“But 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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: It was only a month ago when another video came out. Fifteen men, dressed in orange jumpsuits, standing on a beach in eastern Libya. Fifteen more men, similarly dressed, gathered in the desert of southern Libya. All died, as the gruesome video clearly demonstrated, all died, and the internet allowed ISIS to show it to the world. Martyrdoms are always public; that’s the point, to terrify us so that we do anything to avoid finding ourselves in an orange jumpsuit on a distant beach.
And admit it, you are at least a little bit terrified. That may be half a world away, but these thirty men were executed for confessing the same faith that you confess, the same faith that you were baptized into. They are horrifically put to death because they are Christians just like you. And you know that these terrorists won’t stop with killing in Libya, for they are motivated by much more than politics. “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
The year was 1523. Two years earlier, Martin Luther had famously refused to recant his teachings before church and state at the Diet of Worms. That assembly declared Luther an outlaw, but he had powerful protectors, and he would eventually die in bed. Many of his followers were not so fortunate. In the Netherlands, Augustinian monks preached the Gospel Luther had recently brought to light. The authorities condemned them to death if they did not renounce what they had so recently confessed. All but three turned away from execution; one of the remainder was imprisoned, and the other two, Heinrich Voss and Johann Esch, were hauled before the authorities to be examined and put to death. When told that they had been led astray by Luther, Heinrich Voss boldly replied: “Yes, we were led astray by him, as were the Apostles led astray by Christ.” Both then died, burned at the stake in a crowded public square, the first to die as a result of Luther’s teaching. Martyrdoms are always public; that’s the point, to terrify us so that we do anything to avoid finding ourselves tied to a post with kindling under our feet.
And admit it, you are at least a little bit terrified. This may be almost five hundred years ago, but these two men were put to death for the same faith that you confess, the same faith that you were baptized into. We are certainly persecuted by atheists and by secular states, but the most violent hatred against Christians will come from ‘people of faith.’ “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.” They will hate you, they will persecute you, they will even put you to death because they condemn your confession.
Don’t think for a moment that theology doesn’t matter; it certainly matters to the Muslim terrorist, as it mattered to those who tied two monks to stakes. Your confession will bring you suffering and persecution; ISIS kills some solely for political reasons, but it kills many more for theological reasons. Don’t be shocked, dear Christian friends, when the enemies of Christ take your confession seriously. We may think that we are safe here in America, but we forget that the most determined opponents of Christianity are those who think they are serving God with every Christian they put to death. “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
This is the faith that we baptize our children into; the same faith that led two monks to be tied to stakes, the same faith that led thirty men to orange jumpsuits and internet videos. When I pour water over a child’s head in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, that child has become an enemy of ISIS and every other terrorist, an enemy of this world and Satan its lord. What we confess here in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed, what we teach in the Small Catechism, has consequences. It could mean your death, and it has meant the death of so many others throughout history. What we do and say in this place is deadly serious. We are confessing in the face of a hostile world, and the world may demand everything, even our lives, from us as a consequence. Jesus wants no one to be taken by surprise, to be shocked when persecution comes. “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” Jesus doesn’t want His Christians to idolize life at the cost of their faith; there are far worse things than death, as all the martyrs throughout history clearly understood.
The year was 155. The worship of the Roman emperor, already hinted at in the book of Revelation, was at its height, and all were forced to participate. In the city of Smyrna in modern Turkey the Romans arrested one who didn’t, a bishop named Polycarp. Before his rulers he refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord or offer incense to the emperor. In the stadium, he was commanded to curse other condemned Christians, but he would not. Finally, his executors called on the old man to simply renounce Christ and be spared death. If he only said the words, he could save his own life. He replied: “Eighty-six years I have served Him and He has done to me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” He stood firm, and was put to death by fire and knife in the crowded stadium. Martyrdoms are always public; that’s the point, to terrify us so that we do anything to avoid finding ourselves facing the wild beasts, the fire, and the sword of the arena.
And admit it, you are at least a little bit terrified. This may be the earliest days of the Church, but Polycarp was executed for the same faith that you confess, the same faith that you were baptized into. Had he renounced Christ, he could’ve died peacefully in bed. The world certainly has its own comforts to offer, and it gives those comforts to those who renounce Jesus, while putting to death those who confess His Name. “They will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.” They think they are serving God, but their lord is not the true God, instead he is the lord of this world, the devil. A Christian does not idolize life; there are fates worse than death, for the comfort this world promises is fleeting, it will quickly fade away.
The comfort Christ gives, on the other hand, is eternal. “But 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.” The Christian does not idolize life, because the Christian knows that worse than death is death without Christ. It was this conviction that led thirty men to steadfastly face death in the sands of Libya, that led Heinrich Voss and Johann Esch to refuse to renounce the Gospel, that led Polycarp to turn down numerous opportunities to escape martyrdom by denying Jesus. They had been given a comfort, a Comforter that bore witness about Christ to them in the midst of their persecutions, as they faced death itself by the hand of persecutors. The Holy Spirit comes for this very purpose: to point you to Christ as you face a world that seeks your life. Jesus sends Him to you from the Father to bear witness to Himself, and that, dear friends in Christ, is the true comfort you need in a world that hates you.
The world’s comfort is that suffering can be avoided by renouncing Christ; the Holy Spirit’s comfort is that any suffering this world brings is only temporary, not worth comparing to the eternity of joy that awaits the believer through Christ. The Holy Spirit’s comfort is that the Jesus you are baptized into, the Jesus you have baptized your children into, the Jesus you confess each and every Sunday, this Jesus overcomes the world. The Holy Spirit’s comfort is that those who persecute you while claiming to serve God are only serving Satan; their comfort is temporary, while His is eternal. The Holy Spirit’s comfort, in short, is Christ. The Spirit of truth witnesses to Christ, He points to Christ, He speaks only of Christ, because only Christ has triumphed over this world, once and for all.
The year was 33. The religious leaders of the Jews, having sparred with this Jesus for three long years, have finally cornered Him, they have Him right where they want Him. In the darkness of night, He is condemned of blasphemy, and in the early morning hours, before a hostile crowd, He is sent to bear the cross. “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.” He is cast out from His people, those to whom He was sent, and they put Him to death as a service to God. He is mocked, called upon to come down from the tree, but instead, He gives up His life willingly into death: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And there, on a hill called Golgotha, surrounded by His enemies, the Son of God breathed His last. Martyrdoms are always public; that’s the point, to terrify us so that we do anything to avoid finding ourselves hanging upon a cross.
But you are not terrified by the cross, for it is here that the Holy Spirit points you in the midst of affliction and persecution; it is this cross alone that gives you comfort. For upon that cross Jesus is overcoming the world, upon that cross Jesus is winning the victory, upon that cross Jesus is bringing to you a comfort that endures no matter what this world does to you. How do you know? The Holy Spirit witnesses, He testifies to you through the apostles that Christ is risen, that He has overcome death and the grave in your place, that He is now seated at the right hand of the throne of power. “I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.” The Holy Spirit comes to bring us Jesus, so that we remember His Words, so that we remember His cross and empty tomb. This is the victory cry that overcomes the world, this is the victory cry that brings us true comfort as we wait, as we face the same hostile world our ancestors in the faith did: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen.