Hermann Sasse referred to the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost as “the Church’s Time of Rejoicing.” The Lord who was crucified for our sins and raised for our righteousness now distributes the gifts He has won for us. The readings from the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel draw us toward Ascension and Pentecost with the promise of the Comforter. He will give perpetual joy in the midst of suffering and death, for Jesus has gone to the Father.
Easter is not confined to a single day. Each Sunday in the Great Fifty Days of Easter brings into focus how the gifts of Easter are put to use. Evangelical preaching of the Lord’s Resurrection is not merely an apologetic proposal to believe; that the tomb was empty, and Jesus’ was really raised from the dead. Rather, the preaching of the Resurrection is from the reality of a vacated grave and Jesus appearing bodily to His disciples and others.
Luther was a master of this preaching of the Resurrection as can be seen especially from his numerous sermons on the traditional Gospel for the Sunday after Easter, John 20:19-31 (happily now available in Vol. 69 of Concordia Publishing House’s extension to the American Edition of Luther’s Works). In these sermons, Luther’s focus is on the distribution of the fruit of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, namely, the forgiveness of sins. The Reformer certainly does not neglect the fact that our Lord’s bodily resurrection happened in history; it is no fable. But in these sermons his attention is drawn to how Easter is put to use. Gerhard Sauter provides an apt description:
“The proclamation of the resurrection of the dead as the promise of life with God is the heart of every sermon; it is not one theme among others, which may be brought forth when the need arises. The evangelical sermon is not meant to teach a more successful way of life, or better management of one’s life, or mastery of responsibility for others. These things reasonable people can find of their own accord; for such things no preaching is needed. Preaching is needed because it leads us out of the ‘vale of tears’ into the future life. If this does not happen, then preaching is wasted time and a useless or even damaging enterprise.”
Using Easter means the peace of Christ is to be preached into the conscience of those held captive by sin and death. The risen Lord Jesus comes into the midst of His disciples, huddled together behind locked doors, to make of them preachers of this peace. In a sermon for Easter Tuesday, preached in Wittenberg in 1529, Luther says, “Their office is to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name, that is, they are to rebuke the world for sin so that people may acknowledge their sin and forgiveness in Christ” (AE 69:368). Luther goes on to chide the false preachers of the Pope who burden Christendom with new laws about clothing vows, food and the like, making sin where there is none. But the Gospel has a different message: “The Gospel, which Christ committed to the Apostles and preachers, makes human consciences free from all laws, even the Law of God” (AE 69:368). Luther uses Easter to deconstruct the false forgiveness of the papal penitential apparatus and replace it with the evangelical forgiveness accomplished by Christ’s sacrificial death and declared in His Resurrection.
Preaching puts Easter to use when the sermon delivers comfort to those who tremble at the reality of their own sin and with it death. This happens when the preacher does actually absolve sin. The absolution, whether pronounced individually or corporately in a liturgical formula or in the way of the sermon, is God’s own declaration that the sinner’s future will not be determined by his or her past. The absolution carries the promise of the resurrection. Christ Jesus who forgives our sins will not contradict Himself by abandoning us to death and the grave. As Luther puts it in stanza 6 of his Easter hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands”: “Now His grace to us imparts Eternal sunshine to our hearts; the night of sin is ended. Alleluia!” (LSB 458:6).
Luther does not separate the forgiveness of sins from the resurrection of the body. They are joined together in the creedal language: “I believe in… the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Luther can say without contradicting himself that the forgiveness of sins is the most difficult article of faith to believe as he does in a sermon on John 19, “For no article of faith is more difficult to believe than ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins’” (AE 69:185). He states again how the resurrection is the most difficult thing to believe in another sermon on John 20, “For this [resurrection] has been and still is the most offensive article and hardest to believe” (AE 69:286). The difficulty entailed in both is actually the same for Luther because they contradict the human experience. We live in a world where sin is affirmed and even celebrated, but not forgiven. Luther comments in his John 19 sermon now the evangelist devotes so much time to the report of Peter’s denial and restoration, yet we do not see such “boundless comfort afforded to sinners” (AE 69:185) in the day to day workings of the world. And when it comes to the resurrection, we see, “before eyes that the entire world is being snatched away by death and dying. Emperors, kings, great and small, young and old – in sum, all the children of men – are laid in the grave and covered one after the other” (AE 69:286). Forgiveness of sins and resurrection from the dead go together in defying human reason and expectation. Neither can be taken for granted. They must be preached. This means the preacher predicates them FOR YOU. Without the, “For you,” Easter remains in the past tense and forgiveness of sins remains nothing more than an elusive dream, a desire without fulfillment.
In the Anglican tradition it became customary to refer to the first Sunday after Easter (now Easter II) as “Low Sunday” presumably because the ceremony and festivity of this Sunday was low in comparison with liturgical and musical heights of Easter Sunday. In North America, “Low Sunday” takes on another connotation. The bulging pews of the previous Sunday empty out. But for Luther there was nothing “low” about the Gospel for the Sunday after Easter for it demonstrates Christ Jesus risen from the dead but still marked with the scars of nails and spear, breathing out His words which are giving peace in the forgiveness of sins.