A Sermon for Easter and a Warning to the Church by Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby
“Wood, Hay, Stubble”
Kenneth F. Korby
The Cresset, April 1979
Death is not a real foundation for living. Nevertheless, most individuals and civilizations build their lives on avoiding, evading, or postponing death. By a strange and reverse worship, they assert and confess the lordship of death. To them it seems to be the only sure foundation of power. The power to kill is fundamental, and apparently sure. The threat of death is the ultimate fear, and apparently viable.
When hosting the Lord of Life, full God manifest in the vulnerable and weak flesh, the builders of civilizations and religions did what they had to do to insure the edifice they had built. They exercised sure and necessary power to kill Jesus, using the power of God against God!
Death may be painful, but, culturally seen, it is at least sure. Almost. Although the nature of death is such that it dulls its victims, there are still uncertainties. Notes from the underground, as it were, disquiet the illusion that death might be an easy slipping into nothingness. The preludes of the absolute terror and loneliness may be quieted by devices of culture and religion, but some uncertainties remain.
Hence, a rock was put in front of Jesus’ grave. It seemed a fundamental guarantee of the finality of the power of civilization and religion to make death sure. But the death of Jesus was not merely the revelation of the mystery of iniquity. He was also the revelation of the mystery of the will of God to destroy death by dying it. Death did not shatter Jesus. Jesus shattered death. Death is not lord. Jesus is Lord. By His death and resurrection from the dead, in a body of glory that cannot die again, Jesus is the foundation for living a life that does not evade death or end up in death, but one that ends in life.
The consequence of this work of Jesus is the building of a new race, a new humanity, the Church. Mortified with Him in His cross, vivified with Him in His resurrection, this new people is a living, growing organism. Created by the Holy Spirit, she is the carrier and agent of that life-giving spirited word. Even while she lives I the wilderness, pursued by death, she is nurtured and built on the foundation. Living in the midst of cultures and civilizations that are built on the deceit of evading death, she is built in truth with wisdom. Such building activity is a delicate business.
The temptation of the craftsmen who are charged with building her is to use materials that are shoddy and cheap. The Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3) calls them “wood, hay, and stubble.” The enticements of the temptation contain the threat and promises of the deceits of civilizations and religions: “You will not die; you will be as gods.” The promise is an invitation to mistrust the Lord. The threat is the pressure: if you want to be something, buy our wares. And so, many who build on the foundation advocate proposals with variety and enthusiasm, promising new keys to success, guaranteed formulae for church growth. Renewal is promised through ritual. Effectiveness goes with certain evangelism programs and techniques. Church growth is worked out with scientific and business-like acumen and industry. These things have become as popular as the New Measures of the nineteenth century. Added benefits increase the allurements: there will effective and influential ministry, authentic and supportive communities. And who, in God’s name, can be against these? And then, the best of all worlds: these various building materials will be promoted from a “Lutheran point of view!”
Meanwhile, a hidden, alien catechesis works quietly to shape a different spirit and form, a different content and pattern of life. The Apostle warns against using wood, hay, and stubble, noting these materials are flammable. They are fuel in the fire of judgment and the day of the Lord. The smallest piece of wood will ignite, even if it has been tinkered with! Those who build on the foundation with such materials will indeed escape with their lives, but their work will be consumed and they will be left naked.
The apostolic master-builder suggests “gold, silver [and] precious stones”—very poor fuel for fire—as the building materials. There is a simplicity about these materials, as there is a simplicity in the way the church is built on the foundation. It is the simplicity of the new life by the Spirit in the water and word of Baptism, or nurturing the life of faith and love on the vitalities of the Lord’s Body and Blood, of reordering the relationship of the sinner to God by the word of forgiveness of sins spoken into the ear from the mouth of another. The simplicity of the catechesis is the handing of this word from mouth to ear in the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Our Father. The shape and content of the word are the shape and content of the life: repentance, faith, holiness.
The celebration of Easter—with its participation in the eating our Passover Lamb—is the call to purge out the influence of malice and wickedness, the call to keep the least with the simple bread of sincerity and truth.
The church is God’s temple. Those who desecrate her will be desecrated.