Witness and Persecution. Exaudi 2015.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter—Exaudi
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 15:26-16:4
May 17, 2015 (Confirmation Sunday)
“Witness and Persecution”
Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. And you also will bear witness about me, because you have been with me from the beginning. I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” John 15:26-16:4
In this text our Lord tells us about the Church’s mission and its necessary results. The mission is simple to understand. The Church, the believers in Christ, bear witness to Jesus along with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus tells us about the necessary result of this witness. The world will not love the Church for bearing witness to Christ. Instead the world will persecute the Church with excommunication and death. This is the road our confirmands are pledging to walk today—the road of witness to Jesus and the road of persecution. It is the road they began on when they were baptized, the way of death with Jesus Christ that they might be raised with Jesus Christ. It is the same road that every member of the Christian Church has pledged to walk. It’s good that we remember this. We were not promised victory in this world by our Lord, but persecution and death, and then the victory of the resurrection from the dead.
But this is not said so that we can pity ourselves about our sorry lot in this world. If we Christians were living life only for this world, then, as Paul says, “We are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15) But it is not for this life only that we have hoped in Christ. It is for the life that is to come, the life that is truly life, when we will see God face to face, that we have hoped in Christ.
No, what is truly pitiable is to be without God in the world. This is how most of the people in the world live. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they have tried to live a good life. They hope, vainly, that God is not displeased with them because they imagine that God is reasonable in a human sense and doesn’t expect more of us than we are able to do. They imagine that because they have tried to live a somewhat decent life in the eyes of other people that things will hopefully turn out all right with them in eternity after they die. God’s judgment on sin they do not know, or they reject it. They don’t believe that no one is righteous in the sight of God, that we have all earned His anger by our transgression of His commands. They flee from His righteous judgment and so they go through their lives with vague ideas about God but never knowing Him. They don’t realize that aside from all the other commandments they transgress the very first one—“You shall have no other gods.” They create a god in their own image—a reasonable God, so-called, who doesn’t want any more from us than that we be reasonably good people. They don’t realize that their fundamental sin is that they have avoided and run away from the true God, the God who commands that we be not merely “nice” but righteous. And because they run from this God who speaks to us in the Law and in our conscience, they are never certain of themselves before God. When trouble or death comes, their false religion falls apart. They are no longer sure that God is pleased with them. They have no helper in the day of their trouble. And what is worse is that when this wretched life is over they have nothing but God’s fearful judgment where He holds them to account for every idle word they’ve spoken, every evil thought and desire.
Truly, it is pitiable to be without God in the world. But that’s the way people are by nature. Whether they are religious in a human sense or not, people are by nature without God. They don’t know the true and living God, and they are lost.
But God does not want human beings to be without Him in the world. That’s why our Lord says in our text, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about Me. And you will also bear witness.” Jesus sends the Holy Spirit on His Church so that together they may bear witness to Jesus, which means that the Church and the Spirit bear witness together to the world that the true and living God is reconciled to sinners, is for them.
The Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus that in Him and Him alone God makes Himself known. He makes Himself known as the Holy and righteous God who demands that we be not merely reasonably good, as humans measure things, but that we be righteous in thought and feeling, in word and deed. He is the same God we see in the Old Testament who gave the Ten Commandments, who spoke to the patriarchs and said, “Walk before me and be blameless.” (Gen. 17) But this righteous God has drawn near to us in Jesus, the Son of Mary. He has not come near to condemn and destroy us for our sins, but to redeem us, to justify us. He has come to live a righteous, obedient, and perfect life as one of us under God’s law. And He came and offered that righteous and perfect life as a sacrifice to cover our sins so that we would be regarded as righteous before God through faith in Him alone. This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about God. The true and righteous God is the Father who willingly gave His only Son to be the sacrifice that redeems us from sin, death, and hell. Though we are sinful and can’t make ourselves clean in the sight of God, the true God has made us clean in His sight by the suffering and death of His Son.
This is the witness the Holy Spirit bears about Jesus Christ and God the Father. He has been bearing this witness in the world since He was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost. And since then the Church has also been bearing witness to Jesus. She bears witness by preaching His death and resurrection in the whole world. Preachers have proclaimed Christ’s death for our sins and His resurrection from pulpits. Missionaries have gone with this message into pagan lands to turn people from the worship of false gods. Christian parents have brought their children to be baptized and then taught them the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. Christians have carried out their callings in the world, serving their neighbors in love and looking for opportunities to proclaim salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In all these ways and more the Holy Spirit bears witness and the Church bears witness to Jesus.
