The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Jesus says in the “intro to Christianity” (aka: the Beatitudes): “You will be persecuted for My name’s sake.” Here at the very end of His three-year earthly ministry He’s still telling His apostles (in no uncertain terms) that they will be persecuted; beaten and tossed out of synagogues, even put to death because of their faith in Him. From beginning to end, your Lord’s Word never wavered or changed. The reality is (and always has been and always will be): Persecution is all part of being a faithful Christian. And I know that all those bloody, murderous martyrdoms suffered by the faithful, beginning with the apostles and spanning over the centuries, immediately come to mind (and they should). The fact is we still see these words playing out today in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Christians are still being put to death at the hands of murderers who truly think they’re serving God (whom they call “Allah”) by murdering Christians. “They will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor Me.” Ain’t that the truth!
Truth be told: Faithful Christians are still being persecuted right here and right now in this “Christian nation” of ours. Granted, they’re not being put to death for their faith, but they’re losing their livelihood, being fined, going to jail, and being sued and mocked and defamed and slandered (which is murder in a proper understanding of the 5th Commandment) all because they dare to put their faith into practice. Some of this persecution is coming from those who truly hate God, but much of it is actually coming from folks who truly believe they love God and serve Him. It’s gotten so crazy in this “Christian nation” of ours that in recent days some who claim to love Jesus have also made it illegal to worship Him in His house. We’re talking fines and jail time. “Stay away from Immanuel, or else!” Even on a more personal level, we’re witnessing “Jesus-loving Christians” notifying news outlets, reporting their own congregations to the authorities, or taking to social media to publicly slander (aka “murder”) their own brothers and sisters in the faith, simply because they disagree with them over Sunday morning worship and Holy Communion. Apparently, if we really loved God and loved His people (like they do), we would shut the doors and stay away until all was well and there was nothing to fear. It’s amazing how many Christians seem to know more/better than their Good Physician. “They will do these things because they have not known the Father or Me.” Yep.
But here’s the thing: We could go on and on, rattling off example after example of how persecution is taking place all around us, but is that what this lesson is really all about? “I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” There it is! Folks: There’s a reason this particular lesson is appointed for the first Sunday after the ascension. Like the book of Acts tells us, on that ascension mount Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took Him out of sight. Just consider how Jesus Himself was treated when He walked this earth and people beheld Him with their own eyes [the crucifix]. Do you honestly think things would improve once He’s no longer seen? And take careful note on how I worded this. “No longer seen” is not the same as “absent” or “no longer present.”
I want you to think about those first martyrs—the apostles to whom Jesus first spoke these words. Remember that on that ascension mount—a full forty days after the resurrection—these guys still didn’t get it. They were still asking Jesus if He was now going to pull the trigger and usher in the great worldly empire they had been imagining and expecting. “My kingdom is not of this world!” The angel’s question to these men after seeing Jesus taken from their sight says it all: “Why are you looking into the heavens?” They thought that was it. Jesus was gone now. They were now all alone and on their own. It was only after the working of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (where they were fearfully gathered in an upper room—again—behind doors and out of sight) that they were finally able to understand. The Holy Spirit opened their eyes and ears of faith so that they could confidently behold and hold fast to Christ and His sacramental promise: “I am with you always.”
So… what’s so different with us today? NOTHING! Our Lord continues to send His Holy Spirit to work and nurture that same saving faith in us, even in the midst of our tumults, trials, and tribulations… just like He promised. This same Holy Spirit continues to open our eyes and ears of faith to see and hear and hold fast to the very same Word and Sacraments—the very same real and truly present Christ—that those first apostolic martyrs did so many centuries ago. There’s nothing new under the sun, both in terms of persecution and salvation. Look around! Christ isn’t gone! He’s not absent! He’s just hidden from our sight. He’s hidden in plain sight. “I have said all this so that you don’t fall away.”
Where do you look when the struggles and tribulations and persecutions come; when your faith is being put to the test and beat down? And let’s face it: We get it on all sides, don’t we? Sickness? Pain? Loss of job? Loss of friendships? Loss of loved ones? This time last year the weather was against us. We were covered over in record flood waters. This year? These past couple of months? Well… you know how faith is being beat down and put to the test. Where do you look in these dark and uncertain times? Where do you flee? To what/whom do you flee? What are you looking for? I know the “right” answer is “Jesus,” but is that true for you? Be careful! Your Lord knows the Truth!
Where is Jesus? Answer: Right where He promises to be. Right where He tells us to look and listen and hold fast. “I have said these things so that you don’t fall away.” Look to this cross. I know this is something that happened in the past almost two thousand years ago. We can’t go back to that day and hold fast to that bloody cross. This is why Christ brings the victory of His cross and His resurrection to us! Look no further than the font; the baptism that He Himself baptized you with, for it is here in the waters of Holy Baptism that Almighty God made you His own, putting His triune name upon your head and your heart, making Christ’s victory your victory. You belong to Him, and not even the gates of hell can prevail against this.
This same God and Lord has also promised to be with us always, for our forgiveness, our assurance, our peace. “Take and eat. Take and drink. As often as you do this, remember what I have said. This is My body. This is My blood. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. I have said these things so that you won’t fall away.” Folks: Look to this altar. Look to this pulpit and lectern. Look and listen. Here is your Lord, keeping His promise! Your Lord is not absent. He’s not in quarantine or social-distancing from you. He’s not even “unseen.” He’s just recognized through the eyes of faith; eyes no different than those faithful martyrs had; eyes that are opened through the working of the Holy Spirit—the Helper—so that we do not lose faith or fall away in “little faith.” “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of eternal life.” This is the faithful confession of saints and martyrs, in any day, any place, and any circumstance.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: I don’t know what the future holds for us on this side of eternity. Maybe it will get better. Maybe this is as good as it ever gets. Maybe it will get worse. Whatever the case, through it all, our Lord is with us, right where He promises to be—His Word and His sacraments. Through persecutions, through dark and terrifying storms, in the very midst of pain and sickness and fear of sickness and anxiety and loss—richer, poorer, sickness, health, good times, bad times, for better and for worse—our Lord is with us, and where our Lord is there is peace; a peace the world does not know, cannot give, and can never take away. My friends: Here is this peace, for you, so that you may never fall away. Your Immanuel Lord draws near to you and abides with you so that you may never fall away from Him. May this Christ-centered grace and peace; this real and sacramental Truth, guard and keep your hearts and minds in Him, now and into all eternity.
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