24 June 2008

The Week of Living Dangerously

This past Sunday (in the Three-Year Lectionary), the Lord Jesus warned His disciples of the division that His Gospel would bring even within families, and that the world would hate them and persecute them as it hates and crucifies Him. Not exactly a winsome benefits package, is it? But it is the way of the Cross, which is the way of life by grace through faith in Jesus the Christ.

This entire week provides us with poignant examples of the Cross that is laid upon those who preach the Word of Christ and confess His holy name. Such examples are a sober and serious warning to those who follow in their train, but so also an encouragement unto faith and faithfulness. For we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, in order that our eyes might be lifted up unto Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. As we are called to die with Him, and for His sake and for the Gospel, so are we raised with Him to live forever in the presence of God the Father.

On Tuesday the 24th, we celebrate the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. He wasn't born to die in quite the same way that Jesus was, but his entire life was pointed toward that Lamb of God, who takes upon Himself the sins of the world and bears them away in His own body to the Cross. So, like the Prophets before him and the holy Apostles who follow after, St. John the Baptist also suffers the Cross in his own flesh, that his very body and life might also proclaim the Savior who is sacrificed for our transgressions and raised for our justification. Already as we sing and confess the Benedictus with Zacharias, we know that his holy child, St. John, the Prophet of the Most High, will be imprisoned for his faithful witness and finally beheaded (as we'll commemorate in a few months on August the 29th). Yet, his miraculous birth and his martyr's death proclaim not only Christ and His Cross, but also the dying and rising and new birth of Holy Baptism; even as King Herod perceives the resurrection of St. John in the life of Christ Jesus!

On Wednesday the 25th, we commemorate the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and we give thanks for the preaching of the Holy Gospel throughout the centuries to the present day. It is not exactly the case that Luther and Melanchthon and the other reformers were martyred in the same way that St. John the Baptist was, but they were persecuted by church and state, and they surely suffered for their faithful preaching and confession. Luther himself could not even be present at Augsburg for the reading of the great Confession, recognized by all as a public testimony of his teaching. Luther's life was under the Cross, even until his death. So, too, in our own day, the confession of the Gospel still brings wrath and woe on every hand — not only by the world, but by those who consider themselves to be the Church, who suppose that by their violence they are serving God. The promise of suffering should by no means dissuade us, but the example of those who have fearlessly faced the fire should steel us for the fight unto the end.

On Thursday the 26th, we commemorate the Prophet Jeremiah, whose prophetic preaching of the Word of the Lord brought him grief and heartache. Indeed, the suffering of his life was as much a part of his preaching as anything he said, anticipating the Cross and Passion of the Lord Himself, whose Word he proclaimed. For Christ Jesus would take upon Himself the wrath of God that Jeremiah preached against Jerusalem, so that His people would be recalled from the exile of sin and death, and granted peace and rest in the Kingdom of God. Accordingly, poor Jeremiah not only suffered at the hands of the people to whom he preached, but then he also suffered together with them in the deportation to Egypt.

On Friday the 27th, we commemorate St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most significant of the early church fathers, who vigorously defended the deity of Christ and the unity of His Person against the heretic Nestorious and others who were determined to divide and detract from the one Lord Jesus Christ. Nestorian sympathizers, both ancient and modern, have done their best to villify St. Cyril, as though his politics or personality (whatever they may have been, good or bad) should have any bearing on the veracity of his confession. Recent Roman theologians, always proud to parade their papistic church as the great champion of orthodoxy, betray the weakness of their western christology by defending Nestorious as far as they dare against that "old meany," St. Cyril. But such detractors are nothing new. On the occasion of his death, someone wrote to a friend concerning St. Cyril:

"At last with a final struggle the villian has passed away. His departure delights the survivors, but possibly disheartens the dead; there is some fear that under the provocation of his comapny they may send him back again to us. Care must therefore be taken to order the guild of undertakers to place a very big and heavy stone on his grave to stop him coming back here" (quoted by Norman Russell in Cyril of Alexandria, p. 3).

A big heavy stone did not prevent the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ; nor would it mean anything to the resurrection and the life that He, our Savior, has bestowed upon His servant Cyril — not any longer in Egypt, to be sure, but in the true and everlasting Canaan. So shall it also be for us, when our Baptism into Christ, the crucified God-Man, is completed in our death from this vale of tears, and we finally cross that great Jordan River into the promised land of peace and rest. In the meantime, we should fully expect to be ridiculed and villified for our faithfulness; and of course, to whatever extent the old Adam in us emerges with the faults and failings of our mortal flesh, our enemies will delight to hold those weaknesses against both us and our doctrine. God prevent us from falling into such temptations, which risk the reputation of the Gospel itself, especially if we are called and ordained to preach that Holy Gospel in its truth and purity. For our own sins, let us daily repent and do better. But for our brothers in the Ministry of Christ, who also bear the burdens of the flesh, let us defend them for the sake of their faithful preaching, and cover them with love for the sake of their Office. Even if some of them do happen to be unpleasant fellows and recalcitrant rascals, the measure of the truth is still the truth itself and neither politics nor personality.

On Saturday the 28th, we commemorate St. Irenaeus of Lyons. My friend and colleague, Professor Bushur, is far more an expert on this great father of the church than I am, but I know enough to know of his tremendous importance to the history of the Christian faith and doctrine. He may not have been a martyr himself (notwithstanding some isolated and later testimony to that effect), but he was a friend of martyrs. For example, he became the new bishop of Lyons, upon returning from Rome, because his predecessor had been martyred while he was away. In his opposition to the rampant gnostic heresies of his day, he emphasized the goodness and the significance of creation, including the Christian's body, which shall be raised from death to the life everlasting. It is in that confidence of the resurrection, the surety of which is bodily received in the Holy Communion, that St. Irenaeus and his friends and colleagues and parishioners faced the constant real threat of martyrdom. It is in that same holy faith and certain confidence that we teach and confess the truth of Christ, come hell or high water against us.

Finally, on this coming Sunday, the 29th of June, we celebrate the great Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Apostles, one of the oldest festivals in the history of the Church. We remember and give thanks unto God, that the denier of Christ was restored to faith and discipleship, and that the terrible persecutor of Christians was called to repentance and converted to the very faith he once tried to destroy, and that these two men were sent by Christ as His Apostles to the world. In that apostleship, St. Peter learned by experience the Cross of Christ, the Son of the Living God, and St. Paul likewise learned what he would suffer for the Name of the Lord. By the grace of God, by His Word and Spirit, both men rejoiced to be counted worthy to share the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. They bore in their own bodies the marks of His Cross, for the benefit of those to whom they were sent to preach. When it came down to it, each of them was put to death for his faithful witness; and in that, death itself became a witness of the Gospel (a martyrdom). Even now, by the inspired record of their preaching and teaching in the New Testament, they continue to serve and support the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Whatever our own respective vocations may be, whether we are called to preach or to listen, or wherever we are called upon to confess the Gospel in our lives, let us not lose heart. Though we are being put to death all day long for the name of Christ, our faith and hope in Him shall not be disappointed. If there is anything to be gained by compromise, it shall be lost before too long, forever; but whatever we lose for the sake of the Gospel, even if it be our lives, we shall have gained a hundredfold in the everlasting Kingdom of our God and Father, through our Lord Jesus Christ.

For those who are called and sent to preach, it is most likely that suffering of one sort or another will come, but it is also most important that the Word be taught and the Gospel preached with all clarity and consistency. We may die for it, but by that proclamation shall we and our hearers be saved. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

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