Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sermon: Exaudi (Easter 7)

20 May 2007 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 15:26-16:4


In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


Dear Christians, Satan’s greatest weapons are not the obvious. For we all know that murder, lies, adultery, coveting, rebelliousness, sloth, greed, idolatry, misusing the Lord’s name, drunkenness, and violent acts are the work of the prince of darkness. But what is more insidious and dangerous are Satan’s lies that masquerade as pious-sounding religion.

In a book entitled Emerging Hope, a so-called church-growth expert named Jimmy Long advises us Christians: “Instead of seeing the culture as a battlefield and Christians as warriors, those in the missional church see the world as a mission field and Christians as missionaries.” He goes on to malign tradition while waxing eloquent about the need for the church to change the world by changing itself first. There is no mention of the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit working through humble means to bring people into communion with Jesus Christ unto salvation. No, but he has lots to say about being nice and conforming to the world in order to make people feel they belong.

These touchy-feely words are not the words of Jesus Christ. For what does our Lord say? “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. And these things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you.”

So much for conforming to the culture. So much for changing the church to make it look more like the world. So much for Christians not seeing themselves as warriors!

Listen to what Jesus says instead. The Christian life means people want to kill you. They will consider it honorable to ruthlessly do so. Jesus is giving the church a model of mission that is precisely military, martial, rooted in the ways of the warrior. For Christians are indeed footsoldiers of God, waging battle against the forces of darkness. And it is only the prince of darkness himself who wants you to forget there is a war on. It is the devil that wants to emasculate the Christian warrior and turn the age-old battle into a mere marketing strategy or some limp-wristed means to give people more self-esteem.

By the Rite of Confirmation, we are giving young soldiers their stripes today. They have completed two years of martial training to equip them for battle. They have been armed with the Word of God, and have been told they are expected to follow orders unto death. Today, they will publicly pledge to do so. Their lives are no longer their own. For as warriors, they take commands from the General. They are to slay dragons and stand defiant against diabolical temptation. They are to shout in the face of the enemy, and give him no quarter. They are to defend the defenseless, and use their strength to protect the weak.

No matter what the “experts” and useful idiots of Satan have to say, you Christians are warriors. The Christian life is no child’s play. Furthermore, what we do in this sanctuary is preparation for holy battle. We gather in this bunker to receive our orders and to bolster our courage.

Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us we will “bear witness” before the enemies of the cross. That word in Greek is “martyr.” The Christian Church is a bloody church, a long train of warriors stretching back to our Lord Himself. Soldiers prepare to die, and many fall in battle. Christians fight in many circumstances – whether being tested frightfully in the face of temptation, whether having to work up the courage to confess sins, whether struggling to make worship a priority, whether actually laying down life and limb for the Lord and the confession of His holy name.

Confirmation is a bittersweet time for pastors. We certainly celebrate the recognition of baptized Christians taking responsibility for their own spiritual welfare – most taking the very body and blood of the Lord for the first time. It is a joyous welcoming of highly-trained soldiers to the front lines of battle. But we also know that for many, this is the end of the confirmand’s involvement with the Church. Instead of shouldering a weapon alongside of us, in the train of the apostles, closing ranks with the martyrs, taking aim at the enemy with the prophets – many drop their weapons and run before a single shot is fired.

The Christian life is not for cowards, shirkers, or those who cannot submit to authority. The Christian life is an austere warrior’s life. It is a life under orders. It is a life of service. It is also a life of willingness to die for the glorious Cause.

Now, lest anyone get the wrong idea, no warrior under the command of Jesus is perfect. There are times when we all chicken out, when we all don’t carry our weight, when we all rebel under the yoke. We are not the warriors we strive to be. Our many sins, our lack of faith, and our paucity of good works is to our shame. But thanks be to God that our General Himself forgives us, and empowers us with His Spirit – raises our limp bodies from the field, binds up our wounds, brings us back into the regiment, and fights with us, and for us, against enemies visible and invisible.

For the Lord’s mission (not our mission) is destined for success not because of our courage, our strategy, our gimmicks, our clever weapons, or our ability to blend in with the enemy. Rather, our Lord promises a “Helper… whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” For we are merely footsoldiers, carrying out the orders given to us. When we are courageous, it is He who is courageous through us. When we stand firm against the devil, it is He who has crushed the serpent’s head on our behalf. When we are faithful, it is His faith that does it, lest any should be tempted to boast.

