March 21, 2008

Blood and water from the opened side of Christ

I'm not preaching tonight--we are privileged to have Dr. John Wohlrabe, Third Vice-President of the LCMS in Immanuel's pulpit--but here's a sermon from 2005 on the blood and water flowing from Jesus' pierced side.

The holy prophet Zechariah writes, “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the House of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for the removal of sin and impurity” [13.1]. That fountain, opened for the removal of sin and impurity, is the fountain of water and blood streaming from the pierced side of Jesus.

In the flow of blood and water, something so wonderful is happening that the Evangelist is led to take an oath testifying that he really saw it. “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.” We should not be surprised that a crucified man bleeds. It should not be necessary for the Evangelist to take an oath that he really saw the blood and water. Something more beautiful and more significant for our salvation is taking place than simply that Jesus was stabbed with a lance; something so important that he takes an oath, so that we might know that it is true, and more than knowing, believe.

Believe what? Not that Jesus died. Not even that blood and water came from His side. But believe what it means now for us. The wondrous thing happening is this: the vision of the prophet Ezekiel has now come true. Ezekiel was being given a vision, a tour by an angel, of the heavenly temple and the New Jerusalem into which God’s people would come at the end of the ages. “Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and there was water, flowing from under the threshold of the temple toward the east, for the front of the temple faced east; the water was flowing from under the right side of the temple, south of the altar” [47.1]. The water becomes a river, a river so deep that it cannot be crossed. Trees spring up on both sides of the river banks. It flows down into a valley, until it reaches the sea. When the waters reach the sea, the angel says, “Its waters are healed” [47.8]. Now behold, the wondrous life that comes from these waters:

“And it shall be that every living thing that moves, wherever the rivers go, will live. There will be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters go there; for they will be healed, and everything will live wherever the river goes.… Along the bank of the river, on this side and that, will grow all kinds of trees used for food; their leaves will not wither, and their fruit will not fail. They will bear fruit every month, because their water flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for medicine” [47.9,12].

Wherever the waters of this river go, healing and life are imparted. The fish are healed and multiply; are people not called “fish” in the Scriptures, even as the disciples are made fishers of men? And there is a never-ending supply of food. All of this from a stream flowing out of the side of the temple.

Now what is the temple, but the body of Jesus? For He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” speaking of the temple of His body. The water flowing from the side of the temple in Ezekiel’s vision is nothing other than the water streaming from the pierced side of Jesus. And this water is for the healing of the nations, a fountain that removes sin and impurity, a river that restores all creation.

Now we might be tempted to see this as simply a metaphor, simply a device of literature to say that somehow Jesus’ death, though tragic, still has meaning. But even if it is real, how does it help you? Obviously we cannot journey back in time to see the river of water and blood streaming from the side of Jesus. Yet St. John thought it of the utmost importance, giving us a solemn oath, “that [we] might believe.” Why?

From Jesus’ side comes water and blood. The blood is the stuff of Jesus’ death, whereas the water is the stuff of the Spirit’s life. In the beginning of creation, the Spirit hovered over the waters of the still-unformed world. The Holy Spirit is very often said to be “poured out” like water, such as, again, in the holy prophet Zechariah, where God promises, “I will pour out on the House of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a Spirit of pity and compassion” [12.10]. If we read John’s Gospel, from which we heard two magnificent, beautiful, and painful chapters tonight, we find that the Spirit and water are constant companions. John the Baptist announced that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again with water and the Spirit, or he could not enter the kingdom of God. Then, at the feast of Tabernacles, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink, he who believes in Me. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of His heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ Now this He said about the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified” [7.37-39]. The Spirit hovering over the waters at creation is the Spirit in Ezekiel’s vision being poured out of the temple to bring forgiveness of sin and healing of the world. When Jesus’ side is opened with the spear, and the blood and water stream forth, John sees that all has now come to pass, when the rivers of living water flow out of Jesus’ heart; now the Spirit is being given.

The blood of Jesus together with the Spirit’s water shows us that the two are never separated. These two always go together, Jesus’ death and the Spirit’s life. The Spirit of God the Father is also the Spirit of the Son, which is why we say in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in the Holy Spirit … who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The gift of the Spirit in man, the Spirit who departed from us when we fell into sin, the Spirit without which we cannot live – that Spirit only comes through the death of Jesus, as He takes upon Himself our sin and bestows upon us His holiness, even His Holy Spirit.

How does this connect to you? How can you dip your feet into this river and participate in its rejuvenation, its healing, its purification? What is this blood and water, really, streaming from the Saviour’s side? These are the Sacraments, dear children. “The Sacraments flowed out of the sides of Christ” (attributed to Augustine). The water of Holy Baptism, the blood of our Lord’s Supper, both derive their efficacy, both receive their power from the wounds and blood of Christ (Luther). This is why St. Peter calls those who have received Baptism, the “elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1.2). This is why Luther said, “Baptism … is not plain water; it is water stained with [the] blood … of Christ” (AE 30).

Though it seems a mere sprinkling in the font, whoever is embraced by that water joined to the Word enters the torrent of a mighty, roaring river, and is carried through the death of sin into the great healing and restoration of new birth. He receives the Holy Spirit. He is brought to the banks of that river where the tree of life grows whose fruit gives immortality and whose leaves give healing. And what is this tree of life but the tree of the cross, which undoes the great ancestral sin of our first parents? The devil, who once by a tree overcame our first parents and all humanity, is now overcome by this tree of the cross. We receive the blood-red fruit of that tree when we drink deeply of that wine which is His blood – the very wine that streamed from Jesus’ side when it was opened by the centurion.

So when you were or are baptized, you are baptized into Jesus’ death. And when you come to the Lord’s table, the communion of the blood of Christ is the sharing of His death. And those who have shared in His death will also share in His resurrection.

This is why it is said that Jesus’ side was “opened” by the spear. For when His side is opened, the very gate of life is thrown open, the gate by which we may enter into that life which is the true life, and not this dying life. The death of Jesus is your life. The river flowing from Him joins you to it. Plant yourself by the banks of this sacramental river evermore. For “everything will live wherever [this] river goes.”

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