Last Thursday we celebrated the ascension of our Lord. His work of redemption is finished, and so he gives His Holy Church the sacraments – The Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, Holy Absolution on Easter Evening, and Holy Baptism at his ascension. He has returned to the right hand of the Father. And yet, through his Holy Word, through his Blessed Sacraments, he is still with us – to the end of the age, as he tells the apostles in Matthew. He will never leave us, or forsake us, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord, and nothing can snatch us out of His hand.
Those are comforting words. And we need them, because in today’s Gospel reading Jesus speaks words that are, in a sense, comforting. But they are also a sober warning against worldly security. They will put you out of the synagogue. They will even kill you. Not what we normally consider comforting thoughts.
Beginning last Summer we have heard about the victims of ISIS. Near Christmas there was an execution specifically of 21 Christians. Their murderers were offering sacrifice to their god. A couple of weeks ago, they did it again. And while their demon-god soaks up the misery and feasts on the depravity of those butchers, the martyr’s blood, like Abel’s cries out to the skies. Not just for vengeance, but in witness of the hope that is theirs. A hope that can not be extinguished by the insanity of those who follow a god that is nothing more than Satan – and not even in sheep’s clothing – this time he comes openly as a wolf. And our decadent culture, so quick to fight imagined enemies at home, is entirely unprepared to stand up for those who are dying for Christ abroad.
Jesus tells us that this is how it will be. Do not be surprised he says, when suffering comes because of your faith. In cities across our nation, Christian groups are being told that it is against the law to feed the poor and homeless. And now, Christians are being criticized for spending time on social issues, instead of worrying about feeding the poor and homeless. We are being pushed out of the mercy sphere by government fiat after 2000 years. And then we are accused of being insensitive to the sufferings of those around us. And being so insensitive, the church is increasingly looked on, not as the foundation of western civilization, of art and music, government and culture, but as a nuisance that stands in the way of progress, and that exists solely to judge and condemn. The churches, who for millennia have fed the poor, looked after the widowed an orphaned, established hospitals, and in our own nation, led the fight against slavery and for the civil rights movement, is now accused of being a hate group. Don’t expect such criticism to go away just as soon as we elect the right person to this or that office. As it becomes less important to be a part of the church, official church rolls are shrinking rapidly. Those who do not care about the church no longer feel the need to say that they are a part of the church. And a little honesty is a good thing. But it means that the church in our nation is quickly entering a period of isolation. And Jesus words today are not just sober warning. They are a comfort to those of us who enjoy the eternal and unchanging fellowship of Christ and his holy church, but do so in this place and time. They are a comfort to us, who look around at our society and see the foundations crumbling. We may find ourselves in a period of active persecution before long. And we must be ready.
Peter writes, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial, when it comes on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
Having been washed in the blood of Christ at the font, having been fed with the medicine of immortality from Christ himself, what can man do to us? What punishment can be given to those who claim the name of Christ that is not already swallowed up in the death and resurrection of Christ himself? And so the church has always looked at things a little differently. We celebrate not the birthday of the saints, but the day that they leave this vale of tears and enter into glory. Because that is the day they leave the sin behind. And whether they died a natural death, or a martyrs death, the death of a saint is a witness to the hope that is in them. And for now we wait for a reunion of soul and body. But that day is coming. Our Lord will return in all his glory. All nations will bow down to him. And those who have witnessed to their faith – with their words, and their actions, and even at times with their own blood, will rejoice. That was the pattern in the book of Acts. When the apostles were beaten and told to stop speaking of Jesus, they said first of all, “We must obey God rather than man”, and then when released they rejoiced that they had been counted worthy of suffering for the name.
By their suffering, they were allowed to feel in some small measure what it was that Christ suffering on their behalf. Not that they sought it out, or did it to themselves. Not that it earned them anything before God. Of course not. The forgiveness life and salvation of the Christian comes solely by virtue of Christ’s sacrifice. But just as the world rejected and crucified Christ, so they world was rejecting and punishing them for speaking the truth of God’s word.
They were following in Jesus’ footsteps, whether they wanted to or not. And so Peter, who had received that punishment with John, wasn’t just writing to encourage the church with fancy musings from an ivory tower. He was speaking of things he had experienced. He was encouraging them because he knew that the same things that had happened to him and to the other apostles could happen to others in the church. And they it would be a test of their faith. But that it was a chance to witness to the hope that is ours through Christ Jesus.
At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter point blank that Peter would be crucified, just as Jesus had been. Not exactly a comforting thought. Unless you don’t see things the way the world does. Not that Christians lose all touch with reality, or have a psychotic break. We see the true reality. That Jesus, crucified, dead and buried – as the world sees it humiliated and finished – has been raised from the dead. And now, we need not fear what the world will do to us.
It’s not a coincidence that these words from Jesus come right before Pentecost. Next week we hear of some glorious successes in the early church. Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, and 3000 baptized. But remember, the church always follows the path of Jesus. The path of righteousness, humility, sacrifice. The path of suffering and martyrdom.
And this isn’t a sign that God has abandoned us. It is a sign that he is not only with us, but making us every day to be more like him. To draw us to himself. We have not the ramblings of crazed philosopher who got in over his head. We have the word of God himself. Who was crucified and on the third day was raised again. Who now calls us to be his own through Holy Baptism, where we are joined to the cross. Who feeds us with his body and blood, to keep us in this faith. And who promises that we will bear witness to him, in our lives, and even in our deaths. Whether they come comfortably at the end of a long life, or whether they are cut short by the enemy. We live for, and witness to Jesus Christ, who has already won the victory.