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