Sermon for Easter 7 – Exaudi
“Hear, O LORD!”
Ezekiel 36:22-28 + 1 Peter 4:7-14 + John 15:26 – 16:4
The Paschal Candle is no longer lit. It was lit for forty days, since the Vigil of Easter, but extinguished this last Thursday evening at our Ascension service. As if we needed a reminder! The risen Lord Jesus no longer walks among us in the same way as he did with his disciples during those forty days between Easter Sunday and Ascension Thursday. Jesus has ascended on high, but we are left here below. And that spells trouble – big trouble for the Church of Jesus that remains here below, on earth.
While Jesus was on the earth, he was the devil’s target. Now that Jesus has ascended far above the heavens and out of the devil’s reach, guess who receives the devil’s full attention? In our Gospel today Jesus warns his disciples and tells them just how bad it will get for them and for the whole Church on earth after his ascension, so bad that it would be downright impossible for any of us to survive with our faith and eternal life intact, except for one thing: Our only hope, our only help is the divine Help that Jesus promises to send back to us here below after he has ascended on high. Our only hope, our only help is the Holy Spirit of God.
Who could have known Jesus better than those eleven disciples who walked with him and talked with him and heard all the things he had to teach and saw all the miracles that he did? Who could have known Jesus better? And yet, the very first help the Holy Spirit would give would be to teach those disciples about Jesus. “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”
And what is his testimony about Jesus? In a lifetime you won’t mine its depths, but it’s also a very simple story that the Holy Spirit tells. He points to Jesus as the eternal Word of God through whom all things were made, including man. He points to Jesus as the light of men and the life of men, who was first rejected by men in the Garden of Eden and has been rejected by men ever since, and so men die, because they have sinned against him who is the Life. He points to Jesus as the goal of history, the miracle of miracles, that God should take on human flesh and make himself a servant, to take the place of servants, to live under God’s law for us, to become obedient unto death for us, even death on a cross. He points to Jesus as the risen one, the living one who was dead but now is alive forever and ever. He points to Jesus and says, “Repent of your sins – and of your sin that infects everything you do, believe, be baptized in the name of this one, Jesus, for the forgiveness of your sins.” He points to Jesus as the Man who ascended to the right hand of God who now rules over all things for the benefit of his Church, which he bought with his own blood and purified in baptismal waters. He points to Jesus as the One who will come again in judgment against the world and in salvation for his Bride, the Church.
Well, there you have it. Salvation’s story, the highlights of the life of Jesus. Are we ready to move on now and talk about bigger and better things? No, never. The job of the apostles, the job of the Church is to never, ever move on from simply testifying about Jesus. That’s what the Spirit does, and that’s what the Church is called to do. “And you also must testify,” Jesus told his disciples, “for you have been with me from the beginning.” Actually, there is no “must” in the Greek. Not “you must testify‼‼,” but instead, “you also testify.” You, too, bear witness about me, because you’ve been with me.
Well, you and I haven’t been with Jesus like the apostles were. We’re second-hand witnesses. But that’s just as good and just as necessary, because it’s the same Spirit who inspired the apostles to point to Jesus, and it’s the same Spirit who points us to Jesus – and the world through us – through their first-hand testimony. It doesn’t depend on how well we preach or how eloquently we testify. It doesn’t depend on finding just the right words or doing just the right thing. Our only hope, our only help is the Holy Spirit of God, who continues to work faith in us through the Means of Grace and who continues to create faith in the world as he testifies through our testimony.
Whew! That’s comforting, isn’t it? That nothing depends on us, that all depends on the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit is constantly testifying to our spirit, as Paul says in Romans, that we are children of God, because of Christ. The Spirit is always pointing to Christ.
That becomes especially important, urgently necessary because of what Jesus said next to his disciples in our Gospel. “All this I have told you so that you will not go astray. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God. They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me. I have told you this, so that when the time comes you will remember that I warned you.”
