This past Saturday (24 June) was the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, a little taste and preview of Advent in the midst of summer. That festival is a happy and hopeful occasion, in which the Church rejoices – along with Zacharias and Elizabeth – in the miraculous birth of their son and the great promises of God concerning his role as the Forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, we already know what lies ahead, that this
Prophet of the Most High who prepares the Way of the Lord will be imprisoned for his faithful witness and finally beheaded.
So, too, as congregations using the Three-Year Lectionary heard this past Sunday, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ brings division even within families, and the world hates His disciples, just as it hates and crucifies Him. It’s not exactly a winsome benefits package, is it? But it is the way of the Cross, which is paradoxically the way of life by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.
This week provides us with some poignant examples of the Cross that is laid upon those who are called and sent to preach the Gospel and confess the Name of Jesus. Such examples are a sober and serious warning to those who follow in their train, but so also an encouragement unto faith and faithfulness. Indeed, we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, that our eyes might be fixed upon Christ Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Sunday (25 June) commemorated the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession, and whereas Dr. Luther and Phillip Melanchthon and the other reformers were not martyred, they were persecuted by church and state, and they surely suffered for their faithful preaching and confession. Luther could not even be present at Augsburg for the reading of the great Confession, recognized by all as a public testimony of his teaching. His whole life was under the Cross, even until his death. So, too, in our own day, the confession of the Gospel still brings wrath and woe on every hand.
Monday (26 June) commemorated the Prophet Jeremiah, whose prophetic preaching of the Word of the Lord brought him grief and heartache; so much so that his suffering was as much a part of his preaching as anything he said, anticipating the Cross and Passion of the Lord Himself. And at just the right time, Christ Jesus took upon Himself the very wrath of God that Jeremiah preached against Jerusalem, so that by His Cross and in His Resurrection, He would recall His people from the exile of sin and death, and grant to them His Peace and Sabbath Rest in the Kingdom of God.
Tuesday (27 June) commemorated St. Cyril of Alexandria, one of the most significant of the early church fathers, who vigorously defended the divinity of Christ Jesus and the unity of His Person against the heretic Nestorious. He was vilified in his own day, and he often has been ever since, on the premise that his politics or personality (whatever they may have been, good or bad) should somehow call into question the integrity and veracity of his confession. It is of comfort to all of us, with all our many and various quirks, that our faithful confession of Christ Jesus is not rendered impotent or ineffectual by our personal inadequacies and idiosyncrasies.
Wednesday (28 June) commemorates St. Irenaeus of Lyons, yet another of the most important early church fathers. While he may not have been a martyr himself, he was a friend of martyrs; he became the bishop of Lyons after his predecessor was martyred. In opposition to the rampant gnostic heresies of his day, he emphasized the goodness and significance of creation, and so also the goodness of the Christian’s body and the hope and promise of the Resurrection. It was in that confidence that St. Irenaeus and his colleagues faced the constant real threat of martyrdom. And so do we also teach and confess the Word of Christ Jesus, come hell or high water against us.
And this Thursday (29 June) is the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Apostles, one of the oldest festivals in the history of the Church. Thus are we given to remember and give thanks unto God, that the denier of Christ was restored to faith and discipleship, and that the terrible persecutor of Christians was called to repentance and converted to the very faith that he once tried to destroy, and that these two men were sent by Christ as His Apostles to the world. In that apostleship, St. Peter learned by experience the Cross of Christ, the Son of the Living God, and St. Paul likewise learned what he would suffer for the Name of the Lord Jesus. By the grace of God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, both men rejoiced to be counted worthy to share the sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ. They bore in their own bodies the marks of His Cross, for the benefit of those to whom they were sent to preach. Each of them was finally put to death for his faithful witness; and in that experience, death itself became a witness of the Gospel – a holy martyrdom.
Whatever our own respective stations in life may be, whether we are called to preach or to listen, or wherever we are called upon to confess the Gospel in our lives, let us not lose heart; our faith and hope in Christ Jesus will not be disappointed. For those who are called and sent to preach in His Name, it is most likely that suffering of one sort or another will come, but it is essential that His Word be taught, and His Gospel preached with all clarity and consistency. We may die for it, but by that proclamation shall we and our hearers be saved, to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.