In light of the recent genocide of Christians in Iraq, today’s sermon addresses the persecution of Christians. Also, it’s the feast of Saint Lawrence, which fits right in with that. It starts slow, but picks up after the first paragraph.
With two thousand years worth of saints we could celebrate a different saint every day of the year. But the church year isn’t about us – it’s about Jesus. So, choices have to be made. Apostles get their day. Significant events – reformation day – are remembered. But then, there are a lot of saints that deserve to be commemorated, but who maybe aren’t quite as significant as an apostle. The hymnal has two kinds of saints days. Feasts for the most significant – these days get readings and prayers – and commemorations – for other saints whom we should remember. They are noted in the daily devotional, but we don’t have sets of readings or prayers for those days. Some Pastors like to argue about who should or should not have been included in which list. But for those who are only commemorated – not listed as a feast, with no readings to use, when their day falls on a Sunday, we still celebrate the Sunday. Today is such a day. August tenth, the commemoration of Saint Lawrence. He’s actually one of the more significant figures in the history of the church. But, for whatever reason, he didn’t get his own readings, and so today is the eighth Sunday after Trinity.
Lawrence doesn’t have any writings, he didn’t really leave a mark on the theology of the church. He was no Augustine, or Luther. But he left a huge imprint on the piety of the church, and his example is one that we should certainly note on our way around the calendar.
Back in the third century Lawrence was a deacon in Rome – similar to one of our elders. The pastor of the church in Rome was martyred for the faith, and Lawrence was told that all the treasures of the church were to be confiscated. He asked for three days to get them together. During those three days he gave away anything with any monetary value to the poor. When he was brought back in, he showed them the poor, the lame, the orphans, and said, these are the real treasures of the church. For his courage, he was martyred. Tradition says by being grilled. And a legend says that, after a long time over the coals, he said that they could turn him over, as he was finished on one side.
Such humor facing an agonizing death is only possible because of the hope that was his. He knew that gold and silver were just stuff – things of this world, that could be used to buy other things. Turned over to the poor, it was food to sustain the life of a child of God. And the poor, the helpless, the lame: These are the precious treasures of Christ. These are the ones he sacrificed his most precious blood to save.
The Gospel reading says to beware of false prophets. Those who would come into the church and speak words from Scripture, but not God’s word. They will masquerade as prophets speaking the truth. But they have a different Gospel, that is really no gospel at all. Their end is death.
The past few weeks have seen genocide against Christians in Iraq. Following the teachings of the false prophet Mohammed, Hundreds, perhaps thousands have been murdered for the faith this summer. Such can happen anywhere. The world can not accept the Word of God. And we see what happens when Satan’s murdering servants are let loose.
We pray that God would preserve the lives of our brothers and sisters in Iraq, if it be his will. We pray that they be given the strength to remain firm in their confession. We can certainly contact our elected leaders to encourage them to step in. But much of it is too little, too late. The dead will not be raised until the resurrection. Those who have been wounded or maimed will go through life with their bodies as a badge of confessing honor – even as they suffer. And we are reminded that we may have citizenship papers for this nation – but our true citizenship is not here. It is with God. Written in the second century, the epistle to Diognetus puts it this way:
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
The (Christian) soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.
Paul talks about us being strangers and aliens. Jesus says he goes to prepare a place for us. And yet, we are still here. Continuing our work in this world, in this body, struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Relying every day on the forgiveness that we receive through Jesus death on the cross.
And despite the horrific news coming out of the middle east, the greatest injustice was the death of our Lord. The one who knew no sin was not only made sin for you, but was punished for your sin as well. He did so willingly. He suffered the agony, and he went into death. He did it for you, because he was the only one to save you from eternal death.
The reason someone like Saint Lawrence could go confidently to death was because death’s power has been broken by Jesus. And that’s why the Satanic forces now working to intimidate and kill the Christians in Iraq, and elsewhere around the world, can not but fail. Because death has lost it’s power. They can take our life – they can not harm us, says Justin Martyr.
And the devil tries to intimidate, and destroy. Just as there are those around the globe being threatened suffering and dying for the faith, or temptation here is not suffering but comfort. The devil tries to entice us away from Christ with riches and power, and all the luxuries that this world has to offer. But those things are pale imitations of the glory to be revealed. They are passing fads. Moth and rust destroy them, thieves break in and steal. We have a treasure in Christ and his word that can not be destroyed – not even by death. That is why we are vigilant against Satan’s false promises, his false teaching that would lead us away from Christ and to our own works. That would lead us from his merit to our own pride.
We always keep the focus on Jesus, and nowhere else. That’s the way it is. Because he is our savior. He has already saved us from death. What can man do to us? He has saved us from the devil and hell. The things Satan brings against us in this world can not – and will not – last. Despite the despair, the suffering, the persecution of the church, the near total victory of the enemies of Christ in some cases, Christ has already won the victory. Despite the promises of fame and glory and comfort that the world offers to us, Christ has already won the victory. And we have been given the spoils of that victory. We don’t need to earn them. We don’t need to appease an angry god, or earn the favor of God with our mighty deeds. Jesus has done it all. It is free for the taking. And he offers it wherever the word of absolution is spoken. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. These are the promises, the gifts the world can not accept. And the world will fight hand in hand with Satan to destroy the promise. But the promise remains. Even if no one in the world believed it. The promise is good. Even if the entire world rejected it, it’s still there. And now, that promise is yours. The gift is given. Your sins are taken away, and your guilt atoned for. Go in peace. Serve the Lord.
In Jesus name. Amen.