Sunday, August 24, 2014

Homily for The Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle

John 1:43-51; 2 Corinthians 4:7-10; Proverbs 3:1-8

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. But, that wasn’t because he didn’t think that they would believe, rather, it was because he believed very strongly that they would believe and repent. He knew that the Word of God had that kind of power, to create everything out of nothing, to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, faith out of unbelief. No, he believed very strongly that the people of Nineveh would believe the Word of God. They would repent. They would be saved. And, Jonah thought to himself, “That just isn’t right.”
Nineveh was the capital and the greatest city of ancient Assyria. The Ninevites were wicked and cruel. They were powerful enemies of God and of God’s people Israel. If any city and people deserved God’s wrath and judgment, so thought Jonah, it was the Ninevites. But, God had commanded His prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance to them that they might repent and be saved from destruction. Jonah didn’t want to go, not because he believed it wouldn’t work, but because he believed that it would. The Ninevites did believe. They did repent. And, God did spare them. In fact, Nineveh and its surrounding territories became the cradle of Christianity. Some of the oldest Christian communions and church buildings remain in Nineveh, which today is called by the name of Mosul in the northern part of the country that today is known as Iraq.
While Christians have always been a minority in Iraq, until recent decades they have been a significant minority. Today the country is 97% Muslim with Christians making up less than 3% of the population. Over the past two months, the jihadist Islamic State and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIS and ISIL, seized control of a major portion of northern Iraq and began carrying out a systematic purge of Iraq’s Christian population, particularly from the city of Mosul, ancient Nineveh. It is estimated that 25,000 Christians were given the ultimatum to convert to Islam, flee, or die. For those Christians who did not comply with the decree by July 19, ISIS warned that, “there is nothing to give them but the sword.” Indeed, graphic photos and videos of Christian executions by rifle, hanging, beheading, and even crucifixion have been filling the walls of social media websites, the pages of many news publications, and the television screens of some national news media. Surely, we have all been tempted to think and feel like Jonah and have no pity or mercy for these modern Ninevites who are persecuting God’s people. Likely we have even hoped and prayed that God would pour down His wrath upon them and extinguish them from the face of the earth. In times like these, however, we must remember, recall, and repeat the words of our LORD: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the LORD,” “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” and “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, persecution is a real and even necessary evil, and I say to you that it is good for Christ’s Church. Let me explain. Persecution is real. It’s ALWAYS real, ALWAYS happening in some way, to someone, somewhere. In our comfortable lives and homes, we too easily become complacent and unaware of persecution in the world, in our own nation, in our own towns. The truth is, however, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is often met with hostility and even violence. Our Lord Jesus and His disciples experienced this firsthand and He promises you that the world will hate you because of Him and will consider it good to persecute you. When horrific persecution like what is happening in Iraq finally wakes us up, opens our eyes, and gets our attention, thanks be to God! That’s a good thing! ISIS means this persecution for evil, but God means it for good.
It is good that you are paying attention. It is good that you are more aware that this fallen world is not your friend, it is not your home. This world’s wisdom is foolishness. This world’s values are not aligned with God’s Word and will. This world’s treasure is fleeting and corrupt, it will not last, it is even now passing away. Yet, there is a treasure that does not fade away, that moth and rust cannot destroy, that thieves cannot break in and steal – the Word of the LORD. Our LORD, His Word, is the one thing that doesn’t change, that endures forever, that will never pass away. It is the only thing that truly matters – “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; let all these be gone, they still have nothing won, the kingdom ours remaineth.” Persecution clears the air, clears the mind, clears the soul so that we can see, once again, that we are not gods, but that the God who created us, who loves us, sustains us still; we exist by the breath of His mouth; our life is His ongoing creative Word.
Blessed with the Wisdom of the LORD, Solomon gives us this Proverb: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” This is GOOD advice. This is advice for life. For, what does “your own understanding” think when you face persecution? That you suffer because God is punishing you? That you suffer because God does not love you? That you suffer because God is not able to help you or because He doesn’t exist at all? This was the counsel Job’s so-called friends gave him when God permitted Satan to persecute and afflict him, taking from him everything of worldly value. All Job was left with was God and His Word, and that was enough. When Job questioned why God permitted this suffering to come upon Him, God’s reply was, “That my righteousness might be revealed.” God’s righteousness is His Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus Christ. Men are counted righteous when they believe and trust in God’s Word, Jesus. Persecution and suffering helps us by stripping away all other things that get between us and God, idols, so that all that is left is God’s Word and our faith in that Word. God is not the author of evil and suffering and persecution, but He uses them for the good of those who love Him, who trust in Him. God alone is the LORD of life and death. Do not fear those who can only harm the body, but fear the one, the LORD, who has authority over body and soul temporally and eternally.
God’s Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus, is our treasure. St. Paul writes that “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” our fragile, weak, and perishing flesh, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” When persecution comes, to Christians on the other side of the globe or to your own home or body, remember that you carry within your own body the death of Jesus, but you also carry the life of Jesus which will be manifested in the resurrection of your body on the day of Your Lord’s return.
When the Lord called St. Bartholomew, whom St. John calls Nathanael, Bartholomew marveled that Jesus knew who he was and all about him though they had never met. This demonstration of our Lord’s omniscience was enough to evoke Bartholomew’s confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” But, Jesus redirected Bartholomew’s faith and attention to God’s Word and promise saying, “You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This allusion to the patriarch Jacob at Bethel also occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. And, in His atoning death upon the cross, Jesus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers, and on Pentecost He poured out His Spirit upon His Church. Thus, the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection and sealed in the Spirit, cried out as was dying, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
St. Bartholomew is said to have taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Armenia, a country just north of Iraq. In fact, a great majority of the Christians in Iraq are Armenians whose ancestors likely first heard the Word of God from St. Bartholomew. Like Stephen, Bartholomew was martyred. Tradition says that he was flayed alive, meaning that his skin was sliced off of him by knife while he was still alive. Clearly, this kind of brutality is commensurate with the cruel horrors inflicted upon Iraq’s Christians today. But, Jesus’ words to Bartholomew, confirmed by St. Stephen, are true for all His Christian people upon their death, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending.” Dear Christian, your Lord means for you to understand Him as the ladder, “the way, the truth, and the life” by whom alone you must come unto the Father.
Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth, between God and man. Jesus is also the gate and the only way to heaven. He is the Word of God made flesh, the treasure we keep in the jars of clay which are our bodies. Let us never fear the breaking of the jar, the loss of our bodies and lives, but only the loss of the treasure, our Lord and His Word. Still, this weak flesh does indeed suffer temptation and waver in faith. Therefore, the best thing that we can do for our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering persecution in Iraq and in other hostile parts of the world is pray for them.
Pray for their safety and protection and for an end to persecution, to be sure, but also pray that the Spirit would strengthen their faith to maintain their confession, even unto death. Pray that they will love the LORD and His Word more than their jars of clay lives. Pray that they will find comfort, peace, and faith to persevere in the unchanging and immovable Word of God, the Word who became flesh and suffered and died for all and was raised again to imperishable and eternal life that can never be taken away. And, pray also for their persecutors, for their enemies. Pray that they may be moved by the Spirit of God through His holy Word and through the faithful confession of those they persecute and destroy to relent from their evil. Pray that the Lord would work through the faithful as He did through Jonah long ago to turn the modern Ninevites to repentance that they too may know forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Lord of life Jesus Christ.
Now, come and receive your Lord’s body and blood for the strengthening of your faith, for forgiveness, life, and salvation. His precious body and His holy blood will preserve, keep, strengthen, and protect you unto life everlasting.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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