I sincerely hope our confirmands will not chicken out, will not flee the battlefield, will not bring shame upon themselves, their families, their congregation, and their pastors. I ask the congregation to pray fervently for them, that the many temptations they will face from the evil one will not penetrate the armor of the Gospel that our Lord Himself has supplied them with. The Christian life is hard. It isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is a life that is backed up by the promise of resurrection and everlasting life. It is a life made possible by baptism and forgiveness, by our Lord’s passion and death, by His resurrection, by the mercy of God, by confession and absolution, by Holy Communion. It is a warrior’s life rooted in the Gospel, focused on the cross, and carried out by the One who has defeated the foe on our behalf.

The warrior lives his life one moment at a time. He revels in every second of life, knowing that death lurks around every corner. The warrior obeys his orders one battle at a time, comes to church one Sunday at a time, confesses one sin at a time, and prays one night at a time. When the warrior stumbles, his comrades help Him up. If he is captured by the enemy, his compatriots liberate him. If he falls in battle, his fellow-warriors emulate his deeds and tell their children of his exploits.

The history of the Christian Church is full of mighty warriors – many of whom fell in fierce battle. St. Perpetua was a 22-year old mother of a nursing child. She, along with her young friend Felicity (who was herself eight months pregnant) were arrested for being Christians more than 1800 years ago. Both women were separated from their children. They, along with other Christians, were taken to the arena for the crowds to watch them being publicly tortured to death. All they had to do was deny Christ, and they could have gone back home. But these warriors held firm to their orders. After being wounded by wild animals, the women were slain with the sword. The last words of Perpetua were spoken to her brother (whose throat had been cut): “Stand fast in the faith and love one another.”

A half century before young Perpetua and Felicity were faithful unto death, an 86-year old bishop, Polycarp of Smyrna, was arrested for refusing to offer just a pinch of incense to Caesar. He too was led to the arena and tortured to death before the bloodthirsty mob. He was burned alive, and finally run through with a sword. When asked to turn his back on Christ, he said: “Eighty-six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”

Throughout the church’s history, missionaries died as warriors of the faith. In the 1600s, several evangelists of the Society of Jesus were the first to bring the Gospel to various North American Indian peoples. For reasons not entirely understood, the very people to whom these men ministered rose up and killed them. These soldiers of Christ died on the battlefield also known as the mission field. One need not give up being a warrior to be a missionary. In fact, as two thousand years of church history teaches us, the two vocations are inseparable from each other. The missionary is a warrior, and the warrior is a missionary. The blood of martyrs grows the church – not catchy slogans or marketing gimmicks.

In 1999, only eight years ago, a 15-year old Indonesian boy named Roy Pontoh was attacked by a mob of Muslims who demanded that he renounce Jesus or be killed. The frightened teenager stood firm. His answer did not fit Jimmy Long’s model of the Missional Church. This witness of Jesus said: “I am a soldier of Christ.” His attackers sliced open his belly with a sword.

Christians all around the world face suffering and death for confessing Christ and the Christian faith. And their testimony remains a beacon of light and hope in a world overcome by darkness and death.

In all likelihood, none of us will face such tests, nor have such opportunities to bear witness as martyrs for the Christian faith. Some of us may even wonder if we are worthy to take the field with such soldiers of Christ. Well, Christians, you have been baptized. You are here to listen to the Word. Like it or not, you are part of a vast army of the forgiven. You are worthy because He is worthy, and His Word is truth. Though you may never be thrown to lions, you will be tempted to hide your faith when being ridiculed. Though it is unlikely that you will be burned at the stake, you will be tempted to sleep in and not go to church. Though you may never face the decision to confess Christ before a madman with a sword, you will be tempted to blow off Bible class and absent yourself from Christ’s altar.

Remember, dear soldiers, where the strength of the saints comes from. Remember, dear warriors, what emboldened and comforted Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. Polycarp, and the holy martyr Roy Pontoh – even in intense pain and impending death. Only the Word of God and the Holy Sacraments can do such miracles. Only God Himself can equip you for service as a soldier and a martyr. Only in this military hospital called the Church can the wounded warriors of Christ find healing and relief to face another day of raging battle with the forces of darkness that seek to consume us in hell.

We are not called to be friendly with the enemy – but rather to be faithful to Him under whose command we serve.

