Sunday, May 20, 2012

Homily for Exaudi (The Seventh Sunday of Easter)

H-51 Easter 7 (Jn 15.26-16.4)


John 15:26 – 16:4; 1 Peter 4:7-14; Ezekiel 36:22-28

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Perhaps you feel like that hour is now? I know I do. And, indeed, it is. For, when Islamic fundamentalists used passenger airliners as missiles, and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those nineteen men certainly believed they were offering service to God. And, more recently, in March of this year, the Islamic Sudanese government aerial bombed Christian churches and schools in southern Sudan. And, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia has declared that all Christian churches in the region must be destroyed, offering service to God in accordance with Sharia Law. And yet, those desiring to persecute Christians are not limited to religious extremists seeking to offer service to God, for throughout the world communist governments like China and North Korea regularly persecute Christians, and Hindus in India, who believe that India belongs to Hindus, are waging a kind of religious / ethnic cleansing against Christians in that country.

But, this is nothing new, is it? No, it is not. Indeed, Christians have faced persecution, violence, and death ever since Jesus’ crucifixion and death, first by the Jews who threw them out of the synagogues, accused them of blasphemy, and sought to stone them to death, then by the Romans who considered them pagans and a threat to civilization and order, and then by the Turks and the Ottoman Empire which expanded throughout the Middle East into Eastern and South Western Europe. From the beginning, Christians have been persecuted and martyred for their faith by being crucified, burned at the stake, filleted, roasted, impaled, beheaded, fed to beasts, stabbed with swords, shot to death, hanged, and by many other ways and means, both by those who believed they were offering service to God, and by those who were simply threatened or offended by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus says that they do these things because they do not know the Father, nor do they know Him.

Thankfully, in America, Christians have pretty much enjoyed their religious freedom as it is declared in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Indeed, this nation was largely settled by Christians fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Yet still, there have been significant challenges to religious freedom in the past fifty years, and that has been heightened dramatically in the last four. Today, the Christian Church in America is being threatened by the government, by the media, and by the culture in the areas of life, marriage, and religious freedom in general.

To date, eight states have legalized same-sex marriage and have, effectively, redefined marriage so that it is no longer the union of a man and a woman. However, the tide of popular culture is swelling in support of the legalization and the normalization of gay marriage. Though the Bible and the Christian Church’s teaching are clear and unchanged on this matter, Christians who hold to the orthodox doctrine concerning marriage and sexuality are increasingly becoming the targets of hate speech, threats, and violence. Christians are regularly and angrily called bigots and homophobes simply because they believe and confess what the Bible teaches concerning marriage and sexuality, and Christian churches are being threatened with lawsuits for discriminating against homosexuals, and also they are being threatened with the revocation of their non-profit tax-exempt status.

When it comes to life issues, it appears that the Christian Church still has some sway and influence, and may even be gaining slight ground in turning the tide. However, the President’s health care plan presently has within it a law forcing religious organizations to provide contraceptive and abortion inducing drugs and products to their employees, even if this goes against their conscience and the religious tenets of their faith. Though the President’s amended policy was touted as a compromise, relieving religious organizations from having to pay directly for such products by shifting that responsibility to the insurance providers, this is merely a subterfuge, for the providers still must charge the religious organizations for their coverage.

To be certain, the Christian Church no longer enjoys a favored status in this country or world. But, perhaps this is not a bad thing. For, when the Church is not suffering widespread persecution, She becomes complacent and lax in Her doctrine and faith; She is tempted more easily to accommodate to the culture in order to win friends and praise. But, when the Church is persecuted, She is forced to become more vigilant, to return to Her roots, to bunker down and hone and refine what She believes, depends, and trusts in. She is reminded that Her strength is not in Herself, but in Her Lord Jesus who has purchased and won Her in His own holy and innocent blood, and made Her blameless in the sight of His Father. As the second century church father Tertullian has written, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”, for, in times of persecution, the faithful become more vigorous and steadfast in their faith, thus bearing witness, in life and in death, to the One who is their life, their strength, their hope, and their salvation, Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus says to you, “You also will bear witness”, or, “you too will be martyrs in my Name.”

Indeed, when things go easy for you, it is tempting to become self-secure and self-reliant, believing that it is by your work and your wisdom that you eat and drink and provide a home for your family. It is tempting to get caught up in bills and taxes, political ideologies and wars, and to believe that these are the things that define and shape and move you through life. In this milieu, it is easy to lose sight of God and to forget that He who made all things still sustains all things, and that, at a day and a time you do not know, He will bring all things to an end.

What the world has done to your Lord Jesus they will most assuredly do to you. Thus, Jesus “has said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.” And, He has sent you His Holy Spirit, the Helper and the Spirit of Truth, to live in you and to speak through you, that you may be faithful witnesses and martyrs to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. He is the new spirit and the new heart within you that lives in and for Jesus to the glory of the Father. He is your faith. He is your confession. He is your strength. And He is your witness and martyrdom in this life and world. When you speak in faith, when you serve your neighbor in love, when you lay down your life in mercy and compassion and forgiveness, it is God the Holy Spirit working in you and through you that you may be as Christ to the world.

Do not forget, the world hates you because it hated Jesus before you. Therefore, as St. Peter writes, “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the Name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

When, and in what way, did the Holy Spirit come upon you? The same way in which the Holy Spirit came upon your Lord Jesus: in your Holy Baptism. Like Jesus, you were anointed and sealed with the Holy Spirit of God. You were raised to new life in Jesus Christ with a new heart and a new spirit. You have been nourished in God’s Word and in the gifts of Christ in the Holy Sacraments and you have grown and matured in the faith, bearing witness to Jesus in word and in deed, in the world, but not of the world.

On the day of your confirmation, like young Tyler this day, the Holy Spirit did not come upon you once again, anew, as the Church of Rome teaches, for your Lord does not give you His Spirit in part, but when you were baptized, you received the fullness of His Holy Spirit. What you and Tyler confirm then is not a new faith, but the one and only Spirit-given faith you received in Holy Baptism as a free and perfect gift of God’s divine grace.

And, when Tyler makes his confirmation vows in just a few moments, I encourage each of you to pay close attention and to reconfirm your own faith and vows. For, twice in the Rite of Confirmation you vow to remain faithful to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to continue steadfast in this confession and Church, and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it, by the grace of God. Now, that’s a pretty serious vow to make, but the Holy Spirit will help you to keep it, and He will keep it for you when you fail, that, so long as you do not reject Him outright, He will not leave you or forsake you, but, throughout your life, He will continue to call, enlighten, sanctify, and keep you in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. From the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, to the hour of His return, now is that hour. Now is the time of the Church: Now is the time of the Church’s vigilant waiting for Christ’s return. Now is the time of the Church’s patient endurance and suffering at the hands of men and the world, that the faith of Jesus Christ may be seen in you. Now is the time of the Church’s witness and martyrdom as, in love and steadfast and immovable faith, She bears witness to the love of God poured out upon the world in the holy, innocent shed blood of His Son Jesus Christ. Now is the time, not to flee in fear, but to stand in boldness, in love, and mercy, and compassion, and in faith in the One who has laid down His life for the life of the world and who has taken it up again, victorious over sin, death, and Satan. He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, and you are His witnesses and martyrs. But He does not leave you alone, but He has poured upon you and into you His Holy Spirit to comfort and counsel you and to make you steadfast in faith and bold in witness. Therefore the Church prays, Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. And, He does.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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