Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sermon: Oculi (Lent 3) and Sts. Perpetua & Felicity

7 March 2010 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 11:14-28 (Jer 26:1-15, Eph 5:1-9)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

You would think there would be more people here. This church ought to be packed. Christian churches ought to be overflowing every Sunday, with people begging for services every day. For we, the Church, have good news for a sad and tired world – we have the one message of hope for all of creation.

Instead, the world hates the good news that we proclaim. And as the world hates the message, so too it hates the messengers.

On this date, eighteen hundred and seven years ago, two women (along with many others) were executed for breaking the law. They were seen as unpatriotic. For the Emperor had decreed that no-one may convert to Christianity. But Perpetua, the 22-year old married noblewoman and mother of an infant, and her pregnant maidservant Felicity, did just that. They were arrested.

Two days after Felicity gave birth and gave her child up to a Christian woman for adoption, Perpetua and Felicity and four other Christians were put to death in a crowded stadium for entertainment. They died so heroically that their jailer likewise broke the law and converted to Christianity. These two dear sisters in Christ and heroes of the faith have been called to mind for eighteen centuries.

The world did not want to hear what they have to say – for though not preachers, they are confessors of Christ.

Jeremiah, who lived in the seventh century BC, speaks the same Word of the Lord. God sent him to preach the same message about sin and redemption, prophesying about the Coming One and calling the people, God’s beloved people, to repentance. Jeremiah was instructed to say: “Thus says the Lord, ‘If you will not listen to Me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to listen to the words of My servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently, though you have not listened, then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.”

The priests and the prophets – themselves servants of the Most High God, men who likewise were called to preach repentance and the Gospel – responded to Jeremiah by saying: “You shall die.”

St. Paul likewise faced severe opposition to preaching the good news, for in light of this good news, the holy apostle calls us to: “walk in love” and imitate our Lord as a “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” He bids us that: “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”

Like Jeremiah, Paul spoke the Word of God calling the people to holiness, that is separation from the ways of the world. Jeremiah and Paul – speaking for Almighty God – plead, beckon, and even command us to not take sin lightly, to repent, to seek forgiveness, and to “walk as children of light.”

Of course, a world immersed in darkness does not want the light. Our own dark inner sinful nature likes lurking about the shadows just fine. And the last thing we want to hear is for some prophet or preacher to tell us what to do. Who do these people think they are anyway? And what about these silly twenty-something girls with their refusal to obey authority?

In fact, Satan, the prince of demons, Beelzebul, would like nothing more than to silence this call to repentance. For in spite of its unpopularity, it is a call to life over death, of good news over bad, of grace over self-righteousness, of salvation over damnation. And this is why the Gospel has always been opposed, whether by Israelites murdering the prophets, kings slaying Christians, or the spirit of this world causing the churches to be empty and the Word of the cross to be openly mocked.

Our Lord Jesus Christ bore, in His own flesh, all of the preaching of God’s Word, all of the acrimony of the world, all of the slayings of the prophets, all the martyrdoms of the Perpetuas and Felicitys, and the blood of every faithful witness from the days of Abel to those being executed for confessing Christ this very minute somewhere in this dark and sin-laden world.

Our blessed Lord was accused of doing the work of Beelzebul, “while others, to test Him, kept seeking from Him a sign of heaven.” But He pointed out to them that He derived His authority to cast out demons from “the finger of God.” He warned them: “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”

Our Lord cast out demons by authority that the critics and the cynics lacked. In fact, they hated Jesus because they loved the demons. They cursed the light because they reveled in the darkness.

The Church indeed has good news for a world that is dying and falling apart. The Church has a Gospel of freedom and forgiveness, or ransom and healing for people who are enslaved and hopeless. But those who hate the good, will likewise hate the good news. And those who hate the good news have always hated the bearers of the good news. And in their desire to oppose the Gospel of life, these enemies of the cross have only an evil spell of death.

However, dear brothers and sisters of the crucified and risen Lord, the merchants of death cannot undo the free gift of life. For when Satan participated in the sacrificial death of our Lord, he participated in his own demise. For the Lord’s crucifixion was the Lord’s victory. It was Satan who became mortal when our Lord breathed His final victory cry: “It is finished!” And Satan again suffered a blow when Perpetua and Felicity defied the prince of this world and embraced the holy faith, holding onto it even as they breathed their last on a field of battle against the evil one.

Satan is beaten down under our feet each time a person comes to faith, each time a sinner repents, each time the words of absolution are intoned, each time temptation is foiled by God’s Word, and each time a Christian spurns revenge and instead acts in love – even love for one’s enemies.

Death is overcome by life, and life flows from love and mercy – all given to us as a free gift, all spoken to us to repeat, all handed over to us as a treasure to hand over to the world, to friend and foe alike – for the sake of the salvation of many.

This victory over the cross and the arena, over sin and the grave, over Satan and the sinful flesh is the very essence of the Christian life. It is why we are here, dear friends. Those who are not surrounding Christian altars on this day are missing out on this good news, this Gospel of life. And we pray for them with hope, as even Perpetua and Felicity were once unbelievers and enemies of the cross. And we pray for ourselves that we may heed the call to repentance and not merely become angry at the messenger.

For nothing sums up this good news better than the words of the ancient hymn often chanted as we lay one of the saints to rest: Media vita in morte sumus, which we sang in English today. The victory of life and forgiveness over death and sin proclaimed in this sung confession is the witness of Jeremiah, of Paul, of Perpetua and Felicity, and of our Lord Jesus Himself. And it is ours today, and even unto eternity:

In the very midst of life
Snares of death surround us;

Who shall help us in the strife

Lest the foe confound us?

Thou only Lord,

Thou only.

We mourn that we have greatly erred,

That our sins Thy wrath have stirred.

Holy and righteous God!

Holy and mighty God!

Holy and all merciful Savior!

Eternal Lord God.

Save us lest we perish

In the bitter pangs of death.

Have mercy O Lord.


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

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