Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands

Easter 6                                                                                                                                      May 21, 2017                                                                                                                               Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands



In 2014, Dr. Christopher Ahlman traveled to St. Petersburg State University in Russia, to work with organ students at the university.  Students were to bring a piece to play, Dr. Ahlman would then work with them to help them master their performance.

One young student played Martin Luther’s hymn, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.”   The student played the hymn thoughtfully and slowly.  But to Dr. Ahlman, the piece sounded like a funeral dirge.

After she finished, he asked her, “During what liturgical season is this hymn to be  played?”  It became clear that her knowledge was limited to the hymn’s title.  “I suppose,” she answered, “it is a Lenten hymn, or maybe a piece for Good Friday.”

Dr. Ahlman than recited the first stanza to this student.  Yes, the first line is all Good Friday, “Death held our Lord in prison.”  But then Dr. Ahlman continued, “But he hath up arisen, and brought our life back to us.  There we must gladsome be, Exalt God and thankful be.  Alluluia!”

“This is an Easter hymn!”

With that Dr. Ahlman sat down at the organ and pulled nearly every stop there was to pull, and played the piece for this student loudly and joyfully.

“Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” is Martin Luther’s Easter hymn.  I find the music challenging.  Nevertheless, let us sing this morning with Easter in mind.

We sing stanza 1


As Doug and I talked this week about Luther’s Easter hymn, he made the comment that the hymn is theologically dense.  It is deep.

Remember Luther’s Christmas hymn, “From Heaven Above?”  Luther wrote this for his children who would take turns singing the joyful story during the family devotions on Christmas Eve.

This is not a children’s hymn.  Just look at the title, “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands.”

In this hymn Luther takes on the Doctrine of Atonement, the cosmic battle between sin and redemption, where God works out our salvation.

This Atonement explains that God doesn’t simply wave a magic wand and say “Abracadabra,” to forgive our sins.

No, God paid a price; that price were the strong bands of Christ Jesus’ death.


So, as Luther delves into his hymn with stanzas 2 and 3, he takes sin seriously.   Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.”

So stanza 2 begins, “No man yet Death overcame.  All sons of men were helpless.  Sin for this was all to blame.”

On the cross Jesus takes on our sin, he takes responsibility for us at our worst, he bears our punishment, and dies our death!

Stanza 3 continues, “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, into our place descending.”

Here Jesus puts our sin to death.  “Away with all our sin hath done.”

We sing stanza 2 and 3.


If the story ends at Good Friday, it is tragic.  This hymn would be a funeral dirge.  But Sunday’s coming!

Stanza 4 is the center of the hymn.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ now takes center stage. It is based on 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection chapter.  “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where O death is your victory?  Where, O death is your sting?”

On Easter Sunday sin, death, and the devil; have been defeated.  Luther celebrates in stanza 4.              “Off victorious came Life.   Death he hath quite upswallowed.   How one death the other ate.  Thus Death is become a laughter.”

In the resurrection Jesus empties hell and treads upon it’s shuttered doors.  This allows creation to laugh at death.

We sing stanza 4.


ELW hymn 372, is the German Easter Hymn “Christ is Arisen.”  Throughout the Middle Ages this hymn led the Easter procession in Germany.  Luther loved this hymn and based his Easter hymn on it.

But ELW 372 has roots in an 11th century chant, ELW 371, “Christians, to the Paschal Victim.”

Stanza 5 shows the affect this 11th century chant still had on Luther.  Here Luther speaks of Christ as the Paschal Lamb.  This was the lamb sacrificed for Passover.  We know the story.  This lamb’s blood was placed upon the doorposts of the Israelites, allowing the angel of death to pass over their homes, sparing them the death of their first born, while leading to their release from Egypt.

On the cross, as our paschal lamb, Jesus releases us from the bondage of sin.

Luther writes, “His blood on our doorpost lies;  Faith holds that before death’s eyes; The smiting angle can do nought.”

Because of Christ’s blood, shed on the cross, the angel of death passes over us.

We sing stanza 5.


Stanza 6  is all Easter.  The strong bands of death have been broken.  God accomplishes our salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Luther writes, “Hearty the joy and glee is,  that shines on us from his face.  His light in our hearts makes shine: The night of our sins is over. ”

We sing stanza 6


In his Easter hymn Martin Luther masterfully makes the point that Easter is meaningless without Good Friday.  When we seek to avoid the cross, we miss the depth of God’s love.   Don’t forget John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”  The story of salvation is not a flippant act.  God’s work to restore creation forces a duel with sin, death, and the power of the devil.  They don’t go down without a fight.

