Faith, its confession, and the cross

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Sermon for the Sunday after Christ’s Ascension

1 Peter 4:7-11  +  John 15:26-16:4

There is no sugar-coating Christianity, not if it’s true Christianity. Jesus certainly doesn’t sugar-coat being His disciple in today’s Gospel. He knew how hard it would be for His apostles—and later, for you and me—after His ascension. He knew every obstacle they and we would face, both physical and spiritual. He knew that, just as the world had hated Him, so also it would hate all who follow Him. He knew that, just as He was about to bear a cross for the sins of the world, so also His disciples would bear their own cross for their confession of Him. But He also knew exactly what He would do to help us, so that we can we remain steadfast in faith, and steadfast in the confession of faith, even as we are made to suffer under the blessed cross.

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.

True faith in the heart requires the testimony of the Holy Spirit, the Helper who proceeds from the Father and is sent by the Son, both to create it and to sustain it. As Luther says, “Faith is in vain where it does not continue steadfast to the end.” But the apostles were too weak to keep believing in Jesus once He was taken up from them into heaven. You and I are even worse off. We’ve never seen Jesus. We’ve never heard Him. We were born hostile to God, as all men are by nature, with no true fear of God or faith in God or love for God. And that sinful nature, that sinful flesh clings to us all the time, turning our minds and hearts away from God and turned onto ourselves and this earthly life, making up gods of our own, making up our own standards of right and wrong, making up our own visions of who God is and what God demands. We cannot, by our own reason or strength believe in the Lord Jesus or come to Him—or remain in Him, either. We need help!

Jesus knew that. He promised to send the Helper, the Spirit of truth who keeps holding the truth up before our eyes. And that truth is summarized in the person of Jesus. “He will testify of Me,” Jesus said. You are not God. Jesus is God. You are not righteous. Jesus is righteous. Your sins have earned you a place in hell. But Jesus’ sinless sacrifice on the cross has earned you a place in heaven. You deserve death. But Jesus suffered death for you and rose from the dead and gives you eternal life as a gift. The Holy Spirit’s work is essential if anyone is to be converted to faith in Christ and remain steadfast in the faith until the end.

And you who have heard the Word and believe it do have the same Spirit of God and His testimony dwelling within you. Paul writes to the Romans, For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

But don’t imagine that the Holy Spirit does this work of testifying directly on anyone’s heart, with some inner testimony that is divorced from the spoken Word. He works through preaching and the administration of the Sacraments. You don’t come to church or Bible class just to be reminded of things you already knew about Jesus. You come to have the Holy Spirit testify to you about Jesus through the Word that is preached. And He works powerfully through that preaching to create and sustain faith in your heart.

And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning. You see, it’s not as if the Spirit does His testifying about Jesus over here, and then the apostles do their testifying over here, as if they were separate testimonies. No one can say, “Bah, I don’t need the Spirit’s testimony, because I have the apostles’ testimony.” Or, “Bah, I don’t need the apostles’ testimony, because I have the Spirit’s testimony.” That’s the error that so many churches around us fall into, as if you can get in touch directly with God’s Spirit so that He testifies directly to you, without all that doctrine stuff, without all that preaching stuff. The apostles who were with Jesus from the beginning received the testimony of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, which we’ll celebrate next Sunday, and you who have heard the testimony of the apostles through the Word of God that has been preached to you have also received the testimony of the Spirit, not apart from that preaching, but through it.

But Jesus’ words here about bearing witness also apply to all Christians. Paul writes to the Romans, The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that 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. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

It’s not enough to believe in your heart. You must also confess with your mouth. Or to put it another way, true faith in the heart cannot exist together with silence about Christ. True faith in the heart cannot help but confess Him before men. That doesn’t mean everyone preaches. It certainly doesn’t mean anyone gets up in church to give a moving testimonial. It means that in your vocations, you Christians bear witness about Christ with your mouth. Godly mothers bear witness about Christ to their children—as do godly fathers, of course. Children with their friends and classmates. Workers with their coworkers, neighbors with their neighbors, as God gives opportunity. The confession of faith is everything we believe about God as revealed in His Holy Word, from the six-day creation of the universe to God’s institution of holy matrimony, to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Sacrament. But it can also be as simple as confessing that Jesus is the Son of God, that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, that we’re saved by faith alone in Christ alone.

You’d think that confession would be harmless enough and even pleasant for all men to hear. But the reality is, that confession stirs up the hatred of the devil and men and will turn those who confess it into targets.

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.

The confession of the Christian faith is intolerant, that is, it does not tolerate any other “truth” to stand except for the Truth as taught in Holy Scripture. It does not tolerate any other confession but that of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That means that, in a world that values tolerance about all things, the Christian faith has to be the most hateful thing of all. It doesn’t allow men the luxury of worshiping their own gods. It condemns as sinful everything that doesn’t flow from faith in the one true God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That doesn’t mean we force our confession on anyone or use force of any kind to make people believe or to make people obey the will of God. The confession of the Christian faith is entirely a matter of words and preaching. But Jesus teaches us to expect to be hated, persecuted, and even killed for our words, and history has not proven Him wrong.

That includes being hated and persecuted by atheists, but, as Jesus says, it also includes being hated and persecuted by those who think they are serving God in the process, whether by the synagogues of the first century or by the “Christian” churches of the 16th century or the 21st century. We live in the times of the great apostasy, the great falling away of the majority of Christians, so that those who claim to be believers in Christ may be the very ones who condemn and persecute the steadfast confessors of the faith with the most vitriol. The heaviest cross may be imposed by those who are supposed to be on our side.

But see, this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus told us ahead of time. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. Jesus has not tricked us into believing in Him or confessing His name before men. He has been completely honest with us about how hard it will be. But that means He also has a plan to help us and rescue us from this wicked world.

That brings us right back to the Helper, the Holy Spirit. He will help us to keep believing, to keep confessing, and to bear up under the cross. And if God is for us, who can be against us? In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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