that means devoting that time to “spiritual” things. The number of hours we spend in church or reading the Bible or praying is likely not even going to scratch the surface of the number of hours we are given in a day, week, month, or year.

But maybe that’s not the best way to think about such things. I would suggest that instead of thinking about things in order in a numbered list, it would be better—if we must have an illustration—to think about a wheel with spokes extending from the center. The center of the wheel is what holds everything else together, but the center isn’t every single part of the wheel. If you move the center out of the center, that wheel is going to have some trouble rolling along.

And what is the center? All you have to do is listen to the preaching of Peter and the other apostles which we have heard from Acts so far during the Easter season, and which we will continue to hear, it’s not hard to hear and see what is the center of all their preaching. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus. No matter what else they’re talking about, no matter who they’re addressing, no matter where they are, the death and resurrection of Jesus is at the center of everything they say.

They preach the resurrection of Jesus and thousands are baptized into His Name. They preach the resurrection of Jesus and a crippled man walks in His Name. They preach the resurrection of Jesus and they are arrested, but they refuse to stop speaking His Name. And it’s not only at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit is first poured out in full. Twenty years later, Paul writes a letter to the Corinthians and he’s still preaching the death and resurrection: “For I delivered over to you in the first place what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He has been raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In the first place, central; first, last, and in between. As soon as the death and resurrection of Jesus are moved out of the center, everything else is off. Other things will take on importance that they do not have, priorities will be out of whack, and the Christian life will go off the rails sooner or later.

What is at the center of history, the center of God’s salvation, the center of the Church, is also at the center of each Christian’s life. The center of what it means to be a Christian is Jesus’ death and resurrection, not so much as the first thing to be believed in a list of doctrines, but as the living, beating heart of our very life. Whatever else we call life will be meaningless and worthless without the Center, who is Jesus crucified and risen. So the Christian’s life revolves around the first day of the week, the day the Lord was raised, because He has promised to be present where His people gather around the forgiveness that He gives. This isn’t the only place or time when His Word and Sacraments are given out, but it is the usual time and place.

Not only does the Christian’s life revolve around the living Christ in His Word and Sacrament, but the Divine Service itself has the living Christ at its center. Every single thing that happens within the liturgy is directed at preaching and delivering nothing and no one but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, who has been raised from the dead. Like the Apostles’ doctrine, our doctrine always revolves around the resurrected Jesus, no matter who we’re addressing, or what else we’re talking about. We may talk about any number of things, issues, and Scriptures, but the center, the beating heart, the life of the Divine Service is the death and resurrection of the Jesus who serves us here and through these means.

There’s a catchy saying that sometimes circulates around Easter, and it goes like this: If Jesus is not risen from the dead, then nothing else matters; if Jesus is risen from the dead, then nothing else matters. The first part is certainly true: if Jesus is not risen from the dead, then we are wasting our time and everyone else’s with this religious nonsense. But if Jesus is risen from the dead, everything else matters. If the resurrection is true, then it doesn’t mean that our bodies don’t matter; it means that they absolutely do matter. God made humans to have bodies. God made a body for His Son. Jesus died in that body and Jesus rose from the dead in that body. In that body we will see Him.

And that also means that for us resurrection follows death. The death and resurrection of Jesus are not events with only past or future significance. They are actually and physically brought to us in Holy Baptism and the Holy Supper. This is why the Ethiopian in Acts 8 asks Philip to be baptized. Because Philip started from Isaiah 53 and proclaimed Jesus as crucified and resurrected. And how do you get into the death and resurrection of Jesus? How does it come to you? By baptism. And so the Ethiopian asks to be baptized. At Pentecost, after hearing that they had crucified Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, the people there said, “What shall we do?” Repent and be baptized, every one of you, Peter says, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. And this promise is for you and for your children.

The central and ongoing event of your life is your baptism, as the faith given is continually fed by the Word, Absolution, and Supper of Jesus. And the end of your baptism—its completion—is your resurrection, the resurrection of your body. That’s why your body matters: it will be raised. That’s why we care for other people and the needs of their physical life: because their bodies will be raised.

And Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the restoration of all things in this creation. So we take care of this world because it’s going to be restored and renewed. Physical things, created things, matter to us because they matter to God. This is the hope in which we were saved, the redemption of our bodies. And all creation groans in eager expectation of our revealing in the glory of the resurrection. So we wait for all things to be made new, and we do the works prepared for us to do, as newly created creatures still living in the old creation. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, at the center; of first and central importance, in which our entire life, and the life of the Church, and the life of the world hold together.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/21/18

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