Thanks to Pastor Elect Fenn, for preaching today’s sermon.
A few weeks ago, on the morning of Easter Sunday, a man walked into a Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, and detonated a bomb during Mass, killing at least fifty people. At almost exactly the same moment, another suicide bomber killed over a hundred Catholics in a church in a neighboring city. Twenty minutes later, a third terrorist, prevented from entering a Protestant church, blew himself up outside the building, killing twenty-five people, including both churchgoers. By the time it was over, the wave of coordinated bombings had killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more, making it one of the deadliest attacks since 9/11. The suicide bombers were all Muslim extremists working with the Islamic State. They killed Christians believing that by doing so they were offering worship to Allah. How did the Sri Lankan Church respond to such attacks? They have suspended Church services indefinitely until security improves. But, isn’t that what the extremists wanted all along?
As for the rest of us—comfortable, wised-up North American Christians not inclined to pose as martyrs—we tend to like our stories of martyrdom the way we like our miracles: as ancient and remote as possible, softened in the mists of legend. But the age of miracles is not past, and neither, alas, is the age of martyrdom. Our society is just as drastically opposed to Christianity as was the Roman Empire and sometimes just as violent as any Islamic Extremist. This brings us to the point of today’s Gospel. When the going gets tough, how are we going to react? When we experience trials which test our faith and push us to the limits, are we tempted to thrown in the towel?
I. The Threat of Falling Away
Our Lord Jesus tells the disciples what they are to expect. They are to expect persecution and even death. We too can expect a world which does not even care to know Jesus. We can expect a world which is opposed to and hostile towards the Church. In this world you will have hardship. Jesus says it will happen. And he warns you of it today so that you will not fall away.
The world will mock you for following a God who goes and gets himself killed on a cross. Yes, the world will think you are nuts for believing that the Almighty God of the universe delights to be called your Father and counts the hairs of your head. Yes, the world will be self-righteous and call you cruel and intolerant for daring to say that salvation is found in no one else but Jesus Christ. The world will call you misogynistic, and backwards for believing that abortion is murder. Television, social media, and movie screens are the world’s pulpits, and our children and are in the pews.
Here we come face to face with a hard reality: we can fall away. We can forsake God and Christ. We can stop going to Church, stop clinging to Jesus, and start thinking like the world around us. The hardships of life have a tendency to choke faith out. When the job is lost, when the diagnosis is dire, when the prayer is not answered the way you want it to have been answered, when the loved one dies too soon or too cruelly: that is when we can be tempted to doubt the Lord and his care for us. That is when we can waver – when we can be blinded and confused and scandalized by the lies of the the world. The world would like nothing more than to silence us and to get us to conform to its ways. The world wants to break us, and our fallen and sinful flesh wants nothing more than to take the easy route, give up, and throw in the towel. It doesn’t look like we have much hope compared with the world, does it? What are to do?
II. Kept from Falling Away
Think for a moment of the apostles. Fear gripped Peter’s soul as he stood in the shadows and watched Jesus’ interrogation. Before Jesus was brought to Pilate, Peter three times denied Jesus. What about the other disciples on that night? They ran away. They did not stand by their Lord. Rather, they ran away into the night. When faced with persecution how did they react? For weeks these eleven men cowered behind locked doors because they were dreadfully afraid of the crosses which might await them. These are the men we look up to. They all fell away! Do we think we are any better than they were? Do we expect to fare any better?
Yet, after Pentecost, there they were, boldly proclaiming the Gospel publicly. Each one of these eleven men suffered terrible persecution because they confessed Christ. Ten of them were brutally murdered, and John was exiled. These same cowards who disowned Jesus on the eve of the crucifixion, were all themselves martyred. So what happened?
What happened was the coming Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was sent and given to these men. When we’re going through the trails of this life, the comfort for us is that the Apostles were given the Holy Spirit. They didn’t find the strength within themselves, the Spirit strengthened them. He brought back to their memories all that Jesus said and did with them. Remembering all of the words and promises of Jesus kept them from falling away. The Holy Spirit witnessed to the disciples concerning the Savior. This enabled the apostles to witness to the world. Their message was written down and preserved in our Bibles. If we feel like we’re tempted to throw in the towel and give up, we’re not supposed to sit and wait for the Holy Spirit to jump out of the sky give us strength. If we want to be kept in the true faith unto life everlasting, we should go and hear the word of God. The Holy Spirit speaks to us today through the written testimony of the Apostles – God’s Holy Word.
This isn’t a matter of saying, ‘Oh well, these things happen.’ It isn’t a shrug of the shoulders, resigning yourself to the world being a nasty place and there being nothing much you can do about it. The Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to us through the wind or through a burning in our heart. He speaks to us through God’s Word. As he carried men of God to write the Scriptures, so the Holy Spirit speaks through them. Jesus is speaking not just to apostles, but to the first pastors of the Christian Church. He is preparing to send out pastors into the world to preach. He speak through men. He speaks through your pastor, when he declares your sins forgiven. There is no comfort of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, there are no gentle reminders in our minds and souls of the death of Jesus, without preaching. We can’t remember God’s word if we haven’t heard it first. We need God’s word proclaimed to us!
And Holy Spirit, through the Word, bears witnesses to you about Jesus. The finished work of Christ is the source of the strength the Spirit gives to us in God’s Word. That is the testimony of the Apostles. Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” All of the world’s opposition to Jesus did not succeed in turning him aside from what he came to do: to give his life that the world might be saved. ‘The world’ that will hate, persecute and ridicule Jesus’ followers has been defeated. When Jesus took upon himself the weight of the world’s sin; when he burst through death itself into God’s new creation; when he ascended into heaven to intercede on our behalf, he was not just proving a point but winning a victory. The cross is the victory of Christ and the defeat of the world. This victory belongs not to Christ alone, it also belongs to the baptized children of God.
When the world threatens to undo us, when we are tempted to fall away, our pastors proclaim to us the Word of God which reminds us of Jesus’ own victory over the world and this proclamation keeps us in the true faith. Even in the midst of persecution, God does not abandon us. Through His Word He strengthens us. This strength comes to us as the Spirit leads us to Word and Sacrament to feed us, nourish us, and strengthen us to meet the tribulations we will face in this world. Through this word we are assured of the certain hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. This is the Word given to us in our Baptism, strengthened through Jesus’ true Body and Blood, and further confirmed as we hear and read that Word. This is the Word which calls us to repent daily, grants us forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, and assures us of Jesus’ presence. This is how God has chosen to give you his Holy Spirit, to keep you in the true faith.