Hear our Lord’s words yet again: “And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning. These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble…. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them.”

Take comfort, dear Christians, for though battles will be lost, though our blood may be spilled, and our faith at times will be shaken - the war has already been won. “This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia.”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

5 comments:

Ryan Schroeder said...

"The blood of martyrs grows the church."

This is a somewhat suprising phrase to hear in a Lutheran sermon, when it is clearly taught that the Holy Spirit grows the church through Word and Sacrament.

MICHAEL said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You
Micky

Latif of the "Haki Gabas" said...

Ryan,
I do not think there is any contradiction between the two positions you pit against one another. Fr. Beane himself affirms the importance of the Word and Sacraments four paragraphs after the quote you picked out. In writing an explanation of that thought, though, I soon got a little carried away. I don’t want to burden this comment space with that long answer, so I think I will post it at my blog, and invite you to read it there, at http://blog.360.yahoo.com/thelatifmemoir

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Micky:

Glory be to God, and grace and peace to you from our Lord Jesus Christ, who indeed lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

I am in awe of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, and rejoice with you in your deliverance from the evil one.

Blessings from your unworthy brother in Christ!

Father Hollywood said...

Ryan:

I agree that this is a rather unusual Lutheran sermon - and I believe that is something we Lutheran preachers (and notice I say *we* for I am as guilty as any) need to repent of.

Too often our sermons are strings of cliches, or doctrinal abstractions. It is true that we are saved by Word and Sacrament - but preaching is more than recitation of the catechism. Preaching must concretize the biblical doctrine, and there are few things more concrete than having someone putting a sword to your belly and asking you to deny Christ.

We Lutherans are way too disconnected from our history. Perpetua and Polycarp are not simply Roman Catholic saints - they are our dear brother and sister in Christ, holy martyrs that our Augsbug Confession bids us to emulate.

First of all, the blood of the martyrs is sacramental. The blood of the Church is the blood of Christ - for His body is the Church. Furthermore, the blood of the Christian has been fortified with the3 very blood of Christ. It is also baptismal, as the early church considered martyred catechumens to have been "baptized in blood."

The blood of the martyrs is also the Word - for their testimony is a proclamation of Christ and of the Gospel. They "preach" the Gospel by their deaths.

It is simply emperically true that the church grows most rapidly in times of persecution (whether in Rome or in modern Communists states).

Consider Prov 14:25 in light of the word "witness" ("martus" in the LXX). Also our Lord's words in Matt 5:11-12 - those who are persecuted for Christ's sake are *promised* salvation. Immediately thereafter, our Lord describes the Church as salt and light through which the Gospel is spread - note especially 5:16 in light of the testimony of martyrs.

Notice also Paul's progression in Rom 5:3ff - he begins with suffering and and ends with the Holy Spirit in v. 5.

See also Paul's discourse in 2 Cor 1:3ff - in which Paul speaks of afflictions being answered by God's "comfort" ("paraklesios" - compare with the Holy Spirit being called the Paraclete). According to Paul, the Christian who suffers is sharing "abundantly in Christ's sufferings." The passion of the martyr is part and parcel of the passion of Christ.

Furthermore, the epistle for Exaudi (1 Pet 4:12ff) also speaks of the Christian's affliction as being a share in Christ's affliction. What is more, those who suffer for Christ are "blessed" and also enjoy a special visitation of the "Spirit of glory and of God" (v.14).

There is also a close link between "witnesses" ("martures") and the Holy Spirit ("hagiou pneumatos") in Acts 1:8. It is no coincidence that those who shed blood for the faith are considered to be the ultimate "witnesses" ("martyrs").

Latif has already pointed out our Lord's passage in John 12:24-26. Of course, our Lord is speaking of Himself, but He is also speaking of "anyone [who] serves me" (v. 26).

While I support using catechetical language in our preaching, I have noticed an unintended consequence among "confessional Lutherans" who rely heavily on the catechism. The catechism is a series of questions and answers. It is a "multiple choice" approach to the faith - where there is always one and only one right answer. This can cause Lutherans to stumble in the real world, where the faith is more like "essay questions" than "multiple choice."

We preachers need to do a better job of applying the catechism and concretizing the faith through proclaiming the Gospel as it has been proclaimed in church history.

Anyway, that's my opinion, for what it's worth.

Thanks, Ryan, for writing, and giving us some great stuff to ponder!