Confessing the apostles’ testimony

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Sermon for Exaudi – Sunday after the Ascension

1 Peter 4:7-11  +  John 15:26-16:4

As we learned on Thursday at our Ascension service, Jesus ascended into heaven, not to be separated from His Church on earth, but to work more closely with His Church, to be present in every place where His Gospel is preached and His Sacraments are administered. Christ ascended to the right hand of God and reigns as King, building His kingdom, not with His own hands or with His own mouth, but through the testimony of His witnesses. As He told His eleven apostles on His Ascension Day, But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

He told them basically the same thing already on the night before He died—the words you heard in today’s Gospel from John 15 and 16: The Spirit will testify. You will testify. And you will suffer for it dearly and pay for it with your lives. It’s not a terribly uplifting prophecy, is it? And yet, here we are, some 2,000 years later, still confessing the apostles’ testimony, professing members of the one holy Christian and Apostolic Church. How could they testify, knowing how it would go for them? How can we confess their testimony after we’ve seen just how dangerous it is?

Let’s see what our Gospel has to say about it.

Jesus tells His disciples, But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.

He is the “Helper,” the Comforter, the “Spirit of truth” who proceeds from the Father. He would help them and guide them into all truth, teach them the truth, and help them to teach it to others.

He will “testify of Me,” Jesus says, and that gets to the heart of the Holy Spirit’s work. He wasn’t sent to fill the apostles with good feelings or with some nebulous “spirit-witness.” He was sent to “testify,” to bear witness to what He has seen—that’s what a witness does—to what He has seen with the Father, whom no human being has ever seen or can see. That’s why we need a witness. He was sent to testify of Jesus: to bear witness to His divinity, to His humanity, to the fact that all of history—past, present, and future—revolves around Him as the Savior sent from the Father to save poor sinners from sin, death, and hell. To testify that the Father truly is pleased with Jesus’ sacrifice and eager to forgive everyone who believes in Him. To testify that Jesus does indeed reign at the right hand of God. That is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

Now, pay attention to this. Don’t fall into the common trap of reading every Bible passage and imagining that Jesus is speaking directly to you. Jesus says, “you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” That’s not you or I. We were not with Jesus from the beginning—the beginning of His preaching ministry. It only applies to the eleven apostles. They were the ones who were to go out and bear witness—to testify to what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Their testimony trumps all other testimony, because they were with Jesus from the beginning. They heard it all, saw it all, witnessed it all firsthand, including His suffering, death, and, mostly importantly, His resurrection.

The apostles did, indeed, testify by preaching throughout the world. But their testimony would be useless to us if they hadn’t written it down. Because, you know what they call it in a court of law if you heard someone say something about what someone else said? They call it ‘hearsay.’ It doesn’t count.

But the apostles did, in fact, write down, under the Spirit’s inspiration, the things that you and I were to know. That testimony does count. It does hold weight. It’s why the New Testament Church so thoroughly investigated whether or not a book was written by an apostle or under the direct supervision of an apostle, because they were the ones whom Jesus chose and sent out to be His witnesses and who had the promise of the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, just as the prophets of the Old Testament had.

The reliability of the inspired Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, is something that we may take for granted here, but we shouldn’t. It’s rare and becoming rarer to believe it. From Genesis to Revelation, we have the only firsthand witness that God has left for us, the testimony that trumps all other testimony, the truth that must be believed, or else we make God out to be a liar, because the Holy Spirit was the one who inspired this witness.

That’s the pleasant side of the apostles’ testimony, the fact that they did go out and testify and wrote down for all future generations the truth about Jesus. Then there’s the unpleasant side of Jesus’ prophecy:

These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them.

It would not go well for the apostles on earth. They would be excommunicated by the Jews and killed and suffer everything in between. Not because the apostles were too mean or foolish in the way they presented the Gospel, but for one reason alone: They have not known the Father nor Me.

The apostles were warned ahead of time. This is what it would mean to be Jesus’ witnesses. And they did it anyway. That itself is a testimony and the reason why we call them “martyrs.” Their preaching and their willingness to face excommunication and torture and death are testimonies to the truth of the Gospel, to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and to the sure hope of this not being all there is, the hope of an inheritance in heaven that far surpasses any earthly gain they could hope to see.

Now, here we are nearly 2,000 years later. We are not witnesses like the apostles were, but we still have the testimony of the Holy Spirit and of the apostles. Next week we’ll celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He was poured out and now remains with us until Christ comes again, inextricably connected to the Word He inspired in those apostles, linked to the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Here the Spirit abides and testifies: Yes, you were made God’s child through Holy Baptism, yes He loves you, yes He’ll make all things work together for your good. Yes, the Holy Scriptures are reliable. That’s the Spirit’s testimony.

But since we weren’t there with Jesus in person, we are not properly called “witnesses,” and we do not, properly speaking, offer “testimony” to the world. In all the New Testament, Christians are not called upon to “testify” about Jesus. What we are called to do is to “confess.” We confess who Jesus is and what He has said. We confess the apostles’ testimony

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Even so, there will be consequences for confessing the apostles’ testimony. We know that. The apostles were martyred, put to death for their testimony about Jesus. Many since then have been targeted and killed, not even for preaching the Gospel, but simply for their confession as baptized Christians. Just this week another 22 Christians were slaughtered by ISIS in Egypt, just for being known as Christians.

The persecution will continue, and grow worse. Jesus has told us ahead of time. But it’ll be OK. That’s what Jesus wanted His apostles to believe, and what He wants us to believe, too. It’ll be OK. Jesus was OK after He suffered, and you will be, too. The persecution of Christians will result in praise for the Holy Trinity and in a life that is far better than this one for all who remain faithful until death. As the Psalmist wrote, The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? The Lord Christ reigns at the right hand of God. We will confess the apostles’ testimony, whether that means loss of income, loss of friends, loss of job, loss of home, loss of freedom or loss of life. Because we have the promise of the Lord Jesus that all we lose here will be replaced by incomparably more when we join Him at God’s right hand.

Until then, we have His Spirit and all the help we will ever need. That’s what we’ll celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise—His promise to send the Helper, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The apostles couldn’t have accomplished anything without His help and wouldn’t have dared. But with His divine help, they could and did. And so will we, by the grace of God. Amen.

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