And because the Holy Spirit has faithfully borne witness to Jesus through the centuries, we are gathered here today in His holy congregation, the Church. We have in this church a little refuge, a little outpost of salvation, where the Holy Spirit bears witness to Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins. It’s not through merely human power that a group of German immigrants got together and founded this church; it’s certainly not through human power that twenty or so years later this congregation embraced the true doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church [in the Book of Concord]. It’s not through human power that this congregation and school have been here through a century and a half, through economic depressions and world wars and cultural revolutions. This congregation is here by the power of the Holy Spirit, who bears witness to the death of Jesus in our midst.
It is the witness of the Holy Spirit that has brought these three sons of the congregation today to confess their faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and to receive the Holy Body and Blood of the Lord for the first time. It was the Holy Spirit who moved their parents to bring these children to Jesus in Holy Baptism while they were still infants, that He might bless them and give them the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit who was at work in them when they were taught the word of God by their parents, in Sunday School, and in catechesis. Now by the same Holy Spirit they are going to bear witness that the doctrine they have been taught from the Small Catechism is the truth. They are going to bear witness that the one true God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has redeemed them from sin and damnation by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They will bear this witness with their lips in our midst and carry this confession with them out into the world.
The witness of the Holy Spirit and the witness of believers in Christ is one witness, and this witness brings salvation. But Jesus speaks a solemn word to those who bear witness to Him, which all of us who are baptized and confirmed need to give serious attention. He says: “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” What can our confirmands expect to receive for their faithful witness to Christ? Persecution, says Jesus. Even the most extreme forms of persecution—excommunication and death. The world does not know the Father and the Son. Even many who are supposed to be the Church of Christ do not know the Father and the Son. They trust in their own righteousness and invent a god who is satisfied with human works. This is what Martin Luther experienced. He came bearing witness to Jesus Christ alone with the Holy Spirit, and the Pope and his followers excommunicated Luther and put him under a death sentence. Why? Because Luther bore witness that salvation was a free gift through Christ alone; that the Father is pleased with us not through our works but through faith in Jesus only. For this Luther was put out of the Roman Catholic Church, which claimed to be Christ’s true Church even while it denied Christ’s Gospel.
This is what those who bear witness to Christ today can also expect. Today the threat of persecution seems to come not so much from the false church as from the secular world. More and more in our society we hear voices calling for Christians to be banned from polite society because the Church refuses to acknowledge homosexuality, transgenderism, and other sins as acceptable before God. Already Christian charity organizations have been banned from receiving state funds to place foster children unless they are willing to place them with homosexual households. Attacks on the truth of Christianity are standard fare in college, and skepticism from teachers toward the Bible is becoming more common even in high school and middle school. We may not be faced with death for bearing witness to Christ, but increasingly in the years to come our confirmands are going to live in a society that is at best skeptical of Christianity when it is not hostile.
But we are better off with the Holy Spirit’s witness and the opposition of the world than we would be if we had ease and comfort in this world but no Holy Spirit. Why? Because with the Holy Spirit’s witness we have God. We don’t just have vague ideas about God that collapse in the day of trouble or death. Through the Holy Spirit’s witness we have the true God. We know the Father and the Son. They Holy Spirit bears witness to us that we are righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus alone. He testifies to us in the Gospel that Jesus died for our sins and nailed the handwriting of the law that was against us to the cross, putting it out of the way so that it no longer condemns us (Colossians 2). He bears witness to us in our baptism that we have been buried with Christ and raised from the dead with Him and are a new creation. He testifies that we are redeemed from sin, death, and hell by giving us the body of Jesus that was crucified to eat and His blood shed for us to drink. They Holy Spirit testifies that we have God for certain, that the all-holy God is pleased with us. This is an assurance that the world doesn’t have, even if it heaps up all the pleasures of this world. Whoever doesn’t believe the Spirit’s witness to Jesus does not have God and can never be certain how it stands with them and God.
We, however, have the Holy Spirit’s testimony that God is pleased with us because of the innocent suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. And so when persecution and hardship comes to us with the Gospel, we can be glad, because we know that in the midst of our suffering still God is pleased with us. That consolation is greater than all the crosses the world can give us.
So this is the Holy Spirit’s witness to you today, and by this witness He wants to make your heart certain that God is pleased with you and that you have God, your rock and fortress. You are not without God in this world. It isn’t up in the air. You have God, because He has given His son to die for your sins. This testimony has the strength to make us faithful even in the face of death, because it is God’s own testimony. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes. And to make you more sure that this salvation is for you, the Holy Spirit says, “Come. Receive the body and blood of the Savior which has made you pleasing to God.”
The Peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria