7. April 2023
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The Romans prided themselves in adopting Greek culture, language, philosophy, and architecture. They would have executed their prisoners with poison if they had been consistent. The Phoenicians executed by crucifixion as a more effective form of suppression. The Romans had done it so often; they developed it into an art form. Practice makes perfect. For the soldiers, waiting out crucifixion was another tedious military detail. Throwing dice to divide the dying man’s clothing was like playing poker. Playing games relieves boredom. Ask any parents taking their children on a car trip.
But something more important was happening in this crucifixion than just another tiresome execution. A soldier pierced the side of the dead body, and immediately water and blood came out. It was such a strange occurrence that one of the witnesses took an oath that he had seen it: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you may believe.”
But should we take oaths on trivial matters? And what was the truth that we should believe? The bleeding of a man’s dead body is hardly an occasion for an oath or belief. Something unusual had happened, but it was hardly miraculous in the same sense as changing water into wine. There was a medical explanation, even if the ancients did not know it. The soldier’s lance struck the heart and the waters that filled the sack around the heart. Still, the Evangelist who witnessed the pouring out of the water and the blood thought it was so vital that he swore it really happened: “His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.”
The Beloved Disciple, the Mother of the Lord, and the soldiers stood at the temple of God at the most crucial church service the world would ever experience. Golgotha had become more sacred than Sinai and the cross holier than the burning bush. The crucified man was God’s High Priest offering Himself as God’s sacrificial Lamb in the temple of His own body. Here was the holy of holies of a temple more splendid than Solomon’s. They were standing just on the other side of the curtain.
Jesus was at one and the same time God’s High Priest, God’s Temple, and God’s sacrificial Lamb. What the witnesses thought was the end of Jesus was His triumph hour. In a matter of hours, He would raise the destroyed Temple in the moment of the resurrection, and with that, we who believe in Him would become living stones. The Son of Man had been lifted on the mountain of the Lord and was now drawing all men to Himself, just as He had promised. All the prophets, from Adam to John the Baptist, were there. Through the eyes of the beloved disciple and the mother of the Lord, the whole church throughout the world and at all times was there, gazing upon the divine miracle. This was not simply another crucifixion. This was the most significant Passover ever celebrated. It was the last Passover, but it was the Passover that would never end. “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed.”
The Passover regulation required that “not a bone could be broken.” This was especially true for the Lamb whom God Himself had selected for sacrifice and who was God Himself. God’s final and everlasting Passover had to be done flawlessly. The words “it is finished” signified that the sacrifice in heaven had been completed and God’s people on earth could be drawn through the pierced body into heaven. The soldier with the lance became the assisting deacon at the high altar of the cross. The body of the crucified victim had to be kept intact since this Lamb of God was going to be placed on the altars of countless churches as the perfect and pure Sacrament. The wound in the side had to be inflicted quickly and with precision. “And immediately there came out water and blood.” The sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion required flowing water and blood. In the moment of the cross, the church was being born and washed and presented to Christ as pure and spotless as He was.
In the death of the Paschal Victim, ancient Israel had just ended, and the new Israel, the church of Christ, was coming into existence. There would be no more Passovers, for the one Passover of Christ who offered Himself up to God was the eternal sacrifice. Those who had been baptized into Moses by the cloud and the sea were now baptized into Christ by the river of water flowing from His side. Those searching for the heavenly Jordan had found it. Those who were fed by God in the wilderness were now feeding on God Himself. Christ, the new Adam, gave life from His side to the new Eve, the holy church, His pure bride. At Golgotha, Israel was transformed into the church, and the Passover was transformed into the Supper of our Lord. Without Word and sacraments, there is no true and complete worship of God. But there was Christ, God’s eternal Word in the flesh, preaching from His cross a sermon that no apostle or preacher could ever preach. There were the sacraments flowing in endless streams from His body, flooding the corners of the world with eternal salvation.
Artists have painted angels into the scene, capturing in a baptismal font the water and in a chalice the blood streaming from the Savior’s side. Crumbs might fall from the master’s table, but that precious blood and water, bringing salvation, could never be spilled on the profane ground. Flying seraphim cover their eyes before the sacramental mysteries as they cry to one another, “Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth. Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth. Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth.” But that sacred water, which no man nor angel dare profane, flowing from the throne of God’s cross, has washed guilty consciences clean from sin, and that blood has quenched the thirst of sinners abandoned in the wilderness of their sins. Every baptized person is taken to the cross and plunged into the endless river still streaming from the Victim’s side. Every communing Christian is drinking from the blood streaming from His side. All Christians who have ever lived still stand at that cross and say with John the Baptist, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.” On earth, we shall not get closer to heaven than the Redeemer’s wounded side; in heaven, we shall gaze in uninterrupted ecstasy at that wound out of which poured our salvation.
In another place, John spoke of the miracle of the cross: “This is Jesus Christ. He came not only with the water, but He came by water and blood.” So we now have three witnesses to tell us who Jesus Christ really is—the water of Baptism, the blood of the Communion, and the Holy Spirit—and all three find their fulfillment in Jesus. Lent is a sad time for us Christians, but it was God’s triumphal hour. The evangelists tell us that in the hour of His death, the weakened Victim shouted out with a loud voice. In death, the weakened Victim became God’s victor and champion. The time of sacrifice was over. He had won, and the time of sacramental celebration had begun. “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once, there came out blood and water. He who saw bore witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you may believe.”
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin
Based on a sermon by Rev. Dr. David Scaer.