A Little Help from Luther for Holy Week Preachers

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Passion Week preaching is not simply preaching about the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion but to announce to the world how through this single death, sins are answered for, and God is reconciled with humanity.

From Palm Sunday through the Resurrection of Our Lord, preachers are challenged to preach “the word of the cross.”[1] That is, good news which through the brutality of Jesus’ suffering and death at the hands of sinners God was reconciling the world to Himself. The Gospel is nothing less than the word of the cross. Passion Week preaching is not simply preaching about the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion but to announce to the world how through this single death, sins are answered for, and God is reconciled with humanity. New Testament scholar, Martin Hengel, speaks a salutary word to all who would step into the pulpit this week:

“The theological reasoning of our time shows very clearly that the particular form of the death of Jesus, the man and the messiah, represents a scandal which people would like to blunt, remove, or domesticate in any way possible. We shall have to guarantee the truth of our theological thinking at this point. Reflection on the harsh reality of the crucifixion in antiquity may help us to overcome the acute loss of reality which is so often to be found in present theology and preaching.”[2]

The instrument of torture used by countless Roman executioners is now the altar of the Lamb of God’s sacrifice. The cross cannot be reduced to theories of atonement on which preachers offer their commentaries. Instead, it evokes the clear preaching that by His death, this Jesus has purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and the power of the Devil.

A little essay written by Martin Luther in Lent of 1519, “A Meditation on Christ’s Passion” (AE 42:3-14), serves as a fine primer for preachers this Holy Week.[3] In this essay, the Reformer has the pastoral aim of teaching people how to look to Christ for peace and salvation. He identifies false efforts at meditation on the passion of Jesus: (a) Condemning Jews and Judas, (b) superstitious use of Christ’s suffering, (c) sentimental pity for Jesus, and (d) misuse of the Mass (AE 42:7-8). Then he to the right meditation on Christ's suffering: “They contemplate Christ’s passion aright who view it with a terror-stricken heart and despairing conscience” (8). Christ’s suffering is a revelation of what we should have suffered: “You must get this through your head and not doubt that you are the one who is torturing Christ thus, for your sins have surely wrought this” (AE 42:9). In the cross of Christ, we see our own sin and death which results from God’s wrath.

In the cross of Christ, we see our own sin and death which results from God’s wrath.

“We must give ourselves wholly to this matter, for the main benefit of Christ’s passion is that man sees into his own true self and that he be terrified and crushed by this. Unless we seek that knowledge, we do not derive much benefit from Christ’s passion. The real and true work of Christ’s passion is to make man conformable to Christ, so that man’s conscience is tormented by his sins in like measure as Christ was pitiably tormented in body and soul by our sins” (42:10).

In the word of the cross, we receive the fruits of Christ’s suffering, namely the forgiveness of our sins, and with it the life and salvation which come from God alone.

Luther reminds his readers that contemplation on Christ’s suffering is more beneficial than fasting or other religious exercises (AE 42:11). Our heart-felt piety and devout participation in the services of this week do not atone for our sins or make us acceptable to God. It is only through faith in the crucified that we are righteous and at peace with God.

We are to meditate on Christ's passion in light of Easter:

“Until now we have sojourned in Passion Week and rightly celebrated Good Friday. Now we come to the resurrection of Christ, to the day of Easter. After man has become thus aware of his sin and terrified in his heart, he must watch that sin does not remain in his conscience, for this would lead to sheer despair. Just as (our knowledge of) sin flowed from Christ and was acknowledged by us, so we must pour this sin back on Him and free our consciences of it. Therefore beware, lest you do as those perverse people who torture their hearts with their sins and strive to do the impossible, namely getting rid of their sins by running from one good work or penance to another, or by working their way out of this by means of indulgences” (AE 42:12).

You meditate rightly on Christ’s passion when you believe His words: “You cast your sins from yourself and onto Christ when you firmly believe that His wounds and sufferings are your sins to be borne and paid for by Him” (AE 42:12). Luther cites Isaiah 53:6, 1 Peter 2:24, 2 Corinthians 5:21, and Romans 4:25 to demonstrate his argument.

Christ is first “sacrament” and then “example,” Luther argues. “Until now, we have regarded it (Christ’s passion) as a sacrament which is active in us while we are passive. But now we find that we too must be active, namely in the following” (AE 42:13). For Luther, this order is essential. Justification before God is not a result of our imitation of Christ’s suffering but by faith in His saving work for us. Only then can we take Christ as our example as we learn from Him how to bear the cross in our varied vocations.

On this phrase, also see Oswald Bayer, “The Word of the Cross” in Justification is for Preaching ed. Virgil Thompson (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2012): 186-195. Bayer points out that the word of the cross stands in opposition to the rationalism demonstrated in Reimarus who asserted: “Man is not made for a religion founded on facts, and particularly such as are said to have happened in one corner of the earth” (189). By way of contrast, the “word of the cross” binds us to the creedal statement that Jesus “suffered under Pontus Pilate.” Bayer cites Werner Elert: “The eternally existing God comes to us in a contingent, unique, and, therefore, finite historical event” (192). This is the skandalon of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.

[2] Martin Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God (London: SCM Press, 1986): 182.

[3] For an example of Luther’s preaching on the passion of Christ, see his sermons on John 18:1-19:42 in AE 69 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2009):146-283. Luther notes the purpose of his preaching on the passion is “that people may grasp the benefit and the power of the sufferings and death of our dear Lord Christ” (AE 69:147). Also, Roland Bainton, Martin Luther’s Easter Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983) and Dennis Ngien, Luther’s Theology of the Cross: Christ in Luther’s Sermons on John (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2018): 244-269.