Faithful Unto Death–Prayer. Trinity 19, 2016. Revelation 2:8-17
19th Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 2, 2016
“Faithful Unto Death—Prayer”
The church at Smyrna left a lasting legacy in the history of Christianity. One of its sons, a man named Irenaeus, wrote perhaps the greatest work of theology in the Christian Church prior to its becoming legal in 313 A.D.—his book Against Heresies, which identified and refuted the major false teachings that had arisen to trouble the Church up until his time. Irenaeus was born in Smyrna and grew up listening to the preaching of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. He later became the bishop, or head pastor, of the church in Lyon in modern-day France.
Before this another disciple of John named Ignatius was arrested and sent in chains to Rome to be tried and sentenced to death in the arena, where he was fed to hungry lions. As he made his voyage to Rome, he sent several letters that have survived. One went to the Christians at Smyrna, and survives as one of the few early witnesses to the life and faith of the Christian Church in the first generation after the apostles had died.
Another early witness to the life of the early Church is a short work called The Martyrdom of Polycarp. It is the account of the death of the bishop of Smyrna around 160 A.D. during the persecution that arose there in fulfillment of the words of Jesus’ letter to the church at Smyrna which we just heard. It is the earliest surviving account of a martyrdom outside of the New Testament, and has encouraged generations of Christians to be faithful unto death (Revelation 2:10).
Why did this church, which was slandered and despised by the people of Smyrna, which lived in poverty and suffered so much persecution, receive such a great name and reputation among the churches of its time? Why did it leave such an enduring legacy to the Christians who came after it?
Smyrna’s glory came precisely because it was despised, poor, and full of suffering—and remained faithful to Christ.
That is the way God glorifies the church. Long before this, St. Paul told the first churches he had planted that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Faithfulness through suffering and death are the way to glory and honor before God for individual Christians and for the Church just as they were the way to glory and honor for the head of the Church, Jesus Christ. Though He was in the form of God, [He] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
If a person wants to go to heaven, wants to be exalted to reign with Christ at the right hand of God, he must follow Jesus, and expect to endure disgrace with Jesus, to suffer with Jesus, and to die with Jesus. And if a church wants to be honored by God, it must remain with Jesus. It must proclaim and confess Jesus and His doctrine without wavering and endure the shame of the cross.
There is, however, an easier way to glory and honor. It was first offered to the Lord of the Church after His Baptism. The devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9) This is the shortcut to glory and honor, and many churches throughout history have chosen this way that the Lord of the Church refused. It is glory and honor given not by God but the world and the ruler of this world.
Jesus warned about this danger. Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets. (Luke 6:26) Nevertheless many pastors and many churches have chosen this way, convincing themselves that they could remain faithful to Christ while seeking the praise of the world, or to lighten the burden of the cross.
A church does not have to stop claiming Christ as its Lord to have bowed down to the devil. It just has to surrender to the devil in one area. Sometimes Christians do this to escape suffering or make it less intense. Other times they do it with the delusion that by making Christianity more acceptable to the world they will advance Christ’s kingdom. We see this today in the non-denominational churches. Many of them have a sincere zeal to bring unbelievers to Christ, but they rely on human techniques to make this happen instead of the pure Word of God. As a result, they tend to sprout up quickly for a decade or two, then dry up when the original pastor dies or leaves or when a new man comes along.
But why is it that it is so easy for the church to surrender to Satan, to choose a Christianity that does not stay with Jesus under slander, suffering, and death? That’s not hard to answer. Our flesh doesn’t want to suffer, experience poverty and disgrace, or die. It’s not just that we have an instinct to survive; it’s that we have unbelief lodged in our flesh. If we want to live, we ought to embrace the cross of Jesus, because it is the way to eternal life. But our flesh doesn’t believe that. It believes that the only life is the life we see and experience now. It doesn’t believe Jesus when He says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); our flesh doesn’t believe that in order to have life we must first die with Jesus. Our flesh refuses to believe that Christ has been raised from the dead.
But the true Church of Jesus crucifies the flesh with its thoughts and desires. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (Rom. 6:3) We died with Jesus in Baptism, and Jesus’ true Church, His faithful ones, continue in their baptismal life. We continue to die with Jesus to the desires of our flesh—its desires for honor and praise in this world, for wealth, for ease and comfort instead of tribulation. We die daily with Christ so that, when we are finished dying, we may share in His resurrection.
Christ’s way to glory and honor through suffering and death is a way proceeding from love toward the world, but it is not a way of compromise with the world. Christians gladly surrender their possessions, reputation, time, even their body and life out of love for the world. But they do not surrender or compromise their Lord’s word. To compromise with the world, to depart from Christ’s command, or to edit His teaching, is to forsake Christ and join the world.
Nor can the Church tolerate compromising teaching in its midst. If it does, it allows that teaching to spread and deceive others, and it joins those who teach it in their concessions to the world and the devil. Jesus is the Lord of the earth. He doesn’t share His throne with Satan and those who share Satan’s rebellion. He proclaims God’s rightful judgment over all men, and God’s forgiveness through His condemnation on the cross.
Compromise with the world and false doctrine is surrender—to the world that is at war with Jesus and His Father, and to the prince of this world.
Whatever peace, honor, or security may come from bowing the knee to this world’s prince, it is only for a short time. Then death comes, and with it, “the second death” (Rev. 2:11)—the everlasting agony and death that will be given to those who refuse Christ’s kingdom—who refuse to suffer with Him in order that [they] may also be glorified with Him. (Rom. 8:17)
Christians are not called to compromise with the world. They are called to conquer it, as Jesus conquered it. This is the victory that overcomes the world—our faith (1 John 5:4). Jesus overcame the world by not participating in its worship of the devil and not giving in to its enticing nor its threats. He was faithful unto death, even death on a cross. Then God raised Him from death and seated Him at His right hand to reign until all His enemies are made His footstool.
By faith in Him the Church also overcomes. The moment we believe in Christ, His righteous life and atoning death are credited to us by God. But we must persevere in this faith to the end, even to death, if we are to share in the eternal victory of reigning with Christ. We conquer by remaining in faith in Christ.
If all that was necessary to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil was an intellectual understanding of the doctrine of justification, it would be easy both to come to faith and to remain in it. But faith isn’t mere knowledge. It is trust in Christ that assures us of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. It also renews the heart so that we being to love our neighbor and resist and overcome sin.
But whenever a Christian is led into willful, knowing, conscious sin, he is no longer in the faith that conquers. Rather he is overcome and conquered by the evil one. When a Christian is tempted with sin and submits, he falls from saving faith in Christ. When a Christian is threatened with suffering and death for faithfulness to Christ and gives in, he falls from saving faith.
This is what happened to St. Peter the apostle…
Peter didn’t want to do this. Neither do many of the young people who are confirmed and who renew their baptismal vows to be faithful unto death. Why do they?
Jesus told Peter: Watch and pray, that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
The faith given in Divine Service is lived in prayer; as a Christian grows in faith, he also grows in prayer. Prayer comes from faith, expresses our utter dependence on God and our trust that He will hear and help us.
Prayer necessary for the growth of the Church, the extension of God’s kingdom, the ability of the church to stand in temptation.
We have neglected prayer and relied on ourselves
But God promises to hear the prayers of the repentant, is able to do far more than all we ask or imagine, to deliver those at the point of death and to raise the dead
Let us call upon God for the forgiveness of our sins and the deliverance of this congregation.
Soli Deo Gloria