The Doctrine of Atonement explains God’s work.  Freedom isn’t free.  A price is paid.  The price is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this season of Easter we keep the feast by partaking in the feast, which of course is the Eucharist.

Luther concludes.   “Christ himself will be the food,  Alone fill the soul with good;   Faith will live on nothing other.  Alleluia.

Let us keep the Easter feast by singing stanza 7

Easter 4

Easter 4                                                                                                                                         May 7, 2017                                                                                                                                       From the Daily Mass, To the Daily Mess


Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.



Ask the people who know me best, and they will tell you that I am one who loves routine.  I feel my best, I’m most productive, I’m most at home; when I maintain a rhythm to my day.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that I work hard to maintain my routine.  But it has it’s down side.

In my home I’m known as Mr. Saturday Night.  That does not mean I like to party on Saturday night.  Actually it is a joke, for I’m known as being no fun on Saturday night.  My routine is to stay home and go to bed early.

Yes, when you’re a person of routine, when you seek to maintain a daily rhythm; you’re not known for being spontaneous, in fact there is even a danger of being known as boring.

But this morning I ask, can holiness be found in the mundane?



I’m drawn to the familiar words of the 23rd Psalm this morning, especially the very last verse.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Do we feel this goodness and mercy every day?  Are there some days when you feel like goodness and mercy are not following you around?

The beloved psalm ends,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Do we dwell in the Lord’s house my whole life long?  Are there days when you feel like you are dwelling in somebody else’s house?

I feel like the psalmist is calling us not to be boring, but to find a daily rhythm.  If goodness and mercy is going to follow us every day, we have to see God in the everyday occurrences of life.



I don’t know if I would have fit well in the early church.  There is too much excitement in the book of Acts.

In our first lesson this morning we hear about what’s happening.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.

The early church is not mundane.  Last week as Peter preached his Easter sermon in Jerusalem we were told how 3,000 people were baptized in one day!  About all I handle is Benicio’s baptism this morning.

At the end of our lesson this morning we hear:

And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is what happens when there are many signs and wonders being done in the church.  My guess is that people would come to church not knowing what to expect.



But it didn’t last.

I enjoy reading Daniel Clendenin in his blog Journey With Jesus.  This week he wrote how the prevalence of all these signs and wonders gradually began to wane in the church.  And as all the dreams, and visions, and miracles became less vivid, Clendenin writes that the institution of the church became more defined.

He calls attention to the early church father Hippolytus of Rome, who in 235 wrote: “The miraculous visions and direct communications with the Spirit ended with the Revelation of John in  the year 100.  The spirit works differently now than in apostolic days.  God speaks clearly, sufficiently, and reliably through the canon of Scripture, the creeds, and the clergy.”

Maybe this is why I feel quite at home in the church.  We’ve settled into a routine.  As you come to worship you know that today’s service looks pretty much like last week’s service.  I don’t think anyone came expecting signs and wonders this morning.  And perhaps this makes us a bit boring, the established church might lose some of the awe; yet God’s presence in the liturgy is no less real.



And what’s true in church is true in life.

The 16th Century Spanish mystic, Teresa of Avila said, “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.”

We might look to experience God on the mountain top, or at the ocean, or in a walk through the forest.  And it’s true.  We all have our mountain top experiences, but they don’t happen every day.

Most of life is routine.  We might wonder if there can be anything holy about cooking dinner.  Maybe if you love to cook.  But can there be anything holy about cleaning up after dinner?  Doing the dishes?

But if goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives, if we really do dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long;  then God is in the mundane.

Even if your life is exciting, most of life is lived in the daily rhythms; in our cooking and cleaning, in walking the dog, in the daily commute.



This explains why Celtic prayers are popular.  The Celtic tradition is known for simple prayers by ordinary people about everyday life.   These prayers show us how we meet the sacred in the mundane.  The Celts have prayers for getting dressed in the morning and going to sleep at night.  They have prayers for waking up and lightning the morning’s fire.  They pray for birth and death, healing and protection, farming and fishing, and even for milking the cows.

Daniel Clendenin writes, these are not prayers of the institutional church, they are not ecstatic utterances of miraculous visions; but they are dignified, and eloquent.  They speak to the ordinary yet sacred stuff of life.



In our gospel this morning we hear how Jesus comes to bring us abundant life.  It’s what the psalmist refers to as the green pastures.  It is the place where our souls are restored.

Yes we all need a little excitement in life.  We all need to experience signs and wonders that inspire awe.

But for goodness and mercy to follow us all the days of our lives, to dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long, this morning start seeing the holy in the mundane.  Know that God is present in the routine.  Join Teresa of Avila, and see God in the pots and pans.