As preachers approach Holy Week, it is sometimes difficult to plan ahead. With several sermons to prepare, it can sometimes feel like you are just trying to keep your head above water, say whatever the given text says for that service, and move on preparing the next. If this sounds familiar, you will have probably, by the end, preached three or more (Lord willing) textual sermons, but ones which are somewhat disconnected from one another. If we do not make the connections specific, we leave it to our hearers to try and put the pieces of Christ’s passion and resurrection together. A more helpful approach may be to read the Holy Week pericopes with an eye toward major themes, so when you are preaching on Maundy Thursday, you already know where you are going on Easter Morning. For some of you more seasoned pastors, you are rolling your eyes saying, “Of course that is what you do.” However, I remember my first couple of Holy Weeks were sleepless. I had difficulty organizing my sermons around major themes from the week’s texts. It was as if I was trying to come up with a new brilliant insight for every sermon during the week only to lose the forest for the trees. I say this as a suggestion, especially for preaching the Gospel narratives. But for preaching the Epistles you can take a similar approach. I suggest the theme for these Epistles is “The Open Wounds of Jesus.”
You have an option between Hebrews 10 and 1 Corinthians 11. If you go with Hebrews 10, you will no doubt put front and center the διαθήκη (translated as: covenant, testament, will, or contract) of Christ. He is the New Testament and He makes His covenant with us by giving us His laws and writing them on our hearts and minds (Hebrews 10:16). Our people have a great deal of difficulty, it seems, understanding how the “laws” or “commandments” of the New Testament are the kind which do not accuse. In fact, they bring with them the forgiveness of sins: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (10:17). The Holy Sacrament is such a “command.” As such, Maundy Thursday offers the catechetical moment to exhort your people to receive the Sacrament in true faith. Your sermon will admonish those who have been slow to believe all the Scriptures say of the Blessed Sacrament (perhaps, “do this often”) or console those who have lacked confidence to enter because of an intense awareness of their sins (Hebrews 10) or also warn those who have regarded their sins and the Supper lightly (1 Corinthians 11). Preachers ought to take some time catechizing on the Sacrament. This is an explicit time and place to do it. Consider also the liturgical setting. We stand at the door of Christ’s passion and death, even as we approach the altar by the precious blood of Jesus.
There is a wonderful morning hymn from Heinrich Albert (1642), “Gott des Himmels und der Erden,” which speaks of the wounds of Jesus as our sanctuary in the restlessness of our sin. It might be translated somewhere, but I could not track it down. So here is the third stanza (German original and then a clumsy but fairly accurate English translation): “Laß die Nacht auch meiner Sünden jetzt mit dieser Nacht vergehn; / o Herr Jesu, laß mich finden deine Wunden offen stehn, / da alleine Hilf und Rat is für meine Missetat.” “Let the night of my sinning, with this night forever vanish; / O Lord Jesus, let me find, Your wounds standing open wide. / For there alone is help and aid for all my trespasses.” The Sacrament, the wounds of Jesus, His flesh, all of it stands open to the one who feels his or her sin. But the one who does not seek God and His forgiveness in the wounds of Christ, but in his own merit, will, wealth, or effort, will find those wounds closed and he will even be scandalized by them.
The theme for these Epistles becomes clear. The wounds of Christ are open, and so are the heavens (Hebrews 4:14). So, come! What is stopping you? This is, as I see it, the question which may very well guide your preaching rhetorically and theologically-pastorally from Maundy Thursday into Good Friday. The wounds of Jesus are open to you. What is stopping you from coming with confidence? Perhaps it is your sins. They must be too great! But see the Lamb; they are not too great for Him who bears them all. Perhaps it is your lack of faith? Then look to Jesus who was tempted to doubt God’s sure word, just as we are all tempted to doubt (Hebrews 4:15). In Him, you have an anchor of truth and hope, to help hold you firm through the storms of doubt in your heart and all the world’s skepticism. Is there doubt? Confess it and come to the only One who, with a word, can help our unbelief. Perhaps you are feeling cold in faith? Learn to suffer with Jesus and make no provision for the flesh. See His wounds and know that His fate is your fate in the world. Maybe you and your people have been filled recently with the world and what it offers. Maybe you have become lazy in prayer and callous toward His Word. Tonight, of all nights, we must all become like Thomas and go to die with Jesus (John 11). The conformitas Christi (conformity to Christ) has a very prominent place in Lutheran Lenten piety. Consider the Lenten hymnody which sees in Christ the fate of us all: “See your life suspended!” writes Gerhardt. Since Hebrews 4 and 5 lead us to consider Christ as our High Priest it is appropriate to preach Him as both Gift and Example. Whatever is His is ours and whatever He is we will become. We preach conformity to Christ in death and life as a divine act. Baptism takes us into the wounds, buries us in Christ and binds us to Him and His resurrection.
I already wrote something on Paul’s treatment of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 on the Seventh Sunday after Epiphany. So, I will not repeat. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, however, ought to find its way into your preaching in some way this week, since it is where the Resurrection of our Lord takes us. You may also want to pick up on the image of death being “swallowed up” and juxtapose it with our life being hidden with Christ. He has swallowed our sin and death and destroyed them all. What now awaits us, as surely as Jesus is risen from the dead, is the imperishable and the immortal. For we shall all be changed (15:51)!
There are, of course, many directions one can faithfully and powerfully go in Holy Week preaching. From these Epistle pericopes, I suggest inviting your people into the open wounds of Jesus, through whom we enter Paradise and in whom death and sin are swallowed-up forever.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO, to assist you in preaching I Corinthians 15:19-28.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach I Corinthians 15:19-28.