“He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Good Friday is the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint John, particularly verses thirty through thirty-seven. Dear friends in Christ, in an interview not long ago, Emma Watson, star of the popular (and controversial) movie ‘Noah,’ commented on whether working on a Bible-based movie had changed her outlook on religion. Her reply was oh-so typical these days: “I already had the sense that I was someone who was more spiritual than specifically religious.” She is hardly alone. More and more people are using that label every day. What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? It means to like the idea of an unseen realm, to be in touch with your soul, but not to actually attach any doctrines to it. It means picking and choosing from the religions of the world like a great buffet line, making God in your own image. It means praying to that vague ‘God,’ but certainly not going to church. It means to like the idea of a higher being, something bigger than yourself, but only if He never actually says anything. If God speaks, if He reveals to you anything specific at all, you instantly have a religion, you have doctrines, you have teachings. And that is to be avoided at all costs, because if God speaks, if you follow a ‘religion,’ then you are not the final authority, God is.
And that is unacceptable to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ person, because the goal of modern spirituality is to put you at the center as the final authority, deciding what is true or not for yourself. It’s no one else’s business what you believe, because your spirituality is just that: yours. People pick and choose from a smorgasbord of different teachers and philosophies, each promising to make you feel better, to make you a ‘better person.’ Even Jesus is turned into a guru, a teacher that can help you feel better about yourself. His teachings, His moral example are what matter, rather than His preaching about the kingdom of God, or especially His death and resurrection. Jesus becomes a nice subject for a pretty picture on a wall or a comforting Hallmark card, and the texts of the Scriptures, from Psalm 23 to the Lord’s Prayer, become sentimentalized to the point that they become nice thoughts, hardly recognizable as proclaiming Christ. Emotions become the driving force in the life of the Church; Christianity becomes more about what I feel rather than about actual events that really happened in history. Doctrines and teachings, the very words spoken by God Himself, are marginalized, taking a backseat to the emotional experience of having a relationship with Jesus, a relationship most often is managed on our terms and to our own goals. These end up being the same goals of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd: to make me a better person who feels good about myself.
Those are the evils we fear, those are the evils that we are seeking deliverance from through a vague, fuzzy spirituality, inside the Church and without. We fear the evil of not being a nice person, of not being kind enough to others, and so each and every ‘spiritualty’ promises to make you a better neighbor, a better parent, a better leader. We fear the evil of not being well adjusted, of not feeling good about ourselves, and so we seek deliverance from prophets like Oprah and Dr. Phil. And if Jesus can help, then we’ll pick and choose from His teachings, too. No one wants to feel bad about himself, right? That’s why these spiritualties are individualistic; you pick and choose until you find the combination that works and when it works, you stick with it. And when it doesn’t, you go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it only matters if it works.
That is the world that we live in, that is the air that we breathe, and it has affected us all, to some extent or another. And that is what the preaching of the cross destroys. Good Friday is the annihilation of all those vague spiritualties, the claim that one can be ‘spiritual but not religious’ is shattered by the cross. Rather than a vague deliverance from some flimsy evils, the cross is very real deliverance from very real evil. On Good Friday, Jesus isn’t suffering and dying to make us a better person, He isn’t shedding His blood to help us feel better about ourselves. He is hanging upon that cross to deliver us from evil, the very real evil that threatens us. We have enemies, real enemies, and they intend to destroy us, forever. The fuzzy spirituality of our age is shattered by each and every funeral. What is more real than death, than a person in a coffin who will never speak again? The greatest evil we face is not that we don’t feel good enough about ourselves, it’s that we are going to die. No amount of being ‘spiritual’ can defeat death. And why do we die? We die because of sin. We can’t be a nice person, because we are sinful. And even if we are nice to others, that still doesn’t change the fact that we are going to die. Sin is real, death is real, and so is Satan. People can deny his existence all they want; someone who is ‘spiritual but not religious’ has little place for him, but he likes it best that way. Satan would rather attack us when we’re unsuspecting, completely unprepared for his assault.
Those are our enemies, those are the evils we need salvation from; they are real, and they are dangerous. Those are the evils that we are taught to ask for deliverance from in the Lord’s Prayer. “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation.” Those are the evils that threaten us; those are the evils destroyed by the cross of Christ. Jesus answers this petition on Good Friday. At the moment of the cross, as our Lord Jesus hangs there suffering and dying, you and I are delivered from evil, the very real evil that threatens us. He destroys death through His own death on our behalf; He delivers us from the bondage of sin by paying its price; He crushes Satan by robbing his accusations of their power. This deliverance isn’t vague, it isn’t ambiguous, it’s raw and real. What is more real, more definitive, than a crucifixion? The Gospels don’t just preserve detached teachings, a ‘spirituality’ proclaimed by our guru Jesus. The Gospels declare that this Jesus died on a cross and rose again in real history, for real sinners. The writers of the New Testament are preserving eyewitness testimony to events that really happened, events that have eternal significance. John was there when the spear pierced Christ’s side. “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.”
John’s witness declares that the harsh reality of death is destroyed, overcome by the death of Jesus in history, “under Pontus Pilate.” On a Friday afternoon, death was destroyed, sin paid for, and Satan conquered. On a Sunday morning, that victory was sealed and proclaimed by a tomb that is still empty. That is reality. And now our reality is life forever, a life in the new heavens and the new earth. This isn’t conveyed to us by some sort of vague ‘spirituality,’ but in actual water, physical bread and wine. The cross brings you forgiveness for when you are not such a nice person; the cross gives you an identity as a child of God that endures even when you aren’t feeling so good about yourself. The cross is reality in the midst of the changes and chances of life. Emotions are good, and we do feel sorrow over our sin and great joy over Christ’s deliverance, but our feelings cannot tell us how we stand before God. To know that, we look to the cross, and there God says, “I love you.”
We look to the cross as Zechariah prophesied: “They will look on Him whom they have pierced.” All humanity will look to Jesus, the one pierced for our transgressions, on the Last Day. Some will look in joy, in faith at their deliverer. Some will look in sorrow, for they refused to believe. That is reality. No one in need of real salvation from real evil can bypass Jesus. And we have the assurance that when we look in faith, we will be delivered, as we confess in the Small Catechism. We pray that when our last hour comes God would “ give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” God’s answer is yes, because of the reality of the cross. It is finished; that is reality. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.