All this I told you – all this about my returning to the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit – so that you will not go astray. Literally, so that you will not be caught in a trap, offended, so that you will not stumble and fall away from trusting in me. Now, why would anyone ever be caught in a trap and fall away from Jesus? Because life is going to get miserable for Jesus’ Church on earth.
The very synagogues – the gathering places, the churches of the Old Testament people of God where the disciples first learned about God and his promises of the Messiah, where the disciples had worshiped with fellow Jews for their entire lives – these places would excommunicate Jesus’ disciples because of their testimony about him. And that was just the beginning. They wouldn’t just be kindly shown the door. They would be killed, not out of malice, not by psychotic murderers, but by churchgoers who sincerely thought they were worshiping the God of Israel by putting these Christians to death.
And that happened, didn’t it? As tradition holds, ten out of these eleven disciples were murdered, some of them by the Jews, some of them by the Gentiles. And it wasn’t a humane lethal injection they were given. Most of these men were crucified, just like Jesus. One – Bartholomew – was said to have been skinned alive for his testimony about Jesus.
Who could bear any of that? Who could continue to testify about Jesus under those conditions, knowing that escaping death and keeping your old friends and your place in the synagogue would be as easy as just keeping your mouth shut – at least in public – about this Jesus? You didn’t have to curse him or deny him openly. All you had to do was keep your mouth shut.
It would be so easy to fall away, so tempting to be caught in that trap. And then, maybe Jesus disciples would die at a ripe old age of natural causes. But then – then they would know what it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Then they would realize that by keeping their mouths shut to avoid persecution, they had given up Jesus, and losing him, they lost the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Their only hope of remaining faithful until death, their only help in the face of such grave persecution, would be the Holy Spirit of God who relentlessly kept testifying to them about Jesus. Remember Jesus! Remember Jesus! And they did, and they willingly gave their lives for his testimony.
You and I probably won’t be skinned alive or crucified for our testimony about Jesus. That’s good, but in a way, it does make it harder for us. It’s like, if you’re holding onto your wallet or your purse and someone tries to pull it out of your hands, you pull back, don’t know? You hold on tighter and you fight for what you have. It’s when the pick-pocket or the thief comes and distracts you that you’re most susceptible.
It’s the same way with your spiritual life. If Christians were put to death in this country for their Christian faith, I suppose Christians would rally to Christ. But today’s world doesn’t try to openly pry faith out of your heart by threatening you with death and imprisonment. Today’s world subtly, slowly and methodically pounds away at your faith until it’s gone and you didn’t even notice. There’s intellectual persecution that mercilessly ridicules Christians who still believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the miracle of creation and of the resurrection from the dead. There’s social persecution that makes it nearly impossible not to give into the temptations that have become the norm in our society. There’s persecution in the church (as in the synagogues) when the doctrine of Christ is taught a thousand different ways and it seems impossible to get it right, and then, if you dare to stand on the truth of Christ, even churches that bear the name Christian, or even Lutheran, may end up kicking you out. Then there’s the cross that the devil presses down on you when you’re suffering in the hospital or suffering in your home. And he doesn’t shout at you to curse Jesus and die. He just keeps whispering, every day, constantly, relentlessly, “What’s the point of believing in a God who allows this to go on so long?”
Our only hope, our only help is the Holy Spirit of God, who comes in the Word, who comes in the Sacrament, and testifies: “Remember Jesus!” He bore your sins on the cross. He suffered and died for you. He lives. He reigns at the right hand of God and he told you ahead of time that his reign would include these hardships and persecutions. But your sins are forgiven in him. You have a gracious and loving Father in heaven because of him. He will preserve you, even through this, and it will even serve for your good.
Who could ever believe such a thing? No one, not even you. Our only hope, our only help is the Holy Spirit of God. Though the Paschal Candle is no longer lit, though Jesus does not come and stand by your side visibly as he did with his disciples, he has left for you all the hope and all the help you’ll ever need until you do get to see him face to face. He’s left you, not the Spirit of somebody else, but his own Spirit, whom he has given you forever, the Spirit who calls you and keeps you in the faith through this Word, and through this Sacrament. Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.